Susan Lynch: Faith, Hope and Charity shows the vulnerability of our times

Writer-director Alexander Zeldin and actor Susan Lynch on the politics that informs their vital play Faith, Hope and Charity at the National Theatre

The third part of writer-director Alexander Zeldin’s trilogy of plays has just opened at the National Theatre. Faith, Hope and Charity follows 2017’s Beyond Caring and last year’s LOVE – which was also adapted for BBC Two, produced by Friends star David Schwimmer. 

Taking the front line of the fight against poverty right to the heart of the theatre establishment is just one of Zeldin’s missions. 

a quarter of the population is living below the poverty line, foodbank use is going bananas – so this is not a special interest piece

“I get asked why I need to tell these stories. But a quarter of the population is living below the poverty line, foodbank use is going bananas – so this is not a special interest piece. It is a barometer of what is going on in the country. And not just for the poorest people but for everybody. It is about what we believe is care, what we believe is nurture,” he says.

“I am not particularly interested in telling political stories, I’m interested in human feelings. But it is human feelings through the prism of what we are living through today. And the austerity measures of the last nine years are the defining political feature of the era.”

I am interested in seeing what nine years of austerity can teach us about faith and hope

The play, it could be argued, shows David Cameron’s misguided Big Society idea in action. Drastic budget cuts hammering public services in the hope that charities and grassroots organisations will compensate.

“In all these places, it is left to the vulnerable to help with the most vulnerable,” says Zeldin, who toured community organisations, choirs, foodbanks and church groups across the country in preparation for the play – meeting people, leading workshops with his cast, talking to people living in poverty. 

“The line between volunteers and service-user is blurred. And this is a tragedy. That is who is caring for people who need it. People who are working zero-hour contracts are finding the time, people who have been through it themselves.

“These are the people who are running community centres. People who have had their benefits suspended or cut. I am interested in seeing what nine years of austerity can teach us about faith and hope. My last piece was about people in a hostel living under the duress of the system. But the subject wasn’t homelessness, it was love. 

“It is about the dignity of human life in every class and sector of society, but seen through the prism of those who are living a set of circumstances that define our time. And therefore tell us about all of us.”

One of the stars of Faith, Hope and Charity is actor Susan Lynch. She follows recent roles as Villanelle’s former lover in Killing Eve and as a space warrior survivalist in Doctor Who with this powerful story of community.

“To go to the theatre and see something that is not just about the middle classes – especially here at the National, especially now in terms of where we are in this country and who our Prime Minister is – is so vital,” says Lynch. 

“We could start talking about politics and be here all day. We are showing the vulnerability of our times. I feel really proud to be in it. I had no particular desire to do theatre, but doing this feels really important.”

The vulnerable people in our society are looking after each other because the f***ing state isn’t

Zeldin’s intense, interactive research process was an eye-opener for the actors.

“The whole idea that being an actor is about ascending to some bullshit level of  stardom or celebrity has never sat well with me. The reason I wanted to do it was to be in a community and feel like we are all together, telling stories,” says Lynch. 

We have been to a community centre in East Ham all together. I met one woman, in the middle of winter. She was literally wearing slippers with bare legs asking me to check her phone because she had a universal credit app.

“We were seeing first hand people who were so vulnerable. The extraordinary thing about vulnerability is how much people look after each other. It feels like it was one of the only true communities that we have left. The vulnerable people in our society are looking after each other because the fucking state isn’t.

“Some of these people, like Hazel in our play, literally give up so much of who she is in order to look after all of these different kind of people.”

Every politician needs to see this play

Lynch is convinced theatre like Faith, Hope and Charity can be important in helping build empathy and taking the stories she heard firsthand to a wider audience. 

“I volunteered for a while at [day centre] St Martin’s and a lot of the homeless guys were middle class. I found that really shocking. Being broken and vulnerable belongs to all of us – but why should it be that our empathy only kicks in when it happens to us?” says Lynch.

“That’s why everyone needs to see this play. And every politician needs to see this play. Especially Boris Johnson. But let’s face it, it would probably go over his head.”

Images: Sarah Lee / National Theatre

Faith, Hope and Charity is on now at the Dorfman Theatre