Monday, 31 October 2011

Light and dark…

Just time to recommend a good Halloween film for anyone still trawling ‘best horror movies’ sites for inspiration. ‘The Village of the Damned’ was the one I plumped for (a little early) last night. It’s brilliantly grim and, with its opening scene of an entire community falling asleep at the same moment, it slightly reminded me of Mike Bartlett’s current play ‘13’ at The National Theatre. Anyway, I won’t spoil the story for anyone, suffice to say it’s a good antidote to anyone who thinks that children are the future.

Over the last few days, I’ve seen two other films worth recommending. ‘Midnight in Paris’ is the new Woody Allen movie, about a writer who finds himself transported back to the 1920s. It’s incredibly light, but also shows what you can do if you have the strength of your convictions. Just when you think the story’s backed itself into an impossible corner, it manages to raise things nicely to the next level. (Trying to make another link to ‘13’ here may be tenuous, but I had a sense whilst watching that production that it didn’t know quite how to do this. It has a similarly extraordinary premise, but ultimately retreats to safer territory, rather than fully expressing its potential.)

I also saw a screening of a fascinating new documentary ‘This is Not a Dream’ by Gavin Butt and Ben Walters as part of ‘Trashing Performance’ – a series of events looking at how artists and performers have explored the moving image. The film was at the Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club, a great venue if you don’t already know it: Amongst many of the revealing insights and bon mots provided by interviewees (including the likes of Dickie Beau and Scottee) was this, from American performance artist Vaginal Davis: ‘I prefer bad reviews. Especially the vitriolic ones. They really show that someone was paying attention.’ I’m not sure when this documentary will next be shown, but I’ll repost when I have more info…

Finally, a quick mention of April de Angelis’ new play ‘Jumpy’ at The Royal Court. Again, this felt very ‘light’, although there were lots of poignant moments. It’s a very enjoyable watch, and Tamsin Greig is great as the mother approaching 50, and meltdown, simultaneously. If you’ve seen it, though, it might be worth checking out Michael Billington’s Guardian review, which addresses the question of what sort of play a theatre should be producing...

Thursday, 27 October 2011

All in the detail...

Over the last few days, the discussions I’ve had about drama seem to have revolved around precise, or 'authentic', detail’. With my Making Plays class, for example, we were looking at Conor McPherson’s ‘Port Authority’. For me (not everyone agreed!) it’s a very moving, and funny, meditation on missed chances (mainly romantic), and there are moments when an incredibly specific image seems to sum up everything important about a character. At one point, for example, Dermot - a hapless alcoholic who’s been given the job of his life thanks to a case of mistaken identity - wakes up to find a strange woman in his bed. Bleary-eyed, he rings his wife and overhears his kids playing in the background. As his gaze wanders back to the girl lying naked on his bed, he wonders, ‘if this funny feeling of the carpet under my feet was a feeling of remorse’. The thought is so precise it’s almost obscure. And yet, in the context of the play, it feels completely real: fully-imagined, by the writer.

McPherson’s most famous play ‘The Weir’ is full of such moments: the table-tennis table that Valerie’s daughter is placed on; the sandwich that the barman makes for Jack after the wedding of his former girlfriend… But ‘Port Authority’ is also notable for the way it's set out on the page. Each unit of thought stands separate, almost like lines of verse. Initially it makes for a slightly jarring reading experience, but it also draws attention to the deliberate choice that each line represents. It almost gives the impression of dialogue chiselled precisely from a single block of text.

This importance of respecting and investing in every single line struck me particularly forcefully as I’m currently co-translating a play from Italian into English. This process is throwing up many fascinating challenges (how to preserve the Italian-ness of the original, how to recreate images, as well as rhythms and cadence…) but what is becoming increasingly apparent is the absolute necessity of engaging with the text on a sentence-by-sentence basis. I think that’s a process that becomes more and more natural for writers as they develop. But it’s also scarily easy to let you eye race over passages that you think are unproblematic. In fact I’ve come to realise that, when I find myself skim-reading my own work, it’s usually a sign that something’s wrong, but I’m just not prepared to deal with it yet…

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Community and the city…

In my MA playwriting class last Wednesday we discussed Alecky Blythe’s extraordinary musical ‘London Road’, drawn from verbatim interviews with the Ipswich residents who neighboured the murderer Steve Wright in 2006. I argued that the play is remarkable in the way it explores the nature of ‘community’, and went on to suggest that this concept has a different meaning in urban and non-urban contexts: in the former, communities are often fractured, temporary and under perpetual threat; in the latter they are homogenising and dominant. This week I’ve seen three plays which seemed to develop, or deepen, that idea.

First up was Ben Musgrave’s fantastic new piece for Only Connect (‘His Teeth’), a theatre company dedicated to working with ex-offenders. Ironically, given the company’s name, the play provided a powerful critique of how the city can resist the formation of even the most basic human networks. In the story the main character, Eric Adegeye, arrives in London from Nigeria and is immediately pulled into a human trafficking ring. Out of a need for self-preservation, he becomes part of the infrastructure himself, compromising all attempts to find common ground with the people he is forced into a position of power over. A love affair with the girlfriend of the gang’s leader is also stillborn, crippled by her drug addiction and fear of discovery. The play presents an underground criminal ‘community’, constantly under the threat of attack from without and collapse from within.

‘My City’ at The Almeida begins, as do so many London stories (‘His Teeth’ included) with a chance encounter - this time between a young man and the woman who used to teach him at primary school. The teacher, Mrs Lambert, has now become entirely nocturnal, wandering the streets collecting hidden stories and meeting, amongst others, the people who walk the tube tracks in the early hours, clearing litter before the day ahead. If these workers are to be thought of as one of London’s many micro-communities, they are also contingent, marginal, invisible…

‘13’ at The National presents another view of a decaying London, the rot from within expressed psychosomatically in the identical recurring nightmare of its inhabitants. In this play, connections are continually made and remade. The characters (rioters, politicians, visionaries, workers) are all linked by criss-crossing narrative threads, without ever coalescing into a permanent unity As one of the characters remarks, it takes almost nothing for a crowd to disperse and resolve itself back into a collection of individuals.

Finally, and on a different note, thanks to Peter for his comments and questions on my last post. Off the back of Edward Bond’s ‘Saved’, he asks about the presentation of the working class in drama. I’d love to throw that question open – so examples of working class drama and its possible stereotypes greatly appreciated! I’ll kick off, though, with a slightly side-stepping point about the means of theatrical production, which in recent history at least has been predominately middle class. That is to say, that the economics of theatre have favoured those with private means. Consider the culture of theatrical internships for example, often impossible to take advantage off without parental (or other) financial support. There is also a tendency for middle class gate-keepers and opinion-formers to self-identify in the construction of a ‘canon’, meaning that marginal or non-dominant voices are squeezed out.

The history of theatre in the late 60s /early 70s is particularly interesting from the point of view of class. 1968 is often taken to be a seminal year in the development of radical theatre practice and several critics have pointed to the existence of two dominant strands. On the one hand were university-educated provocateurs (David Hare, Howard Brenton…) who eventually graduated to establishment powerhouses like The Royal Court and the National Theatre – ‘fighting the fight from within’. On the other, were more ‘working class’ groups like Red Ladder and CAST which sought to grow their performances out of the direct experiences of individual communities. That work was then often produced in situ in working men’s clubs, pubs, village halls, and so on. (In fact, I find this analysis somewhat problematic. Nevertheless, it is the work of the former group that you will find on the bookshop shelves today.)

Anyway, apologies Peter that I haven’t quite addressed your questions here. But some further food for though (and argument) perhaps…

Monday, 17 October 2011

Three films and a play...

Last week seemed to be all about films rather than plays. I saw three, and all of them might be considered unconventional in certain respects. But they also reminded me of a few important writing concepts.

The first was ‘Terraferma’ by the Italian director Emanuele Crialese. The tone of the film was slightly uneven, moving from quite a light coming-of-age story set in the Sicilian island of Linosa, to something altogether darker, following the desperate plight of illegal immigrants fleeing nearby North Africa. One of the most striking scenes was an underwater sequence in which a character swims through a mess of dropped/discarded clothes and personal effects (passports, official documents, etc.). It was one of those images that, through its very strangeness, has the power to re-engage you with the realities of other people’s lives.

The second film was ‘The Kids Are Alright’. It’s a touching and understated story, despite a deceptively ‘extreme’ set-up: the teenage children of a gay couple track down their shared sperm donor, only to watch on helpless as he starts an affair with one of their mothers. The story was a reminder that for a film to dramatise and speak to our everyday hopes and fears, it often needs to reach towards the limits of narrative possibility. Paradoxically, it’s precisely because this film is about lives more (apparently) extraordinary than most of ours, that it has such universal appeal.

Finally, I saw Steve McQueen’s ‘Shame’ (like ‘Terraferma’, showing at the London Film Festival). It’s an extremely intense and upsetting film in many ways, but there’s one very funny (almost slapstick) scene: a date in a restaurant made excruciatingly awkward by an over-attentive waiter. It’s a great example of how identifying a ‘ritual’ that we all recognise and relate to can direct the writing of a dramatic scene. The ordering and mis-ordering of the food, the achingly slow pouring of the wine, the confusion over the evening’s specials… These provide all the action and dialogue McQueen needs, allowing him to concentrate on the development of subtext.

The week wasn’t completely without theatre, however. I also saw the revival of ‘Saved’ at the Lyric Hammersmith. Precise and unsettling, with echoes of Pinter, Orton and Osborne. Glances forward in time to Sarah Kane too. Anyone interested in the history of British theatre over the last fifty years or so should probably check it out:

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Dystopian cities and Postmodern teapots…

Thanks to those of you who commented on my most recent post. Some really fascinating points about the use of backstory. Certainly, many plays revolve around characters dealing with the past in the present, and that creates powerful drama. I think I agree with Nick, though, that it can become problematic when backstory has a mainly explanatory, rather than dramatic, function.

Today I just wanted to mention the Postmodernism exhibition at the V&A which I visited over the weekend. Lots of great material – although you could be forgiven for thinking that the ‘movement’ was primarily concerned with designing teapots…

What really stayed with me, however, were three films which had revealing things to say about the modern city. The first, by the Italian artist Robert Venturi, was of a car driving through night-time Las Vegas. Venturi used this to argue that the architecture of the strip was designed to be read ‘while the body is travelling at 35 miles per hour’. There’s a great deal of literary and critical work about how we (re)interpret cities through the act of walking them, so it was interesting to re-imagine this idea in the age of the motor car.

The second film was an extract from Ridley Scott’s ‘Blade Runner’. On loop was the opening sequence showing 2019 Los Angeles from above. Bursts of fire blast out above the cityscape, bathed in ‘post-nuclear’ blues and blacks. The design references fantasies of a dystopian future as well as the ruined cities of the past. Ruins have often been a preoccupation of visual artists (I’m looking forward to getting to the John Martin exhibition at the Tate Britain soon too…). It seems that we’re compelled to re-visit images of destruction as a means of expressing anxieties about the future:

The exhibition closes with an excerpt from Godfrey Reggio’s ‘Koyaanisqatsi’ I’ve just finished a class with my MA students in which we discussed narratives of fracture and alienation in modern cities. This film, with its footage of a cityscape almost surgically dissected by accelerated, stop-motion traffic flows, provide a vivid visual reference point:

Friday, 7 October 2011

Going backwards...

A few thoughts about the week, below, but first a couple of excellent tip-offs:

Ben in my MA Conflict and the City class has reminded me about ‘Decade’, a site-specific response to the ten-year anniversary of 9/11. Theatre company Headlong and director Rupert Goold both have excellent form, and student tickets are still available until tomorrow, so check it out here: Ben’s also drawn my attention back to a neat article from the guardian on how Charlie Kaufman wrote ‘Being John Malkovich’: And speaking of form-breaking narrative, Will in my first-year Writing the City class mentioned another film called, intriguingly, ‘John Dies at the End’:

Thursday also saw the beginning of the Creative Method module, which introduces students to many visiting writers over the course of two semesters. It kicked off with Francesca Beard, who’s going to be taking four sessions in which she explains her own writing practice. Having had the pleasure of hearing some of her amazing performance poetry piece ‘Chinese Whispers’ the other day, I’ve included a link to her website here:

One of the most interesting conversations I’ve had this week was at my own writers group. (We’ve been meeting almost every Tuesday for eight or nine years now, with a core consisting of Samantha Ellis, Ben Musgrave, Nick Harrop and Robin Booth – all brilliant writers to watch out for...). We were talking about some of the difficulties involved in developing ‘backstory’ in plays. Of course, it’s incredibly important for writers to research their characters fully (see Monica’s interesting comment about this under my last-but-one post), but I think it can be problematic to explain characters by reference to too many events in their past. Drama is fundamentally about the present: it happens before an audience as if for the first time. The actions, interactions, dilemmas and choices we see before us are the ones on which we build our understanding of character. And when something dramatic has happened before the story of the play, I think that event needs to be easily ‘read’ by the audience. Swallowed in a single gulp, as it were, and digested effortlessly. So, Hamlet’s father has recently died in unexplained circumstances. Nora (in ‘A Doll’s House’) has told a lie to her husband. Christian (in the film/play ‘Festen’) has been sexually abused by his father… It may be something of a paradox, but backstory which is too diffuse, even if psychologically ‘accurate’ often fails to convince. Perhaps that’s because we can only ever hear about it, and we tend to resist information that we can’t see and scrutinise for ourselves. This debate arose out of a discussion on comedy writing, and here more than anywhere complex backstory has the potential to muddy the waters. In the present-tense action, we intuit all sorts of things about particular characters. We can all imagine what David Brent’s childhood was like, but we don’t have to know about some devastating formative experience in order to fully understand him.

I was thinking about this again on Wednesday evening when I went to see ‘The Playboy of the Western World’ at The Old Vic. It’s a strange play - particularly in the second half when it develops from fairly broad comedy into something almost absurdist in register. The set-up, too, is disarming. A young man rocks up to pub on the west coast of Ireland claiming to have murdered his father, and becomes an instant celebrity. What’s extraordinary (and very funny) is that no-one seems to question his bravery and heroism. Even the older men in the pub, who may well be fathers themselves, completely accept it. There’s a lovely sense in which everything that is important in the play begins when it begins. We don’t need to know anything about the word of the story, except what the story shows us.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Short plays, and being afraid...

Just wanted to post some incredibly useful information a friend of mine sent through the other day. It’s a list of venues/theatres that produce short plays – usually as part of new-writing evenings. Fantastic for up and coming playwrights in particular…


And also a great tip off from one of my MA students about the following play at The Kings Head in Islington. It’s a production of Stephen Berkoff’s play Kvetch (all about notions of fear), on until 4 November. (The website makes it look pretty appealing…)

Sunday, 2 October 2011

London in the sun…

A final post to round off the week.

First, a few links to some interesting London-related projects. These suggestions came out of a chat with Rachel Lichtenstein, who was at the University to start her mentoring of three final-year students. For those of you who don’t know her work, here’s a good link, which refers both to her back-catalogue and current practice, and also introduces the arts lab Metal:

I’m a particular fan of Rachel’s book ‘Rodinsky’s Room’ - an extraordinary mix of memoir, history and detective story with chapter interventions by Iain Sinclair adding an almost visionary twist. Recently, she’s also been asked to contribute to a new collection ‘London Fictions’, which is all about contemporary writers commenting and critiquing some of the great London novels. Here’s the website to that project: And here’s a link to Artangel, which for twenty years has worked with experimental contemporary artists, often creating site-specific works designed to engage the audience in immersive experiences:

The question of ‘the audience’ also cropped up in my second Making Plays class. Although I missed it myself, there was an interesting show at The Edinburgh Festival this year going by that name. This next article talks about the provocative ways it confronted its spectators. We also talked a bit about Peter Handke, whose plays ‘Offending the Audience’ and ‘The Hour We Knew Nothing of Each Other’ interrogate the boundaries between spectator, voyeur and performer.

In my third-year tutorials on Friday, our discussion moved to the relationship between a character and their value systems. A common characteristic of classical storytelling is a protagonist who attempts to honour a particular value at all costs (the pursuit of power or love, self preservation / revenge / freedom). The story’s movement in the direction of tragedy or comedy turns on whether a destructive value system can finally be rejected, or a positive one maintained to the end. An extraordinary example of a value system bringing a character down is Ibsen’s play ‘Brand’, about a young idealist who refuses to compromise in his dedication to religion, even when the consequences of doing so prove disastrous to him and those he loves. It’s a play that left it’s mark on me in a very strong way, and has probably influenced many of my own feelings about the construction of dramatic writing.

Enough blogging, I think - time to enjoy some sunshine!