Originally written for Exeunt.
– Robert Holman’s plays are conversations.
– That’s an obvious thing to say. Aren’t all plays conversations?
– Well, yes; they’re a conversation between characters, between the artist and the audience, between sets of ideas. But in Holman’s plays you get the sense that people – often strangers – are reallytalking to one another. So often we don’t really talk to other people; we speak, but we don’t communicate. Holman’s plays, or at least the ones I’ve encountered, tend to put individuals on a journey towards genuine communication.
– And as you say, they’re usually individuals who have no pre-existing relationship, people who simply encounter one another and discover, often via antagonism, an incredible shared intimacy and honesty. At the beginning ofJonah and Otto it certainly feels like it could go somewhere else, somewhere more aggressive – there’s a definite taste of danger there – and what’s so startling is the dissolving of all that aggression into tenderness.
– It feels significant as well that the relationship in this play is between two men, two men of different ages. The play offers these men a space to be vulnerable, their toughened edges sanded down, while at the same time constantly switching the power dynamic between this ageing, lonely clergyman (Otto) and the spiky but bruised not-quite-boy-not-quite-man he runs into on the street (Jonah). Both haunted; one overwhelmed by what has passed, the other by what is ahead. And somehow, in just 24 hours, they come to truly know one another. It’s easy to feel that Holman’s characters exist in a bubble of ideas and emotions, sealed off from the world, but there’s a sort of insistent politics to the presentation of this surprising and ultimately gentle male friendship. Particularly at this moment in time, the simple foregrounding of care, of taking notice of the human beings around you, can’t help but be political.
– You talk about how gentle the relationship between the two men is, but there’s also something slightly strange about it. Not strange bad, just … odd. But odd in a compelling way.
– I think that compelling quality has a lot to do with the performances. Peter Egan brings a sort of comforting gravity to Otto, an appropriately priestlike – vicar-like? – quality, with a wounded, desperate energy writhing just under that composed outer skin. But it’s Alex Waldmann as Jonah who claws at the heart, bringing both unpredictable danger and trembling anxiety to the role. The simple restlessness of his performance reveals so much about this character, the world that has shaped him and the relationship that quietly transforms him.
– But it’s just talking, isn’t it? Gentle, thoughtful, expansive talking, but talking nonetheless. Nothing really happens.
– What do you want, a fucking firework show?
– Well, maybe. Or something, something to make us all sit up and pay attention.
– “Love is paying attention”.
– That’s what Otto says: “love is paying attention”. And Holman asks us to do the same, doesn’t he? We have to slow down, listen, tune in. Pay attention. The whole point is that it’s quiet. No fireworks.
– Like that other one they did at the Donmar a couple of years ago, Making Noise Quietly.
– Yes. That seems to me what Holman’s plays specialise in: making noise quietly. There’s something muted and tender about them, something unobtrusive, yet they have this cumulative emotional volume. They deal in what Otto calls the “drip, drip” of life, in people and relationships, but with an injection of something else – magic, maybe?
– Well Jonah is a magician. In some ways his whole presence in the play, the way in which he interrupts the deadening loneliness of Otto’s existence, feels like a sort of conjuring act. There Otto is, feeling the bricks in the wall – grasping not for real warmth, but the residue it leaves after the sun has already disappeared – and this man materialises like a genie from a bottle.
– And isn’t theatre itself something of a magic trick? A collective conjuring, making something from nothing. It’s one of my favourite ways of thinking about performance, because it suggests that same paradox that theatre entertains. We’re desperate to know how the trick works, to see the strings, but at the same time we want to be taken in and enchanted by the magic. Tim Stark’s production begins to touch lightly on that tension, occasionally reminding us that we are experiencing this together in the space of the theatre, but it allows the two men at the centre of the show to be its simple, singular focus.
– If it is just about these two people and their encounter with one another, then couldn’t the staging be even more spare?
– I thought you wanted fireworks?
– OK, but forget that. If there’s something strange about this space, something isolated from the rest of the world, something almost quietly fantastical, then why do they need all those objects? There’s a hint of the abstract to this world, but then it’s full of these all too solid things. Are the accessories of life really important?
– Maybe they’re a reminder, a vestige of the real world they’re escaping, the real world they have to return to. I just think that if it’s really about this relationship and about the possibility of revealing yourself more fully to a stranger than to those closest to you, then surely all we need is them. We don’t need the stuff.
– Except the apple. The apple’s good.
– That’s true. And the clothes feel important – as well as allowing for perhaps the most playfully elaborate undressing ever staged. But really, what matters is the two of them.
– Absolutely. There’s something else Otto says that struck me: “If you weren’t here, I’d have to invent you”. It’s a line that speaks so simply to our need for contact and also to our capacity for imagination. Is that why we invent things to believe in? The conversations of Holman’s plays, like that between Jonah and Otto, allow human beings to believe in one another and to speak aloud those fears, anxieties, dreams, guilts that we bury under layers of small talk and distraction. People truly come together. And the coming together has to be followed by a pulling apart; the characters are ultimately left, transformed, hopeful yet sad, to confront the world alone. What do you think?
– Are you still there?
Photo: Jack Sain.