An Innately Optimistic Profession

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Originally written for Exeunt.

At the close of his introduction to the latest book in the Methuen Modern British Playwriting series, Andrew Haydon departs on a distinctly optimistic note. Surveying British theatre at the end of the 2000s, he sees a landscape of possibilities, looking towards a “future where old divisions between ‘New Work’ and ‘New Writing’ had turned into fertile breeding grounds for collaboration” and “where a progressive spirit of inquiry and confident uncertainty had begun to replace condescension and refusal”.

Almost halfway through the decade following that with which the book concerns itself, the barrier between ‘New Writing’ and ‘New Work’ – although productively challenged – has not entirely dissolved, while continued funding cuts pose a threat for that “progressive spirit of inquiry and confident uncertainty”. But what comes through strongly, both in the period discussed by the book and the years since, is an increasing spirit of collaboration, as pointed to by Haydon. Faced with the rise of new forms and shifting understandings of the relationship between theatre and its audiences, a number of contemporary British playwrights have adapted their practice accordingly, embracing new and varied ways of working.

Two prime examples, both discussed in Methuen’s volume, are Simon Stephens and David Greig. As Jacqueline Bolton points out in her excellent chapter on Stephens’ work, his prolific output is “distinguished by a willingness and enthusiasm to work collaboratively”. Perhaps his most striking collaboration is that with German director Sebastian Nübling, which Ramin Gray has suggested is unique, but beyond this he has a sustained interest in opening up his writing. Stephens has spoken on many occasions about how his encounters with other theatre cultures and artists – and, indeed, with critics – have invigorated his practice. Talking to me in a recent interview, he described his plays as “the starting point of a conversation between myself and a director, a director and a cast of actors, director and artistic team, artistic director and a director, and then artistic collaboration and an audience”. The play is not the thing; it’s a point of departure.

Bolton’s chapter goes one step further by linking Stephens’ interest in and commitment to collaboration with the recurrent preoccupations of his writing. While many have noted the bleakness and brutality of the worlds Stephens puts on stage (with the help of his collaborators, of course), Bolton sees instead – or, rather, in addition – a compassion for his subjects and a genuine quest for communication and understanding. This chimes with the spirit of collaboration pursued in Stephens’ work; as Bolton puts it, “To work collaboratively is, after all, to affirm the importance and significance of truth, of respect and of generosity”. This can be supported by Stephens’ own assertion that theatre is “an innately optimistic profession”.

Greig’s work has an equally complex relationship with optimism, as The Events knottily demonstrated last year. He has also worked in a number of different ways, with an output that ranges from shows created through devising processes to the libretto for the musical Charlie and the Chocolate Factory; from plays for children to epic, abstract, internationally focused pieces. In her chapter for the Methuen collection, Nadine Holdsworth describes him as “deeply invested in the possibilities of the collective imagination, pursuing ideas across different media as well as linguistic and stylistic boundaries”. He shares with Stephens an interest in travel as a narrative theme and an openness to different collaborations.

Similarly to Bolton, Holdsworth moves away from a familiar critical narrative about Greig’s work – in this case, his engagement with Scottish national identity – and chooses to focus on the “passionate internationalism” of his plays. Her analysis opens up a consideration of how Greig offers audiences different perspectives on the world, positing brief and delicate moments of communication across seemingly irreconcilable cultures. While this is not her primary concern, her study also reveals Greig’s willingness to experiment with structure and storytelling, clashing together different theatrical styles and techniques, and how through this process the playwright often questions his own authorial status in the creation of his plays.

Some of these ideas, which I have only briefly sketched out above, will be discussed further at two upcoming symposia in Lincoln and Brighton, addressing the work of Greig and Stephens respectively. The University of Lincoln’s David Greig symposium at the end of this month will feature papers examining a wide range of different aspects of Greig’s work, including the role of dissonance, empathy and conflict in his plays, the way in which he deals with questions of place and nationality, his engagement with Scottish identity and the independence debate, and the historical dimension of his work.

At a separate symposium at the University of Sussex in April, meanwhile, scholars will be engaging with Stephens’ plays and in particular his dialogue with Europe. I’m looking forward to making a contribution of my own to this conversation, with a paper exploring how Stephens’ work in Germany has shifted his perspective on British theatremaking processes and the implications this might have for our own theatre culture. As Stephens has suggested, “when we travel abroad we see our home with a clarity that we may never have been offered before”, offering him an intriguingly distanced view of British theatre.

It feels important that events such as these carry on the conversation, provoking the sort of new insights into these playwrights’ work that they both habitually seek. The best we can hope for is, to return to Haydon’s words, “a progressive spirit of inquiry”.

The University of Lincoln’s one day symposium on the work of David Greig is being held on 29th March. Registration is now open here.

 The University of Sussex’s symposium on Simon Stephens’ connection with Europe will take place on 30th April 2014.

Photo:Stephen Cummsikey.

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The Events, Young Vic

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Originally written for Exeunt.

“It’s important to turn dark things into light,” says Claire, the anguished figure at the heart of David Greig’s new play, not quite convincing herself. The Events,Greig’s response to his conflicted feelings about the Norwegian massacre committed by Anders Breivik, is driven by a similar desire and tempered by similar doubt. As much as its protagonist, The Events searches for understanding, redemption, hope. What it finds is nothing so straightforward, but it is all the more compelling for the complexity it excavates on stage.

While sparked by a discussion between Greig and director Ramin Gray following the Breivik atrocity, this is not about what happened in Norway in July 2011. Instead, the events of the show have ripped apart a small, unspecified seaside community, where a boy has shot and killed several members of a local multicultural choir. Claire, the leader of the choir and a survivor of the massacre, is searching for answers. How did this happen? Why did it happen? Did the perpetrator have a reason, or must his actions be put down to “evil”?

Through the character of Claire, played with compassion and complexity by Neve McIntosh, the play prods at the insistent human desire to understand. Without understanding, Claire’s rage is impotent, directionless. In search of either an object for her hatred or an explanation that might pave the way to forgiveness, Claire hunts everywhere for answers, interrogating in turn the murderer’s father, his schoolmate, the leader of the right-wing political party whose ideology he laid claim to. But the more details are added to the sketch, the more the picture is obscured.

The succession of individuals questioned by Claire in her search for the truth are all played by Rudi Dharmalingam, who also represents the perpetrator of the central atrocity. This canny choice by Greig and Gray can be read in a number of ways. On the one hand, Claire seems to be seeing the face of the murderer in every place she looks, unable to escape him even in the embrace of her lover. The playing of all other roles by one actor also creates an intriguing quality of slipperiness; the killer is both everywhere and nowhere, inhabiting each last crevice of her consciousness while at the same time taunting her with his elusiveness. The ambiguity is enhanced by Dharmalingam’s performance, which meets Claire’s desperation with a refusal to emotionally engage, delivering each line with the same blank, lightly mocking intonation.

The impression we receive is that of a woman caught in a self-constructed labyrinth of questions, finding herself more and more lost with each new turn. There’s a certain disjointedness to the scenes, an apt sense of confusion and dislocation that hints at the incomprehensibility of what Claire is trying to piece together. Claire is a woman unmoored; unmoored from her faith, from those around her, from a previously solid sense of reason and logic. Buffeted by the currents of grief, rage and an utter failure to understand, she is alone in a sea of uncertainty.

Claire’s struggle is reminiscent of certain strands in Chris Thorpe’s There Has Possibly Been an Incident, both in the subject matter – Thorpe’s play also features a massacre with hints of Breivik – and in its staging. In There Has Possibly Been an Incident, individuals are isolated down to the level of voice, which speaks against the blank, bland backdrop of Signe Beckmann’s minimal design. Here, Chloe Lamford’s set is similarly, masterfully simple. The stage is relatively bare, furnished only with a few rows of benches, a garish orange curtain, a piano, stacks of plastic chairs and tables loaded with teacups. The visual cues that this design offers are all painful reminders of the choir rehearsal room, but more important is the yawning empty space in its middle. In this space, McIntosh’s tormented Claire searches for ways to fill the gap, not just investigating but also acting, playing out different outcomes and solutions.

Sharing the sparsely furnished stage with McIntosh and Dharmalingam throughout the show is a local choir, different every night. This touch, which on paper has the sound of a gimmick, is in fact the production’s masterstroke. On the level of the play’s narrative, their role is one of haunting, suggestive of how something – the soul, God, the accusatory whispers of the dead – can remain present even in its absence. The choir’s presence and the songs they add to the piece also nod towards the potentially redemptive and community building power of music, which at first has a flavour of bitter irony, but eventually sweetens into something like hope.

On the level of the production, meanwhile, the choir does something even more interesting. Arranged on a bank of seating directly opposite that in which the audience is arrayed, the singers act as witnesses; mirroring the audience, they struggle alongside us to grapple with the questions the play poses. Their lack of slickness or preparation also adds a vital roughness, a slightly messy and unpredictable edge that makes the piece all the more truthful and affecting. At one moment during the performance, I notice one of the choir members raise a hand to her mouth, an involuntary but striking movement that focuses my attention on the theatrical dimensions of the event – the fact that we are sharing a public space and collectively processing this effort to understand.

In his introduction to the playtext, Gray writes that “Every act of theatre revolves around a transaction between two communities: the performers onstage and the improvised community that constitute what we call an audience”. His choice of the word community is no accident. The Events is all about communities – or “tribes” – with no small amount of tension contained in that notion. Community in the sense encapsulated by Claire’s choir is overwhelmingly positive, yet it is also in the name of community, or of protecting a certain community, that atrocities like this are committed. Greig’s intricate, finely tuned arguments have a habit of sharply pivoting, challenging our assumptions and once again subjecting everything to knotty ambivalence.

In the end, how these events and their wounding repercussions read is down to each of the individuals in our improvised community, the audience. It is easy to take despairing doubt from what we are presented with, but it’s equally possible to seize on hope. Near the end, a crucial moment in the narrative is suddenly ruptured by the intervention of a choir member, who reads from a script explaining the different between chimps and bonobos. While chimps solve conflict with violence, bonobos prefer sex to aggression, greeting their enemies with embraces. Humans, we are told, share exactly 98% of our DNA with each species. Which, therefore, do we most resemble? The implication, like that of the whole production, is that it for us to decide.

Photo: Stephen Cummsikey

The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart, Royal Court Theatre Local

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However you do it, there’s something a bit odd about thrusting yourself headfirst into imaginary winter in the midst of sweltering summer heat. As pipe-playing actors stubbornly tell us it is December 2010 while sweat trickles slowly down their foreheads, the prelude to the National Theatre of Scotland’s The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart has something of the school play about it; well meaning, big hearted and determinedly blind to its own obstacles – but it’s not fooling anyone. Fans continue to whirr valiantly away, while theatregoers gulp down drinks with a fervour not usually witnessed outside the Edinburgh Fringe.

Then something sort of magical happens. As the actors begin their story, we’re instructed to throw handfuls of improvised paper ‘snow’ into the air, settling on heads and tables and floor. Melody Grove (dressed in so many layers I’m impressed she makes it through the show without fainting) sits atop another performer’s shoulders as a mimed steering wheel, a gleefully waving windscreen wiper, and a tax disc, rearview mirror and two torches held aloft instantly conjure a car. It’s the simplest kind of theatrical illusion, but the rough and raucous spirit in which it’s done brilliantly sets the tone for the show that follows. The heat doesn’t abate, and we’re not quite transported to the snow-blanketed landscape of the Scottish borders, but all of a sudden our sweaty environs seem to matter a little less.

This effervescent little firework of a show is the joint creation of playwright David Greig and director Wils Wilson, joyously embracing both the traditional ballad form and the rowdy pub setting – in this instance, the intimate (and uncomfortably muggy) Welsh Centre bar. Greig’s text takes the form of a ballad about ballads, encompassing everything from lively folk sessions to dry academia, but its knowing self-referentiality never sacrifices a vital sense of fun. At the heart of the piece, effortlessly marrying form and content, is a tension between the purity of tradition and the inclusiveness of a form that morphs to appropriate new cultural phenomena – two camps into which Greig’s bickering gaggle of academics are firmly divided.

One of these academics is the eponymous Prudencia Hart, a prim and reserved traditionalist specialising in the topography of hell, for whom fashionable attempts to intellectualise Facebook statuses and football chants are little short of blasphemy. The story begins at a midwinter conference in Kelso, a small Scottish border town, where Pru’s purism is decidedly in the minority, up against post-post-structuralism and theses on Lady Gaga. Tradition is out of vogue. Adding inconvenience to humiliation, Pru then finds herself stranded with her colleagues in a snow-surrounded pub, trapped somewhere between the drunken locals and the horror of the karaoke machine.

Rattling through academic papers and beer-drenched revelry with equal ease, the first half of the show is mostly hilarious scene-setting, affectionately poking fun at its characters and drawing its audience into the circle of the story. This is narrative at its simplest and most familiar: a yarn down the pub. We are made to feel that the story belongs to everyone, as the narrative is shared and passed between the five performers, who in turn pass through the audience. Actors dance on tables and leap up onto the bar, while several audience members find themselves roped in as props or extras (fellow critic Dan Hutton, incidentally, makes an excellent motorbike). Greig and Wilson find a popular form, populate it and turn it inside out.

The action only begins to drag in an extended sequence featuring four drunken locals, who might be realistically hammered but add little to the gathering story; it’s the one point at which the production feels indulgently overlong. It’s not surprising, then, that Prudencia wants to get away, escaping the drink and drug-fuelled hedonism of the pub for the snow-covered town and a suspiciously friendly B&B owner. Nick, it turns out, collects rare books – and souls. As Prudencia’s academic subject swiftly becomes her reality, it soon transpires that she is the devil’s latest prize, condemned to eternity in a tartan-filled bungalow next to the Asda car park.

Pru’s subsequent ‘undoing’ in the second half offers both a transformational narrative of self-discovery and a movement towards reconciling the two sides of the argument established by Greig in the first part. As the verse that has propelled the story thus far is abandoned in favour of prose, Prudencia learns over several millennia that a life without passion and poetry – no matter how many books you surround yourself with – is no life at all. This section of the show, settling into a quiet rhythm after the raucous first half, is certainly strange. But it’s also sort of beautiful. In one gorgeous, startling sequence, the devil (played by both Paul McCole and David McKay in a slick and surprisingly effective bit of shape-shifting) finally surrenders to poetry, melting together with his captive in a slow and intimate dance.

This section also provides an opportunity for the excellent Grove to become a captivating central anchor for the piece, as her Prudencia gradually reveals an unknown, passionate facet of her otherwise reserved character. Her undoing refers less to a tumble into sin than an unstitching of her distant, sedate exterior. This is paired with Pru’s visual disrobing, as her meticulously neat layers are discarded one by one, leaving her in just slip and tights, while her hair cascades down from its prim bun. Transformation runs through the form, too, as prose gives way to a torrent of poetry and the explosive power of a collective football chant unites the ballad with its modern cousins. There’s even a bit of Kylie thrown in for good measure.

Alongside the production itself, it feels worth pausing to consider its context. Prudencia’s specialist subject might be the topography of hell, but the specifics of this production concern far more earthly locations. Like many of Vicky Featherstone’s early moves as the new artistic director of the Royal Court, this programming has the feel of a statement, and a multi-layered statement at that. Firstly, it’s a bridge of sorts between Featherstone’s role with the National Theatre of Scotland – for whom she commissioned this piece – and her new home at the Royal Court. Secondly, the fact that this show from a theatre without walls is being presented outside the brick and mortar of the Court, as part of its Theatre Local season, suggests a continuation of that gesture of opening up that has so far characterised Featherstone’s tenure. More and more I think that only an artistic director with the experience of not being shackled to a building could give as much thought to what a building really means as Featherstone has already.

Then of course there’s the fact that this show from the National Theatre of Scotland, engaging with Scottish folklore, is being presented at the Welsh Centre in London, England (all that’s missing is a slice of Northern Ireland). And it’s a show about border ballads, in which the narrative itself floats, flitting from performer to performer and only briefly settling. At a time when British identity is increasingly under pressure, this implicit stretching and questioning of nationality feels significant, inviting us to reconsider our connection with our country and our past. It’s also fascinating to see this ahead of Northern Stage’s Bloody Great Border Ballad Project at St Stephen’s in Edinburgh, offering another modern, border-crossing take on this form.

The pub setting, too, is vital to the rowdy sense of community that emerges in the room by the end of the night. As already mentioned, the forms that Greig and Wilson are recruiting to tell this story are very much popular forms, from ballads to folk music to karaoke. There is the sense that, wound together in this way and planted in a familiar social setting (ideally oiled with a few drinks), this marriage of popular forms both old and new offers a new and yet old way to share our stories with a group of people gathered together in a room, breaking through many of the stifling conventions that often hamper theatre. The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart is, like the tale round the campfire or the roaring anecdote told over pints at the pub, a basic but accomplished lesson in storytelling. And it’s devilishly infectious fun.

Photo: Johan Persson.

Theatre Uncut in Edinburgh

Originally written for Exeunt.

Against a backdrop of crisis, cuts, turmoil and disillusionment, theatre seems to be reclaiming its place as an art form at the heart of popular protest. Only a few days after the widely attacked sentencing of Russian punk band Pussy Riot, a verdict whose announcement was marked by a day of protest across the world – including an event at the Royal Court Theatre – an embryonic glimpse of this year’s new international incarnation of Theatre Uncut is seen at the Traverse Theatre. It is the sort of protest that feels rough, messy, alive.

The series of short play readings, a taste of what to expect from the full autumn event, takes place not in the auditorium but in the theatre’s bar. We are told that this is to demonstrate that these plays can be performed anywhere; the hope is that this November they will be given life by hundreds of people in village halls and cafes, pubs and community centres. Beyond this straightforward aim, the bar feels like an open, sociable space, a space where audience and performers are not divided by an invisible barrier but where we are able to feel like simply one group of people gathered together with a common interest.

Extending this united messiness, none of the work that is presented is in anything near a finished state. Everyone’s time is given free to Theatre Uncut, meaning that actors assembled from across the festival have had only one hour in which to rehearse and still clutch scripts in their hands. There is something appealingly untidy about it, lending the event a fitting air of urgency. A more slick and polished product would take something from the importance of its message; here the potency lies entirely with the writing.

The pieces that are showcased at the morning event all take differing approaches to the political stimuli, a recognition of the multiplicity of voices and perspectives to which Theatre Uncut is responding. Anders Lustgarten’s The Break Out is succinctly metaphorical. A scene between two women given the chance to escape a benign prison and offered a choice between being “comfortably miserable or scarily free”, it confronts our apathy-inducing state of comfort and the illusion of freedom that can be so easily cast.

Meanwhile Blondie, written by Royal Court Young Writers’ Programme graduate Hayley Squires and absolutely nothing to do with Debbie Harry, takes the dystopian route. Playing with the cult of personality that has dominated politics in recent years, reaching its apex with Blair’s brand of “Cool Britannia”, Squires paints a portrait of a leader elected on pure, blonde-haired appeal. The brutal lesson that this leader then teaches the country – to “get a grip” – is lacking in subtlety, but lands a few painful punches on our greedy, fiercely consumerist lack of perspective. Dire as the situation here may seem, Squires reminds us, it is much worse elsewhere.

The most striking piece of the morning, however, is Clara Brennan’s Spine. Heartbreakingly performed by Rosie Wyatt, it tells the tender story of an unlikely friendship between a frail old woman and a teenage girl, while also writing something of a love letter to our dying libraries. It is a delicately multi-layered monologue, touching upon the deep and damaging cuts, the concept of political power and the idea that there is “nothing more terrifying than a teenager with something to say”, but its primary cry is one for compassion. Politics has forgotten people, something that this deeply moving piece does not allow us to do for a moment.

The morning is closed by two pieces even more ad hoc than the rest. In recognition of the Pussy Riot trial that has provoked so much protest around the world, and as a sort of epilogue to the event at the Royal Court at which the defendants’ testimonies were read, three actresses pull on balaclavas while we listen to the sentencing of Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alekhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich. This is then followed by a rapid response piece by David Greig, written over a matter of days and inspired by recent news. This move towards immediacy is one which helps to solidify the ideas that have been floating shapelessly around the room, firmly reminding us that this is an event connected to and speaking out against very real problems.

But there is also an awareness that this is not enough. Sitting in a room listening to and talking about political issues is not quite action in itself. As Marco Canale’s candid monologueThe Birth of My Violence recognises, putting pen to paper instead of placard can be interpreted as an act of cowardice, an evasion of genuine action in favour of weak intellectualising, and perhaps it is.

What Theatre Uncut lacks in this current presentation is what makes it what it is: the element of mass protest. Performed in a closed space to a few dozen gathered people, these pieces can feel like cursory gestures. But when taken ownership of by people all over the country in a unified raising of voices, these short plays have the power to be much, much more.