Rory Mullarkey

1536Oresteia-700x455

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.

Village Halls, Village Voices

unnamed-2-600x395

Originally written for Exeunt.

A robin perches, quivering, on a line of barbed wire. Sun dances across the snow. Uniformed men run, smile, play football and shake hands; one slips a bar of chocolate into the pocket of another. And a message flashes up on the screen: “Christmas is for sharing”.

“Everything looks great in that Sainsbury’s advert,” says playwright Rory Mullarkey, voice stained with a mixture of anger and disbelief. We’re chatting in a corner of the pub in Tirril, our conversation drifting towards the familiar iconography that has been rolled out for the centenary of the First World War. This advert, Rory comments wryly, represents the “Disneyfied” version of the conflict. It’s not an image that he or his play Each Slow Dusk – which we’re in Tirril to see – is interested in.

“I feel like there’s a perceived World War I narrative that you can see from War Horse all the way through to the Sainsbury’s advert,” says Rory, naming all the tropes that we’re familiar with from our stages and screens. “You’re not ever getting any closer to what the First World War actually was, you’ve just experienced a traditional narrative except that the obstacle has been the First World War.” To get underneath that perception, to scratch away at what the legacy of that war actually means, he suggests that it’s necessary to move beyond this sanitised remembrance. The real picture, of course, is far from beautiful.

“It was mud, it was blood, it was guts, it was horror.”

The sky is a brightening grey when I arrive in Tirril earlier the same day, wan sunlight just tickling the edges of the clouds. The darker grey and black of the Reading Rooms stands out against it, the inscription “1914” on the building’s facade eliciting a little shiver. Talking to local promoter Jimmie Reynolds once inside, he explains that the coinciding of the hall’s 100th birthday with the centenary of the First World War was one reason for wanting to bring in Each Slow Dusk. And it’s important for people to think about these things, he adds later over a cup of tea.

Tirril, a small village at the edge of the Lake District, is just one of the many rural areas Each Slow Dusk is visiting on its tour with Pentabus. The piece has been designed specifically for village halls, from the initial commission to the direction and design. Rachael Griffin, Pentabus’s managing director and my guide for the weekend, explains that this process allows the company to tailor the shows they produce for rural venues and audiences. Pentabus sketch the initial outline, then the writer is given freedom to fill it in. For Rory, the constraint is a creative one.

“It sounds like a slightly mystical thing to say, but I believe that the piece of work or the play is always out there somewhere and it’s my job to make a series of decisions to allow it to come to me and be present. If you know something like how many actors it is, how long it has to be or whatever, that’s a parameter that can significantly aid your creative thinking.”

As part of the writing process, Rory also visited some of the village halls the show might tour to – an opportunity to “imbibe” their atmosphere. The village hall as a building has a distinct identity, one caught up in history, community and nostalgia. Stepping into Tirril’s chilly, high-ceilinged Reading Rooms, I’m immediately hit by memories of my own village hall growing up: Christmas fairs, bring and buy sales, bad discos spent slugging Panda Pops.

The get-in is almost a performance itself. After a much-needed cup of tea – problems on the road have contributed to the company’s general exhaustion – rigging, lights and set are swiftly hauled out of the Tardis-like van. A month into the tour, this is a slick operation by now, but still one involving a precarious amount of kit to be installed on the hall’s compact stage. On the first night, one of the actors tells me in the pub later, it took a good few hours to dismantle everything after the production; now it requires just one.

When I grab a few minutes to talk to Jimmie, he explains that Each Slow Dusk is a relative risk for the Reading Rooms, which is more likely to receive music and live entertainment. People just want a good night out, he says. There’s also a danger, given the outpouring of art to mark the centenary, that audiences have “First World War fatigue”. Speaking to Rory later in the afternoon, though, I have a feeling that Each Slow Dusk may well challenge the narrative with which we’ve all become so familiar over recent months.

“I thought I would try and write the most open thing I possibly could,” Rory tells me, just a couple of hours before I see Each Slow Dusk. On the page, the first act barely even looks like theatre. Rather than dialogue, it consists of a long series of poetic stage directions. All action, no talk. It’s easy to see both how it represents a risk for promoters like Jimmie and how it fulfils Pentabus’s aim, articulated to me by Rachael, to bring rural audiences work which is ambitious in form and content.

Staged, however, it soon makes perfect sense. The actions belong to three different soldiers: a Captain, a Corporal and a Private, played by David Osmond, Lee Rufford and Sam Heron respectively. All are the same age – nineteen and a half – and all have been sent out on night patrol. The Captain is reluctant, the Corporal pumped with excitement, the Private terrified but determined to prove he’s not a “fucking coward”. Not directly interacting with one another, the three performers instead direct their lines to the audience, describing their actions in the present tense. The style takes a while to settle, but then it grabs a firm stranglehold on the audience.

The writing is more prose than drama and might at first glance be dismissed as novelistic. Yet it soon becomes clear that there is something intensely theatrical about both the rhythm of the lines and the terrible forward movement of the actions they describe. Despite the simplest of stagings from Elizabeth Freestone, subtly enhanced by Adrienne Quartly’s sound design, there’s something incredibly dynamic about it all. And, problematically, it’s kind of thrilling. The play asks us, guiltily, to acknowledge that there might be something exciting about the heat of conflict, even in the midst of all its undeniable horrors.

The three unnamed soldiers also offer a complex picture of the First World War and those who fought and died in it. The absence of names plays with the way in which soldiers have been “loaded with the freight of social commentary,” in Rory’s words, while at the same time refusing to allow each of these characters to be reduced to the mere symbol of “soldier”. The Corporal in particular challenges our collective idea of the First World War soldier as saintly victim. Here is a soldier who revels in what he does, who is proud of his skill in fighting and killing, and who would happily take the battlefield over a lifetime of picking potatoes.

“There are as many kinds of soldier as there are kinds of person,” says Rory, skewering – as his play does – the popular image of identical, “lovely lads” sent off to be slaughtered. “Those ‘lovely lads’ were just exactly the same as any lad is nowadays; they were just as likely to swear, just as obsessed by sex, just as violent, just as moody. They were human beings, and it felt like it was important to write something which didn’t cast them in the mode of victim the whole time – that they had agency and dignity.”

As the audience move around the hall during the interval, chatting to neighbours and buying raffle tickets, there’s a definite sense that we are in their space. This is first and foremost a place for community rather than one for theatre, and it shows. The size and warmth of the audience – a far cry from small-scale tours which often struggle to fill half the seats in a studio theatre – feels like a vindication of the idea that you really get theatre to talk to people’s lives by taking it to them. But entering an audience’s midst rather than extending them an invitation requires a different creative thought process.

“You’re making a very different kind of statement if you’re going to someone’s home with a show and you’re bringing it to them,” Rory suggests, stressing that he wanted to write a play that “would feel generous and warm and alive to a village hall audience”. So while Each Slow Dusk might be challenging in lots of ways, it was important for everyone involved that it speaks to the audiences it is going out to.

Rachael and Rory talk about the directness that feels right for these village hall spaces, but there is also something around proximity. The actors are right there, barely separated from the audience, and available for a chat in the small gap between the end of the performance and the get-out. On this particular night, the presence of the playwright adds an extra ripple of excitement and Rory finds himself, to his slight bemusement, signing playscripts.

Before I leave the following day, a cup of tea and a chat with Sue Hayward – the seasoned promoter in nearby Arnside – sheds some more light on the programming of this and other events. Many of her comments confirm what I see during the interval: audience members relish the intimacy, the opportunity to have professional performers come right to their doorstop and hang around for a conversation afterwards. Theatre is demystified.

One thing that I hear about repeatedly is the level of loyalty that rural audiences have for their village halls. In a way that most venues can only dream about, they trust in and care about the space and will attend performances more for the location than the specific offer. This then allows the volunteer promoters, who are often embedded at the heart of the communities they programme for, to take risks. Sue can take a punt on contemporary dance, inviting Compagnie T d’U to Arnside for the first time next year. And Jimmie can welcome Pentabus to Tirril, where a full audience sit rapt for an hour and a half in front of Each Slow Dusk.

“We’ve got a real remembrance industry,” Rory observes during the course of our conversation about the First World War. The second half of his play, fast-forwarding 100 years, takes us to the heart of that industry: the battlefields tours of France. We are now addressed by a female speaker (Joanna Bacon) who is grappling with the meaning of remembrance in the same way as those of us in the audience. How do you come to terms with the events of a century ago? How are you supposed to feel about the distant dead?

“I was sad when I thought about them, I don’t know,” says the (again unnamed) speaker. “I was sad, I guess.” Her uncertainty is our uncertainty; her ambivalence reflects every time the two minutes silence has felt like an empty obligation rather than a meaningful act of remembrance. As she speaks, showing photographs of her trip across the battlefields, I think not just of the monolithic memorials flashing up on the screen, but also of the sea of poppies surrounding the Tower of London. I think about how the act of remembering has become distanced, abstract and aestheticised, utterly divorced from the mud and blood and entrails so vividly described in the first half of the play. It has also become big money: the tourist routes, the themed cafes and restaurants, and, yes, the Sainsbury’s advert.

Once again, appearances deceive. The second act seems at first like a major departure from the first, but eventually the two halves meet as echoes resonate across the interval. Together, the two acts acknowledge how, whenever we look back at the First World War, we are inevitably seeing it through the lens of the present. And Each Slow Dusk demands that we think about that present as much as we think about the past. Or, as this contemporary speaker asks, “Where are we now?”

Photos: Richard Stanton.

The Wolf from the Door, Royal Court

700x650.fit_2-600x399

Originally written for Exeunt.

Middle England is revolting. Flower arrangers are building bombs, the Morris dancers have their axes at the ready and the village choir are armed with AK47s. In Rory Mullarkey’s new play, violent overthrow is instigated not on city streets but in provincial church halls. Unlike the urban unrest that Alecky Blythe has attempted to capture over at the Almeida, the Royal Court is staging an altogether more parochial brand of revolution.

On the surface, this vision of OAPs raiding Buckingham Palace and pub quizzers razing the City of London to the ground is deliciously absurd. The idea that cosy rural villages are brimming with hidden discontent is not necessarily new, but there’s still plenty of comic mileage in revealing the violent predilections of hobbyists preparing for armed insurrection. Beneath that very English humour of incongruity, however, is a much trickier play.

At the close of Men in the Cities, Chris Goode poses the implicit, troubling question of whether now is the time for violence. Whether it’s even a question is debateable, but certainly the possibility of violence is powerfully present in the final sequence. Or, in Goode’s words, “fuck ‘em”. Mullarkey’s play imagines that violence into reality, but in ways that vividly, surreally animate its complications. Must a two finger salute to the state be accompanied by machine gun fire?

Lady Catherine, the steely aristocrat spearheading the revolution dreamed up by Mullarkey, certainly thinks so. “This is the only way to start again,” she insists, briskly preparing to smash apart her own privilege. The ever-extraordinary Anna Chancellor inhabits the role as only she can, somehow blending cool, wry disdain with an incendiary – yet always dignified – passion for radical change.

The play follows Catherine and Leo, her rootless young protégé, as they spark the uprising from coffee mornings, supermarkets and roadside cafes, sending out a flare to community groups across the country. Lady Catherine advocates “the beautiful violence which brings change”, but with seemingly little thought as to what that change might actually be. Equality is the one certainty; everything else is a bit woolly.

This vagueness about the new order is just one of the many facets of Mullarkey’s revolutionary vision that make it far more interesting and problematic than it initially appears. This is no straightforward rebellion. Aside from the absurdity of a-capella groups and historical re-enactors tearing down the halls of government, there is something complicatedly ironic about a society brought down from the top. For all the distrust of hierarchy, it is still the toffs who lead the way.

The leader who is to be installed when these revolutionary elites honourably allow themselves to be liquidated, meanwhile, is an intriguingly blank slate. Leo, a naive yet mysterious figure as played by Calvin Demba, has no job, no home, no family. And like the elusive Messiah figure at the heart of Mike Bartlett’s 13, whose only belief is belief, he is remarkably empty of opinions. This unlikely, semi-Biblical saviour, paired with the surprising source of the play’s revolutionary fervour, seems almost to skewer the whole possibility of violent overthrow.

To complicate matters further, ambivalence around revolutionary violence is built right into the theatrical framework of James Macdonald’s production. Not so much as a drop of blood is spilled on stage all evening, as visceral brutality is replaced with the cool, distanced reading of stage directions (“he chops his head off”; “she shoots her in the head”). In a theatre with such a history of represented violence, it’s a curious choice, and one that immediately raises a question mark over the use of force. It also begs questions of the whole practice of representation on stage, not quite taking a torch to theatrical convention but certainly tearing away at some of its illusions.

Tom Pye’s design is similarly multi-layered and self-aware. There’s a feeling of the community hall about the green plastic chairs and fold-up tables that stand in for all of the play’s locations, flanked by village fete-style white marquees in place of wings. It all beautifully sends up the bunting festooned “Keep Calm and Carry On” aesthetic, without ever being too smug about it. I’m less convinced, however, by the large screen at the back of the stage, onto which is projected scene numbers and images to indicate the setting at any given time. It adds to both the strangeness and constructedness of the drama, but to uncertain effect.

Uncertainty is a lingering sensation throughout The Wolf from the Door. Take the relationship between Catherine and Leo. At one level, their dynamic embeds a crucial question about the efficacy of individual care and action versus the greater ambitions of ideological and systemic change. Or, to put it another way, what use is revolution without compassion? But this central pairing is also trying to do something else, culminating in a lacklustre and surprisingly sentimental couple of closing scenes which frustratingly undercut much of what has gone before.

For all its wonkiness, however, there’s something compelling and oddly galvanising about this peculiar allegorical drama. It also features some truly stunning scenes, the standout among these being a one-sided exchange between a mini-cab driver and passengers Catherine and Leo, which is a blackly comic combination of the mundane and Beckettian. From the bleak patter of the writing to the precise rhythms of Pearce Quigley’s delivery, it is exquisitely excruciating. And perhaps it’s here, in presenting the indignity of this everyday despair, that the play’s real politics reside.

Photo: Stephen Cummiskey.