Rachel Chavkin: Riding the Elephant

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Originally written for Exeunt.

For a theatremaker whose work has a distinctly American flavour, Rachel Chavkin has a surprisingly close relationship with British theatre. The artistic director of The TEAM, a company who have made a name for themselves interrogating modern American identity, was last over here with Mission Drift, which had its first London run at The Shed last summer after premiering on the Edinburgh Fringe in 2011. When we speak, she is in Newcastle for rehearsals of her new stage version of Catch 22 at Northern Stage; other ongoing projects include a collaboration with Chris Thorpe and a new TEAM show being made in partnership with the National Theatre of Scotland.

“It’s the culture of theatre here,” Chavkin explains the continuing appeal. In contrast to American theatres, which rarely have in-house bars or restaurants, she is drawn to the community that gathers around theatres in this country, where people meet to socialise and extend the conversations started on the stage. “The idea that the theatre is a building of culture and life has had a huge influence on my work with The TEAM and my sense of what I want theatre to be doing in the world.”

For her latest project, however, Chavkin is making work for British audiences without the company of The TEAM. The idea of adapting Catch 22 for Lorne Campbell’s first main stage season as artistic director of Northern Stage was first suggested in early conversations about the programme, as it emerged that Chavkin had long nurtured an interest in Joseph Heller’s novel. When they discovered that Heller himself had already written a stage adaptation of the book, Chavkin was the obvious choice for director.

She describes the novel, which follows the nightmarish experiences of Captain John Yossarian during the Second World War, as an “extraordinary piece of philosophy and absurdism”. The novel offers a formidable challenge in its presenting of events out of sequence, mirroring the rule of its title in its circular, repetitive structure. It is the book’s more philosophical strands that Chavkin hopes her production can draw out, conveying the “feeling of existential despair” that the narrative builds to.

“The sense of purgatory, of Yossarian caught in this kind of purgatorial loop, that’s the driving idea behind this production and behind the staging,” Chavkin explains. While Heller’s script brings with it certain limitations, she tells me that “the back story and wealth of worlds that Heller presents in the novel has a profound impact on how we’re able to understand the play”. The novel is informing how she presents the “space around the text” and has influenced an aesthetic which contrasts an atmosphere of celebration and fun with the unremitting devastation of conflict. “War is great, other than the war part.”

The advantage of the novel is that, despite not being able to directly consult the writer about the production, there are pages upon pages of additional material available at Chavkin’s fingertips. In this sense, she suggests, “you sort of do have the writer with you”. Chavkin explains that as a freelance director she is more accustomed to working with writers on new plays, a practice that has increasingly fed into the way she creates work with The TEAM.

“When The TEAM was first beginning to create, and for many years of our company’s life, we would always try to fix problems by rewriting them,” Chavkin recalls. “We always turned to writing first and foremost if something didn’t make sense to us. And actually now I have become much more protective of each individual writer’s contribution within The TEAM. Because as a freelance director I have to protect a new writer or a new play all the time, from both myself and the actors, who just may not understand it yet. Sometimes it means that there should be a rewrite, but very often it means there’s some different logic at work in a play and you just have to work a little bit harder to understand that.”

While Chavkin’s different creative processes have points of convergence, she also discusses contrasts between her work as a freelance director and her projects with The TEAM. Whereas The TEAM’s process tends to be “very gnarly and pretty horizontal”, there is a much clearer hierarchy in place when Chavkin is directing elsewhere, though she stresses that she is still “deeply interested in what the acting company and designers might bring to a show”.

Chavkin is working in a slightly different way again on Confirmation, her current project with Chris Thorpe. It is being written by Thorpe, but as director Chavkin has been deeply involved in the research and development of the show. The piece, which is going up to the Edinburgh Fringe this summer, investigates confirmation bias – the unconscious bias that leads us to interpret the world around us in ways that support our existing beliefs. Chavkin describes it as “a very aggressive force in our lives” and discusses how eye-opening their research has been.

“The image that a lot of the research uses is the rider and the elephant,” she says, explaining that the rider represents the conscious, rational brain, while the elephant is our unconscious. “The elephant is a much, much larger force than the rider, and the idea is that the rider can to a certain degree guide which way the elephant wants to go, but actually in most cases our rational brain exists to try to explain and justify to ourselves why the elephant is doing what it’s doing. The most surprising thing is the degree to which we are governed by our unconscious.”

It is going to be a busy Edinburgh Fringe for Chavkin this year, who is also presenting a workshop performance with The TEAM and the National Theatre of Scotland. The new collaboration between the two companies indirectly approaches the question of Scottish independence, exploring the national mythologies of both Scotland and the USA. Using the Scottish Enlightenment as its starting point, it traces the journey that the ideas emerging out of that era have made over the years, right up to the present day.

“The idea is that America was this place where all the ideas coming out of the Scottish Enlightenment actually got, like a petri dish, to act upon,” says Chavkin. “350 years later, I think America is finding itself in a somewhat bankrupt place with this radical misunderstanding of what Adam Smith wrote as our national religion, in terms of this incredibly unfettered capitalism.”

Talk of unfettered capitalism recalls Mission Drift, which took an epic, breakneck ride through 400 years of American history, from the earliest settlers to the twinkling spires of Las Vegas. There is undeniably a certain continuity that can be traced in The TEAM’s thinking, from the research into disaster capitalism that informed Architecting through to this latest project. “I think that’s a common theme in all our work,” Chavkin admits. “Something that comes up as an idea in one piece ends up developing and shifting and morphing into the germs of what inspire the next piece.”

Chavkin makes it clear that the new show, tentatively titled Scottish Enlightenment Project, is not explicitly dealing with the Scottish independence referendum and will not appear in its finished form until after the vote, which is a very deliberate decision. But again, as with so much of her work, it asks the questions that sit right at the heart of national identity. “Who do we want to be? What kind of democracy do we want to be? What are our values?”

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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.