Over the past few years the threat of terrorism across the world has felt ever more real. This January, stories of terrorism will move from our television screens to the stage at Trafalgar Studios. Stuart Slade’s BU21 will explore the aftermath of a fictional terrorist attack in London, informed by first-hand accounts of the Paris attacks and the 7/11 London bombings. It tells the stories of six survivors, following their experiences of coming to terms with one of the most traumatic events that can ever happen to a person. We spoke to actress Isabella Laughland, star of Harry Potter and Urban Hymm, about taking on such a challenging piece and how art can be the perfect form of escapism.
London Calling: Can you tell us a bit about BU21 and your character?
Isabella Laughland: The first line my characters says is ‘so I found out my mum was dead on Twitter’. So it’s basically her trying to find her mum in this massive devastation that happened in Fulham, trying to accept and place her mother’s death, and trying to move on. It looks at how she deals with her mother’s death with anger, but also really trying to have faith, saying that she’s doing great. But underneath it all it’s completely melting.
LC: The play deals with terrorism, which is obviously a source of anxiety now. What were the challenges of this?
IL: It was all about trying to place yourself there even if you can’t imagine that kind of devastation happening to you. I watched a couple of documentaries, including one called Terror At The Mall about the Westgate shooting in Kenya, with first-hand accounts of people who witnessed the shooting. What I got from it is that when people are reliving this experience, everyone seems very calm. It’s only until they talk about maybe a loved one dying next to them, that’s when people’s voices start to break. People are still trying to sit on this emotion, like ‘this happened, and it’s fine’ – that’s kind of how I’ve tried to get a sense of this character. And also walking around Parsons Green and Fulham, trying to imagine this plane being shot down.
LC: The play apparently works from real-life accounts from the Paris attacks and 7/11. How did this work? Did you base the characters off of real life?
IL: It’s kind of weird because you feel like ‘how else would I get into this character without realising this trauma’ but also in a way you feel like you’re kind of stealing other people’s emotions and vulnerability. But then you have to use that, store that up and think ‘well if that was me with my own mum I’d just be completely broken.’ It’s all about using your imagination as well.
LC: The play deals with tragedy, but it also has funnier moments and tries to create a sense of optimism and hope. Do you think that plays and art more generally can give people a sense of hope even in dark times?
IL: God yeah, I think it really can. When Donald Trump was elected it felt like the end of the world. I’m a Celebrity was on at the time and I thought ‘right I’m going to watch this’ and it was such a brilliant form of escapism. Going to the theatre feeds this creative side to me. Like on Sunday I went to see The Red Shoes, and it’s like two hours of pure joy that can take you away from all the shit that is going on in the world and your life.
LC: And also with BU21, it becomes a way of articulating trauma and struggle and making it more comprehensible.
IL: BU21 is incredibly dark, and Stuart Slade (the writer) has the most extraordinarily dirty, funny and caring mind. He’s writing six different accounts of people’s days and I think that’s a real skill. His writing is so – it sounds terrible – it’s easy, easy to learn because it’s incredibly naturalistic. It’s all in monologue form too, so every thought just flows on from the next, so it’s easier to process.
LC: Urban Hymm deals with the London Riots and obviously this play looks at terrorism. Do you prefer these more complex, grittier roles?
IL: No, not really. Obviously I love a bit of emotion, but no I just look at the writing, and the director and whether I believe in it. With Urban Hymm we had a real duty to these girls who aren’t mentioned at all in society. So for me it’s about playing different varied roles. As an actor you want to play as many different roles as possible.
LC: What has been your career highlight so far?
IL: Oh wow, I don’t know if I’ve had it yet! I think there’s a couple: getting the call to say I’d got the role in Harry Potter was pretty amazing, going into the Great Hall to have the read through and being like ‘why am I here?’ I think also showing Urban Hymm to an audience for the first time was pretty special.
LC: What would be your dream role to play?
IL: I’d say Juliet from Romeo and Juliet and John Proctor from The Crucible.
LC: You’ve obviously appeared in films such as Harry Potter and Urban Hymm. Is it different appearing on stage and do you enjoy it more?
IL: Theatre is what I first started doing when I began acting, and there’s really nothing like it, no kind of rush like it. When I come off stage I can’t really sleep for hours after that. You’re aware there’s no second chance and you’re all in it together; the audience reaction is so immediate.