British playwright Mike Bartlett’s latest work, Wild, is a darkly comic look at contemporary issues of privacy, clearly inspired by the case of American whistleblower Edward Snowden. First performed at Hampstead Theatre, London in June 2016, the play has its Australian premiere in May courtesy of Melbourne Theatre Company. Currently in rehearsal, the gripping three-hander is directed by Dean Bryant and stars Nicholas Denton, Anna Lise Phillips and Toby Schmitz.

In Wild, American whistleblower Andrew is holed up in a ‘nondescript hotel room’, a fugitive from justice. Over a tense 90 minutes, he is visited by two individuals, presenting themselves as employees of a secretive organisation that can offer him protection. Schmitz plays one of these employees, a character wreathed in mystery and simply referred to as ‘Man’. Here he traces his evolving relationship with the play, its connection to post-war theatre, and how his character might just be an alien from outer space.

Toby Schmitz in rehearsal for Wild. Photo © Deryk McAlpin

What were your first impressions of Wild?

It was an offer, you know, which sometimes is a fortunate thing that happens in one’s career. So I read it the first time, going “where are my lines? What do I get to do?” [Laughs] And then read it again before I said yes, and it’s an interesting question because what I think keeps evolving.

It’s a deftly clever play, and so much like the promotional material that is necessarily provided in the MTC brochure, my first reading was, “oh, it’s nakedly an issues play, the kind that maybe David Hare sometimes writes very well”. Because it’s literally about Snowden, privacy, information, the new world of privacy invasion – except our character is not called Snowden, he’s called Andrew.

And then something quite expressionist starts happening in the last act of the play, and then the more we’ve read it, the more we’ve dug into it, I’ve become very aware that my initial reading is the tip of the iceberg. It’s about so much more, and it actually shares a lot more with Beckett, Pinter, Brecht, some big powerhouse absurdists and post-war theatre reimaginers.

Are there challenges in trying to tell a story that is, as you say, an issues play, whilst also ensuring that the dialogue feels spontaneously realised rather than just arguments in a debate?

Bartlett’s dialogue is deliciously naturalistic. Although very contemporary, pressing issues are brought up immediately in the play and discussed at full throttle, there are commas in place, the tense is always a little bit slippery and there’s clear punctuation – once it starts coming out of your mouth rather than just reading it cold by yourself, it feels very immediate.

On top of that, Anna Lise Phillips and Nicholas Denton and director Dean Bryant are extremely talented people who could make reading a phone directory engaging and naturalistic. All those elements are a wonderful surprise to me as we’ve started to pull this apart, that the experience you get reading the play is wildly, pardon the pun, different on the floor.

You say that your impressions of Wild have deepened over time. What ideas are you grappling with in particular at this point in time?

One of the biggies I’ve been battling with since day one is, “do I care?” There are things we don’t want people to know about and as a concept the easiest way to shrug it off is to go, “well, I haven’t killed anyone, and I’m not a drug dealer on the dark net”, so the issue of privacy is very easy not to think about. I’m not on Facebook, I’m not a huge social media guy, but I do use email. My brother – who is a bit more tech savvy and more cynical and slightly more crypto-anarchist than I am – has always said they know everything, so don’t even bother writing your passwords down in a little book, just don’t fucking bother. And if there’s anything they shouldn’t know, too late.

So there is a way of shrugging it off, and there’s a way of engaging with it and I think what most humans do is we pinball between the two. Some days we feel really sickened and scared, and other days we’re like, “it’s just too much, not today”. And that pinballing is a great dramatic set up for what is essentially a nightmare of a play. It’s about the feeling of slipping off the face of the earth.

It is a play, like all great plays, that leaves you stumbling into the foyer with big questions and perhaps even debating in the car on the way home. And the next day as it sort of decants.

You talk about Wild as being evocative of the plays of Brecht, Beckett and Pinter. How do you see Bartlett’s exploration of a supposedly modern type of insecurity as being in the same line as what these playwrights addressed?

I think that the Second World War and the Holocaust and Hiroshima changed everything. And immediately after it, we saw an expressionism in theatre that’s never gone away, that’s always been available to us from Godot  onwards. With Albee and Beckett, they perhaps went, “how do we explain the insane horror of what just happened to us? How did we let that happen, what the fuck just happened?” A classic act structure and light entertainment and the old forms of theatre – which still hold, we still love those plays and are happy to watch an Oscar Wilde – but something new had to be invented, and Bartlett taps right into that with the wonderful twist of you thinking it being something a little more straightforward, until you realise that no, it’s having a deep conversation with post-war theatre.

Anna Lise Phillips in MTC’s Wild. Photo © Justin Ridler

The play is also interested in individual identity and how that comes into question when privacy becomes a slippery thing. How does your character in particular pick up on that concern?

The slipperiness of what identity even means and the wonderful philosophical questions that are raised – “I think therefore I am”, or “does the light stay on in the fridge when you shut the door?”, or “tree falls in the woods, does anyone hear it?” kind of stuff – the play deals with them in a big way. And one of my character’s functions is to make Andrew, and Nicholas who’s playing him, and the audience, start to feel a little hint of vertigo about their own identity. Do I have one, what does it even fucking mean?

And although I’ve said all this stuff, the play is fucking hilarious. This bitter pill would be way too hard to swallow if it didn’t come heavily sugared with some wonderful comedy and charm and sexiness. It’s a deeply sexy play. Being stuck in a hotel room with a ravishing, is she a spook, is she not, is already sexy on the surface and I think there’s something sexy about anonymous hotel rooms and I think Bartlett is teasing that out as well.

One of the ways to keep us interested in these three people for 90 minutes is for sex to always be on the table, just in the set up, not even literally. So the comedy and the slightly dark Cold War eroticism of it is also one of the functions of my character, but there’s a lot of things going on and I think when it comes to identity, one of my character’s functions is to make people feel comfortable until they’re not, to set them up. Line the ducks up and start knocking them down.

As your character is a big question mark, what’s been helpful in terms of getting a handle on who he is?

Playing each moment. That it’s true in the moment, and then a continuity of character or plot is one of the magic tricks – maybe there isn’t even one in this play. But you’ve got to believe in the facade of continuity or through line in order for the ship to actually float.

They were big questions I had before I started reading it, just how do I play this? And this is getting into spoiler territory, but my first instinct was I think I just have to play him as an alien from like a fucking mothership. And then I ditched that, and did some real homework and creation of backstory – when is he an actual Graham Greene or Le Carré spook and when is he something far more contemporary from MI5 and when is he genuinely something from WikiLeaks with a heart who wants to help this scared boy?

And I’ve actually in week three now got back to my first instinct, alien from a mothership and anything goes, as long as the objective, to torture, not even to interrogate, to torture Andrew and the audience in the most entertaining way is upheld. It’s quite freeing as an actor – I don’t know what his fucking name is! Or who his mum was! I could do that work, and some of it I have, but it always gets jettisoned from beat to beat. It’s a ride one has to get on to actually deliver it. It sounds so wanky, but it’s one of those texts that is in the doing.

What’s the rehearsal process been like with director Dean Bryant? 

Glacial, in a way. It’s a short play and I’ve not worked with Dean before so this could be his method on every work, but we’ve spent whole days on three pages. Hours on two lines – that’s probably pushing it a little bit, but you know what I mean. And that has been so worthwhile. Every play is different and every director is different, so you spend the first two days going, “what’s this rehearsal process going to be like?” And once you know you can really relax.

Up the road they’re doing a new Australian work, an adaptation of Bliss  that’s hundreds of pages long. They’re rehearsing at the same time and I’ve got lots of chums in the cast, and it’s interesting to discuss because it’s so different to what we’re doing. There are some things we’ve only looked at once and it’s week four. I’ve been in those plays and the rehearsal method is completely different. We’ve got a 90-minuter with three people set in one room, so we have the luxury of being able to sit around and try anything out and go as slow as we damn well want.

Toby Schmitz in rehearsal for Wild. Photo © Deryk McAlpin

In terms of that rehearsal process, is that what you look for in a director, that willingness to dig deep and take time?

Patience is essential to good directing, to not jump the gun, to not praise too much. Which I find very hard, I don’t direct that much but when I do I’m always reminding myself, “can it on the fucking praise, boo”. Because even if you truly believe in the praise you’re giving, it just subconsciously locks something off and people go, “well, I’ll think about something else, that bit seems to be going down well”. And it’s really your job as an actor to keep interrogating and inventing til closing night, because even when you do lock something off, “I know what my action is here, to wound”, and the director and you have agreed that on this line you will wound the other person with your words, there’s still infinite ways to wound within that choice.

The play flits between many shifting moods, much of them darkly comic. That must be a joy to play – how have you realised those almost vertiginous shifts in tone?

It is an unashamed, unadulterated thrill. I don’t appear for the first 30 pages, so I sit around a lot watching them having a ball and having a ball watching them. On the first day when I finally got up and just for the first time felt out what might be the potential of playing this guy, I was beaming by the end of the day. I had no idea it would be that fun to do – I thought it would be more point and shoot. “Establishment walks in, in suit, sets the rules, makes veiled threats, leaves.” It’s so much beyond that, it’s Kafkaesque clowning, it’s getting to pay tribute to all the espionage stories that I’ve loved since I was a boy, from the true creepy ones to the more Hitchcockian ones.

It’s getting to make an audience think hard and clearly about some of these tough questions – how much have we lost of ourselves to the powers that be, and do we care? And to disturb the audience is not something you’re really gifted with as an actor too often. I just saw the movie Get Out and every department is working to disturb you, from the quality of the acting, to the choices made in the soundscape, to when the camera moves: everyone is out to unnerve and to disturb. And there’s not many plays that have that as their base objective. To disturb in order to ask big questions, like there’s nothing in the Shakespearean canon that’s simply out to disturb you – Macca and Titus, they’ve got their disturbing elements and dark parables and questions about ambition and cruelty to each other, but this is more like a Black Mirror episode or a great Roald Dahl short story.

There’s a primacy to the intent of disturbing. Lots of stories have nightmare elements but everybody’s happy at the end, or you manage to get out of the house alive. But I’m not saying this is theatre without hope. That’s actually one of the things we’re discovering, there’s something almost rapturous about the ending in this, the universe keeps expanding rather than falling in on itself.

But rapture has negative connotations as well, you think of something slightly out of control and chaotic. We’re still working it out, three weeks in, but it’s a delight. My job is to disturb the fuck out of the audience? Well, let me onstage.

Melbourne Theatre Company’s Wild is on at the Southbank Theatre from May 5 – June 9