Rory Mullarkey

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Originally written for The Stage.

“I’m bad at being told what to do,” says Rory Mullarkey with a grin. The playwright, raised in a military family, quickly found that taking orders wasn’t for him when he tried to join the army as a teenager. A few years later, fresh from studying Russian at Cambridge University, a stint at drama school in St Petersburg was similarly short-lived. “My temperament just was not suited to being told what to do for a year.”

The same unruly streak runs through Mullarkey’s plays. Cannibals, the play that made him the youngest writer ever staged in the Royal Exchange Theatre’s main house at 25, contained a whole section written daringly in Russian. His Royal Court debut The Wolf from the Door playfully set violent insurrection in the green and pleasant land of rural England, while Pentabus commission Each Slow Dusk deliberately eschewed accepted First World War narratives.

Avoiding or subverting convention, Mullarkey says, has paid off. “I wrote stuff for a while and sent it off to places, but when people really started to take notice of it and put it on was when I’d abandoned all desire to do anything that was what I thought I was supposed to do.”

The acting might not have stuck, but Mullarkey’s fascination with Russia did. He reels off a long list of Russian authors – Dostoyevsky, Lermontov, Goncharov, Chekhov, Pushkin, Gogol – whose influence has seeped into his writing. “I read and re-read those guys until they were in my metabolism, because I loved what they said so much; not only their stories, but also the philosophical weight of the feelings they express.” Learning Russian as a teenager at Manchester Grammar School, he fell in love “with the sounds of it, with the way the words move”.

It was Mullarkey’s Russian that got him his first gig out of university. While performing in his own play on the Edinburgh Fringe, word of the show spread to director Lyndsey Turner – Mullarkey’s “number one living inspiration” – who asked to read the script.

Discovering that Mullarkey could speak Russian, she quickly set him to work on a series of translations for the Royal Court, offering a crucial foot in the door. It was also a steep learning curve.

“Going through 20 plays and every single line, seeing it in one language and making it work as an active line in English – it’s probably the best education I could have asked for in making sure the dialogue I was trying to write was going to be active,” he says.

The Edinburgh Fringe show that got Mullarkey noticed back in 2007 – “I wouldn’t be here if I hadn’t done that,” he insists – was directed by one Robert Icke. Now, eight years later, both men have found themselves tackling The Oresteia, Aeschylus’s epic trilogy of Greek tragedies – Icke for the Almeida Theatre, Mullarkey for Shakespeare’s Globe.

“I’ve always loved it as a thing because it’s huge and ambitious,” says Mullarkey of the play cycle, adding that “it feels like it’s got this huge, monolithic weight behind it.”

Mullarkey and Icke’s new takes on The Oresteia are just the crest of a huge wave of Ancient Greek drama on British stages. Another Oresteia is coming to Home in Manchester later this year, while the Almeida continues its Greeks season with Bakkhai and Medea, alongside a summer festival of related events. That’s not to mention another new version of Medea at the Gate Theatre, Greek myths for kids at the Unicorn Theatre, and National Theatre Wales’ epic multimedia retelling of The Iliad.

What is it about these ancient narratives that speaks to us so powerfully now? Mullarkey suggests that in an age of globalisation and inconceivably powerful market forces, “our world feels a lot more confusing and abstracted and we feel further away from the decisions which affect our lives”, an experience that Aeschylus’ trilogy timelessly captures.

“It takes all of those things – foreign policy, the economy, discussions about gender and politics as a whole– and boils them down to the thing that is ultimately the most tangible thing of all, which is blood.”

Greek tragedy also offers plenty of scope for reinvention. As Mullarkey puts it: “The texts are these extraordinary stories but ultimately they’re blank canvases for adaptation and production.”

He’s seen Icke’s radical reworking of The Oresteia – “It was like listening to someone else tell you a story you’ve heard before” – but his own adaptation opts for a different tack, focusing instead on the role of the chorus. Rather than worrying about fidelity, Mullarkey suggests that it’s about the theatrical journey of the trilogy.

“The Oresteia takes the audience through such an extraordinary cycle of events,” he says. “That’s what you’ve got to try and get from doing a production of it: you come out of it having been through something.”

Photo: Marc Brenner.

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Mr Burns, Almeida Theatre

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Originally written for Exeunt.

Remember the one with Cape Fear? The parody of the film – the one with Robert De Niro, not the other one. There’s something about a tattoo. Maybe two tattoos? And a court case, there’s definitely a scene in a courtroom. Anyway, the Simpsons end up on a houseboat. They’re running away from something … Bart is receiving death threats, that’s it. They’re written in blood – no, tomato ketchup. Sideshow Bob is trying to kill him. Or is it Mr Burns?

This is the kind of stuttering, stumbling salvage that forms the patchwork fabric of Anne Washburn’s play, which mutates one iconic episode of The Simpsonsthrough a game of post-apocalyptic Chinese whispers. It’s cultural memory as mash-up. Gilbert and Sullivan by way of Bart and Lisa.

In the aftermath of an unspecified, civilization-splintering disaster – the hints suggest part pandemic, part nuclear catastrophe – a group of survivors are clustered around a fire. For comfort, they turn not to religion, but to pop culture. As flows and eddies of misinformation swirl around them, The Simpsonsbecomes a collective life raft. Memory is salvation.

Seven years later, as society is starting to wonkily slot itself back together, the television programmes (and commercials) of Before are big business. The characters we met in the first scene are now a makeshift theatre troupe scratching a living from the sale of nostalgia – and competition is fierce. Arguments erupt about which wine is most unchallengingly evocative (Chablis, apparently) and which pop hits to include in the ad-break music medley.

By the final act, which fast forwards another 75 years, the campfire story has gone through countless iterations and its batshit crazy telling has become a giddy whirl of cultural fragments. Director Robert Icke and designer Tom Scutt construct a teetering edifice of narrative and aesthetic bric-a-brac, from tattered scraps of Americana to oddly distorted movie allusions. Opera bleeds into Livin La Vida Loca. Eminem meets Britney. It’s blink-and-you-miss-the-reference fast, equal parts dazzling and disorienting. Where was that snippet of a melody from? Was that a nod to Peter Pan? How does the rest of that line go?

This kind of chaotic cultural bricolage will be familiar for 21st century viewers, but here it receives a crucial twist. Mr Burns is, as per its subtitle, post-electric rather than post-modern. There is no irony; this is a society earnestly retelling its founding cultural myth. And while some may shake their heads at the idea that it is The Simpsons rather than Shakespeare that survives the fall of civilization, Washburn has found a canny focus for teasing out the ways in which humans recycle and repurpose stories – a habit as old as the species. It’s just another kind of Homeric epic.

And there’s some intellectual weight behind the cultural cutting and pasting. Washburn’s imagined post-apocalypse is both a hymn to and an uncomfortable indictment of the artistic detritus that resiliently endures. Civilization, Mr Burnssuggests, is built on stories – but so is commerce and exploitation. Narrative sells.

It’s a thread that could be stretched further in Icke’s production, which sometimes gets distracted by its surface. The overwhelming range of references can obscure the fascinating cultural mutation at work, while the closing act is so shimmeringly strange that it is easy to get lost amid the woozy throng of pop culture. But while it may be a head-rush of a show, its ideas remain fizzing away for long after.

Photo: Manuel Harlan.

Embrace the Problem: Duncan Macmillan

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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.”

1984, Richmond Theatre

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Originally written for Exeunt.

George Orwell’s chilling dystopian novel is best remembered for the features that have seeped into our contemporary cultural consciousness: Big Brother, Room 101, the Thought Police. But perhaps the real key to Nineteen Eighty-Four lies in its final, often overlooked pages. In Headlong’s bracing new version, adaptors Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan use Orwell’s typically discarded Appendix as a means of re-examining his entire narrative, offering – in what sounds like a perfect instance of doublethink – an extraordinarily faithful transformation of the text.

Orwell’s dry, formal Appendix, entitled ‘The Principles of Newspeak’, begins with the seemingly innocuous words “Newspeak was the official language of Oceania”. Realising, like Orwell, the huge difference contained in a change of tense, Icke and Macmillan latch onto that crucial “was” and hang upon it their entire adaptation. In their nightmarish rendering of this dystopia, past, present and future are slippery, fluid categories, bleeding into one another before our eyes. What we are left with is the blank, continuous present that the Party envisioned, where the notion of history has been all but abolished.

This is achieved through the canny addition of a framing device, which tackles the troublesome Appendix by way of a book group interrogating Winston Smith’s tale. Imagining Orwell’s novel as an artefact, this structural flourish puts Winston’s experiences in direct dialogue with the future he hoped to speak to when starting his diary. And yet, in a conundrum that reveals the central problem of the Appendix itself, this textual artefact is not in fact Winston’s diary, but a third person account of his rebellion and suppression. How, then, has this document survived? Who has written it? And if it really has survived, who has allowed it to survive?

These questions are persistently posed by an adaptation that strikingly reconfigures Orwell’s text in service of a searching examination of what it is doing. Through an unsettling temporal slippage, the future framing of the narrative exists directly alongside Winston’s hatred for the party, his ill-fated love affair with Julia and his horrifying ordeal at the hands of the Ministry of Love. The world this structure creates is one where no firm foothold can be made on either the past or the future, one where uncertainty is the only constant, one where – most importantly – no document can be trusted.

The theatre, where a kind of doublethink is constantly in play, is the perfect arena for this dizzyingly intelligent interrogation of truth and fiction. Here, we are always caught in the process of accepting that an object on stage is at once one thing and another, a function of theatrical metaphor that Icke and Macmillan’s production repeatedly exploits. Mark Arends’ haunted, disorientated Winston always creates the impression of being both here and not here, dislocated from linear time. “Where do you think you are?” he is repeatedly asked, to which the answer is always bewilderment.

As well as the crossover between temporalities and characters, Chloe Lamford’s inspired set design epitomises this relentless doubling. The first part of the show is contained within a bland office space, all non-descript chairs, wood panelling and boxes of files. This serves as both the setting for the book group and the backdrop of Winston’s existence, demanding metaphor in order to function within the narrative. The only area external to this space is Winston and Julia’s short-lived retreat, which is at once hidden and exposed; it exists off stage, beyond our immediate gaze, but it is revealed to us via video footage on screens, putting us in the position of the ever-vigilant eye of Big Brother. In the final third of the show, meanwhile, this design achieves a breathtaking transformation, stripping away tangible referents in a process that mirrors Winston’s struggle to hold onto memory and reality, yet still refusing to fix itself on just one, determinable location.

And it does not stop with the design. Every last element of this production, from the discordant strains of Tom Gibbons’ sound design to Natasha Chivers’ accomplished lighting, which ranges from the unsettlingly anaemic to the blindingly bright, contributes to a disquieting atmosphere of uncertainty and uprootedness from time. We, like Winston, have nothing solid to grasp onto.

With Chelsea Manning, the NSA and Edward Snowden still dominating headlines, we hardly need reminding of the continued and disturbing resonance of Orwell’s 1949 novel. Headlong’s startling new production, however, suggestsNineteen Eighty-Four’s prescience in another, deeper way. Orwell’s vision, Icke and Macmillan reveal, penetrated beyond the structural framework of surveillance, right down to the disorientating experience of modern life under late capitalism. Like all the worst nightmares, its chill emanates from its uncanniness.

Boys, Soho Theatre

Watching as a recent graduate, Ella Hickson’s latest play is both mildly terrifying and depressingly familiar. Her broken, desperately partying characters painfully evoke the rabbit-in-the-headlights panic of confronting life after university, while Chloe Lamford’s precisely detailed design, right down to the cupboard handles (though thankfully excluding the mess), is almost a carbon copy of my own student kitchen. Coupled with the frantic, competitive drinking and the forced irony of fancy dress, Boys induces a heavy and slightly uncomfortable sense of déjà vu. I’ve been here before.

Hickson’s play comes underscored with a quiet cry of “we’re fucked”. Her graduating students, Benny and Mack, are about to go out into a world that doesn’t want or care about them, leaving a childhood that has promised them everything to enter an adult life that will most likely deliver nothing. Meanwhile, one of their housemates, Cam, freaks out in the face of a concert that could change his life, and the other, Timp, stands as a cautionary example of the monotony of getting stuck in a dead-end job. It’s the boys’ last night together before they must all move out and there’s only one thing they’re certain about: they are going to have one hell of a party.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, none of Hickson’s characters want to grow up. From eternally partying Timp, about to enter his thirties with the mentality of an eighteen-year-old, appropriately dressed as Peter Pan, to the students in denial about their swiftly approaching graduation, there is a stunted, childlike atmosphere to this world. It is not insignificant that the fancy dress theme they choose for their end-of-year party is Disney. Nostalgia taints everything in this backward-looking environment, because the future is just too scary; everyone has their heads buried in the sandpit.

While they put off tomorrow, the boys’ riotous embracing of today is frequently hilarious. Once again the déjà vu attacks, as Hickson perceptively captures the banter and bravado of student dialogue, nailing every last reference and successfully distilling that youthful cocktail of forced confidence and crippling insecurity. These contradictory elements both surface too in the utterly convincing performances of the young cast, who paste over fragility with indifference and play wasted with slurring commitment. Much as he did with Headlong’s strikingly youthful Romeo and Juliet, director Robert Icke injects proceedings with an espresso shot of energy, as the youngsters dance on the table and aggressively knock back drinks.

This edges close to a Skins-esque view of “yoof”, all pints, pills and parties, but Hickson is too clever to pigeon-hole her young characters in the same way that the media is so often guilty of. Beneath the bloodshot eyes and strained façades, tenderness blinks through, while the crude harshness of male banter is softened slightly by the presence of Timp’s chatterbox girlfriend Laura and guarded, delicate Sophie, the ex-girlfriend of Benny’s brother. Benny, whose wounds are closest to the surface, feels the need to fix things – perhaps a reaction to his own brokenness, poignantly conveyed by Danny Kirrane. This is set in opposition to Samuel Edward Cook’s tough guy Mack, who aggressively insists that we are all responsible for ourselves and no one else in a particularly unappealing portrait of staunch individualism.

Through such relationships, Hickson grapples with a wide collection of ideas, some with more success than others. The central nugget is this rage at a world in which the future of the generation now graduating is uncertain at best and stark at worst, but plenty more is going on here. The young characters question what it means to be successful, what the purpose of knowledge is, whether we are responsible for others, if it is still possible to have faith in anything. There is a sense of searching, though this can turn into clumsy fumbling. The scope is to be admired, but sometimes the execution is crude and clunky, increasingly so in the meandering second half as external riots intrude into this claustrophobic pressure cooker. Hickson stalls and starts up again, offering what feel like dramatic conclusions before ploughing on, and eventually soothing the sting of her message with sentimental catharsis.

Hickson’s metaphors, like her plot, start out arresting but end up overdone. The pile-up of rubbish bags caused by local strikes (yet another situation familiar to me from my own student days) becomes a repeated symbol of the trash mounted up by previous generations that is now beginning to rot and fester, asking questions about how we clear it up. Do we simply follow suit and dump our mess on others – the “inalienable right to dump your shit on someone else”, as Mack sneeringly puts it – or must we keep it inside with us and let it poison the air we breathe? This returns to the debate between Benny and Mack about responsibility, but is pushed beyond resonant, underlying significance into the glaringly obvious, until the whole kitchen is swamped in rubbish. By the time the characters eventually set about cleaning up, the symbolism has lost all potency through heavy-handed repetition.

While the conclusion may collapse into sentimentality, it is fitting that there are no easy solutions or resolutions offered in the face of a hostile world that the boys are reluctant to enter and approach with a sigh of apathy. Echoes of Mike Bartlett’s Love, Love, Love can be heard in the youngsters’ resigned recognition that they will never achieve or earn as much as their parents, while the laboured metaphor of the ever increasing rubbish repeats the idea that this generation did not create the mess we are now having to clean up. I was also reminded of another Bartlett line, this time from Earthquakes in London: “bad things are happening, let’s bury our heads in the sand”. This is certainly the mentality of Hickson’s characters, who are only briefly able to look their own bleak future in the eye before returning their gaze to the immediate debris.

Reflecting at a slight distance, it occurs to me that while the ending falters, this might just be somehow appropriate, if disappointing. Hickson writes herself into a situation that is difficult to conclude; the generation she writes about (which just happens to be my generation) is finding it equally difficult to envision where we might end up. Not an intentional symmetry, but a strangely apt one. Conclusions are not forthcoming in either case. Perhaps being young is, in Cam’s words, “as good as it ever fucking gets”.  And in today’s world, that is possibly the most depressing idea of all.