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Juraj Benko and Arielle Zilkha - Honey Badger Interview

Even in the deepest darkness, there is a glimmer of light. The past cannot be changed. But perhaps the future can be?

From the Nordisk Teaterlaboratorium (Denmark), Honey Badger is a powerful and visceral look into the consequences of childhood abuse. A man travels back in time and relives his past: neglect, guilt, shame, and the deep longing for love and care.   

Directed by the internationally renowned Roberta Carreri (formally Odin Teatret), Juraj Benko performs a poetic stream of memories, where text, music and movement are interwoven into a deeply accessible story of resilience and survival. The audience are taken deep into the child's pain, a pain that still lingers beneath the surface into adulthood, on the way to find hope and reconciliation.

Honey Badger is a courageous work that speaks aloud what too many prefer to keep hidden - the scars that are left on you forever. But still, you can heal and the scars can fade.

The production comes to The Cockpit Theatre in London from 10th until 13th April. Ahead of the run we caught up with Juraj Benko who stars in the production and Arielle Zilkha who has composed the music to discuss the piece.

What attracted you to create this piece?
Juraj: At the very beginning, it was the work and teaching of the actress, and director of this piece, Roberta Carreri. I approached her with the intention of studying her way of working and her craft of acting. The creation of this performance came as part of our journey and for the starting point, or the theme of this piece I had to dig very deep into myself. I felt a need, a calling, which as an artist I knew I had to listen to- and this became a founding stone of this creative process.  

The theme of this performance is child abuse, and its consequences on the life of a human being throughout their life. Searching for how an individual can fight their traumas left by the past and find peace in life. This topic was very present in my family and close people around me and I wanted to bring the voices of these people out. And also my own. Scream about these noises inside the head and remind people what is happening very often behind closed doors, as I always had a feeling it is something that the majority of society prefer not to talk about, until they have to. Even when I started my research on the topic and I wanted to see some theatrical or artistic work I found out that there is really not a lot around. This all fuelled me to create this piece.

How did you approach composing the music?
We began the process with Juraj talking me through the character’s journey and the key turning points in the piece. The piece underwent about a year of redevelopment, so some of the original work had to be sacrificed (but some of it still made it to the album!). I worked to develop different thematic motifs for the different characters, which reappear in various parts of the performance, sometimes distorted to reflect the character’s memories and past. It was important that the music did not reinforce the action, but rather complemented it, or even opposed it. This was key, and was the reason behind most of the changes during the redevelopment phase. 

It was also important that tonally there was coherency between the different pieces, and that they created a collection of some sort. I worked to embed these repeated fragments in all the pieces, so they create some sort of echo, a resonance, in the magical collage that is Juraj’s performance.

How do you think the music fits into the style of the piece?
From the beginning of the process, Juraj was keen for the music to be all on one instrument, in this case the piano as it’s my main instrument. The concept of the piece as a one-man show with minimal set and props leant itself to the music being written that way. And it's this simplicity that is carried through the whole performance. With the style also being avant-garde, there is a quality to the music in the show that is maybe quite detached emotionally, which makes it quite neutral in terms of feeling.

How much of the music was collaborating with director Roberta Carreri and Juraj Benko?
Arielle: All of my work was done in London, whilst Juraj and Roberta were working together in Denmark. So, I was mostly working off filmed run-throughs. Throughout the process, Juraj and I would be in constant communication so I could quickly turn an edit around if there were any changes (which there were lots of!). Despite the distance, we managed to develop a working method that worked for us and resulted in a solid collaboration. It was an amazing moment to travel to Denmark for the premiere to see the work I did in my bedroom come to life!

How do you prepare for a role like the one in Honey Badger?
Juraj: One has to visit some very dark places. And I will speak about this as an actor and also as a creator of this piece, as the process I would describe is very similar. Before I even started to create the first propositions I delved into the real stories of people who suffered physical or mental abuse in their past. I started from my relationship with my father, and later I interviewed a group of people from my family or who I met in this process of research.

For more than a year every book I read, every movie I saw, or composer I investigated was connected with a topic of child abuse. Not only to prepare for the role, or find inspiration for the creation but to really understand what those people of different genders, backgrounds and stories went through and what it left in them.

It was very important for us to not only retell these autobiographies, nor to give advice or find solutions, but to listen and understand the layers of sorrows and then try to find a way to translate them into the performance. 
Also, researching and use of different vocal and physical languages, to underline splitting and breaking inside of this character required and still requires hard training and consistency.
What is the biggest challenge of playing a role which explores the consequences of childhood abuse?
Juraj: First of all, I had to face my own inner demons, before I could start thinking about the ones of others or a dramaturgy. To make my own journey throughout my past and find a reconciliation with myself and what has been, or what never will be. That was my first big challenge.

Another big challenge is the fact the topic touches more people than you would think. A lot of people went through physical or mental abuse, from relatives or people who they trusted, and this leaves very sensitive scars, which do not always heal. I am never very concerned about how critics or the art community receive this performance but this group, those who know what I am talking about, have always been on my mind. There were moments during the process when I wasn’t sure if I am able, or if I have a right, to speak to all these people. The biggest challenge is always when I stand on the stage, knowing that there in the audience is probably a person who lived through what I am saying, and how it will be received by them.
How do you maintain yourself when you’re playing in a one-person show?
Juraj: I think the most different part, from the group shows, is the performance itself. Preparation and maintenance of the actor, in terms of such a physically and vocally demanding show, can be very difficult, but not that much different than the ensemble productions.

It is the presence of the alone actor on the stage which makes the most difference. The inability to connect with fellow actors on stage, a give-and-take, which I would say creates the core of the actors’ craft in terms of performing. 

Nevertheless, it is important to find other associations. The performance can’t just fly in the air. In my case, the audience is my first colleague in this show. It is a very intimate production, a dialogue between me and the spectators, and thanks to this it is always different and alive. My props are my second colleague, which sometimes like to improvise and behave as they like so they keep me alert and always ready and awake. And my last colleague is the beautiful music from the composer Arielle Zilkha, with which I dance throughout the whole play and it doesn’t allow me to lose focus. So you see, this is my ensemble in Honey Badger, who helps me stay maintained and never alone.  

What keeps you inspired?
Juraj: Every day, every time, the people around me being passionate about all kinds of different aspects of life. Whenever I see or hear someone do what they love, with a full heart and determination, it inspires me. We can all do different things, and crave for different outcomes, but the fire inside of us is always the same. That fire stimulates me. It gives me energy and loads of inspiration to talk with an athlete working hard every day to achieve their goals. Or an artist, maybe with different points of view than mine, but passionately and with determination striving to show their truth.

Nothing is more fascinating and inspiring for me than the human power of determination. If it is the success in one’s career, or being a good parent, or doing something for the community. There is so much beauty in the will and dedication of a human to create and to do.

Arielle: I guess the boring answer is that everything can be inspiring in some way. But specifically, the past and anything historical. Classical music, portraits, novels, London and theatre through time. I find it really fascinating for some bizarre reason!
But really, it’s liveness that inspires me to the core. Whether it’s performance or just something as banal as everyday life. The living, breathing moment is our partner through time and it is full of inspiration if we look closely enough.
What do you hope an audience takes away from seeing Honey Badger?
Juraj: Reflection that anything is possible, and a pinch of hope for a better tomorrow. I never anticipate or predict the reaction of the audience. My perspective is that the beauty of the theatre, and art in general, is that it is so individually perceived. What is the most touching and outstanding performance for one spectator can be boring or banal for another one. And vice versa.

I wish each spectator will have an experience with this piece, no matter how it may appear. The topic can appear concrete, but this play is something more widespread.

I desire every spectator who enters the auditorium of The Cockpit, to do it with an open mind and ask themselves in the end, do I recognize anything in what has been said? And what does that mean to me and my sounding?

And maybe, if I can be hopeful enough, my wish would be that the message of this performance can hit the audience with the words:” Yes, I can do it, there is a way.”

Arielle: The message of the piece is very powerful, whether or not the audience sees themselves in the character’s story. To have control over one’s destiny is something that is sought after, but not always found- and this performance really shows the possibility of looking beyond one’s problems to find a way out. 
And, I would really love for audiences to discover the quirks and wonders of international theatre, specifically in this case the work of Roberta Carreri and Juraj Benko- directly from the incredible Nordisk Teaterlaboratorium in Denmark.  

And, you can stream the album on Spotify here: 

You can follow both Juraj and Arielle on social media. Juraj  is @benkojuraj on Instagram and on Facebook. 
@ariellezilkhaproductions on Instagram and on Facebook. and @nordisk_teaterlaboratorium on Instagram.

Honey Badger runs at The Cockpit Theatre from Wednesday 10th until Saturday 13th April 2024. Tickets are available from

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