Naturalism, Optimism and Donuts

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Originally written for Exeunt.

Ned Bennett is telling me a story about the back wall of the Royal Court, a fixture held in reverential affection by a good chunk of the theatre community. During preparations for The Ritual Slaughter of Gorge Mastromas, the ordinarily black wall – which was visible for portions of the show – had to be made to look like exposed brickwork. Instead of stripping the paint back to the bricks beneath it, Bennett explains, the black surface was painted over with brick-effect artwork. Bricks painted to look like bricks.

This small absurdity is oddly apt for both the postmodern commentary of Gorge Mastromas, in which surface is everything, and for the self-mythologizing urges of the Royal Court. Few theatres are quite so invested in their own history. Bennett emerges fresh from this environment, having just finished a year as trainee director with the theatre, in twelve months that spanned the departure of Dominic Cooke, the arrival of Vicky Featherstone, and the whirlwind festival of Open Court. It was nothing if not a baptism of fire.

“It was certainly demystified in no small way,” Bennett admits, agreeing that there is a potentially intimidating aspect to the building’s status within modern British theatre. “It’s funny, though,” he goes on, “you go in being aware of all the history … and it feels like it’s very important to acknowledge the history, then kind of leave it at the door, as it were, and see what’s happening next.”

Despite the demystification, Bennett clearly still holds a fierce affection for the theatre and the projects he worked on during his time there, which ranged from directing a production that toured around schools to being right in the thick of Open Court. “I’d always admired, respected, loved the theatre,” he says, “but what never ceases to amaze me about the building – and this is proper gushy – is how uncynical it is, how uncynical a place to work it is. It is all about trying to create the most interesting, most urgent, most exciting plays, and they’re a very cohesive bunch who all are pulling in the same direction.”

Open Court, the summer festival during which Featherstone handed the keys to the theatre’s writers and the building hosted a staggering range of different events, was clearly a highlight for Bennett. “It was amazing to be going from rehearsing one weekly rep and putting that into tech, and then starting that day on the next weekly rep, and working with a really versatile, exciting rep company of actors. It felt like with Open Court we discovered a lot about what direction the theatre was going to go in from then onwards.”

It was during Open Court that Bennett and I first met, while he was assisting on Anthony Neilson’s Collaboration project. Neilson too was an important feature of Bennett’s time at the Court; as well as being involved with Collaboration, he assisted earlier in the year on Narrative. Neilson’s process, which involves working closely with actors while developing a new play, is one that fascinates both of us. We discuss the openness of his rehearsal room, in which Bennett says “play and curiosity become part of the lifeblood of the room”, and the trust he places in both the actors and the collaborative process.

“What I got from Anthony that I thought was amazing was his perseverance in exploration, rather than immediately wanting to get results then and there,” Bennett tells me. “So if it wasn’t ready, it wasn’t ready; we’d just keep exploring, keep going and keep trying out different things.” This closely tallies with my own experience of Neilson’s rehearsal room, where ideas were gently pushed in new directions and input was welcomed from all directions. “Simply, he creates a non-hierarchical room, and then you get such surprising results.”

Bennett’s year at the Royal Court followed hot on the heels of his explosive revival of Philip Ridley’s Mercury Fur at the Old Red Lion, a show that was 2012’s unexpected hit of the fringe. When I mention that the production with which Bennett made his breakthrough was almost two years ago, he shakes his head in smiling disbelief. He is still a little disbelieving, too, about the show’s success; “we were really, really surprised,” he says of the overnight impact it made. Fuelled by astonishing word of mouth, Mercury Fur quickly sold out at the Old Red Lion, earning itself a transfer to Trafalgar Studios that same summer.

Ridley’s play is set in a dystopian near future, where London is a lawless wasteland and addictive hallucinogenic butterflies are eroding the memories of those still scratching out a living. Bennett’s startling, visceral production for Greenhouse Theatre Company created an electric charge in the tightly packed space of the Old Red Lion, drawing out both the play’s infamous power to shock and the surprising humanity of its characters and their love for one another.

“I was just so struck by the relationship between the two brothers, Elliot and Darren, and this big question of what would you do for those that you love,” Bennett says, getting right to the heart of his interpretation. He describes Mercury Fur as a “modern masterpiece”, explaining that when he was given the script to read by Greenhouse’s Henry Lewis and Joel Samuels it immediately became his favourite play. Even with this faith in the material, however, he was blown away by the response it received. Bennett attributes some of this to the production’s appearance in the wake of the 2011 riots, which lent Ridley’s play a haunting prescience, but he is clear that his version did not set out to make this connection. For Bennett, it was all about the characters.

It is character once again that has attracted Bennett to Tracy Letts’ Superior Donuts, the UK premiere of which he is currently directing at the Southwark Playhouse. It is being presented by the same company behind Mercury Fur, who have newly reinvented themselves as The Trick. Bennett is a “huge fan” of Letts and is excited to get his hands on this script. “I always found that his writing – as with Ridley – has such a visceral complexity to it,” he explains the fascination.

Superior Donuts is set in a donut shop in Chicago, telling the story of the man who runs it and the people who pass through every day. “You’ve got these nine fantastic characters, aged 21 to 72, all endowed with such depth and humanity,” says Bennett. “I found it profoundly moving and hugely optimistic. It just felt like the right play to do, and it couldn’t be more different from Mercury Fur.”

While Bennett describes the play as a “naturalistic piece”, he is interested in ways of pushing that naturalism in his production. “We didn’t just want to build a donut shop,” he explains. “The brilliant Fly Davies has come up with an incredible design that allows us to represent the off-stage world in a non-literal way in the space.” He quickly adds that they are “not doing some big expressionistic production of it”, but it is clear that his production hopes to test what can be done within an ostensibly naturalistic framework.

When I ask how Bennett feels about naturalism as a director, he wrestles a little with the question. Referring to projects such as Narrative, which clearly departed from naturalism, he suggests that his own position is somewhat ambivalent, before adding, “I don’t think there is an either/or”. We end up discussing Secret Theatre, which offers an intriguing marriage of a more naturalistic, character-based British tradition with continental influences that are less interested in realistic representation.

“One of my biggest interests is definitely character,” Bennett says, “but I think – as things like Secret Theatre’s Streetcar showed – you can still create, represent, express amazing characters, but not necessarily be pinned down to some kind of naturalistic context. I sort of feel like I’m just exploring what that means.” For now, he is happy to remain on the fence and keep exploring.

Photo: Ben Broomfield.

The Night Before Christmas, Soho Theatre

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Originally written for Exeunt.

Recent years have produced countless claims to the “alternative” Christmas show, promising respite from glitter, jingle bells and cries of “he’s behind you”. Soho Theatre’s offbeat contribution is one of the few to really deliver on this promise. Sure, all the hallmarks of the festive season are here, but this is no cosy, tinsel-decked affirmation of the sentiments we hear spouted from all directions at this time of year. Anthony Neilson and Steve Marmion’s show, while pumping out the laughs at a breathless rate, also recognises that – whisper it – Christmas can sometimes be a bit shit.

This is a bitter recognition for Gary, a one-time City boy who is now flogging knock-off toys and spending Christmas Eve alone in his warehouse. Or at least he was alone, until a man claiming to be an elf broke in, pleading innocence and begging to return to his sleigh. As Gary is joined by old mate and fellow substance abuser Simon and single-mum prostitute Cherry, the unlikely trio apply scepticism, snark and suspended disbelief to the problem of the red and green clad man tied up alongside the fake Furby Booms and dust-gathering Gary Glitter outfits.

Every last detail of this Crimbo car crash is a calculatedly crappy alternative to the festive magic promised by parents and advertisers alike. Snow is replaced by showers of polystyrene packaging; fairy dust is swapped for cocaine; instead of a red-faced, rotund Santa, we get an elf with track marks up his arms. Yet, for all the detritus of broken dreams and long lost childhoods, Neilson and Marmion still tease us into believing. Against logic and evidence, we’re desperate to tell ourselves that this dishevelled figure in his pointy hat is not a quick-thinking junkie but a bona fide resident of the North Pole.

This is thanks to the stubborn ambivalence of tone that is courted throughout, repeatedly upending an audience’s expectations. Craig Gazey’s “Elf” is a lesson in ambiguity, answering the interrogations of his captors with responses that are by turns assured, desperate and downright bonkers, yet always governed by reasoning that somehow makes a strange sort of sense. Elves don’t deliver the presents, apparently – they “enhance” them. Remember how much fun you had as a kid with all the cardboard boxes and wrapping paper on Christmas Day? That would be because the elves’ magic won’t work on synthetic materials; the plastic presents confounded them, so they enhanced the packaging instead.

Touches like this demonstrate all the surreal ingenuity of Neilson’s writing at its best, complemented by the wacky, determinedly shoddy songs he has written with composer Tom Mills. The lyrics are all clumsy festive schmaltz, the singing unapologetically atrocious. And it’s oddly brilliant, slicing right through the queasy sentimentality that reigns elsewhere. But even with the satire, we are rarely on solid ground. The myth of Christmas is dismantled, the magic of childhood abandoned, and still this production manages to inject a surprise dose of that addictive Christmas feeling.

The result of all this tonal variation, however, is a number of sharp and sometimes jolting handbrake turns. While the pace of the first third is zippy and sitcom-esque, throwing out joke after joke, cracks begin to appear when the emotional tenor shifts. Neilson turns out to be a gag-machine to rival the best panto writers, but the momentum of these early exchanges is tricky to maintain and the show visibly flags somewhere around the middle – a bit like Christmas Day itself.

Despite its flaws, though, the dark humour and brilliantly bizarre flourishes ultimately rescue the piece, just about keeping it on that tightrope between worn cynicism and childlike delight. For anyone who has ever suspected, like me, that Christmas as an adult is two parts nostalgia and one part alcohol, The Night Before Christmas nails both the joy and the disappointment that the festive season can involve.

Photo: Sheila Burnett

Embrace the Shame: Open Court Collaboration

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Originally written for Exeunt.

In a bright rehearsal room in Pimlico, to the faint strains of an opera being rehearsed next door, six actors are pretending to be cats. With feline grace they paw investigatively at a series of cardboard boxes of varying sizes, as one by one they attempt to climb inside. On the other side of the room, notebooks diligently in hand, six writers.

This is just one of the more eccentric exercises on the third day of Anthony Neilson’s two-week workshop programme, part of the Royal Court’s Open Court festival. Under the banner of Collaboration, the aim is to facilitate an environment where playwrights and actors can try ideas out together in the same room, establishing a direct and productive dialogue without the mediation of a director. The structure is built on Neilson’s own way of working, which involves an immediate process of testing his writing in partnership with a group of actors and other creatives; the group perform in and around the text during the day and Neilson goes away to write in the evenings.

Vivienne Franzmann – who only two days ago was anxiously declaring her attachment to rules – has an idea sparked by the simple narrative of purpose seen in YouTube videos of Maru the cat (if you’re not familiar with Maru, Google him – you’re in for a treat). Hoping to develop this into the start of a play, she is able to immediately get actors dancing around the idea. Hence the boxes and the crawling around on all fours.

While the cats are one of the more striking examples, there are lots of other, smaller ways in which this process pushes the writers out of their comfort zones. On the first day, as those gathered in the room fight with jangling nerves, Neilson tells everyone that here “you’re allowed to be shit”. The first constraint to be removed is the need to be good. Instead, this is a space of experimentation and exploration, a space to try out ideas and immediately chuck them on the rubbish heap if necessary – often salvaging them later in the process in another form.

I’m reminded of a comment made by The TEAM’s director Rachel Chavkin in Paulette Douglas’ film about the making of Mission Drift. She talks of the “blood of the dead babies” that seeps up through the stage; all those ideas that were tried out and culled, only to come back to life much further down the line and make their way into the final show. While this two-week sprint is a micro version of the painstaking four-year process behind Mission Drift, the same pattern begins to develop. Seemingly disposable results of early improvisation become the unlikely seeds for future work.

On the first day, the emphasis is very much on establishing familiarity and trust – two essential elements for this way of working, and ones that need to be put in place at ten times the speed of any other rehearsal process. While Anthony has chosen a collection of actors he has worked with before, they are mostly unknown quantities to the playwrights taking part. So on day one there are six writers (Vivienne Franzmann, DC Moore, Janice Okoh, E.V. Crowe, Joel Horwood and Robin French) and six actors (Imogen Doel, Noma Dumezweni, Nathaniel Martello-White, Jonjo O’Neill, Richard Pyros and Sophie Russell) who need to get to know each other. And fast.

Neilson’s solution, after a morning of introductions and talking at length about the project, is to pair up writers and actors at random. Each writer picks an actor’s name out of a hat and proceeds to interview them at a table in front of the rest of the room. Actors are allowed to lie, but they have to respond to anything the writer throws at them, while the writer has the freedom to go as personal or as interrogative as they like. To redirect the emerging narratives and to showcase the actors’ abilities, writers can also throw in accompanying emotions or actions – sad, anxious, drunk, dance.

There are unexpected and often hilarious moments. Imogen Doel spins a giggling story about an unrepentant hit and run; Jonjo O’Neill shares his idea of truth through interpretive dance. But it is also extraordinarily intense. The writers take their role as interviewer increasingly seriously, unafraid to delve deep into personal territory, while the lines of truth and fiction in the actors’ responses are repeatedly blurred. Perched at the edge of the room, the absorbed but uncertain observer, I begin to feel a bit like a voyeuristic cheat. Everyone else has to expose themselves in some way, while I just get to watch.

The phrase that soon jokingly attaches itself to the process is “embrace the shame”. Neilson talks of a shame barrier that has to be broken through in order to progress; actors must be unafraid to make fools of themselves in the improvisations, while writers have to unlearn the self-censorship that comes hand in hand with painstaking rewrites. Everything in this room is raw and immediate. After the interviews, which eat up a surprising amount of the afternoon, the writers are suddenly asked to write something in 15 minutes, which will then be read by the actors. The panic is palpable.

While seemingly just workshop exercises – and Neilson admits that he is no workshop leader, explaining that this process is just as revealing and unfamiliar for him as for anyone else – these early bursts of forced creativity prove integral to the plays that eventually emerge. The end point of this short rehearsal period is a half-hour play from each writer, with the six pieces shown over three nights, though Neilson emphasises that this is about process rather than product. The aim is simultaneously to push the writers into new territory, give them a taste of Neilson’s way of working, and argue for wider use of this process.

And it is a process for which Neilson is a persuasive advocate. At first glance this writing method would seem to shift focus away from the writer, creating a collaborative making process more akin to that of devising companies, but Neilson’s understanding of his way of working is deeply rooted in a belief in the centrality of the playwright. There is collaboration, yes, but the playwright always retains authorship – an idea that, through its tendency to elide the collaborative nature of theatremaking, tends to make me feel a little queasy. By removing the director from the process, Neilson explains, the playwright has a direct connection with actors and designers, forging a tighter unity between the vision of the work and its individual parts. While highly valuing the contributions of the actors, Neilson makes it clear that this process is for the writers – the authors.

This notion of authorship becomes a question mark on the very first day, as I make the perhaps foolish decision to openly reveal my concerns about the concept to a room full of writers. But it feels like a productive question mark to leave hanging over the process; after all, a certain amount of self-reflexivity is only appropriate to a project aimed at making writers reconsider the way in which they work. And there’s no doubt that there is a certain ethical question that dogs this methodology, one that is raised again rather more bluntly by playwright Lucy Prebble in the final post-show Q&A. If others in the room have contributed material, at what point should they be offered a slice of ownership? If a play created in this way went on to be hugely successful, what would the financial model be for distributing the royalties?

It’s a dilemma that the process does not seek to solve, but it remains hovering somewhere in the background throughout. At first there is some uncertainty as to how this all works. Do the writers draw directly from improvisations? How much of the work is really theirs and how much comes from the room? At one point Janice Okoh in particular expresses concern about this, to which Doel (who has worked repeatedly with Neilson) responds: “if you choose it, it’s yours”. A ‘finders, keepers’ philosophy of writing. But then isn’t this how most writing works anyway? Inspiration often comes from somewhere external, and the list of influences on a play throughout its life might run to several pages long. A large part of the writer’s role comes down to selection, structuring and dramaturgy.

Over the course of the two-week process, it becomes clear that this way of working rarely involves large chunks of text lifted verbatim from improvisations. For a start, the rawness of the improvised material rarely lends itself to the page. The fragments that get borrowed by the writers are more often images, the germs of ideas, snatches of emotion. Conversations about children during the day one interviews thrust roots into a number of the pieces in various different ways; E.V. Crowe ends up using the workshop itself as a setting for her distinctly meta offering; Joel Horwood says that as much of his inspiration comes from tea break conversations as from the improvisations.

What the use of improvisation does reveal, however, is how close the roles of writer and actor actually are. As Neilson repeatedly insists, actors are essentially writing when they improvise. They are involved in a similar act of creation, only theirs is rough and immediate rather than meticulously constructed over time. The extraordinary ability of the actors in the room becomes more and more evident over the two weeks, as they reveal an instinctive sense for the direction of a piece as they move within it. They can push at a text and occasionally explode it, in the process revealing new facets. It’s a skill that sits close to writing, but works within a completely different time frame and demands a very different way of thinking. Actors feel their way through the action, moment by moment; writers sit structuring it at one remove.

As important as the use of improvisations as a source of material – perhaps even more important – is the knowledge of their actors that the writers are able to gain through this process. Perhaps one of the key features of the project is that none of the plays it produces could have emerged outside of this room. O’Neill’s ukulele playing skills and Sophie Russell’s tap-dancing both get written into the comedy acts in DC Moore’s play Open Mic, for example, while the presence of sound designer Nick Powell contributes a vital element to a number of the pieces, freeing the playwrights to write in songs or sections that rely on sound rather than words.

Robin French hits on a brilliant analogy for the process in one of the post-show Q&As, describing it as Masterchef vs Ready Steady Cook. Like the finalists on Masterchef agonising over which meal to cook, these writers might usually sit at their desks for months or even years carefully crafting a play. This process, however, has been much more akin to Ready Steady Cook. The writers have a defined set of ingredients and a ticking time limit, producing results that might not be perfect but can be entirely unexpected. Working in her usual way, would Franzmann have written an experimental exploration of the internet? Would Crowe have chosen a fragmented investigation of the very act of writing itself?

More so than content, the form of the writing is particularly affected by this way of working, which was another of Neilson’s aims going into the project. At the Open Court press briefing, he discussed his concern that theatre is not keeping up with the world or the nature of our modern consciousness and suggested that perhaps this process could begin to nudge playwriting towards a form more suited to contemporary life – which it perhaps begins to do. It feels as though there is a tipping point in rehearsals, when Horwood comes in on day three with a spliced narrative that experiments with form and asks the actors to give it a playful series of readings, testing out different stylistic approaches. Suddenly the mood of the room shifts and anything seems up for grabs. Play as script morphs into play as playfulness, and form becomes more and more fluid.

No matter how fragmented, though, there is a structure to how the various different pieces are put together. As he guides the rehearsals, stepping in or backing away according to the temperature of the room, Neilson voices two constant questions: “what is the internal logic of the play?” and “what truth are you trying to tell here?” He contests the inherited wisdom that naturalism is the most logical way of conveying a narrative, countering this with the often surreal subjectivity of lived experience, but he insists that each stage world – however far it departs from reality – must be governed by some logic of its own, some truth of its own. This philosophy chimes with my own feeling that naturalism is not suited for telling every story and that each play should find its own form of expression. Why should naturalism be the default setting for British theatre? Why should collaboration between actors and writers be restricted to devised work and kept fenced off from more ‘traditional’ playwrights? These are the kinds of questions that Neilson’s process insistently asks, gently eroding the accepted structures of how theatre works in this country.

Being “embedded” in this process (to borrow a phrase from Andrew Haydon that seems to have stuck) brings questions of its own. Am I a passive bystander, a witness and documenter, or am I as much a part of the evolving work as anyone else in the room? If I do contribute to the exchange of ideas, how do I reconcile that with my role as observer? The first question is not a question for long, as by my second visit to rehearsals it becomes almost impossible to keep my thoughts to myself. The openness of the room fosters collective thought, teasing out contributions almost involuntarily. I’m careful not to impose myself too strongly on the process, but when I have an opinion I’ll share it. Early on in the process, divisions quickly become fluid and everyone’s thoughts are welcome, as the writers feel their way around the emerging pieces of work.

There’s a definite shift, however, once we move into the upstairs theatre at the Royal Court halfway through the second week. Suddenly, sitting in the multi-coloured bank of chairs while the actors move around the stage, I feel like an audience member, quietly placed back on my usual side of the divide. This reflects the difficulties that the plays face when moved to this space, as some of the moments that felt fiercely alive in the rehearsal room suddenly fall flat. Faced with such a tight timescale, it becomes much more about simply getting the plays to a point at which they can be shown rather than playing with new ideas, and I judge that any thoughts I have at this point, beyond the purely practical, would probably be more destructive than helpful.

Negotiating my role within this process as I dip in and out also requires a consideration of ownership on my part. Especially during those first intoxicating days, it’s easy to become attached to certain ideas and seize on them with excitement. When those ideas fall by the wayside or get taken in a different direction, there is an impulse to fight for them – one that I resist, but it’s sometimes tough. Which raises questions about embedded criticism and the level of involvement that it implies. Is it best for the critic to remain silent and simply observe?

And there’s another question around the level of criticism involved in embedded criticism. This emerges almost immediately, as there is some initial discomfort around my presence in the room and an implicit worry that I will be critiquing what goes on. I’m quick to stress that I’m not there as a critic as such – at least not in the same way as I would be on a press night – but I suppose there is a certain act of criticism always taking place. Like the choices of a photographer or a documentary filmmaker, there is an implied and half-conscious form of criticism in what I choose to focus my lens on. Naturally, certain things capture my interest more than others.

Connected to this focusing of attention, there is also the problem of being an occasional rather than a constant presence. Thanks to conflicts of scheduling, I end up seeing more work from some playwrights than others and (to my great frustration) I miss one of the final showings. I try to spend as much time in the room as possible, but really I only see selected snapshots of the process. Am I then qualified to comment on something when I’ve only seen a part of it? After all, I would never review a show that I had missed more than half of.

My solution, following the writers, is to embrace subjectivity. At some point I make the decision not to write about the final pieces produced by the playwrights, because it seems wrong to see them as final. I would probably contest the idea that any piece of theatre is truly finished, but in this instance more than usual it feels disingenuous to write about the work in a way that fixes it. The Collaboration project was always about process rather than product, a set of priorities that it seems only right to honour and reflect. What I can share, reflect on and question is only my experience of that process – a process which, from my point of view, seemed quietly transformational for the writers involved, suggesting exciting possibilities for more open ways of working.

But mine is only one window on the rehearsal room – and a limited one at that. As I consider my lack of objectivity, I’m reminded again of Neilson’s constant guiding question, directed at increasingly exhausted yet exhilarated writers as they reached for what their work might be trying to say. What is the truth? And so I suppose, in a sense, this is my truth.