Raz, theatre director
I met Raz when I was a nervous intern making the tea at the first theatre I ever worked in. He was directing a divisive and provocative new play. On my lunch break I’d hover in the green room watching the tech on the monitors, nodding at actors passing by in increasingly improbable costumes. Raz would come in to the office to have sandwiches and swear and make rude jokes with us. It was the summer I got my first taste of the theatre industry, the time I realised how much I wanted to be a part of this world. I ached to leave the office and get into the rehearsal room, become a director myself.
Since then I’ve been lucky enough to work with Raz several times, absorbing, as he calls them ‘Raz’s Words of Wisdom’ (‘Tats, write that down’. ) We’ve talked about what it means to be a director, to work in this industry. I knew from his anecdotes (Raz is a man with an endless supply of anecdotes) that he survived cancer (as he says in the book, “Spoiler Alert: I don’t die in the end”) and a gambling addiction. But we’d never talked in depth about it. Raz’s cancer, his gambling, were facts that I knew but had never really spent time with.
He’s recently written a book, Death and the Elephant, about, as he puts it, how cancer saved his life. I was lucky enough to read a draft copy. It’s a disarmingly honest account of his time with the illness, his addiction, his early steps as a theatre director, and the links between the three, and its every bit as funny and uninhibited as I’d expect from anything out of Raz’s brain. It’s also genuine, unafraid of sentiment, with moments of breath-catching clarity. It’s a rare privilege to see into the minds and hearts of our friends, to read their thoughts laid out in their best words. Few of us are afforded the chance. And, reading Death and the Elephant, I had the sense of sitting down with a friend for a chat over a meal and seeing another side to them that only enriches and confirms what you already knew. I would not have guessed years ago in that office as I timidly made the tea and tried not to make a fool of myself that in years to come that slightly scary bald director in the hat and I might have that chat.
I meet Raz at his flat in Tufnell Park. A salad is already underway, a large bowl of tomatoes and… I can hardly believe this..
Have you spiralised a cucumber?!
R: Oh I did. I did some spiralising. You’ve got to spiralise to stay alive. Come on Tats [Raz is the only person who gets away with calling me Tats]. I’m spiralising for you. Don’t think I’m just knocking this one out, so to speak.
I spiralise all the time. My life is about cooking. It’s the only thing that makes me happy in life. Do you like cashew nuts?
What are you making?
It’s a salad that I’ve made before. A variation on an Anna Jones salad. It’s very nice and it’s slightly complicated. The best bit, the best bit is at the end it has desiccated coconut in it. It’s proper, man.
I sit down at the desk, moving a hand embroidered Bruce Springsteen cushion from my chair to avoid sitting on The Boss. (“You know my friend Bonnie made that for me?”)
Why did you want to write this book?
Jesus this is like the Parkinson interview! I think it’s hard when people talk about death and when people talk about hardcore life threatening subjects. Some people want to listen, listen to that person talking about their mother or their friend or themselves having cancer, being about to die, they want to listen but they don’t really know how. And I discovered that I could listen, partly because of having been though it but also partly to do with the job that I do. As a director, you have to instinctively listen and respond in the moment, especially in an emotional moment in a rehearsal room. You have to trust your instinct that your response is going to be useful, or at least that that you listening to what they’re saying will be useful, your listening to the room will be useful. And so I discovered from a couple of people that not only could I listen but I seemed to help.
As we know, I have no ability to, for an extended period of time, take anything seriously. However deep and dark a situation is there’s always a search in me to find a moment of relief amidst that. That doesn’t mean I don’t take what they’re saying seriously, that doesn’t mean we don’t talk in absolute deep emotional depth, we don’t cry about it. But within that it’s really helpful if that person can breathe and often laughter is a breath. And then… I don’t know where that moved from chatting to people about cancer to ‘I’ve got something I want to say’ – I still don’t really know what I want to say or if I’ve got anything to say. And it was a challenge to me, I didn’t know… still don’t… whether I could write. And the thing to me was if I’m gonna write a book, (I’m still learning) if I’m gonna write a book I need to know that I can write in my voice.
“Often laughter is a breath”
That question of voice is important within the book itself.
One of the things I think you’re searching for as a director in a rehearsal room is to find your voice. And all that means is the you that is in a rehearsal room talking is in a very large part you rather than this false version of you and I think that’s hard. And even now I don’t always manage it all the time. I think the mistake a lot of directors make, and it shows in their work, is that they’re scared of that and they have a mask and it’s almost literally a different voice. They think “this is the voice a director should have.”
When I first started directing I thought I needed all the answers. And what happens when you’re a director and you think you have to know everything is you just you sort of don’t stop talking because if you stop talking you’re gonna be found out. And for someone who doesn’t stop talking anyway that’s pretty hard. So the moment that I had that realisation that actually if I stop and ask the question and not know the answer, that’s the beginning of the dialogue of finding the answer. And the thing is there is no answer. There’s our answer. In that room.
You say in the book ‘cancer saved my life’. Do you think cancer made you a better director?
[long, long pause]
Without any doubt. I don’t think it made me a better director. I think it made me a director. Shall I serve?
It looks delicious. So I should get a spiraliser?
Oh my god. It will change your life. I’m telling you. Go away. Stop helping. I don’t like people helping. Sit down. You’re annoying me.
[We sit at the sofa to eat]
You talk in the book about completely losing taste. For someone for whom cooking is a joy that must have been tough? Or odd?
Yes and no. You lose all taste. You have this constant metallic taste in your mouth which is common with chemo patients. There used to be a place called Est Est Est around the corner from the Royal Marsden where I’d go to get treatment. And a couple of times people came to visit me and they had really tasty chicken mayo sandwiches. And you’ve been in hospital for eleven days at a time… I mean hospital food is hospital food. But the joy of that sandwich isn’t… I mean you can’t really taste it. It was a symbolic thing. It was a symbolic thing of someone bringing you something from the outside. An escape, like someone secreting a mobile phone up their arse when they come to visit you in prison. And so I don’t really remember food being too much of a negative. It just wasn’t a thing. It was fuel until the odd special moment where you didn’t necessarily taste more but you felt more. And sometimes that’s a negative because sometimes that symbol means you’re helpless. Food when you’re ill is a strange thing.
One of the things that really struck me reading the book is that for a book that’s autobiographical and a memoir its so much about other people, how you navigate going through this event through the eyes of other people.
I think that one of the strange things about having cancer is that it’s a very .. I hesitate to use the word lonely but it’s a very singular thing. Because even if you’ve got someone sat next to you while you’re having chemo pumped into your veins you feel very alone. Because this strange this has happened to you. When you’re ill you are the elephant in the room. Cancer’s the elephant. Lots of elephants in that room. But you’re in charge. You can do something about that. The elephant is you.
You talk about it giving you status.
The status is a weird thing. If you have friends of your parents who when you’re young are like, you’re parents friends and you’re the little kid and they have all the status. The moment you have cancer and maybe externally you have the effects of cancer so you don’t look great. You don’t look your best. You’re bald, you’ve got 350 mouth ulcers. The moment you walk into that room with them, aunty and uncle or whatever, they become tiny because you can see them panic. Sometimes they don’t know. But you can spot what’s going on behind someones eyes even if they think they’re hiding it really well. So you become massive, status wise. You become giant. You become a massive elephant. That’s what I talk about the Cancer Swagger. I’m in charge here. That’s a lot of power. Its about what you do with that power. Going back to why I wrote the book I realised very early even though what I was going through was hellish, I could find ways of dealing with it day to day in a less hellish way. And part of that is de-elephantising yourself so people feel comfortable in your presence.
“You are the elephant in the room”
I had a Wimbledon party when I was ill. When was really ill I was in hospital for a week at a time and I was a brat. I made such a fuss. I had side rooms to myself because i didn’t like being on a ward. I was such a brat. One time I was in a side room in the final week of Wimbledon…must he been ’95, I think Boris Becker won that year. And I had a big telly but one of the nurses and I used to chat about tennis and she thought I didn’t have a good enough view of the tennis so she stole a little telly off some old women somewhere in the middle of the night so I had two tellies in my room. So on Wimbledon finals day I had a Wimbledon party. We went to the café and bought stuff and watched the tennis.
The problem with things like that is when people leave and you’re stuck in your bed, stuck on your drip. That’s when you feel like a little boy and you feel out of control. All these things you thing you’ve done to set the parameters and de-elephantise yourself suddenly disappear and you have no control. And you’re ill and you might die. You’ve had a really nice time and then everyone leaves. And you suddenly go… wow.
There’s a sense in the book that you’ve written this for your 28 year old self?
I think so. I think that’s the reader. When you talk to publishers they always want to know ‘who’s your reader?’ I mean it’s not just for people who are connected to the subject matter. It’s for people who want to understand what happens when you’re amidst a crisis. But when I write the stuff I imagine the 28 year old reading it who’s just got cancer and is trying to find out what the fuck this thing is. I am fascinated by fear. In my head 28 year old wasn’t scared but that cant be true.
It doesn’t seem to be a book about a fear of death.
No. I think that’s it. What getting cancer made me realise is that on a day to day basis we avoid thinking about death. Because there’s something ingrained that if we think about death that’s tempting fate or it’s a taboo or something. And to me cancer gave me the luxury of looking at death and realising that death is sort of fascinating. What does that mean, that oblivion thing, what does that do to you? To me that was the interesting thing about becoming ill. I had license – I like a drama – I had license to look at death. It was a weird contradiction. I looked at death without ever thinking I was going to die. It’s the thing I talk about in my podcast about not being negative, rather than being positive. Not being negative meant I didn’t ever think ‘Oh my god im going to die’. Or ‘I’ve got to be strong so I don’t die.’ I just thought ‘I’m not going to die but this is a perfect opportunity to have a look at death’. Because there is a connection between stage 4 cancer and death.
“I had a license to look at death”
The other thing I loved in the book is the idea that this is not about self-pity, or winning a battle or being a survivor. There’s a kind of euphemism that usually goes along with tragedy or death or illness that it felt you were fighting against.
I read someone on twitter said recently ‘When I die please don’t say I passed away. Please say I died.’ People find that really hard. It’s understandable. They don’t know how to deal with it. Part of the reason for writing the book is to try and help people deal with stuff like that so they don’t have to circumnavigate and use euphemisms because they feel uncomfortable saying the word ‘death’, they feel uncomfortable saying the word ‘cancer’. A really close friend of mine, a few years ago a friend of her’s wife was diagnosed with terminal cancer. They didn’t know how long she had but she had less than a year. And my friend phoned me up in tears, and, she’s a successful smart woman, and she said “I’ve been trying to write this card for hours. I don’t know what to say.” And the luxury of me is that I… not that I do know what to say but that I do know that its ok not to know what to say. In that situation where you’re writing to someone who’s going to die, anything you write sounds trite. But that’s the taboo you have to take away. You’re not the only person sitting there trying to write to her. You’re not the only person thinking that every word you write is trite considering she’s going to die. So you’ve just got to write some words and the words that mean the most are often ‘I don’t know what to say’.
I don’t necessarily have any pearls of wisdom. I don’t have any. But if it helps at all with taboos….The biggest joy for me if the book sold lots of copies (beyond financial joy) would be if maybe something stays with someone that helps them deal with a situation in the future.
I think we do the job we do, we certainly don’t do it for money, I think we do the job we do to try to change people’s lives. Now, we almost never succeed. But maybe we could do it once or twice.
Quick fire questions:
Whats the first thing you can remember cooking?
When we’d stay at their house, my grandfather made us chips with onions for breakfast. I didn’t necessarily cook it but I helped him cook. And I became obsessed with making chips with onions.
If you could have a meal with anyone living or dead, who would it be?
If I’m not available?
I probably didn’t need to ask that. What is it about Bruce that makes you go all around the world to watch him play?
His music has an answer to every question I might need to ask.
What would you want your last meal to be?
Shitloads of gluten.
Heart and sharing and sex and ecstasy. And.. and calm.
Raz’s (Spiralised) Salad