I was brought up in a liberal family which came from a relatively activist tradition – my father’s father was a member of the communist party, he had been a Trotskyist and a member of the Lenin’s Club in Lithuania, which was a cultural organisation. That is what I was born into. But at the same time, we lived within a society in South Africa in which some people had power and some people didn’t and some people had money and some people didn’t. Some people were able to decide for themselves the kinds of lives they would live and other people’s choices were very limited. And when I was very young we had servants, a live-in maid and a garden-boy – he was a mature man – but referred to as a garden-boy. And when there were more of us kids, we had two maids. I can’t tell you at what point it was obvious to me that there was something wrong with this. But it was. We lived in a nice house with a garden, but the maids’ rooms were terrible. And as a kid, I spent quite a lot of time in the maids’ rooms because one of the maids used to read to me rather racy books by James Hadley Chase in her room on her bed. I suppose I was seven or eight and I suppose she was in her mid-twenties. But the disparity was we had carpets on our floors and she had bare concrete. And the maids would do something my parents thought was wrong and they would sack them and they would be gone just like that. It is a common thing for kids’ relationships with the servants to be very close. But the garden-boy grows marijuana in the bottom of the garden or the maid has her boyfriend overnight and is sacked and that intimate relationship you had with them is gone, broken.
My desire to study anthropology came out of sitting with our maid in her room, and when I had my first interview at LSE the Professor of the department asked me why I wanted to do this. I answered in the way I am doing now, I said I come from this weird society in which things that seem to be wrong are taken for granted and I want to understand that. I was about twenty so I could articulate it differently based upon a certain amount of political experience, but nonetheless, it came from the same source.
I got into theatre because my father gave me a box of kids’ magic tricks which was good of him as they wanted me to play sports and all of that which I didn’t want to do. This was something I could do. Theatre and politics came together later when one thinks well, what is one making theatre for, what is the purpose of it? And one discovered that there were people making theatre with a political end and you go, Oh OK I like that because it is bringing two aspects of one’s life together.
I got involved with Belarus Free Theatre because it was a theatre company who needed help and I was running a theatre. It was as simple as that. I already knew about them as I saw them in Thessaloniki at the Europe Theatre Prize and I saw Kolya’s show, Generation Jeans there. Then they had Being Harold Pinter on at the Soho Theatre and one day they turned up to the Young Vic with the critic Michael Billington and they said, “Well, we’re refugees.” And I thought well we have to do something about this. At that time we had a new part of the building opened, The Pod, and I thought the great thing I can do for these people is make them an associate company and give them office space. And they are still there.
You can perhaps connect that to me sitting on the maid’s bed in her shabby room. I mean here I am, I have something and I am with someone who does not have that thing. The only way I can stop feeling bad about that is to share what I have. Theatre people help theatre people – you do what you can, you support them, you share. That’s how it is.
David Lan is a playwright, director and theatre producer and was Artistic Director of the Young Vic from 2000 to 2018