Nick Payne

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Originally written for The Stage.

“I don’t really see this,” says Nick Payne, tapping the sturdy wooden table we are sitting at. “My brain just tells me that that’s what it is to steady me, because otherwise I’d freak out if I was really able to take in all the information around me.”

With a slight grin, the writer is explaining the research behind his new play Incognito, a cerebral interrogation of the mind’s inner workings. If it sounds like meaty material, it’s little surprise. Payne’s debut play If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet, which won him the George Devine Award in 2009, collided domestic drama and climate science, while subsequent work has tackled bereavement, quantum physics and contemporary gender politics.

“I suppose it tends to start with something I read about,” Payne reflects. Thoughtful, unassuming and frequently apologetic, the playwright is quietly frustrated by his struggle to remember the genesis of specific projects. He admits that ideas emerge “mostly by chance” rather than through any desire to address a particular topic. “With Constellations, it was a conscious decision to try and find a form that was non-naturalistic,” he recalls as an example, adding that he “stumbled on that whole thing about the multiverse”.

Constellations, which imagined one relationship playing out in countless variations across multiple universes, was the play that convincingly cemented Payne’s career as a playwright. The show quickly transferred from the Royal Court to the West End and won Payne the Evening Standard Award for Best Play in 2012, as well as attracting an Olivier nomination. This followed a steady stream of new plays, including Wanderlust at the Royal Court and One Day When We Were Young for Paines Plough, but Constellations raised him to a new level.

“Only for the last year and a half has it started to feel like a career rather than something I’m doing with the hope that one day …” Payne trails off, as if afraid of tempting fate by acknowledging his recent success. For a number of years after moving to London from university, Payne subsidised his writing with shifts at the National Theatre bookshop and as a theatre usher, eventually committing to playwriting full-time in 2010 after his breakthrough with If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet.

Central to Payne’s development as a writer during this time was his participation in the Royal Court’s Young Writers’ Programme. “The Writers’ Programme made you feel a bit like you could be a writer,” he says, “because you’d go to a theatre every week and you’d see all the shows.” It was also while at the Royal Court that the first seed of an idea for Constellations was planted, Payne remembers, by a talk about physics given by former literary manager Ruth Little.

Incognito, which recently opened at the Hightide Festival ahead of a run at the Bush Theatre, continues some of the ideas about free will that emerged during the process of writing Constellations, returning Payne to his recurring preoccupation with science. Borrowing from the latest developments in neuroscience, the play questions the extent to which we are really in control of our own identities, exploring the complex and delicate mechanisms of the brain. Like much of the playwright’s work, it has involved extensive research.

“It’s not research in an academic way,” Payne is quick to add, admitting that the science in Constellations was flawed – and scientists had no problem telling him so. Instead, it is about knowing his characters and their motivations; his priority is to “make sure it’s dramatic above anything else”. For this reason, perhaps, Payne prefers talking to people over reading books: “I enjoy meeting people who do those jobs, and having my naive illusions of what they do and how exciting it must be shattered.”

As is often the case with Payne’s writing, it was the research behind Incognito that has moulded the shape of the play. “I thought there’s a form here that can hopefully feel like a brain solving everything for us,” he explains. The play begins as a confusing, fast-moving assault of information, switching rapidly between three different narratives situated at different points in time, before the various pieces of the puzzle gradually slot into place. “The idea that the brain is a sort of storytelling machine that keeps us going by building a narrative is partly what the play does.”

Although he first broke through with astutely observed naturalism, Payne is increasingly interested in experimenting with dramatic form. Incognito cleverly meshes form and content; Constellations, with its swift, snapshot scenes and complete absence of naturalistic staging, was born from a desire to temporarily ditch social realism and create “something that you couldn’t do in any other medium”. Recent project Blurred Lines, meanwhile, cast Payne in the role of collaborative creator, working closely with director Carrie Cracknell and a devising company of actors.

“That form thing, the question of how and why are you going to give your play a particular shape or structure or architecture, was not something we addressed until right at the very end,” Payne explains the process, admitting that this uncertainty made him “twitchy”. Blurred Lines was created over the space of two week-long workshops at the National Theatre Studio and four weeks of rehearsals directly prior to the show’s run in The Shed. It was a tight development period: at the beginning of week two of rehearsals, the team decided to scrap most of what they had produced so far, going on to devise almost the whole show in just three weeks.

Payne is eager to challenge himself in this way, insisting that he’s interested in “working in as many different ways as there are”. It would be a waste, he suggests, not to use the creative resources on hand in the rehearsal room. “There’s always a point in rehearsals where the performers start to know the play much better than you do. I think at that point you’re mad if you’re not listening to them going ‘I’ve got an idea’, or ‘can we try this’, or ‘I’m really stuck on this’.”

As a result, the playwright is less and less protective of his own work and is very open to making changes – even major ones – during the rehearsal process. Refreshingly, he is not particularly concerned with the idea of rigid fidelity to his vision. “That thing of serve the writing, I find a bit …” Payne pauses, making a face. “I don’t really get it.”

Payne’s most recent challenge has been a foray into television, but he quickly found himself pining for the thrill of the rehearsal room. “The development process was pretty similar, and I enjoyed that, but then you’re much less involved,” he explains. For him, the rehearsal process is the “fun bit of the job”, when all the most illuminating questions are asked about the play. And this, he suggests, is just as vital for him as the process of gathering the research or sitting at his desk writing.

“A film is made three times: it’s written and then shot and then edited. I sort of think it’s true of a play too. I enjoy being around for all of that.”

Photo: Bill Knight.

Blurred Lines, National Theatre

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Originally written for Exeunt.

Back in November of last year, myself and others were questioning the underrepresentation of female playwrights in the National Theatre’s 50th anniversary gala – and in its programming more broadly. Now, only a couple of months later, the fierce final scene of a new show with an all-female cast and a majority female creative team boldly critiques the venue’s gender inequalities from within its very walls. It’s nowhere near a solution, and one self-reflexive show in the theatre’s smallest, most risk-friendly space is no reason to get complacent, but it feels like a start.

The context for Carrie Cracknell and Nick Payne’s new show is right there in the title. Robin Thicke’s misogynistic song and accompanying video were just the most visible tip of the iceberg in a year that outdid itself in terms of casual sexism and media objectification of women. But 2013 was also a year in which feminism was very much part of the public discourse, a discourse that Blurred Lines continues. It is less a play than a theatrical conversation; an ongoing discussion about insidious, background sexism in its many mutating forms.

The show, devised by the company with Cracknell and Payne, promises to interrogate all areas of gender politics, from the media to the workplace to the home. It’s a big ask. To tackle these myriad forms of sexism, the piece deploys what are perhaps best described as a series of sketches. We see, for instance, a conversation between a married couple about the husband’s visits to prostitutes; the repeated shooting of a television scene in which a woman is assaulted; an office confrontation in which it is made clear that success for a few individuals does not translate into equality for the many. Given the force with which that latter point was made in Top Girls in 1982, it’s telling that it still needs to be reiterated.

These swift, punchy scenes, punctuated with performances of songs that cheekily and sometimes explosively critique the depiction of women in popular music, are all played out on the huge white staircase of Bunny Christie’s design. This installation, complete with colour-changing lights, boldly thrusts out into the Shed’s modest performance space, itself acting as a sort of intervention. It frames the female performers in ways that at times reflect the objectifying aesthetics of music videos and advertisements, but at others set up an uncomfortably close confrontation with the audience, while the steps themselves are suggestive of the distance that we still have to climb.

But what Blurred Lines is perhaps most successful at exposing is the sexism that remains rife within theatre itself. The piece opens with a series of statements spoken in turn by the performers: “girl next door”, “single mum”, “Northern blonde, bubbly”. It soon becomes clear that these are roles, referring at once to casting types, dominant cultural perceptions and the desperately restrictive boxes that women are expected to fit into in everyday life. This critique of what roles women are allowed to play remains implicit throughout, coming to a head in the final scene. While this powerful conclusion risks being something of a theatrical in-joke, alienating those who might not catch its shrewd self-referential nods, it is an important move towards theatre owning up to its own failings when it comes to gender (in)equality.

Representation is also at stake in other ways. Throwing together a cacophony of female voices, the piece is careful never to directly speak for or represent any one woman. When an individual’s story is told, as in the narrative of a teenage girl who is sexually assaulted by her partner, it is transmitted through multiple voices and in a fragmented structure. Straightforward portrayal of anyone who might be construed as a victim – perhaps most prominent among the roles available to women – is deliberately avoided. This also points, though obliquely, at the persistent tendency to take one woman as a representative for her entire sex, a tendency that the company stubbornly refuse.

On another, simpler level, the very fact of an all-female cast does interesting things to the staging of sexism. Every male character in the piece is, necessarily, played by a woman. This inversion makes an intriguing contrast with, say, Three Kingdoms, which despite sharply skewering misogyny, still placed it – potentially problematically – in the mouths of men. In this production, the exchange of misogynistic expressions between an all-female cast furiously underlines them, while managing to subtly subvert these views at the same time as reproducing them.

Yet women are still, with unsettling frequency, seen as victims here. That ranges from victims of violence to victims of workplace prejudice, but time and again they are rendered voiceless and frustrated. The intention is understandable; like the Everyday Sexism project, the piece attempts to unmask the latent sexism that pervades our society, often going unnoticed and unremarked upon. The bitter familiarity of many of these scenes provokes both recognition and discomfort, but it leaves us mired in our current situation rather than looking towards any solutions.

Of course, the very existence of this production and its team of talented women is a form of action in itself, and perhaps it is apt that we are left to continue the conversation and fight ongoing injustices. To downplay the scale of inequality and let the audience off the hook would be irresponsible. Nonetheless, there is something a little disheartening about a piece of theatre with such fire in its belly that insists on simply presenting and representing all too familiar portraits of sexism and victimhood.