If a set tells the story of a play, Twenty Minutes with the Devil is particularly grim.
Filthy saucepans and crockery, an unmade bed with palpably greasy sheets and upturned chairs litter the set at the Street Theatre when I visit to interview lead actor PJ Williams. He plays a notorious drug lord on the run.
PJ is wearing one of the most singularly revolting singlets ever produced by the underwear industry, a grubby garment that evokes desperate, dirty, lowlifes who are beyond caring about anything other than survival.
It’s also a close replica of what one of the world’s biggest drug dealers, Joaquín ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán, was wearing when he was captured on the run in Mexico by two small-town highway patrol cops who, at first, had no idea who he was. El Chapo’s story is the starting point as the play takes us to a nebulous world, somewhere in the global South.
Twenty Minutes with the Devil was written by Luis Gomez Romero, a law lecturer at the University of Wollongong, and Des Manderson from the ANU’s College of Law. The play examines what might have happened while the police officers and drug lord are holed up in a seedy motel. The police have called for backup, but so has El Chapo. The tension is terrifying.
In exploring those questions, the play also touches on the drug market’s grip on the first and developing worlds, the nature of power and the spectacular toll exacted on the poor by a murderous trade.
Originally due to begin last year, the play was a week away from opening when lockdown struck. The actors have returned to the stage to find out what’s left from last year.
“It was a bit of a relief to find that a lot of it had stuck,” PJ says. “We’ve discovered a lot of new stuff in the world of the play and I’ve got to live with the character longer.”
Playing the lead has been its own journey.
“Yes, he’s a bad man. He’s a cocaine trafficker, a murderer, all of that stuff. But he has a mother. He has children. He has grandchildren. He has a life outside of the cartel,” he says.
All this is set against the deadly reality of the drug trade. Peering through the plaster of the motel room set are faces – those of the disappeared, the many thousands murdered by cartels and police in the course of ‘doing business’ and servicing the developed world’s insatiable greed for drugs.
The play is a three-hander featuring PJ as the drug lord and Joanna Richards and Raoul Craemer as a couple of local police who have found the drug lord in a car boot after a routine highway stop.
It’s a Canberra collaboration from start to finish, and PJ points out that while the themes and story are universal, the subject matter can come very close to home.
“We’ve just had a guy found dead in Newcastle Harbour who was trying to remove more than 50 kilos of cocaine from the bottom of a ship. He was a Brazilian who had been flown out here to get cocaine that was loaded in Argentina, on a ship that had come from Brazil, and there was also a connection to Indonesia,” PJ says.
“The play talks about the north and the south, it talks about rich and poor, but it never actually specifies a location. It says this is about the world. The world of people who have and have not been so fortunate.”
The Street Theatre’s mission is to create space for creative work from the initial idea. PJ recalls the first three or four-page draft of the play, which subsequently went through the Street’s Hive program for developing work, and countless drafts.
“It really has been put through a rigorous creative process to get to production from initial idea to full main stage production and it’s all happened here. Hats off to Caroline (Stacey) and Dean (Ellis) for setting up a space where professional practice is the first choice. That is a rare and special thing”, PJ says.
Twenty Minutes with the Devil is at the Street Theatre on 18 June to 25 June. Bookings here.