Interview: Donna Air on her emotional new play, Punched, and why she wants to shine the light on important female stories

By Michelle Johnson | 30 Nov 2021 | Culture, Art, Philanthropy

Punched is in support of The Global 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence

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Actress, presenter and producer Donna Air has always championed causes that empower women, but it was in the pandemic – and a pivotal role in television’s The Split – that she turned her efforts to the rising issue of gender-based violence. 

Overwhelmed by letters from viewers that related to her character’s story of domestic abuse and gaslighting, Air founded a production company to put the spotlight on these issues. 

“The truth is, we have all either had an experience with abuse or know somebody who has experienced abuse, and so it’s our responsibility to stand up and let these women’s stories be told,” she tells Tempus. 

After a fateful meeting with Everything I Ever Wanted to Tell My Daughter About Men writer Lorien Haynes, the pair set out to launch Punched – a star-studded play of survivors stories – to raise money for three women’s charities. Refuge  provides helplines and protection for women and children against domestic violence; Southall Black Sisters has spent more than 40 years advocating for women and girls; and The Circle supports vulnerable women and girls around the world. 

Launching on 6 December at London’s Criterion Theatre, the play is part of the UN’s Global 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence. Directed by Jude Kelly CBE, the impressive cast includes Sadie Frost, Tracy-Ann Obermon and The Circle founder Annie Lennox in a short film directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson.

Here, Air tells us why the issue of domestic abuse has never been more important – and why she is approaching the issue with the aim to inspire and empower.

Donna, what can you tell us about Punched

Punched is a live fundraising theatre performance of monologues about gender-based violence, told by an array of incredible performers. We've got probably one of the most interesting and diverse group of actors I've ever come across – a really wonderful array of female talent – which, as a producer, is a dream. The performance benefits three incredible women’s charities – The Circle, Refuge and Southall Black Sisters. 

What inspired you and Lorien Haynes to create the show?

In season two of The Split (2020) I played a character who was emotionally abused, and I was overwhelmed by the enormity of letters I received from female viewers who had experienced something similar. It made me realise the responsibility we have as actors to tell stories that can really provoke positive change.

I launched my production company, Madre, to collaborate with women and shine the light on important female stories and I soon came across Lorien Haynes, and loved her work. Lorien made a great film called Everything I Ever Wanted to Tell My Daughter About Men, about the ongoing spectrum of abuse that women face. We spoke about the statistics of abuse in the UK and how, during the pandemic, they spiked to an alarming level, and we decided that that's what we wanted our first project to be about. 

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You have an incredible cast. Were you surprised at how many women wanted to be involved? 

It’s amazing. Most people we asked immediately said yes. [Director] Sam Taylor-Johnson agreed to film Annie Lennox in LA – Annie wrote a wonderful call to action. Sadie Frost is performing a piece she has written. We've got some incredible new talent – such as Trinity Tristan and Storme Toolis – and actresses like Sofia Barclay. All these actresses, writers and survivors have given their time to the project because it’s something we all really believe in. I'm just really thrilled by everybody's generosity of spirit.

What can audiences expect on the night?

I think there's something quite powerful when you get women in a room together. That's where the magic happens. The evening will be a lovely, safe space for these stories to be told and I'm hoping we’ll raise funds on the night, which these charities desperately need. I also think a lot of people suffering from domestic abuse don't really know where to go or what to do, so bringing attention to the incredible work that these charities do is what this evening's all about.

What can we do to open the discussion around gender-based violence?

It’s important that victims of abuse know they are not alone; abuse is an epidemic. I think one of the big problems with domestic abuse is that a lot of women, especially during lockdown, felt very isolated. But there are places to go and get help, like Refuge, which gives refuge to women and children who need to escape very difficult situations. I hope that by speaking out, starting a conversation and sharing our experiences, we can shine a light on a very dark issue, and empower those in need. 

What’s next for this project?

Well, funnily enough, I’ve been in New York recently, and I don't see why we couldn't do Punched in New York. This is very much a global problem.

Then creatively, as a production company, Lorien and I have all of these micro-stories that could be expanded. Subject to the right funding, which is very much on my agenda, we will be able to produce and develop a lot more stories that really need to be told. I would like to create and produce content that can actually help women – and we need lots of incredible men to stand up and help, too. So that’s the plan. 

Punched, at the Criterion Theatre on 6 December 2021. Tickets are available from criterion-theatre.co.uk