Destruction and Renewal


Originally written for Exeunt.

A cacophony of voices drowning each other out. A pulverised culture retelling its stories. An ear-splitting scream of sound. A beautiful howl of despair. A giant subterranean drain. A devastating downpour of blood. Oddly, sounds and images of destruction dominate a year that has been characterised – theatrically if not otherwise – by reinvigoration and renewal. Often the most thrilling theatre I’ve happened to experience has also been the bleakest in its take on where we are right now.

Pomona, with its stark diagnosis that “everything bad is real”, epitomises this strand of shows. Alistair McDowall’s Escher staircase of a play was exhilarating, it was intelligent, and it was pitch black in its outlook on the modern world. Sending a violent jolt through the Orange Tree Theatre, it dazzled with both its ambition and its swirling mind-fuck of a plot, tangling up fiction and reality in a way that was at once disorientating and unsettlingly familiar. Here was a dystopia of a distinctly uncanny flavour.

The dark undertones of Pomona echoed a mood that had already established its hold on the year’s theatre. In The Body of an American – an early highlight of my theatregoing year at the Gate – the devastation was found in faraway warzones and much closer to home. Alice Birch’s blistering Revolt. She said. Revolt again. ripped up both patriarchy and the rulebook, suggesting flawed and angry responses to a broken world. And two parts of the great “Chris Trilogy” (completed by Chris Thorpe’s knotty Confirmation), the beautifully furious Men in the Cities by Chris Goode and Chris Brett Bailey’s mind-blowing, eardrum-destroying This Is How We Die, offered two different but equally excoriating critiques of late capitalism.

Then there’s master of bleakness Beckett, whose swirling, cyclical monologue Not I – most famously performed by the late great Billie Whitelaw – was given a mesmerising (and astonishingly speedy) new rendition by Lisa Dwan at the Royal Court at the beginning of the year.

While much of the new work I saw in the last 12 months was unsurprisingly shadowed by dismal visions of the world, the attitude also stretched into some of the year’s best revivals. Ivo van Hove’s production of A View From The Bridge scratched decades of dust and school assignments off Arthur Miller’s 20th-century classic, transforming it into a muscle-clenchingly tense tragedy, Jan Versweyveld’s black and grey design matching the gloom of its dramatic atmosphere. Katie Mitchell’s version of The Cherry Orchard – paired with a scrape-your-jaw-off-the-floor gorgeous design by Vicki Mortimer – was exquisite in its quickening decay. And two Ibsen productions at the Barbican – Thomas Ostermeier’s An Enemy of the People and Simon Stone’s The Wild Duck – wrenched the playwright’s work devastatingly into the 21st-century.

Another of 2014′s great revivals was Our Town at the Almeida, in a US-imported production from David Cromer. It arrived billed as a bold reimagining, but much of what made it work was – apart from the stunning final reveal – determinedly ordinary. Thornton Wilder’s characters appeared to us as unremarkable yet remarkably real, making their everyday sufferings all the more heartbreaking. There was a similar sort of quality to Robert Holman’s Jonah and Otto, a play that made a quiet art out of conversation. Both productions gently asked us to pay attention.

Other shows demanded the attention of their audiences rather more forcefully. Dmitry Krymov’s Opus No 7, visiting the Barbican as part of this year’s LIFT, had me from the first of its giddying procession of images. The same director’s wonky take on A Midsummer Night’s Dream was perhaps not as beautiful to look at, but just as enchanting, capturing something of the strange alchemy of theatre. In the National Theatre’s newly reopened Dorfman (i.e. the theatre formerly known as the Cottesloe), meanwhile, glittering new musical Here Lies Love relentlessly swept me along with it even in its naffest moments. Most recently – and in spite of its flaws – the dazzling to look at Golem made me understand all the fuss around 1927′s wittily precise animation.

One of the aesthetic offspring of 1927 is Kill the Beast, a company who marry visual detail with grotesque narrative flair. This year their latest show, He Had Hairy Hands, had me roaring along twice to its tale of werewolves, cops and arse-kicking monster hunters, as well as offering hands down the best gag of the Edinburgh Fringe. It’s also up there grappling for most jofyul theatregoing experience of the year, in a close-fought tussle with Secret Theatre’s A Series of Increasingly Impossible Acts. The latter just about snags the prize, stealing my heart over and over with its flailing hopefulness – and its joy-drenched rendition of “Proud Mary”.

A Series of Increasingly Impossible Acts is also, in part, about how we tell stories. There were lots of stories about stories this year. Coincidentally running at the same time, Mr Burns at the Almeida imagined how our culture might be passed on after a future apocalypse, while Ellen McDougall’s production of Idomeneus playfully traced the same process of narration and mutation over previous centuries. The dangers of narrative appropriation were disturbingly outlined in Tim Crouch’s multi-layered, head-scratching Adler & Gibb; in Wot? No Fish!!, storytelling was a simple source of charm and love.

Along with all the theatre that filled me with joy, plenty that I saw this year also left me filled with tears. Spine‘s double-whammy of the personally and politically emotive forced those tears to spill over, as did James “the vacuum cleaner” Leadbitter’s overwhelmingly intimate Mental. After the small but exquisite experience of Greg Wohead’s headphone piece Hurtling, I walked the streets of Edinburgh with heart thumping and eyes stinging; ditto Hug, Verity Standen’s “immersive choral sound bath” (there’s really no better way to describe it than she does). Then there was Kim Noble’s brash but bruised You’re Not Alone, which took a long time to relinquish its haunting hold.

Elsewhere it was the lulz that stayed with me. That giant ballpond and the IRL memes in Teh Internet is Serious Business. The smart silliness of funny women Sh!t Theatre and Figs in Wigs, turning their humour to Big Pharma and online narcissism respectively. The funny-sad sequence of cheesy song lyrics in RashDash’s Oh, I Can’t Be Bothered. The sheer joy of watching Jamie Wood and Tom Lyall clown around with what appeared to be an alien haggis in Chris Goode’s remounted Longwave. Chris Thorpe and Jon Spooner being punk rockers in their pants in Am I Dead Yet? (the most funny-yet-thoughtful show you’re likely to see about kicking the bucket).

With the requisite predictability of the end-of-year round-up, no survey of 2014′s theatre can seem to get away without a mention of King Charles III. Mike Bartlett’s concept – a future history play in iambic pentameter – sounded like a potential disaster, but turned out to be a slice of genius. It was thoughtful, it was witty, and it was as much about our theatrical heritage as it was about the traditions of monarchy. And to top it all off, it was designed by the brilliant Tom Scutt, who once again came up with one of the designs of the year with his dizzying visual concept for the Nuffield Theatre’s excellent revival of A Number.

Now from the big to the small. I’m still unapologetically head over heels for one of the most intimate shows I saw this year: Andy Field and Ira Brand’s fragile, heart-fluttering put your sweet hand in mine. Seating its audience in almost uncomfortable proximity to one another and to the two performers, it gently prodded at closeness and distance and love in all its different forms. Just gorgeous.

Also small – in staging if not in ideas – was Barrel Organ’s debut show Nothing. This series of intertwined monologues, performed in a newly improvised order each night with no set or props, was just as bleak in its way as some of the year’s more explicitly dark offerings. For a confused 20-something, it also terrifyingly captured the anger, uncertainty and disconnection of a whole generation. It feels like one of the real discoveries of the year, as does Chewing the Fat, Selina Thompson’s glittery but difficult look at weight and body image.

After opening with destruction, I want to end on a slightly more hopeful note. For all the darkness and devastation, few pieces of theatre have stayed with me quite so insistently as Duncan Macmillan’s not-quite-monologue Every Brilliant Thing, which was indeed brilliant. For once, cliched claims of “it’ll make you laugh, it’ll make you laugh” were entirely justified, as I giggled and sobbed – sometimes at the same time – throughout.

Quite how a show about suicidal depression can be so life-affirming I’m still trying to fathom. It probably has a lot to do with the irresistible warmth of performer Jonny Donahoe, without whom I suspect it wouldn’t be half as good. But it also plays, as many of the best shows of the year have done, to theatre’s strengths: the unpredictability of live performance, the thrill of proximity, the possibilities of all being together, now, in the same space. Here’s to more of the same in 2015.

Photo: Manuel Harlan.

Duncan Macmillan


Originally written for The Guardian.

“There’s nothing I can do in my life to compensate for the fact that the world would be better without me in it,” says Duncan Macmillan, smiling over his coffee. It’s a bleak statement, but one that the writer and director explains is grounded in climate science. Each of us in the west, with our hefty carbon footprints, is a drain on the planet’s resources.

When we meet, Macmillan is buried deep in research about the worsening state of the environment. This is all in aid of 2071, a new project for the Royal Court that he is co-writing with climate scientistChris Rapley. For the past six months, the two men have been meeting regularly at University College London, trading their respective expertise in an attempt to bring climate change centre stage.

Directed by Katie Mitchell, 2071 follows her 2012 show Ten Billion, in which scientist Stephen Emmott painted a gloomy picture of our planet’s future. Macmillan tells me that Rapley’s outlook is more complex, challenging our understanding of how we affect the environment. “I thought I was concerned and had read well about it,” he says, “but it’s a whole other thing talking to Chris.”

“I sound like a broken record,” Macmillan laughs a moment later, catching himself using the word complicated yet again to describe Rapley’s insights. Conversation with Macmillan is punctuated with these moments of thoughtful, anxious self-awareness. Intense but amiable, he has a tendency to pause mid-thought, picking apart his own statements as soon as he makes them.

It’s a tendency that Macmillan’s plays share. Monster, the play that scooped two awards in the inaugural Bruntwood prize for playwriting, prodded uncomfortably at ideas of responsibility. In Lungs, a conversation about starting a family is folded into concerns about the state of the planet, interlacing the personal and the global. And when approaching George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, Macmillan and co-adapter Robert Icke set out to “represent the challenge” of the novel’s ambiguities rather than attempting to solve them.

“I can’t speak for what theatre can or should do, but I know from my perspective I’m interested in complexity,” says Macmillan. “Chris [Rapley] keeps saying, ‘It’s a little bit more complicated than that.’ And I’ve always thought that would be a really good subtitle for any good play.”

The same complexity applies to Macmillan’s career. Increasingly, he has been working in a number of different roles, from co-directing Headlong’s 1984 with Icke to collaborating with Mitchell on her multi-media productions in mainland Europe. One frustration, however, is the pigeonholing impulse of the British theatre industry. “I think there’s a perception that the playwright is someone who writes the spoken text and that everything else is the domain of the director,” says Macmillan, adding that this is not the case with many of his projects.

Not that spoken text doesn’t interest Macmillan any more. He admits that Lungs, for instance, “is essentially just talking”. That play, which is currently on the road with touring company Paines Plough, spans one long conversation over several years. Its agonised back and forth between a couple deciding whether or not to have children was Macmillan’s attempt to wrestle with some of his own anxieties.

“I found myself worrying about these things and I didn’t know the solution,” he says, discussing the “anxiety debt” that his generation has inherited. “Putting characters on stage who talk about those anxieties makes them quite absurd. And they are. It is absurd that you can have a conversation now about whether or not you want to start a family and at the same time you can be talking about the industrial revolution.”

At the same time as travelling the UK, Lungs is also part of the repertoire at the Schaubühne in Berlin, in a German production directed by Mitchell. While the form that Macmillan initially imagined for the play – no sound, no lights, no props – was an attempt to “break out of a certain kind of formal cul-de-sac”, Mitchell’s production finds a new visual metaphor to communicate the narrative. In her version, the two actors are poised throughout on static bikes, powering the stage lights as they pedal.

“What I enjoy most as a theatre-maker and as an audience member is getting my brain to do more than one thing at once,” says Macmillan, pointing to Mitchell’s production of Lungs as one example. Another isEvery Brilliant Thing, which tours alongside Lungs this autumn. In this interactive monologue, misery and ecstasy are two sides of the same coin. The subject might be suicidal depression, but the show itself manages to be joyously life-affirming.

“It’s the least cool piece of theatre ever, in some ways,” says Macmillan. Staged in the round in Paines Plough’s portable Roundabout auditorium, the formal gesture of the show is deliberately democratic, while its message for those struggling with depression is unashamedly heartfelt. “You’re not alone, you’re not weird, you will get through it, and you’ve just got to hold on. That’s a very uncool, unfashionable thing for someone to say, but I really mean it.”

Like so much of Macmillan’s work, Every Brilliant Thing came out of a desire to say something that wasn’t being said. “I didn’t see anyone discussing suicidal depression in a useful or interesting or accurate way,” he says. Similarly, at the time of writing Lungs, he felt that he “wasn’t seeing enough about what it’s like to be alive now”. He positions both of these plays as interventions of a kind, adding with an apologetic smile, “that sounds really grand”.

Theatre at its best is, he says, “incredibly direct and incredibly interventionist”. He talks about Wallace Shawn’s monologue The Fever, which the actor and playwright took into people’s homes to shock them into a crisis of conscience. “I find that really inspiring.”

So is 2071 an intervention? The questions it poses – “What is happening to our planet, and what is our role in that?” – would suggest so. Still, Macmillan insists, it is not quite as simple as issuing a manifesto for saving the planet. As Rapley might say, it’s a bit more complicated than that.

Photo: Geraint Lewis.

Cracks in our hearts and heads


I’m sitting on a cushion, knees drawn protectively to my chest, feet covered by the edges of a massive duvet. In a small room in a block of flats somewhere in Edinburgh, I am listening to James Leadbitter (aka artist-activist the vacuum cleaner) share his experiences of mental illness and activism, while medical assessments and police records flash up on a overhead projector. He talks about depression and anxiety. He talks about being suicidal. And I listen, arms curled around legs, biting the inside of my mouth, tears prickling at my eyes.

Ordinarily, I’m not particularly prone to crying – especially in public. So often I emerge dry-eyed from films or shows or exhibitions at which everyone around me is audibly sobbing, feeling oddly shamed by the chorus of sniffles and sighs. Is it that I simply don’t feel as much as them? Or that the public nature of the theatre auditorium or art gallery is too exposing a place to reveal emotion? Or, perhaps, that I feel inhibited as a critic, conscious of my responsibility to be rational rather than emotional?

One piece of criticism that I keep returning to, acknowledging again and again its impact on me, is academic Jennifer Doyle’s reflection on Franko B’s I Miss You. Oddly, it is a piece of art that I never saw. What I’m struck by, though, is Doyle’s emotional response to the piece and her attempts, through this piece of writing, to work through that emotion. The provocation of the unexpected tears elicited by I Miss You expands into a much wider discussion about art, emotion and the position of the critic, who has been encouraged to treat crying with suspicion and disdain.

Two suggestions made by Doyle catch at my mind every time I read them. The first is that, in the space of the gallery or classroom (to which I mentally add the theatre), the act of crying “can leave us feeling a bit naked”. The second is the idea that the impulse of the critic is not unlike “the boundless narcissism of the lover who loves in vain”; that the critical presentation of feeling masked by restraint might be compared with “the lover’s need to have his struggle to hide his feelings acknowledged”. In other words, we can’t admit to naked emotion, but we are desperate for readers to acknowledge the garments in which we have clothed it.

This year at the Edinburgh Fringe, an environment in which emotion is so often heightened and laid bare, I found myself wondering again about the role of emotion in criticism. Not least because my own emotions were frequently tapped in a way that startled me, leaving eyes and cheeks damp to the cool Edinburgh air. Talking to friends and fellow critics, I joked – in that way that everyone knows is not really a joke at all – about what a weepy festival I was having, to the extent that the slightest hint of sentimentality could set me off. No dry eyes now.

But how, as a critic, is it possible to render those tears on the page? Do they contaminate criticism, blurring thoughts like ink on paper, or just offer another lens through which it’s conducted? The answer is … I’m not sure. I have huge admiration for the way in which feeling suffuses the prose of others’ theatre writings – most notably (and brilliantly) Maddy Costa and Megan Vaughan – but it’s a different matter entirely when it comes to tapping out my own emotions on my computer keyboard. I feel far more comfortable with analysis and reflection, whereas I often wince when I see my own feelings held at one remove, suddenly appearing trite and artificial in unforgiving black and white. In a culture saturated with emotion, a culture fed on sob stories and Hollywood romance and X Factor montages, feeling feels cliched.

There’s one section in Ross Sutherland’s Standby for Tape Back-Up that I remember vividly from the work in progress I saw last summer and that jumps out at me again when I see the show for a second time in Edinburgh. Sutherland is recalling the death of his grandfather, a moment in his life that frames the whole piece, and talking about his emotional response. All he can think of as he tries to comprehend the enormity of this loss is the way in which people react to death in films and television programmes. His bereavement is filtered through pop culture, through all of the possible behaviours he has experienced through the screen. It’s a state of emotional uncertainty and paralysis so familiar it hurts. Is this really how I feel, or is this how I’ve been told I should feel?

Another moment that punches me in the stomach with its familiarity and somehow – paradoxically, uncannily – with its unfamiliarity arrives towards the end of Men in the Cities. Chris Goode is telling the story of Brian, just one of the many broken, contorted men who populate his play. Brian is drunk and grieving and heartbroken, walking through the busy streets of London surrounded by the pre-Christmas crush of shoppers. Until suddenly a singing voice breaks through the crowd and the whole piece lurches in a furious new direction. Goode is vomiting an extraordinary stream of text, words that break and fall over me and half of which I don’t really comprehend until I read the script later. In the moment, all I’m aware of is the pure, throbbing, exquisite anger of it all.

People are crying, but this is one of the moments I don’t feel close to tears for a change. Instead I feel emptied out, as though my insides have angrily leapt up on stage with Goode, as though every murmur of rage I’ve ever felt and tuned out has been ear-splittingly amplified. In life, I’m bad at being angry. But like the glorious noise of #TORYCORE, Men in the Cities is angry for me – though not with any of the passivity that suggests. It transforms my anger into something external, something shared. I look at this anger, this hurt that is at once recognisable and alien, and it is nothing like the emotion relentlessly beamed from screens.

I don’t cry during Men in the Cities. I do cry during Clara Brennan’s monologue Spine, though less for the human relationship at its core than the intertwining of this very personal story with the play’s angry, energised and tentatively hopeful politics. I leak a quiet couple of tears during Bryony Kimmings’ new work in progress at Forest Fringe. My eyes well up as my heart thumps during Greg Wohead’s small but beautiful Hurtling. Countless other shows lead me to the brink of tears, sometimes with the profound and sometimes with the painfully banal. One morning, I almost cry while queuing to buy coffee, staring hard at a display of croissants until my eyes clear.

Not all those tears are bitter. Sometimes, like in Hurtling, they are little beads of relief and gratitude. But the show that really feels like a gift, that triggers all the right emotions at just the right time, is Every Brilliant Thing. Those occasions when a piece of theatre feels as though it has been created precisely for you to encounter in the particular parcel of time in which you encounter it are rare. Every Brilliant Thing, on one of the few sunny mornings of the festival, is one of those precious occasions.

My response to Duncan Macmillan’s play is hardly unique. The packed audience on the day I see it is all sniffs and smiles; a collective outpouring of joy and anguish. At one point the show uses, I think, the phrase “happy-sad”. It’s a simple contraction of two simple words – so simple that they conjure emotions little more complex than line drawings of faces with the mouth upturned or downturned – yet it’s somehow just right. Every Brilliant Thing is happy-sad, in the same way that so many moments in life are stained with the feeling of their opposite. Ecstasy is laced with sorrow and despair is pierced with hope.

It’s that heady cocktail of all the brilliance and heartache of simply existing in the world that intoxicates me. Sitting in the beautifully sociable space of Paines Plough’s Roundabout auditorium, I laugh and cry with relative decorum, but if left alone I would be heaving great, shoulder-shaking sobs, a stupid grin plastered on my face and tears rolling down my cheeks. There is no way in which Every Brilliant Thing turns away from the realities of depression and the bitter impossibility of making others happy, but still it is somehow joyous.

And so back to the cushion, the duvet, the tears gathering at the corners of my eyes. I find myself profoundly affected by Mental, Leadbitter’s almost-too-intimate show. This is another facet of depression, not entirely shorn of the optimism that tempers Every Brilliant Thing but certainly with more jagged edges. It is raw and painful and personal. At times I find it incredibly hard to watch, in part out of concern for Leadbitter and what he is forcing himself to revisit every time he performs this show, and in part for a hundred tiny other reasons entirely my own. Reflecting on the piece in the minutes, hours and days afterwards, I struggle to think about it in a way that isn’t deeply coloured by that emotion and difficulty. I wonder if that’s a problem.

Since returning from Edinburgh, and as part of an ongoing effort to make more time in my life for thought and reflection alongside the endless work I foist on myself, I’ve been listening to some of the conversations that Alex Swift has been recording and uploading to his website (if you have some time, do yourself a favour and check them out). In one, artist Harry Giles talks about how politics feels. It’s not something that usually gets raised (at least not explicitly) in political discourse, which tends to be steeped in ideology or, in the case of party politics, policy and spin. But really, when you stop and think about it, the feelings tied up in politics are what tend to have the most impact on our lives and opinions.

I’m not going to add my voice to the debate about Scottish independence – mainly because, being English, it’s not really my voice that matters. But what is astonishing and exciting about the impending referendum, particularly in recent days, is the way in which it has truly engaged a huge range of people in political discussion and how that political discussion has been vitally inflected by feeling. There is a passionate sense that this really matters. Not only that, but it matters not just in terms of the economic arguments that have dominated headlines; it matters at the level of identity and democracy.

In all thought, be it critical or political (and of course those two things are so often intertwined), emotion contains both danger and potential. Feeling in art has a tendency to be equated – often rightly – with catharsis, escapism and conservative sentimentality. But there is also another kind of catharsis to be found in art, one in which emotion is politically charged and straightforward sentiment is replaced by radical collective feeling. It is this collective feeling which Giles emphasises when he discusses how politics feels. And, though far from all of my tears in Edinburgh were provoked by this kind of emotion, it is a similar collective feeling that the space of the theatre is able to hold. When our bodies tense during Men in the Cities or we cry at the end of Spine, our emotions meet in the room, however fleetingly. We feel together.

I’ve now been wrestling with this unwieldy piece of writing for so long that its meandering train of thought is no longer clear to me. I’m not quite sure how I’ve travelled from Jennifer Doyle to tears to the Edinburgh Fringe to the Scottish independence referendum. What I’m clumsily grasping towards is something about emotion, art, criticism and politics; something about how feeling is provoked, experienced, processed and harnessed; something about crying in the theatre and what that really means.

The other night, with complete disregard for my own once again fragile feelings at that precise moment in time, I re-read Men in the Cities. Experiencing it again on the page, a good month after seeing it in Edinburgh and with more space in which to think about it, I was bowled over a second time by just what an extraordinary piece of art it is. It’s fucking stunning. And this time, tears did begin to pool in my eyes. It was these words, directed at the audience, that got me:

“I know. I know. Can we not just put it all down. Aren’t you tired of it all. Aren’t you just tired.”

That’s exactly how it’s written – no question marks. And if I’m remembering the performance correctly, those questions never really felt like questions in the moment either. If they were questions, if it were a genuine invitation to put “it” – anger, violence, hatred, the thousand tiny ways in which we hurt one another – down, then the catharsis would be too complete. It would be a bit of a cop-out, for theatre-maker and audience. Instead, in a world where we can’t (at least not yet) “put it all down”, this possibility is suggested and denied. Emotion is provoked, but never fully released.

In lieu of any real conclusion, I leave you all (or, rather, the handful of poor souls who have made it this far) with this, because a) it’s what I’m listening to this afternoon and b) Secret Theatre’s A Series of Increasingly Impossible Acts is the best barometer I know of how I’m feeling each time I revisit it.

Embrace the Problem: Duncan Macmillan


Originally written for Exeunt.

Duncan Macmillan is remembering a piece of advice from Edward Bond that has stayed with him. “He said this brilliant thing,” the writer and director recalls, “which is that there’s a tendency in some directors to solve the problem. You identify the formal problem or the staging problem or something, and then solve it somehow. And he says good dramatists instinctively know that the problem is all you’ve got, that you should never solve the problem.”

This insight – don’t solve the problem – was something of a starting point for Macmillan and co-adapter Robert Icke’s acclaimed stage version of 1984 for Headlong. George Orwell’s culturally ubiquitous novel is a tangle of contradictions, none of which the pair wanted to unravel. “It seems absurd and a real shame to iron out all the creases,” says Macmillan. “I think there’s something really exciting about going, ‘what do these creases do for the novel, and how do we find a theatrical form in which to communicate those logic bumps?’”

The answer to that question was found in a structure that could simultaneously hold all possible readings of Orwell’s novel – an exemplary instance of doublethink. “There’s a lot in the book that quite deliberately complicates the narrative, and we didn’t want to solve that by undermining it and just opting for one particular reading of it,” Macmillan explains. Every possible interpretation is allowed for.

Central to their complex, cerebral version of the novel is the oft-neglected Appendix, which no previous adaptation has attempted to tackle. Macmillan is adamant about the importance of this seemingly dry, academic postscript, which Orwell himself insisted was integral to the tale. “It’s like telling a really long, convoluted joke and then missing out the punchline and feeling like you understand the joke even though you’ve not heard the punchline yet,” he argues.

What Macmillan and Icke found frustrating about previous adaptations – and what they have studiously avoided – was the tendency to hone the novel down to the narrative of protagonist Winston Smith’s experience, stripping away its philosophical and political content. “There’s a tendency to over-simplify,” Macmillan suggests, going on to insist that “if you present a literal universe on stage, it’s not accurate to the book”.

Instead of opting for a literal narrative, Macmillan and Icke have held onto the subjectivity of the novel, which offers readers intimate access to Winston’s unreliable mind. In doing so, their main reference points have been cinematic – “film can do subjectivity in a way that theatre sometimes struggles with,” Macmillan suggests. He names the likes of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless MindMulholland Drive (“it’s a deliberate puzzle”) and The Shining.
These pop cultural influences are also apt for one of their target audiences. Macmillan relates how both he and Icke remember a moment in their teenage years when their minds were opened to the possibility that theatre might be just as exciting as films and computer games; one of their ambitions in creating this adaptation was to offer the same revelatory experience to a new generation of youngsters. “We really wanted to blow those kids’ minds.”

As 1984 moves to the West End to embark on its third run, Macmillan’s enthusiasm for the show is remarkably undimmed. He doubts that he and Icke will ever be truly finished with the piece; despite reading the book dozens of times, they keep returning to pore over each last line, making tweaks to their adaptation as they go. Macmillan offers a neat Orwellian analogy: “Each edition of the Newspeak dictionary is smaller and smaller, because they’re eliminating words from it, and we’ve sort of been doing a similar thing.”

Throughout the process, Macmillan and Icke have worked in tandem, equally doling out the duties of writing and directing. “Quite early on we realised that the usual boundary line between being a playwright and being a director just wasn’t helpful and that we’d automatically started parking tanks on each other’s lawns,” says Macmillan. Reflecting on his metaphor, he is quick to add, with a laugh, “that makes it sound more oppositional and more aggressive than it actually was”. In fact, the partnership has been amicable and creatively fruitful, directing both theatremakers towards bolder, sharper ideas. “It’s been a huge amount of work,” Macmillan admits, “but two heads – in this case – have been better than one, and it hasn’t been a messy, grey compromise. We’ve always pushed each other to make the idea better.”

Another great collaborator of Macmillan’s is director Katie Mitchell, with whom he is currently working on a new project for the Saltzburg Festival. Macmillan finds Mitchell “really trusting and empowering”, praising the passion of her involvement with every element of a production. “She has such artistic integrity as a theatremaker,” he says, “and political integrity as well. I found that really, really galvanising.”

Thanks to working with Mitchell, Macmillan is now much more confident about making work with political intent, something that he suggests “we can find very hard to do in Britain”. The pair’s latest show, The Forbidden Zone, has an explicitly feminist agenda, setting out to “reposition our understanding of certain women and women’s roles in the First World War”. The project has involved extensive research, highlighting for Macmillan just how difficult it is to unearth female perspectives in a history written by men. “One of the things we wanted to do was rehabilitate the writing from that period, this fascinating writing done by so many women, and also these really extraordinary female figures who haven’t been given the right kind of attention,” Macmillan says.

He and Mitchell also recently worked together on the German premiere of Macmillan’s playLungs, or Atmen, which continues to play in rep at the Schaubuhne in Berlin. Despite the script’s strict instructions that the play should be staged with no set and no lighting or sound changes, Mitchell has placed the two performers in her production on bicycles, powering the lights throughout the show. This simple, eco-friendly concept acts as a constant visual reminder of the high environmental stakes that provide the backdrop for Macmillan’s two-hander, in which a couple agonise at length over whether or not to have a child.

“She’d understood the gesture of what I was trying to communicate and I think she added something really interesting to it,” Macmillan reflects on Mitchell’s directorial interventions. “In Katie’s production you really get a sense of the time pressure and the physical pressure, and you also get a sense of the environmental pressure because the carbon neutrality of that production is so visible and audible at all times.”

Macmillan has worked in yet another way on Every Brilliant Thing, a project with Paines Plough and Pentabus which goes on tour in its latest incarnation next month. The piece began as a story written by Macmillan, in which a child starts a list of everything that is wonderful in the world as a way of coping with their mother’s suicide attempt. As in the story, the list soon took on a life of its own, welcoming contributions from the public and transforming into an installation created by Paul Burgess and Simon Daw. Now, the story and the installation have been incorporated into a show, performed by Jonny Donahoe of Jonny and the Baptists and involving members of the audience each night.

“That began as sort of a necessity of the time pressure and the formal constraints we set ourselves, and has now become an inherent part of the project,” Macmillan explains the audience involvement. “There’s something about seeing real people responding live in the moment rather than actors pretending to be other people that feels very true to the project. It cuts out all the pretending of it and it just becomes very honest and open and responsive.”

Although Macmillan is looking forward to getting back behind his desk and focusing on his own work again, he anticipates that the various collaborations he has been involved with in recent years will continue to have an effect on the way he writes. “I guess I’m bored with certain approaches to making theatre and I’m really looking for people who inspire me and are prepared to work with a writer in different ways,” he says. “I’m not as interested as I once was in just sitting in an office and sending a play away.”