Naturalism, Optimism and Donuts


Originally written for Exeunt.

Ned Bennett is telling me a story about the back wall of the Royal Court, a fixture held in reverential affection by a good chunk of the theatre community. During preparations for The Ritual Slaughter of Gorge Mastromas, the ordinarily black wall – which was visible for portions of the show – had to be made to look like exposed brickwork. Instead of stripping the paint back to the bricks beneath it, Bennett explains, the black surface was painted over with brick-effect artwork. Bricks painted to look like bricks.

This small absurdity is oddly apt for both the postmodern commentary of Gorge Mastromas, in which surface is everything, and for the self-mythologizing urges of the Royal Court. Few theatres are quite so invested in their own history. Bennett emerges fresh from this environment, having just finished a year as trainee director with the theatre, in twelve months that spanned the departure of Dominic Cooke, the arrival of Vicky Featherstone, and the whirlwind festival of Open Court. It was nothing if not a baptism of fire.

“It was certainly demystified in no small way,” Bennett admits, agreeing that there is a potentially intimidating aspect to the building’s status within modern British theatre. “It’s funny, though,” he goes on, “you go in being aware of all the history … and it feels like it’s very important to acknowledge the history, then kind of leave it at the door, as it were, and see what’s happening next.”

Despite the demystification, Bennett clearly still holds a fierce affection for the theatre and the projects he worked on during his time there, which ranged from directing a production that toured around schools to being right in the thick of Open Court. “I’d always admired, respected, loved the theatre,” he says, “but what never ceases to amaze me about the building – and this is proper gushy – is how uncynical it is, how uncynical a place to work it is. It is all about trying to create the most interesting, most urgent, most exciting plays, and they’re a very cohesive bunch who all are pulling in the same direction.”

Open Court, the summer festival during which Featherstone handed the keys to the theatre’s writers and the building hosted a staggering range of different events, was clearly a highlight for Bennett. “It was amazing to be going from rehearsing one weekly rep and putting that into tech, and then starting that day on the next weekly rep, and working with a really versatile, exciting rep company of actors. It felt like with Open Court we discovered a lot about what direction the theatre was going to go in from then onwards.”

It was during Open Court that Bennett and I first met, while he was assisting on Anthony Neilson’s Collaboration project. Neilson too was an important feature of Bennett’s time at the Court; as well as being involved with Collaboration, he assisted earlier in the year on Narrative. Neilson’s process, which involves working closely with actors while developing a new play, is one that fascinates both of us. We discuss the openness of his rehearsal room, in which Bennett says “play and curiosity become part of the lifeblood of the room”, and the trust he places in both the actors and the collaborative process.

“What I got from Anthony that I thought was amazing was his perseverance in exploration, rather than immediately wanting to get results then and there,” Bennett tells me. “So if it wasn’t ready, it wasn’t ready; we’d just keep exploring, keep going and keep trying out different things.” This closely tallies with my own experience of Neilson’s rehearsal room, where ideas were gently pushed in new directions and input was welcomed from all directions. “Simply, he creates a non-hierarchical room, and then you get such surprising results.”

Bennett’s year at the Royal Court followed hot on the heels of his explosive revival of Philip Ridley’s Mercury Fur at the Old Red Lion, a show that was 2012’s unexpected hit of the fringe. When I mention that the production with which Bennett made his breakthrough was almost two years ago, he shakes his head in smiling disbelief. He is still a little disbelieving, too, about the show’s success; “we were really, really surprised,” he says of the overnight impact it made. Fuelled by astonishing word of mouth, Mercury Fur quickly sold out at the Old Red Lion, earning itself a transfer to Trafalgar Studios that same summer.

Ridley’s play is set in a dystopian near future, where London is a lawless wasteland and addictive hallucinogenic butterflies are eroding the memories of those still scratching out a living. Bennett’s startling, visceral production for Greenhouse Theatre Company created an electric charge in the tightly packed space of the Old Red Lion, drawing out both the play’s infamous power to shock and the surprising humanity of its characters and their love for one another.

“I was just so struck by the relationship between the two brothers, Elliot and Darren, and this big question of what would you do for those that you love,” Bennett says, getting right to the heart of his interpretation. He describes Mercury Fur as a “modern masterpiece”, explaining that when he was given the script to read by Greenhouse’s Henry Lewis and Joel Samuels it immediately became his favourite play. Even with this faith in the material, however, he was blown away by the response it received. Bennett attributes some of this to the production’s appearance in the wake of the 2011 riots, which lent Ridley’s play a haunting prescience, but he is clear that his version did not set out to make this connection. For Bennett, it was all about the characters.

It is character once again that has attracted Bennett to Tracy Letts’ Superior Donuts, the UK premiere of which he is currently directing at the Southwark Playhouse. It is being presented by the same company behind Mercury Fur, who have newly reinvented themselves as The Trick. Bennett is a “huge fan” of Letts and is excited to get his hands on this script. “I always found that his writing – as with Ridley – has such a visceral complexity to it,” he explains the fascination.

Superior Donuts is set in a donut shop in Chicago, telling the story of the man who runs it and the people who pass through every day. “You’ve got these nine fantastic characters, aged 21 to 72, all endowed with such depth and humanity,” says Bennett. “I found it profoundly moving and hugely optimistic. It just felt like the right play to do, and it couldn’t be more different from Mercury Fur.”

While Bennett describes the play as a “naturalistic piece”, he is interested in ways of pushing that naturalism in his production. “We didn’t just want to build a donut shop,” he explains. “The brilliant Fly Davies has come up with an incredible design that allows us to represent the off-stage world in a non-literal way in the space.” He quickly adds that they are “not doing some big expressionistic production of it”, but it is clear that his production hopes to test what can be done within an ostensibly naturalistic framework.

When I ask how Bennett feels about naturalism as a director, he wrestles a little with the question. Referring to projects such as Narrative, which clearly departed from naturalism, he suggests that his own position is somewhat ambivalent, before adding, “I don’t think there is an either/or”. We end up discussing Secret Theatre, which offers an intriguing marriage of a more naturalistic, character-based British tradition with continental influences that are less interested in realistic representation.

“One of my biggest interests is definitely character,” Bennett says, “but I think – as things like Secret Theatre’s Streetcar showed – you can still create, represent, express amazing characters, but not necessarily be pinned down to some kind of naturalistic context. I sort of feel like I’m just exploring what that means.” For now, he is happy to remain on the fence and keep exploring.

Photo: Ben Broomfield.

Why So Shocked? The Art of Unsettling

A nightly explosion is taking place on the stage of Islington’s Old Red Lion Theatre. As Greenhouse Theatre Company’s performance of Mercury Fur enters its devastating, loud and bloody conclusion, audience members alternately lean forwards and recoil; heaving, audible sobs echo around the intimate, claustrophobic space; a couple of theatregoers seem on the verge of complete breakdown. Never have I felt an audience so unified in tension, shock and emotional release.

The visceral punch of Mercury Fur is nothing new. When the play premiered in 2005, it was quickly labelled as Philip Ridley’s most controversial work to date, and Faber and Faber famously refused to publish the playscript on the grounds of its shocking content. It was a reaction that continues to infuriate Ridley. Speaking in an interview with Exeunt’s Tom Wicker, the playwright says, perhaps flippantly but nonetheless incisively, “if I’d reinvented Mercury Fur as a lost Greek tragedy and set it in Thebes, no one would have batted an eyelid”.

It only takes a cursory glance at the canon of Greek tragedy to prove Ridley’s point; Medea, for instance, kills her own children, while Oedipus famously sleeps with his mother and plucks out his own eyes. The significant fact to remember about Greek drama, however, is its origin in myth. The theatre of Ancient Greece was born as a way of exploring the contemporary problems and issues ailing the Athenians, but through a medium that was divorced from the citizens’ everyday lives. We might ask ourselves how much has really changed since the days of Sophocles and Euripides. Do we continue to be more comfortable with depictions of human cruelty when they are one step removed from our immediate experience?

In order to investigate the unique fascination and repulsion provoked by “shock theatre”, as we might label it for the purposes of this blog, it may be helpful to consider this within the wider context of other cultural mediums that also deal with acts of human brutality and the uncomfortable themes of death and decay. Two such genres that seem particularly relevant at present are dystopian fiction and film, which have seen an extraordinary resurgence in the teenage market, and the confrontational art that emerged in the 1990s and is exemplified by Damien Hirst’s current retrospective at the Tate Modern.

Firstly, dystopian fiction may be nothing new, but it is undoubtedly experiencing a fresh renaissance and a new legion of fans. This can in part be attributed to the ubiquity of Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy of books, now also a box office smashing film franchise, although this is only part of a larger, thriving teenage market for dystopian narratives. Of course, as proved by the enduring popularity of novels such as 1984 and more recent hits like The Road, it is not only the youngsters with a taste for the post-apocalyptic, but it is the hunger of the young adult market for this challenging fare that has brought dystopia right back to the forefront of the literary marketplace.

In her article for the New Yorker, Laura Miller argues that the appeal of dystopian fiction for younger readers derives from the way in which these novels, however far-fetched, identify with the realities of teenage experience. Miller also points out that the major way in which dystopian fiction differs from its older sibling is in its conclusion: young adult dystopias favour salvation and catharsis, whereas the grown-up version typically ends in crushing despair. But in either case, no matter how gruesome – The Hunger Games hinges around children fighting to the death for public entertainment; in Cormac McCarthy’s bleak novel The Road, a baby is roasted on a spit – readers and viewers, young and old alike, happily gobble it up.

The work of the media-dubbed Young British Artists of the 1990s, meanwhile, is similarly gruesome and provocative, though not as easily accepted. When Hirst first unleashed his formaldehyde creations on the world, the art establishment did not know what to make of them, initiating a stunned disgust that would accompany the rise of Hirst and his peers. There are, in fact, many parallels that can be drawn between the work of these artists and the In-Yer-Face theatre movement that surfaced at the same time and was characterised by the plays of writers such as Ridley, Sarah Kane and Mark Ravenhill, parallels that are helpfully highlighted in Stewart Pringle’s excellent essay for Exeunt. The art, however, has seemingly mellowed with age in a way that the theatre has not, at least in the eyes of onlookers.

As Pringle ultimately argues, the output of the likes of Hirst and Tracey Emin has lost its shock and the “theatrical frisson” that made its name. Visual works of art are crystallized, static, trapped within the moment of their creation, and as such the shock of their reception is dulled by the passing of the years. This is something that Ridley, himself a visual artist as well as a writer, is acutely aware of. As he puts it in the interview with Wicker, “young audiences, families, will go to the Tate Modern and happily walk through sliced up sheep, pickled sharks and unmade beds with tampons on them. But do something like that in a stage play and people are outraged and you’re a ‘shockmaster’.”

It is clear, then, that theatre is still capable of ruffling critical feathers. The most striking recent example of this was Daily Mail critic Quentin Letts’ outraged diatribe against the provocative output of subsidised theatres, which he depicted as profane “gobblers” of public money. Expressing his opinion is one thing, and is after all what he is paid to do, but Letts was also allegedly involved in some shocking behaviour of his own. According to playwright Dan Rebellato, the critic tried to persuade the Lyric Hammersmith’s private donors to withdraw their money after the theatre staged a revival of Edward Bond’s seminal post-war play Saved.

If true, Letts’ actions are disgraceful, but that is a rant for another time, and one that Rebellato articulates far more eloquently than I could hope to. Placing this to one side, it is worth considering just what made Letts so incensed. The critic expresses concern about the decline of “communal decency” and distaste for the prevalence of bad language and violence, both of which are no doubt considered offensive by some theatregoers, in which case they have the choice not to buy a ticket or to leave before the end. We are, like Letts, all entitled to our own opinions and tastes.

Yet Letts’ argument seems to hinge on boredom. He admits that he fell victim to a “huge yawn” during the baby stoning scene in Saved, and states that in today’s theatre, “rape, murder, nudity and profanity have lost their shock value”, becoming “almost de rigueur”. However, his actions, as Rebellato points out, tell a different story. Likewise, the collective reaction to the denouement of Mercury Fur – a reaction which, by all accounts, was typical of the entire run – stands as testimony that the play has lost none of its vicious sting. Theatre such as this has the same bruising impact as it always has, and this is what Letts, beneath his affectation of ennui, seems to object to.

The answer to why theatre retains the ability to shock and to provoke such vehement reactions would appear to lie in the nature of its liveness and immediacy. Or, as Pringle puts it, plays such as Mercury Fur are “revived through the living, in a living space which has grown out of its own era”. It is perhaps not what is actually being portrayed that we struggle to accept as much as the proximity – both physical and psychological. Whether safely enclosed within the pages of a book or behind a cinema screen, or set in a comfortingly distant dystopian wasteland or mythical Greek realm, we can swallow our dose of cruelty when its side-effects seem not to touch us. It is only when these dark imaginings are diagnosed as a very real presence in human nature within today’s society that the cultural arbiters of that society shun it, deride it, even condemn it. Theatre should, in the words of Hamlet, “hold as ’twere the mirror up to nature”, but apparently only when that reflection is not an ugly one.

Reflection is something that Letts also seems to have a problem with in his article. He asks whether we should “take the view that, like Shakespearean court jesters, subsidised thespians are there to hold a mirror to our failings”. The answer, it seems to me even if not to Letts, is yes. Great theatre can also, as Letts suggests it might, aspire to change society in some way, but his belief that theatre makers should “use their power to mend our country instead of simply ‘reflecting’ it” feels like backward logic. Only once we have made the diagnosis can we turn our minds to finding a cure.

As depressing as it may sound, there seems to me little doubt that this shock theatre does reflect a buried, ugly side of human nature. Who was not, like Narcissus, both intrigued and enchanted by their own image when first viewing it in a mirror? I suspect that what disgusts and repels us about disturbing works of art is also what attracts us; we see something of ourselves, or at least of the human condition, in what is presented before us. Dystopian narratives and shock theatre alike speak to an aspect of human nature that is as unsettling as it is irrefutable.

While Elliot’s recollection of riots on the streets in Mercury Fur feels chillingly prescient in the light of the events of last summer, the issues dealt with by this and similar plays are not, as their critics seem to think they are, exclusive to this particular moment in time. Society may currently feel particularly broken, but these are universal, timeless concerns; as director Paul Davies says in reference to A Clockwork Orange – another controversial, dystopian narrative – “civilisation is a veneer”. All that the likes of Ridley are doing is chipping away at that veneer to expose the darkness beneath. And that darkness, as made clear by our ongoing fascination with works of art such as those discussed above, has always been there.

Shivered, Southwark Playhouse

In this latest piece from seemingly ubiquitous polymath Philip Ridley, form does not so much reflect content as it does context. Ridley’s shattered play is a chillingly appropriate response to an increasingly fractured modern society, with casually engendered violence and careless cruelty glinting back at us from each piercing shard of narrative. It is not quite entirely without hope or brief glimpses of redemption, but the dark, nightmarish landscape of Shivered does evoke the sense that, as disillusioned soldier Alec passionately argues, the world is almost incurably sick.

Ridley’s chopped up story takes as its setting the fictional Essex new-town of Draylingstowe, once upon a time a symbol of hope and prosperity, now a post-industrial playground for violent youth. The derelict car plant that once held the town’s promise is now a shady backdrop for drug-taking, suicide and cruel sexual fantasies, while Draylingstowe’s disenchanted citizens find meaning in conspiracy theories, whispers of extra-terrestrial activity and mysterious canal-dwelling monsters. It is a world that hovers somewhere between fairytale, nightmare and grim reality; grubby concrete illuminated by the garish lights and glitter of the fairground.

This semi-mythical world is vividly conjured by Ridley’s assorted collage of narrative snapshots, cutting and dicing the story of two interlinked Draylingstowe families. Lyn’s family is as fragmented as the play itself, shattered by the loss first of her son Alec, who is brutally beheaded while serving overseas in the army, and then the disappearance of husband Mikey, leaving her with only her younger, UFO-obsessed son Ryan. When the fair arrives in town it brings with it the tantalising promise of sexual excitement, as Lyn meets opportunistic showman Gordy and the pair begin to meet in the disused car plant, her son’s favourite haunt. Meanwhile, Ryan’s friend Jack finds escape from the torment of bullies and the daily drudge of caring for his overweight mother in graphic YouTube videos of sex and violence – one of which happens to be a recording of Alec’s horrific execution.

But none of it is quite as simple as this. The above narrative is the one that we as an audience piece together, filling in the blanks between the scattered series of scenes that Ridley presents before us, making almost subconscious links. It is an ingenious, dazzling exercise in plotting, throwing chronology into chaos without plunging the whole into incomprehensible obscurity, but Ridley’s experimental approach to structure is not a mere demonstration of his startling ability as a writer. Central to the play that Ridley has crafted are questions of how we fight to find meaning and explain our own existence, be it through narrative, religion or superstition.

There is repeated talk of ‘illusory contours’: the patterns we find in unlinked objects, like constellations of stars. This same mental process is one that we are unwittingly forced into, as Ridley coaxes us into making connections before throwing these into doubt. Are these collected scenes really linked in the way we imagine them to be, or are we guilty of the same forced, wilful conclusions as Ryan in his determined hunt for UFOs? What, ultimately, can we believe in? In the dark, slowly rotting world of the play, under the haunting spectre of abandoned industrialisation and rapidly unravelling values, the answer would seem to be very little.

The bare, evocatively lit space of the Southwark Playhouse has never seemed more bleak than in Russell Bolam’s stripped down, almost minimalist production. There is nowhere to hide for either writing or actors – or for audience, for that matter. Ridley’s boldly drawn characters jump out at us, sometimes quite literally in the case of Gordy’s fairground act, performed with effervescent showmanship by the buzzing, charismatic Andrew Hawley. There is impressive work too from a fragile yet cuttingly sardonic and sometimes fiercely wounding Olivia Poulet as Lyn and from Robbie Jarvis as her broken son Alec, who is haunted by unnamed ‘monsters’.

Ridley’s strange, disturbing not-quite-dystopia is never as unsettling, however, as when seen through the eyes of its young protagonists, whose twelve-year-old imaginations the playwright has convincingly penetrated. Ryan and Josh retain barely discernible traces of youthful innocence and optimism, but their existence has been permeated by technology and readily available violence, numbing them to the reality of physical aggression and placing a computer or mobile phone screen between them and all of their experiences. These two troubled and troubling youngsters are convincingly portrayed by the outstanding Joseph Drake and Joshua Williams, who are by turns bitingly funny and uncompromisingly brutal – phrases that could well describe Ridley’s play.

Despite a plot which is, when reassembled into chronological order, comparatively slight, this is meaty fare. Ridley dwells on both startlingly contemporary issues, such as our desensitisation to violence and the very real threats of post-industrial society, and timeless, universal questions of how we find meaning in our lives, with vivid dashes of magical storytelling thrown in for good measure. It is, as the playwright himself has described it, a ‘state-of-the-nation dream play’. The dreamlike is always close to the surface here, featuring dialogue saturated with fantastical references to monsters, aliens and other childhood fears. But the real world, as Ridley unflinchingly demonstrates, is so much scarier.

Shivered runs at the Southwark Playhouse until 14 April.