Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Ghost Writing...

Having recently seen The Turn of the Screw at The Almeida, I've been thinking about ghosts on stage, and also about literary adaptations. Both these things seem quite problematic to me, although I've always wanted to write a ghost story for the theatre, and I quite like the idea of adapting a novel.

Probably the most famous stage ghost is Hamlet's father, and I'm always fascinated to see how productions handle the battlement scenes. There's one very simple reason why they're so compelling (as well, probably, as lots of complicated ones): the ghost has an agenda, which is as concrete as any living character in the play. When a play's action is grounded in the mechanisms of cause and effect such agendas are pretty essential. After all, most forms of 'realism' depend on a clear relationship between actions and their predicted outcomes. But the 'ghosts' in The Turn of the Screw are quite different. In fact, they may well be pursuing particular devilish aims, but we can never be sure because of the persistent implication that they are figments of the governess' imagination. That isn't a problem in the novella - it's the heart of the story - but on stage...

The distinction between subjective narrative unreliability in prose and dramatic objectivity in realist forms of theatre has quite profound consequences. Indeed, I think it's possible to argue that characters in such plays have no 'meaningful' psychological reality beyond that which is expressed in action. Or to put it another way, there's no point telling me what a character 'really' feels or is 'really' thinking if I never get to understand that myself from what I see in front of me.

The attempt to sustain a purely subjective experience, therefore, seems to me to be beyond the reach of theatrical 'realism'. (I'm just using 'realism' as a short cut here - to pick out stories where the logic of the 'storyworld' can be learned and followed by the reader/audience, even if initially strange.) Yes, we can watch a stage character who sees things in a way we know to be skewed. But only if we can also recognise the reliable reality against which their actions and perceptions can be measured.

Hopping to the issue of adaptation, Salman Rushdie has some interesting things to say. He writes about the need to preserve a work's essential qualities when moving between art forms. If the governess' subjectivity is one of The Turn of the Screw's essential qualities (somewhat complicated by the novella's frame narrative, perhaps) then the question becomes: how can that be preserved in translation? I think 'realist' dramatic forms run into a problem here: the unreliability of her subjective viewpoint can only be preserved if we see the governess juxtaposed with an outside world that throws her beliefs and conclusions into question (for us, the audience). In other words, in order to preserve the subjectivity inherent in (essential to) the novella, we have to introduce an externality that is lacking from the novella. I'm not sure such a contradiction is sustainable. And I wonder if the playwright who wants to explore only the 'locked in' world of a character's subjective viewpoint has to dramatise that through a different, non-realist, dramatic form. I also think it explains why the recent production left me a bit cold. It functioned absolutely fine as a B-movie style chiller. But it lost the essence of the original without finding a true theatrical core to replace it.

(BTW, the photo is a still from The Innocents (1961). How film handles such adaptations is, no doubt, an entirely different question...)

Monday, 12 November 2012

Shakespeare in 3D...

Last week I finally made it to the ‘Staging the World’ exhibition at the British Museum. It’s only got another week to go, by the way, and it's well worth it:

The exhibition is mainly dedicated to artefacts from the period in which Shakespeare was writing. There is one of the very few surviving examples of his handwriting, as well as copies of the First Folio. (There’s also the modern collected edition smuggled onto Robben Island by anti-apartheid campaigners. It’s incredibly moving to see Nelson Mandela’s signature scrawled beside a passage on the nature of tyranny from ‘Julius Caesar’.) And then there are the maps - extraordinarily detailed visual descriptions of London (and Venice), drawn by hand or printed in intricate details from wood blocks. There are items of clothing from the time, paintings, swords and daggers, old clocks… And in all of it, an overwhelming sense of ‘making’ – a physical engagement with the materials of the time.

It’s often said that Shakespeare’s plays are all about the ear (you went to ‘hear’ a play, etc.). But what struck me was the sheer ‘materiality’ of theatre, and how this is one of its essential qualities. The magic of prose and poetry seems to derive from its ability to translate marks on the page into images and thought. Fine art is about texture, and creates the illusion of three-dimensionality. You can look all the way around a sculpture, but sculptures rarely move and speak. Film is all about the eye. Theatre is sometimes described as a metaphorical medium, but there is something literal about it too. Through costume, set, light and shade and the sheer fact of the actors’ presence, theatre speaks to our world in the physical language of our world.

Thursday, 1 November 2012

Escaping the city…

As well as Martin Crimp’s ‘The City’, I spent some time last week discussing ‘How Love is Spelt’ by Chloe Moss and ‘Eigengrau’ by Penelope Skinner. In different ways, these also use the urban space as a metaphor for constructing identity.

In ‘How Love is Spelt’ the central character, Peta, carries her building materials in from the outside world. Scene by scene she adopts attitudes and value systems as easily as the cardigan left by one of the strangers she invites to her bedsit. Then, when Colin – the lover she has run to the city to escape – finally arrives to take her home, she describes her discovery of a strange, almost fantastical, building near Crystal Palace. But attempting to locate it for a second time - with the hope of being able to tell Colin about it - she finds it has been completely demolished. Acts of construction and de-construction frame the play.

On the other hand, ‘Eigengrau’ is fascinating in the way it deals with the idea of ‘contingency’ in the city. Characters meet by accident and make fast, almost arbitrary, commitments to living spaces, friendships and ideologies. At the same time, a chorus of ‘voices’ manifests the city in broken extracts from Gumtree adverts. There is a sense that settled relationships are impossible – or, at least, under permanent existential threat - in an environment where movement, speed, conflict and coincidence are essential qualities. (‘Closer’ by Patrick Marber is probably the most famous play of recent years to explore this territory. Here, characters are pulled together momentarily by the ethereal figure of Alice, a binding agent or catalyst, whose reality is finally questioned by the play's mysterious resolution.) At the end of ‘Eigengrau’ two of the characters, Tim and Rose, form an ambiguous alliance – a happy ending, of sorts. But having created such a unit, it’s as if the metaphysics of the city can no longer accommodate them. They leave to live in Eastbourne.

By way of contrast, over the weekend I watched ‘The Village at the End of the World’, a documentary about a community of 59 people living in a remote corner of North East Greenland. One of the central characters is a teenager called Lars, whose aspirations and worldview are at odds with the ways of life surrounding him. Finally he leaves his home for one of the larger towns further south. This film seemed to re-enforce a key distinction between urban and non-urban stories. In the former, characters must confront contingency and continual restlessness. Peace can only be found beyond the city’s limits. In the latter, the act of leaving dramatises a contrasting desire for rebirth, free expression and change.

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Losing the plot...

For my MA playwriting class, I’ve just read Martin Crimp’s ‘The City’. The play opens with a woman, Clair, describing to her husband a meeting with a writer, Mohamed, at a railway station – one of those transitional spaces that feature so often in urban stories. Mohamed has nipped into a shop to buy his daughter a diary before she leaves to live with his sister-in-law, but it takes too long and he misses his last goodbye. Instead, he gives the diary to Clair.

Later in the play Clair meets Mohamed again at a conference. Arriving at her bedroom door, he reveals that his daughter has been killed. In a scene also loaded with sexual possibility, he confesses his guilt at having prioritised writing over parenthood whilst she was alive. More shockingly, he reveals how he now feels liberated by her death. Not only will he have more time to write, but he’ll also have new material: ‘My child, you see, is like a log thrown into the fire, making the fire burn… more brightly.’

Clair’s appalled reaction is an emotion we can relate to immediately, in a play where empathy and understanding are otherwise just beyond our grasp. But at the end of the play we discover that Mohamed is entirely a product of Clair’s own writer’s imagination – a fact she records, disorientatingly, in the very diary Mohamed is supposed to have given her. Her husband Chris is moved to ask if he, too, is merely a fiction. In fact, the danger is even greater. These self-referential slights of hand imply that the whole story has been created out of nothing. ‘The City’ becomes a kind of anti-story, existing and not existing at the same time.

It also reminded me of Martin McDonagh’s brilliant ‘The Pillowman’ – a surreal satire on the crossover between writing and totalitarianism. McDonagh’s play builds around an extraordinary set-piece fairytale featuring a creature (the Pillowman of the title) who travels back in time to convince children destined for suffering to kill themselves before their personal tragedies can unfold. So traumatic is this job, that eventually the Pillowman can’t bear it any longer. Returning to his own childhood, he persuades his younger self to commit suicide before he can fulfil his terrible vocation. At which point, the universe is filled with the screams of previously dead children coming back to life and living out their pain-filled lives. As with ‘My City’, this is both a story and not a story; the whole grim tale derives from the actions of a character who turns out never to have existed.

Similar features can be seen in other stories rooted in paradox. The new science fiction film ‘Looper’ is one example. Whilst on a certain level the story clearly ‘exists’, it also contains a sort of self-deleting code. Searching for meaning in these circular narratives can be a perplexing and frustrating task - which isn’t to say they’re meaningless. All stories are a ‘construction’ of one kind or another, with - depending on which way you want to look at it - more or less reality that ‘real life’.

Next week I’m going to see Hedda Gabler – a more straightforward play about what happens to a writer when their life’s work is undone. And I’m also quite tempted by the film ‘Ruby Sparks’. A film about a novelist who writes a character into existence…

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Engaging the audience...

Having seen Will Eno’s ‘Oh, The Humanity’ at Soho Theatre last week, a lot of my students commented on the unconventional ‘interactive’ elements of the production. Only, when I thought about it, I realised that the last four things I’d watched at the theatre had all attempted a quite deliberate and specific engagement with the audience. And in each case, something about that transaction defined my feelings towards the play. Those productions were: ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ at the Globe; the Danish theatre company Republique’s version of ‘Hamlet’; Will Eno’s collection of shorts mentioned above; and The RSC’s production of ‘Julius Caesar’.

As far as the two (original) Shakespeares were concerned, the nature of this engagement derived mainly from the place of performance. The Globe is a theatre that demands the acknowledgement of a shared space. Shakespeare’s characters often directly invoke the audience and, as well as a running metaphor of theatre-as-life, site-specific references are frequently embedded within the texts. (These days, we have the added anachronism of planes flying overhead; actors stopping to let them pass being a guaranteed crowd pleaser.) With that in mind, the critical response to ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ was interesting. Whilst the Daily Mail revelled in the simple fun of it all, the Guardian characterised it as ‘conventionally jolly’, never digging far beneath the surface. Michael Billington is sometimes criticised for a fixation with the ‘political’ in the theatre, but although I thoroughly enjoyed this production, part of me agrees that it was a missed opportunity to present one of Shakespeare’s most unsettling works in a relatively un-nuanced way. Isn’t a venue that has this relationship with its audience hardwired into it the perfect place to confront the play’s more troubling aspects? (By the by, it’s probably not worth being angry at the Daily Mail any more, but it’s amazing how effortlessly it can cause offence. Take this casual aside: ‘The Shrew will never be Harriet Harman’s favourite Shakespeare…’)

On the other hand, ‘Julius Caesar’, a West End transfer for the RSC, attempted to co-opt some of the Globe’s spirit. With the house lights up, the play was prefaced by music and dancing on stage, but the performers struggled in vain to reach out beyond the proscenium arch. Over the weekend, I read a piece of political commentary by Andrew Rawnsley that borrowed and adapted an Oscar Wilde quotation (quite freely, I think, as I haven’t been able to source the original…) Anyway, the basic idea was that authenticity is a uniquely prized possession. And once you can fake it, you’re made. It turns out to be a rather apt quotation in the context of Julius Caesar itself, but it also speaks to the dilemma of ‘artifice’ in the theatre. At any rate, this attempt to import something of the Globe’s participatory aesthetic into a West End venue didn’t fake it well enough for me.

In ‘Hamlet’ at the Queen Elizabeth Hall - a highly physical, multimedia ‘adaptation’ with live music by the Tiger Lilies - a different kind of engagement relied on the extent to which the audience knew the source material. Although some key scenes were preserved reasonably intact, much was skipped, re-ordered, or replaced. The result was a production that fell between two stools. Knowing the original fairly well, I found the snippets of text aggravating; I’d have preferred a freer interpretation. At the same time, I don’t think a newcomer to the play would have had much idea what was going on. The interaction with the audience was predicated on an assumed familiarity with the story, which simultaneously robbed it of its own energy.

And so to ‘Oh the Humanity’, a series of five short plays (mostly monologues) riff-ing on the gap between presentation and belief, and the hopeless ways in which we try to suppress our emotions. The plays are certainly beautifully crafted and lyrically realised. But they left me a bit cold. Perhaps the most distancing (if arguably the most interesting) was the fourth piece. Here the action spun 180 degrees, and the two characters on stage suddenly involved the audience in the setting up of a staged photograph. As we in the auditorium tried to fix our faces in an appropriate way, we were gently hectored and cajoled. The piece was all about authenticity - what can you read behind the eyes of those frozen on film? Formally, then, the device was in keeping with the wider questions of the play. So why did it feel so false? Why did I find myself becoming irritated by the faux spontaneity of the performers? The acting mantras of ‘living in the moment’ and ‘saying everything for the first time’, which count for so much behind a fourth wall, seemed contrived and disingenuous in this shared space. Ironically (perhaps) the audience’s inability to participate in a real conversation with the characters/performers was more starkly obvious here than in much naturalistic drama. Andrew Rawnsley’s butchered Oscar Wilde quotation seems appropriate in this context too. And while it’s a commonplace that the theatre depends on, demands, even inherently contains the concept of an audience, it’s also fascinating just how fragile and contingent that relationship can be.

Thursday, 24 May 2012

Just a quick post to say...

Check out for some very exciting news about the 40th anniversary of The Soho Poly Theatre. On the bill: David Edgar, Robert Holman, Michael Billlington, Fred Proud, The Miniaturists, Michael Coveney, Irving Wardle, The Soho Theatre...

Follow our progress @SohoPolyFest

And for all tix info, email Free, but limited availability!

Friday, 11 May 2012

Festivals, Shelters, and Being Human…

It’s been quite a while since ‘Brightest and Best’, and although I’d intended to write a wrap-up post, the end of a project is never quite the decisive moment I imagine it will be. These days I find I can walk away from such things quite fast, almost not thinking about them at all in their immediate aftermath. Very different to the come-down I used to feel after finishing plays when I was younger. A shame not to miss things in the way I used to; or healthier, maybe, to be able to move on...

In any case, I’ve moved straight on into two new projects which I wanted to write a bit about here. One is a mini-festival  I’m curating in mid June. The other is a writing commission I’ve just begun with Natalie Ibu, working with LAMDA second-year drama students to develop a play. The first of these will have a blog of its own, so I’ll post a link to that soon. But in brief, the festival will mark  40 years since The Soho Poly Theatre (now The Soho Theatre) moved into a tiny basement on Riding House Street and established itself as one of the most famous fringe venues of the 1970s and 80s. It was a home for new writing and the starting point for many actors and directors still working today. For the week beginning 18th June the plan is to bring it back to life  for a series of short plays, readings and discussions about theatre then and now.  More details to follow…

The LAMDA project is in its second week, and is quite a new experience for me. Evolving a play for twelve actors feels like writing in 3D. Rather than spending time thinking, I’m forced to react in the room to scores of questions and suggestion. It’s been pushing me into quick decisions, which is bracing but frightening too. Balancing that with the need to maintain an overarching ‘concept’ for the play is going to be one of the biggest challenges.

The idea we’re all working on grew out of something I read in a book by Matthew Sweet about hotels during WW2. In particular, there’s a story about a group of Communists marching to the Savoy during the Blitz and demanding to be let into the downstairs ballroom, a makeshift shelter for the (rich) guests. This demand was a protest against the inadequate provision of shelters for the desperately poor residents of places like Stepney in the East End. It’s a story which seems to question the Home Front myth that everyone was in it together.

Inevitably, researching these events throws light onto the present. Something that particularly strikes me is the way the current coalition has co-opted that famous phrase ‘in it together’ – partly to justify their reduction in support for the public sector and the championing of charities, volunteer organisations and the Big Society. Of course, there are many lenses through which to view such a comparison, but one of the interesting discoveries for me has been how the crisis of 1940 underscored how necessary government-led action was, and how poorly-funded and poorly-coordinated local provision was often unequal to the task at hand...

Then again, I’ll always look for the left-wing angle - which is a realisation that makes writing a play with political dimensions troubling and problematic. I’m not someone who finds it easy to write something that champions a particular ideology. It’s not that I don’t want to, but more that I  don’t seem to have the tools to do it without becoming reductive or simplistic. Certainly I’m not an historian, and I don’t think it would be legitimate for me to try and change people’s thinking about the Second World War (at least not in such a blunt way). I’m not sure that can ever be a playwright’s primary responsibility. I’ve argued this point before, but I’m uncomfortable with the idea of a writer using whatever powers of persuasion they might have to attempt to establish themselves as ‘an expert’ in any field other than writing itself. So, at the moment, I’m wrestling with the question of how to approach historical, and by implication political, material.

Worrying about it all over coffee the other morning, I kept returning  to the question of characters and what they want. In a sense that felt like cowardice: I don’t know what I want my play to say or mean, so I’ll let my characters worry about it all instead. And yet, that’s the choice I always seem to arrive back at. In the end, I found myself reformulating the idea that a play (well, one type of a play) is really just about testing characters’ value systems. I wondered if the most vivid question for each character is simply ‘What are your responsibilities as a human being?’ After all, isn’t that what all of us worry about most, at the crisis moments of our lives? And maybe plays are just one of the forms of art that help us develop a framework to articulate that question.

So, for now at least, I’m not thinking ‘What point do I want the play to make?’ or ‘How can I tie this story in to my own political opinions?’ Instead I’m just asking my characters, via the three-dimensional students who are embodying them, ‘What do you believe are your responsibilities as a human being?’ And then trying to think of how those beliefs might be put under the greatest possible stress…