Penelope Skinner

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Originally written for The Stage.

Penelope Skinner asks me: “Do we believe that women in general are hungry for stories about them?” The writer, whose plays have all hinged on complex female characters, quickly answers her own question: “I believe that they are.” These are the stories that Skinner often sets out to tell, countering a theatrical establishment that is still largely interested in male-centred narratives. “It happily coincides that I’m also most interested in telling those stories,” she continues. “I don’t think I could do anything else. I feel driven to tell those stories.”

Like many theatremakers, Skinner was first drawn to the art form as a child, when she was taken to see a stage adaptation of The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien. “It was really amazing,” she says, “and kind of life-changing in how magical it was and how transported I felt to a completely different world.” It was not writing that she initially aspired to, though, but acting: “I think I just assumed I wanted to be an actor.”

While acting “didn’t really work out” for Skinner, it did introduce her to new plays. “I moved to London to try to be an actor and that was when I became aware that people were writing new plays,” she remembers. Enthused by this fresh wave of drama, Skinner started regularly attending shows at new writing venues such as the Royal Court Theatre and the Bush Theatre, where she had a memorable encounter with Jack Thorne’s play When You Cure Me.

“I found it a very meaningful experience watching the play,” Skinner tells me, “but something about it made me want to write something myself.” Ten years on, she struggles to put her finger on quite what it was about the show that inspired her, but she suggests that it was “something about that experience, something about feeling that the audience had responded a certain way and feeling that something more needed to be said”.

Read the rest of the interview.

Photo: Bronwen Sharp.

 

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Deborah Pearson

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Originally written for Exeunt.

Deborah Pearson and I are out of time with one another. As our emails ping back and forth, Pearson is in Toronto, Canada, four hours behind me in London. Our attempted interviews are a series of near misses. Eventually, Pearson responds to my questions by email, composing answers in the present for me to read in the future. Time, aptly enough, keeps (or, rather, kept) getting in the way.

Time is a recurring interest in Pearson’s work. Like You Were Before, made in 2010, was built around a video taken on Pearson’s last day in her native Canada five years previously, exploring the gap between her past and present selves. She’s returning to it at Battersea Arts Centre another five years on, with a further gulf of time between all these different versions of herself: the person in the video, the person who made the show, and the person performing it now. After looking backwards in that earlier piece, The Future Show (also returning to BAC this week) directed its attention in the opposite direction. Each fresh incarnation of the performance – rewritten every time – made predictions about the coming minutes, hours and years, looking ahead to the rest of Pearson’s life. And this summer at Forest Fringe in Edinburgh I saw a work-in-progress of Pearson’s latest show, History History History, again concerned with time but this time on a larger – if still personal – scale, exploring all the past events that led to Pearson being here (or rather there, in Toronto, when we speak; or perhaps London or somewhere else entirely by the time you read this) today.

“It’s the thing you can always come back to with an audience,” suggests Pearson, pinning down theatre’s particular affinity with this subject matter. “You are here, and I am here, and we will soon not be here. ‘Here’ being in the theatre together, but of course that also leads on to that eventuality of the bigger ‘here’ – meaning that a lot of work about time ends up becoming about mortality. That should be depressing but it’s actually what makes theatre thrilling I think. The defiance of that eventuality – the decision to sit in a room together while we’re alive and sit, or be bored, or be entertained, but just to share the fact that we are all here together now. It’s such a beautiful defiance and acknowledgement of the passing of time that it always seems a shame to me not to take a moment, while performing, to point it out or remind ourselves of it.”

Over email (speaking to me from a different time zone in the recent past), Pearson wonders whether her fascination with time is born out of her current doctoral research, which is investigating narrative in contemporary performance. “One definition of narrative that I came across somewhere was that narrative is the way that we make sense of our experiences over time,” she tells me. But the interest also goes back much further. “One of my mom’s favourite memories of me as a child is of me telling her, when I was about five years old, that I wished we could all stay the same age forever,” says Pearson. “That nobody in our lives or family would ever get any older or would ever die.”

“There’s a quote by a poet that I really like,” she continues, “which is something about how ‘I keep writing the same poem over and over, just trying to get it right.’ It’s funny – a lot of my work was about memory and nostalgia when I first started out, and then after making Like You Were Before, I didn’t necessarily feel I had definitively gotten it right, but I did feel that I’d gone as far with memory and nostalgia as I wanted to go. I felt that I had kind of internally resolved it as a theme for myself. Then The Future Show came along and it turned out that there was another aspect of time – which I suppose was to do with our orientation in time, and anxiety, and the unknown, that started to really interest me. Then I thought I was finally done with time. But my newest piece that opens next year, History History History, is about our personal relationship to history. So I guess I’m never done with time. It is the most universal theme, I think. It is the one thing that we’re all subject to, that we’re all at the behest of. Whether or not you fear for your own mortality, we are all on this merry go round made of time together.”

There’s also something particular about time, and our changing relationship to it, in the twenty-first century. We’re living in an age in which everything is speeded up and – thanks to the internet and cheap, fast air travel – time and space have become compressed. The emphasis is on the now. “Fredric Jameson talks about the end of historicity in his recent lectures,” says Pearson. “He claims that we’re living through a time where there is no past and certainly no future. We are obsessed with the momentary.” While Pearson has her doubts about some of Jameson’s claims – “it could also be that Jameson is just getting old and nearing the end of his own life” – she thinks “it would be difficult to argue that using the internet as frequently as most people do is not having a profound impact on our understanding of time and on our attention spans”. By comparison, theatre is a slow form in a fast world, forcing us to experience the slipping away of the minutes without the distraction of multiple devices or browser windows.

Over the years, time has also had its effect on how Pearson understands (and will understand) the shows she’s made about its passing. “When people asked what Like You Were Before was about, I used to say that it was about the maddening fact that time keeps going. But having just started dipping my toe into re-learning the script and the show, I think what it’s really about is mourning the passing of a time and place in one’s life – the end of an era, that is only really recognised as an era at all because it ended.” Meanwhile The Future Show has, like all one-time possible futures, become a thing of the past.

“I had to stop re-writing The Future Show,” Pearson explains, “because, just as I had predicted in an early version of the script, it made my obsessive compulsive disorder worse and would give me anxiety about ridiculous things. At some point it was clear that the task of rewriting The Future Show was as unhealthy for me as it was interesting for an audience, and sometimes more unhealthy for me than it was interesting for an audience.” The version coming to BAC, then, is a mix-tape of different imagined futures from the show’s 27 past performances. Reflecting on the show’s life since it was first created in January 2013, Pearson comments that “it does something very strange to one psychologically to have painstakingly thought through all your future actions on that many occasions”.

Following the compilation shows at BAC, The Future Show’s next (and possibly final) outing will be on the page, a medium that – unlike theatre – allows readers to encounter it in multiple different, idiosyncratic parcels of time. This month, Oberon Books are publishing a volume containing a “score” for the piece and past scripts of The Future Show from three different performances in three different time zones: Brighton, Lisbon and Austin, Texas. It’s the latest experiment with the subject that continues to niggle away at Pearson. “I’m really interested in knowing how the scripts are going to work in this form, and whether or not they can give a casual reader who hasn’t seen the show a sense of it,” she says (or rather said, at her computer in Toronto, from a different time zone in the recent past). “I guess time will tell.”

Rory Mullarkey

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Originally written for The Stage.

“I’m bad at being told what to do,” says Rory Mullarkey with a grin. The playwright, raised in a military family, quickly found that taking orders wasn’t for him when he tried to join the army as a teenager. A few years later, fresh from studying Russian at Cambridge University, a stint at drama school in St Petersburg was similarly short-lived. “My temperament just was not suited to being told what to do for a year.”

The same unruly streak runs through Mullarkey’s plays. Cannibals, the play that made him the youngest writer ever staged in the Royal Exchange Theatre’s main house at 25, contained a whole section written daringly in Russian. His Royal Court debut The Wolf from the Door playfully set violent insurrection in the green and pleasant land of rural England, while Pentabus commission Each Slow Dusk deliberately eschewed accepted First World War narratives.

Avoiding or subverting convention, Mullarkey says, has paid off. “I wrote stuff for a while and sent it off to places, but when people really started to take notice of it and put it on was when I’d abandoned all desire to do anything that was what I thought I was supposed to do.”

The acting might not have stuck, but Mullarkey’s fascination with Russia did. He reels off a long list of Russian authors – Dostoyevsky, Lermontov, Goncharov, Chekhov, Pushkin, Gogol – whose influence has seeped into his writing. “I read and re-read those guys until they were in my metabolism, because I loved what they said so much; not only their stories, but also the philosophical weight of the feelings they express.” Learning Russian as a teenager at Manchester Grammar School, he fell in love “with the sounds of it, with the way the words move”.

It was Mullarkey’s Russian that got him his first gig out of university. While performing in his own play on the Edinburgh Fringe, word of the show spread to director Lyndsey Turner – Mullarkey’s “number one living inspiration” – who asked to read the script.

Discovering that Mullarkey could speak Russian, she quickly set him to work on a series of translations for the Royal Court, offering a crucial foot in the door. It was also a steep learning curve.

“Going through 20 plays and every single line, seeing it in one language and making it work as an active line in English – it’s probably the best education I could have asked for in making sure the dialogue I was trying to write was going to be active,” he says.

The Edinburgh Fringe show that got Mullarkey noticed back in 2007 – “I wouldn’t be here if I hadn’t done that,” he insists – was directed by one Robert Icke. Now, eight years later, both men have found themselves tackling The Oresteia, Aeschylus’s epic trilogy of Greek tragedies – Icke for the Almeida Theatre, Mullarkey for Shakespeare’s Globe.

“I’ve always loved it as a thing because it’s huge and ambitious,” says Mullarkey of the play cycle, adding that “it feels like it’s got this huge, monolithic weight behind it.”

Mullarkey and Icke’s new takes on The Oresteia are just the crest of a huge wave of Ancient Greek drama on British stages. Another Oresteia is coming to Home in Manchester later this year, while the Almeida continues its Greeks season with Bakkhai and Medea, alongside a summer festival of related events. That’s not to mention another new version of Medea at the Gate Theatre, Greek myths for kids at the Unicorn Theatre, and National Theatre Wales’ epic multimedia retelling of The Iliad.

What is it about these ancient narratives that speaks to us so powerfully now? Mullarkey suggests that in an age of globalisation and inconceivably powerful market forces, “our world feels a lot more confusing and abstracted and we feel further away from the decisions which affect our lives”, an experience that Aeschylus’ trilogy timelessly captures.

“It takes all of those things – foreign policy, the economy, discussions about gender and politics as a whole– and boils them down to the thing that is ultimately the most tangible thing of all, which is blood.”

Greek tragedy also offers plenty of scope for reinvention. As Mullarkey puts it: “The texts are these extraordinary stories but ultimately they’re blank canvases for adaptation and production.”

He’s seen Icke’s radical reworking of The Oresteia – “It was like listening to someone else tell you a story you’ve heard before” – but his own adaptation opts for a different tack, focusing instead on the role of the chorus. Rather than worrying about fidelity, Mullarkey suggests that it’s about the theatrical journey of the trilogy.

“The Oresteia takes the audience through such an extraordinary cycle of events,” he says. “That’s what you’ve got to try and get from doing a production of it: you come out of it having been through something.”

Photo: Marc Brenner.

Walter Meierjohann

Originally written for The Stage.

Britain and Germany have never felt closer. At least, British and German theatre cultures – often defined as polar opposites – are increasingly moving towards one another. Spurred on by regular visits from German directors such as Thomas Ostermeier and productions including Sebastian Nubling’s Three Kingdoms, young British theatre-makers are increasingly fascinated by working practices and aesthetics borrowed from the continent, while there’s evidence of German theatres hankering after Britain’s talent for developing new plays.

Walter Meierjohann represents this collision of cultures. Born in Amsterdam to German parents, the director trained in Berlin and established his career in Germany, but for the last few years he has been gradually establishing himself on the British theatre scene. “Obviously they are very different,” he says of British and German theatre cultures. “The playwright in this country is completely number one, whereas in Germany it’s the director who is more in the lead.”

It was this director-led theatre on which Meierjohann was raised. Training for four years at the Ernst Busch Academy of Dramatic Art in Berlin, his teachers were heavily inspired by Brecht and the course was theoretical in its underpinning. “We had to write concepts,” Meierjohann explains. “Constantly from year one we had to do something with a text.” His understanding of theatre, as a result, was as “a political tool for talking about the time we live in” – a tool wielded by the director.

“I was very lucky to have that training,” Meierjohann says, describing it as “really thorough”, but he always felt that there was “something lacking” in this approach. “Sometimes I got a bit wary of the word ‘concept’,” he continues. “When I started really properly directing I thought, I’ve got my concept, but actually I want to work with actors on the text. You have to leave space.”

Starting his career in a small town in the east of the country, Meierjohann went on to direct classics by the likes of Friedrich Schiller and Arthur Miller at theatres across Germany, as well as working on devised commissions at the Sophiensaele and the Maxim Gorki Theatre in Berlin. He was invited to direct Peter Stein’s ensemble in 2002, and between 2004 and 2005 he worked with the State Theatre of Dresden as the founder and artistic director of international new writing theatre Neubau.

After moving to London, Meierjohann wrote to five theatres in the city introducing himself and requesting a meeting. He received just one reply, from David Lan at the Young Vic. A meeting over coffee turned into “a two-hour conversation about plays and projects” and quickly led to Meierjohann being offered the role of associate director at the Young Vic. This was in 2007, and for the next seven years Meierjohann split his time and work between London and Germany, with inevitable effects on his approach as a director.

“Over the years I haven’t dropped the conceptual approach, but I’ve tried to be much more flexible,” Meierjohann tells me. This shift has been influenced by working with British actors, whose approach is appealing to the director. “There is more of an openness in the UK,” he explains, “both from actors and also from directors, to try things out without being judgemental about it.”

Equally, though, Meierjohann was interested in bringing a continental influence to the Young Vic. Noting both the absence of formal training for directors and less of an emphasis on the visual, he spent much of his time running workshops for young directors and bringing in designers from mainland Europe.

“My dream was to create a fusion between English theatre and continental or German theatre,” he says. “What I mean by that is a strong emphasis on great actors here – who move you, which is very different to German actors – but then also make it a bit more director-led, a bit more visual.”

Meierjohann has also observed the closing of the gap between British and German theatre in recent years. “It seems to me like England is moving more into the German way of more emphasis on directors,” he suggests, “and I think in Germany now actually people are saying ‘we want to get the playwrights in again’.” Change, however, comes down to more than creative appetite. “You can’t change the culture overnight,” Meierjohann cautions. “The UK has fantastic writers and that’s a cultural thing. The whole emphasis on language will always remain.”

Things are shifting, though, especially at theatres such as the Young Vic, where Meierjohann quickly felt at home. “I trained academically in Berlin, but I felt like my theatre school in the UK was the Young Vic,” he says. He calls Lan “a hugely inspirational man” and found that, as outsiders to British theatre, they had an immediate affinity. “Maybe that was a meeting point: we weren’t part of the British culture originally.”

Meierjohann hopes to bring some of the international spirit of the Young Vic to his latest role as artistic director of theatre at Manchester venue Home. Formed from the merger of Cornerhouse and Manchester’s Library Theatre Company, Home is a new international arts centre in the city that will be a home for contemporary visual art, film and theatre. After a site-specific season last year, which included Meierjohann’s promenade production of Romeo and Juliet at Manchester’s Victoria Baths, the director is now preparing to open his first season in the new, purpose-built venue.

Meierjohann offers the example of The Funfair, opening at the theatre this month, as an ideal example of his approach to programming. The play, which will be directed by Meierjohann, is a modern European classic written by Hungarian playwright Odon von Horvath and adapted by Simon Stephens, who has shifted the drama to Manchester. “What I’m trying to introduce here is plays which have a great message, are very bold, but also talk about Manchester,” Meierjohann explains. “We’re not doing kitchen sink; it’s moving away from naturalism and realism. It’s bold, it’s classical, and it sends out a clear message that we’re working with one of the greatest UK writers at the moment, but with a strong director’s emphasis as well.”

Similar thinking can be seen throughout Meierjohann’s first season. Before The Funfair, the arrival of Hofesh Shechter in the building blurs the boundaries between theatre and dance, while visiting productions from the likes of Kneehigh and 1927 showcase different forms of storytelling on stage, often with continental influences. There’s also a revival of Meierjohann’s world-touring production of Kafka’s Monkey, starring Kathryn Hunter, and the UK premiere of Philippe Quesne’s La Melancolie des Dragons. On the whole, the programme sends “a clear signal that we’re doing things differently here”.

Meierjohann is particularly keen to throw off the “regional theatre” label. “Of course we are a regional theatre because we’re in Manchester, we’re not in London, but I think we can create something here which has that international appeal as well.” While insisting that “a theatre is for the community which you work in”, he is keen for Manchester to become a “second London”, with Home at the forefront of a burgeoning cultural scene.

“The aim is basically to say we’ve got stories from all around the world in our building and we want to talk to an audience who are interested in this,” says Meierjohann, putting an emphasis once again on the international, as well as on making the venue a welcoming – and exciting – place for Manchester audiences. “I think Home, if it all works out, could be a really sexy place.”

Olivia Poulet

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Originally written for The Stage.

Olivia Poulet has a good line in peddling the unpalatable. The actor and writer is best known for her role as pragmatic,  fast-thinking Tory policy adviser Emma Messenger in television satire The Thick of It and is currently starring as a hard-nosed Hollywood producer in Mark Ravenhill’s monologue Product at the Arcola Theatre. Both characters are always desperately putting a positive spin on the catastrophic – or, as Poulet bluntly puts it, “trying to polish a turd”.

“That’s what was appealing in the writing for me,” she says of her first impressions of Ravenhill’s script. In the play, Poulet’s character is pitching an audaciously offensive romantic thriller about a relationship between a 9/11 widow and an  Al Qaeda terrorist, skewering the ways  in which Hollywood glosses over tragedy and complexity. “It’s just very, very witty, and when I first read it I thought ‘I know how I’d want to play this part’.”

In her teens and early 20s, Poulet developed her skills as a performer in  the National Youth Theatre and at the University of Manchester, where she was involved in the student drama scene. “You get much more scope at uni; people take risks because they have less to lose,” she says. “Also having no money and rehearsing in a cupboard upstairs enables you to justmuck in and get on with it wherever you are.”

Straight out of university, Poulet landed a role in a production of The School for Scandal at Derby Playhouse, but she describes the job as “fairly diabolical” looking back. “I learnt a lot,” she reflects on the experience, describing herself as “wide-eyed and innocent” going into it.

“You have to learn how to put your foot down, without being a pain in the arse. I think sometimes people can…” She pauses. “Manipulate is maybe too strong a word, but when you’re young and starting out there are some people who slightly take advantage of that.”

Thanks to more recent meaty roles in plays such as How I Learned to Drive at Southwark Playhouse and Out of Joint’s production of Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls, which she describes as “a really magical experience”, Poulet now stresses the importance of holding out for the right parts. “Yes, the money’s not great, and sometimes you’re a bit hand to mouth for a bit, but the challenge of doing a part that is really exciting and fulfilling is just so worth it,” she says of her work in theatre. “Of course you’ve got to make money, but I think as I’ve got older I’m definitely very much about the part and I feel less desperation to just be working for the sake of it.”

She adds that her parallel career as  a writer keeps her going during lean  periods. “It’s incredibly important to  have something else you love, otherwise you can go a bit doolally if you put everything on to acting.”

Poulet had always written alongside acting, but it was only when she paired up with friend and fellow performer Sarah Solemani to write The Bird Flu Diaries, a comedy that the duo took to the Edinburgh Fringe in 2006, that she thought about pursuing it further. Similarly to acting, though, Poulet has found that writing for stage and screen can be a tough profession to break into. “It’s hard,” she admits. “Everyone gives writing a bit of a crack – why not? It’s very highly populated; there’s a lot of people sending in scripts and drafts. But I think there’s probably quite a lot ofpeople who aren’t very good at it as well. Now I think I’ve finally got to a place whereby it’s been recognised that I can write.”

Although her focus has moved to the stage in recent years, Poulet still acknowledges the huge impact of The Thick of It. The programme’s makers threw her and the rest of the cast in the deep end by demanding regular on-camera improvisation, a challenge that was both terrifying and exhilarating. “I love structure,” says Poulet, “but my brain thrives under pressure and always has.” This process chimes with the frequent behind-the-scenes crises depicted by the series, which Poulet suggests “opened up people’s eyes to the lunacy”  of much of modern politics.

As well as both turning around media disasters, there’s a strain of frantic,  suppressed despair that long-suffering Emma Messenger shares with the superficially confident speaker in Product. “I think it smacks of desperation, the whole pitch,” says Poulet, explaining that she has seized on the character’s “fragility and vulnerability” in her performance.

“There are a lot of swans,” she  suggests, offering a neat metaphor for both British politics and the “undercurrent of desperation” in Product.  “A lot of people who are trying to look smooth on the surface and scrabbling around like nutters underneath.”

Photo: Richard Davenport.