An Innately Optimistic Profession

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Originally written for Exeunt.

At the close of his introduction to the latest book in the Methuen Modern British Playwriting series, Andrew Haydon departs on a distinctly optimistic note. Surveying British theatre at the end of the 2000s, he sees a landscape of possibilities, looking towards a “future where old divisions between ‘New Work’ and ‘New Writing’ had turned into fertile breeding grounds for collaboration” and “where a progressive spirit of inquiry and confident uncertainty had begun to replace condescension and refusal”.

Almost halfway through the decade following that with which the book concerns itself, the barrier between ‘New Writing’ and ‘New Work’ – although productively challenged – has not entirely dissolved, while continued funding cuts pose a threat for that “progressive spirit of inquiry and confident uncertainty”. But what comes through strongly, both in the period discussed by the book and the years since, is an increasing spirit of collaboration, as pointed to by Haydon. Faced with the rise of new forms and shifting understandings of the relationship between theatre and its audiences, a number of contemporary British playwrights have adapted their practice accordingly, embracing new and varied ways of working.

Two prime examples, both discussed in Methuen’s volume, are Simon Stephens and David Greig. As Jacqueline Bolton points out in her excellent chapter on Stephens’ work, his prolific output is “distinguished by a willingness and enthusiasm to work collaboratively”. Perhaps his most striking collaboration is that with German director Sebastian Nübling, which Ramin Gray has suggested is unique, but beyond this he has a sustained interest in opening up his writing. Stephens has spoken on many occasions about how his encounters with other theatre cultures and artists – and, indeed, with critics – have invigorated his practice. Talking to me in a recent interview, he described his plays as “the starting point of a conversation between myself and a director, a director and a cast of actors, director and artistic team, artistic director and a director, and then artistic collaboration and an audience”. The play is not the thing; it’s a point of departure.

Bolton’s chapter goes one step further by linking Stephens’ interest in and commitment to collaboration with the recurrent preoccupations of his writing. While many have noted the bleakness and brutality of the worlds Stephens puts on stage (with the help of his collaborators, of course), Bolton sees instead – or, rather, in addition – a compassion for his subjects and a genuine quest for communication and understanding. This chimes with the spirit of collaboration pursued in Stephens’ work; as Bolton puts it, “To work collaboratively is, after all, to affirm the importance and significance of truth, of respect and of generosity”. This can be supported by Stephens’ own assertion that theatre is “an innately optimistic profession”.

Greig’s work has an equally complex relationship with optimism, as The Events knottily demonstrated last year. He has also worked in a number of different ways, with an output that ranges from shows created through devising processes to the libretto for the musical Charlie and the Chocolate Factory; from plays for children to epic, abstract, internationally focused pieces. In her chapter for the Methuen collection, Nadine Holdsworth describes him as “deeply invested in the possibilities of the collective imagination, pursuing ideas across different media as well as linguistic and stylistic boundaries”. He shares with Stephens an interest in travel as a narrative theme and an openness to different collaborations.

Similarly to Bolton, Holdsworth moves away from a familiar critical narrative about Greig’s work – in this case, his engagement with Scottish national identity – and chooses to focus on the “passionate internationalism” of his plays. Her analysis opens up a consideration of how Greig offers audiences different perspectives on the world, positing brief and delicate moments of communication across seemingly irreconcilable cultures. While this is not her primary concern, her study also reveals Greig’s willingness to experiment with structure and storytelling, clashing together different theatrical styles and techniques, and how through this process the playwright often questions his own authorial status in the creation of his plays.

Some of these ideas, which I have only briefly sketched out above, will be discussed further at two upcoming symposia in Lincoln and Brighton, addressing the work of Greig and Stephens respectively. The University of Lincoln’s David Greig symposium at the end of this month will feature papers examining a wide range of different aspects of Greig’s work, including the role of dissonance, empathy and conflict in his plays, the way in which he deals with questions of place and nationality, his engagement with Scottish identity and the independence debate, and the historical dimension of his work.

At a separate symposium at the University of Sussex in April, meanwhile, scholars will be engaging with Stephens’ plays and in particular his dialogue with Europe. I’m looking forward to making a contribution of my own to this conversation, with a paper exploring how Stephens’ work in Germany has shifted his perspective on British theatremaking processes and the implications this might have for our own theatre culture. As Stephens has suggested, “when we travel abroad we see our home with a clarity that we may never have been offered before”, offering him an intriguingly distanced view of British theatre.

It feels important that events such as these carry on the conversation, provoking the sort of new insights into these playwrights’ work that they both habitually seek. The best we can hope for is, to return to Haydon’s words, “a progressive spirit of inquiry”.

The University of Lincoln’s one day symposium on the work of David Greig is being held on 29th March. Registration is now open here.

 The University of Sussex’s symposium on Simon Stephens’ connection with Europe will take place on 30th April 2014.

Photo:Stephen Cummsikey.

Hattie Morahan

Originally written for Exeunt.

Never was a door slam so deafeningly resonant. The escalating dramatic action of A Doll’s House hinges – quite literally – on the moment that Nora finally shuts the door on her husband and children, walking away from a life that has hemmed her in. It’s a climactic moment that has been variously read as a statement against stifling patriarchy, as the shocking action of an uncaring and irresponsible mother, as an inescapable tragedy. But for Hattie Morahan, who is just about to return to the role of Nora in Carrie Cracknell’s production at the Young Vic, the play’s famous culmination is just one of its many facets.

“One is aware of that whole phenomenon and I can totally understand it, but it’s a phenomenon that’s built up around a single act,” she says of the debate surrounding the play’s conclusion, going on to describe readings that focus on that act as “incredibly reductive” ways of looking at Ibsen’s masterpiece. “It’s quite an incredible arc to go on from the start of the action to the end, and I think if it’s all geared towards the door slam then that actually distorts what the play is,” Morahan continues. “The play is about a marriage and it’s about a particular family. I think the more you can honour the detail and the particularities of those individuals and the mess that they’ve made of their lives, the more that her leaving will resonate in whatever way it does with the people who see it.”

This approach lends a richly detailed texture to Morahan’s Nora, a woman perpetually caught between ringing laughter and crushing despair. As she juggles her husband, her young children and the creditor knocking insistently at the door, small moments are repeatedly on the cusp of betraying her carefully hidden turmoil – a flutter of the hands, the startled catching of a reflection. Like Ian MacNeil’s elegantly revolving set, this Nora glides swan-like through the play, all composure on the surface, while frantically churning the water beneath. She also emerges as frequently spoilt and manipulative, a slyly wheedling flirt with a fragile strain of naivety.

“I’ve never really found I have any trepidation about making characters unlikeable,” Morahan reflects on her interpretation of the role. “If anything I’m far more drawn to people’s flaws and when they behave badly than someone who’s heroic or pious – I’ve got a weird reflex against that. I think my gut instinct is to try and reduce heroism and make it human.” She also believes that to do justice to Nora as written by Ibsen, a character with “such a skewed view of the world and her place in it”, it’s necessary to draw out the less palatable aspects of her personality. “She behaves really appallingly,” says Morahan, “and it’s only through the action of the play that you discover why that is.”

It’s a role that demands overt performance, both in the central theatricality of Nora’s dancing of the tarantella – here a display of sensuality that collapses into distracted frenzy, an arresting physicalisation of Nora’s desperation played out under a twitching spotlight – and in the unrelenting performance of her marriage to Torvald and the display she feels compelled to put on for other men. “The performative element, as I understand it, seems to have come right from when she was a child,” says Morahan. “There’s a shame or an inappropriateness associated with just being herself; she’s always got to be what pleases other people – specifically men.” When this audience dissolves, as Morahan explains, Nora is left with a yawning gap in her identity.

“I think that’s one of the most terrifying things she realises at the end. Her marriage has been such a stressful time that she’s had not a moment to really breathe or consider who she is or what it means to be happy, or if she is happy. One of the shocking realisations at the end is that when all that is taken away, underneath the performance she doesn’t know who she is – there’s a sort of void. She’s never been given the self-worth or the self-esteem to value herself as an entity when it’s not in a pleasing shape for men.”

Morahan explains that the aim shared by Cracknell and designer MacNeil was to somehow replicate the play’s original sense of accusatory familiarity for its bourgeois audiences: “yes it’s nineteenth-century, and yet half-close your eyes and you could be in a shabby chic apartment in West London”. She also gives much credit to Simon Stephens’ new version of the script, which “seems to have one foot in the nineteenth century and one foot in now, without ever drawing attention to it”. It is not a self-conscious, pointed updating, yet like the design it applies a light contemporary gloss. “It’s sort of miraculous,” says Morahan. “The words, as you’re saying them, feel of their time and yet utterly now. It’s very deft.”

This evocation of the now within the context of the past immediately raises the much asked question of what A Doll’s House has to say to us today. What the freshness of this interpretation raises is how many of the difficulties that are grappled with in the play remain sadly relevant in the twenty-first century, particularly in relation to female experience. “The gender politics are weird,” Morahan muses on this topic, “because in so many respects things have utterly transformed in terms of the independence that women have nowadays, but equally, in terms of a kind of insidious sexism – when we’re not talking about wage differences or glass ceilings or third world gender problems – I think there are still these same tensions.”

These tensions and the delicate balancing act that many modern women find themselves negotiating today were also explored in the short film Nora, made through a collaboration between the Young Vic, The Guardian and The Space, and sitting alongside and in dialogue with the production. Taking inspiration from the premise of A Doll’s House on what Morahan calls “a very crude level”, it is instead more of a probing meditation on contemporary motherhood and what glossy women’s magazines have enshrined as “having it all”.

It’s a now ubiquitous phrase that Morahan uses wryly: “On appearances you’re having it all – your mothers have won all the battles and here you are. The questions the film asks are to do with happiness and to do with satisfaction and what this is all for – what have we actually gained? It was fascinating to do, because it did make me think about how roles have changed and how expectations have changed, but we’re still trying to work out what that balance is. Whatever it is, it’s going to be messy; there are no perfect answers.”

For now, Morahan is back in rehearsals with the rest of the company, rediscovering the play after several months away from it. “It feels a bit backwards,” she says of the experience of returning to a production, with a role that was fully formed but now needs to be re-excavated. There is also added pressure for this run, as Morahan goes back to the role that won her the Evening Standard and Critics’ Circle awards. She admits that this enhanced level of expectation has caused some anxiety, but for the most part she describes this second rehearsal period as “liberating”, an opportunity to truly inhabit the play and make new discoveries.

“It’s a bit like knowing you have to jump into a really freezing cold swimming pool,” Morahan laughs. “You know it will be fine when you’re in.”

Photos: Johan Persson

Port, National Theatre

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Originally written for Exeunt.

There’s a striking moment, towards the end of this nostalgic, grit-flecked portrait of Stockport, when the concrete-clad surroundings perceptibly shift. Protagonist Rachael, back in her home town after several months away, remembers once gazing up at the clocktower as a soaring skyscraper, a local landmark of immense proportions that in adulthood has dwindled to a mere speck on a vast world. It’s a simple moment, but one that speaks to the shifting space in which we play out our lives, the contours that seem to move and blur as we grow older, the once huge monuments that now feel inconceivably small.

Geography – or more accurately psychogeography – is central to this story of growing up in Stockport, which announces its preoccupation with place in its very title. Rachael, who over the course of the play transforms from a gobbily precocious eleven-year-old to a bruised but optimistic woman of 24, fighting fiercely all the while to get out of the place that has spawned her, is trapped in a town populated with ghosts. First Rachael’s mother and then her grandfather make swift exits from her life, leaving behind traces in the frayed urban fabric. Past exists alongside present in a way that is reflected in the circumstances of this production, a revival of the play’s 2002 premiere at the Royal Exchange Theatre headed by the same creative pairing of Simon Stephens and Marianne Elliott, equally haunted by their own memories of the shared home town that shaped them.

While the naturalistically rendered environment of this nostalgia trip vividly conjures the bus stops, battered cars and hospital waiting rooms of Rachael’s world, the space of the Lyttelton stage is engaged in more than a simple one-way exchange with the piece. Between the play’s collection of snapshot scenes, Lizzie Clachan’s beautifully constructed designs conspicuously dismantle around the perceptive central character as she very deliberately looks on, participating in her own transformation at the same time as the space transforms with her. This is habitat as clothing, old haunts shrugged off like school jumpers; the landscape seismically shifting within the perspective of the protagonist whose eyes we see it through as she struggles with family crises and collapsing relationships. Light, from anaemic fluorescent tubes to a heart-catchingly hopeful sunrise, is more than just illumination – it is frustration and desire.

This eloquent dialogue with the content stretches from the way the production looks into the way it sounds. Just as the concrete pulses with the pop music of a decade that played to the soundtrack of The Stone Roses and Oasis, so the structure of the play as a whole jitters and jumps to an almost musical score. The pace, beginning at a frustratingly slow patter, speeds and slows across the eight distinct scenes, with occasional furious rises in pitch that rip through the rhythm of the drama; repeated themes – home, childhood, fear of death – loop back around in refrains, or perhaps more like tracks that keep returning on shuffle. The whole is sometimes frustrating, sometimes catchy, but with a chorus that climbs insistently into the ear.

Amid all this movement and sound, it’s hardly surprising that Rachael repeatedly refers to the world as “mental”, with the double implication of inconceivable, unjust madness and a psychological dimension to the version of Stockport that we are presented with through her experience. Rachael is a challenge and a gift of a role, a complex, wounded but resolutely optimistic figure, who in the hands of Kate O’Flynn is unceasingly engaging. So captivating is this central presence that the characters around her often feel lightly sketched, faded and drab alongside her vivid outline, barely less ghost-like than the gaping absences in Rachael’s life.

While the grim realities that Port portrays have not evaporated, the nostalgic tint of the production is a reminder that today’s world, more than a decade after Rachael’s closing look at her home town, is in many ways a very different place. There is a heavy sense of this particularly in the play’s build-up to the turn of the millennium, at which Rachael ponders whether this break represents a beginning or an end. Thirteen years later, as this production is inevitably refracted through subsequent events, it’s a question we still seem to be asking. Just as the play’s cyclical structure rewinds the track back to the beginning, we often end up in the same place we started in.

Morning, Lyric Hammersmith

The auditorium is flooded with mangled, discordant screams. Pale fluorescent light creeps across the stage, illuminating a snapshot of horror with the clinical blandness of the hospital ward. And all around me, audience members stifle laughs.

This is the moment from Morning that is etched most vividly on my memory. Being seated in the middle of a group of teenagers, the demographic with which Simon Stephens’ latest, horribly compelling play concerns itself, offers a fascinating perspective on this piece – certainly not one likely to be found on press night (just one reason why it can be helpful to occasionally step out of the herd of ferociously scribbling critics, but that’s a subject for another time). Ripples of discomfort swell through the theatregoers around me as they drink in a cocktail of strangeness and recognition to which the only response is a nervous titter. As one boy put it on his way out, with a hint of awkward admiration, “that was bare weird”.

The “bare weird” show that Stephens and director Sean Holmes have created with the Lyric Young Company centres on Stephanie, a fiercely intelligent but disturbed teenage girl played with terrifying precision by Scarlet Billham. Sick with sadness yet unable to stop smiling, she dispenses viciousness without a flicker of concern. Stranded in an antiseptic suburbia where all the meticulously kept gardens look exactly the same, ennui is a permanent state for Stephanie and her friends – one of whom, Cat, is about to escape for university. Before she leaves, however, Stephanie has recruited unwitting boyfriend Stephen in a scheme for a savage send-off, an escalatingly brutal scene around which the play nauseatingly pivots.

I expect that numerous comparisons will have been made with Punk Rock, another unsettling Stephens play that takes modern youth as its subject. Not wanting to disappoint, I admit that such thoughts did strike me while watching Morning; in many ways these are quite different pieces, but a direct line can be drawn between William Carlisle and Stephanie. In each case, Stephens’ protagonist is startlingly intelligent, an intelligence that acts as an uncanny counterpoint to their respective brutality and apparent emotional detachment. Eschewing the hoodie-clad image that haunts portrayals of contemporary teenagers, Stephens’ portraits of this generation are all the more blackly horrifying.

What strikes me as being particularly important, perhaps for this play even more so than Punk Rock, is the teenage perspective. This is perhaps because my ears are still ringing with the words of Ontroerend Goed’s Alexander Devrient, who said something along the lines of teenagers being at a stage of life in which they can see what is wrong with the world but are not yet able to formulate any remedial ideologies (I’d recommend listening to his full, thoughtful, softly spoken interview for Theatre Voice, in which he speaks eloquently and at length about his work with young people). But what if they only see diagnosis without cure because that is the unacknowledged truth of the world?

Perhaps what we can take from Morning is the incisive awareness of a world in which, in Stephanie’s words, “everything is fucking shit”, an awareness not yet blunted by ideology or philosophy or religion – teenage nihilism three times distilled. But there is a taut, oddly appealing ironic tension between this apparent nihilism and the quotation from Marx that Stephanie prints in bold felt tip: “the philosophers have only interpreted the world; the point, however, is to change it”. The knowledge that this piece has been made specifically for and with the age bracket represented then adds another fascinating layer; how have the astonishingly talented members of the Lyric Young Company influenced this final, unblinkingly bleak vision of the world?

Which brings me neatly, if not uncomplicatedly, onto my next point. As discussions of Stephens’ work tend to veer towards considerations of collaboration, especially in the wake of the extensive critical discussion around Three Kingdoms, and as I’m ever more conscious of the disingenuousness of critically portioning a production into writing, direction, design and so on, it seems apt to reflect on the ways in which the various elements of this piece feed into one another.

In considering the aesthetic of the whole, the words that rise most stubbornly to the surface of my mind are “antiseptic” and “clinical” (neither in a negative sense, I should add, but one that feels crucial to the piece). From stark fluorescent lighting to unsettlingly alienated performances, there is a sterile coating that settles over the production like the shimmering sheets of plastic that shroud Hyemi Shin’s set. The design itself is what first snatches at the attention: the large, half-filled glass tank of water, the industrial fridge containing a single bag of blood, the forensic tent, the assorted lights, the plastic – there’s lots of plastic. This seeps into the plasticity of the performances, a sort of blank, detached distortion of naturalism that could just be taken for stiff acting in the opening moments but that soon emerges as a very particular style, one that is married to the coldly artificial quality of the design and the dislocated realism of Stephens’ text (a misleading and loaded word, as I’ve discussed elsewhere, but one that will do in the absence of a more precise vocabulary).

In place of the domestic settings to which Stephens’ dialogue refers, the production is littered with forensic paraphernalia, an implicit nod to the current ubiquity of the detective narrative, but this is a crime scene in which nothing is solved (a nice example of how a non-literal interpretation can be a more perceptive comment on the text than one which sticks rigidly to its real-world inferences). It also hints at a certain clue-hunting critical approach to theatre, a quest for meaning that Stephens – and indeed the whole production – actively eschews.

Without listing every aspect of this intriguing staging, the other element of the production that merits particular mention is Michael Czepiel’s nightmarishly distorted soundscape, which is produced live on stage with both Czepiel and the sound desk in full view. As well as peeling away the illusions of theatricality, this choice pulls on strands of voyeurism and plants another of the production’s subjects as a permanent presence, the (mostly) silent youth glued to the computer screen.

Returning to nihilism, this multi-layered whole produces an anarchic, punk-inflected void of meaning, a great black gaping hole where we might expect to see hope or redemption or some kind of “message”. Perhaps deflecting some of the criticisms that have been levelled at his work in recent years, the concluding words of Stephens’ script (yes, sorry, I’m attaching elements to single individuals once again, but let’s just assume for sake of ease that these words are purely Stephens’) are a gutting “fuck you” to any demand for an optimistic chink of light. But just to contradict that – and to once again overturn my simplifying attributing of authority to Stephens – the production itself goes on to complicate this appropriately teenaged gesture of rebellion.

Morning is the sort of uncompromising piece that inevitably cleaves opinion, if not perhaps to the same impassioned extremes as Three Kingdoms (which I will, eventually, stop going on about – probably). Potent reactions spill tangibly through the audience throughout the painfully gripping hour of the play’s length and pour out into the packed foyer after the final bow. The one response that is markedly absent from the teenagers around me, however, is shock. Like Stephanie, they emerge smiling. After all, if you know already know that there is nothing but terror, what else is there to do but laugh?

Utopia, Soho Theatre

Visions of Utopia have a knack of falling flat on their face, so it seems only appropriate that this new collaborative theatre project should recruit clowns to conjure its perfect worlds. In this partnership between the Soho Theatre and Live Theatre in Newcastle, six fools fumble through flawed blueprints, searching in vain through all of humanity’s failed efforts for a reliable model of perfection. These blueprints come courtesy both of a long line of thinkers, whose words are revealed to us via projected quotations, and of an assembled group of writers who have all produced their own responses to the central theme.

Which all sounds great on paper, but is underwhelming in its execution. In the hands of joint directors Steve Marmion and Max Roberts and their diverse team of writers, big concepts are rendered bafflingly small and an idea that is fascinating by itself becomes marred by its own realisation. Looked at a certain way, this is all ironically apt given that the piece is dealing with the desire for and impossibility of a utopian world, but this is not quite enough of a justification to excuse what more often than not simply feels like clumsiness and poor scene selection. A frustrated question kept nudging at me as I watched: are these really the most interesting utopian visions we could dream up?

There are admittedly some nice pieces (the word nice chosen here precisely for its very bland variety of praise). ‘The Presentation’, created by Thomas Eccleshare, Josh Roche and director Marmion, is a witty interpretation of perfection in our material culture, showing us Utopia as Steve Jobs might have imagined it, shiny and pocket-sized, but there is little depth beneath the slick cleverness. There is also a startling moment in Chi Onwurrah’s gameshow-inspired ‘Humanity’ when one character unexpectedly reveals the selflessness that human beings are capable of, while Janice Okoh’s vision of a world where medical science has been perfected and death is purely by choice is one of the more compelling scenarios.

One of the most fascinating, thought-provoking and disturbing scenes is not produced by any of the collection of writers, but instead by another dangerous utopian dreamer. Partway through the second half, we are confronted with a rousing election speech stuffed with rhetoric promising a better future – we half expect Obama’s mantra of “yes we can”. But with a startling sideswipe of anti-Semitism, this vision is smashed and it becomes horribly clear just whose words these really are. It is a stark, extreme reminder that one man’s idea of paradise is another’s vision of hell, and also that utopia and dystopia can be just a hair’s width apart.

As this overlong creation nears its end, however, there is the danger that intellectual investigation is abandoned in favour of emotional release. While the regrets of a now elderly ex-politician and the poignant attempts of a widow to “make the best” of her situation with the aid of a bit of over-50s zumba add moments of tenderness, they seem also to dilute the evening’s purpose. Fortunately Simon Stephens’ beautifully simple speech, spoken between the six actors, is suffused with enough grounded normality – the simple dream of drinking without getting a hangover, or of finding the perfect cup of coffee – to stall the decline into trite sentimentality.

Thinking back over the production, my complaints are admittedly not so much to do with this piece of theatre as it stands alone. It is frequently amusing and occasionally intriguing; it draws committed and energetic performances from its cast, particularly a sparkling Laura Elphinstone; it flirts playfully with form; there is a bubble machine, which tends to immediately raise most performances a few notches in my book. It is rather Utopia’s failure to meet the potential of its fascinating premise that makes it such a staggering disappointment. The level to which this wastes a brilliant concept makes me almost angry.

I can’t help but feel that many of the production’s problems arise not from its concept, which is an undeniably intriguing one, but from the way in which it has been assembled. As contributor Eccleshare politely and diplomatically hinted at when I spoke to him a few weeks ago, creating a co-authored show by having those authors each write in isolation is a tricky process. Had I not known about the technique of piecing this together, I think I would still have suspected a lack of dialogue between the writers. Utopia never really feels like a conversation.

I wonder if a truly collaborative approach (by which I mean bringing the contributors together at the writing table and even in the rehearsal room, shaping the piece while writing it) might have produced something far more interesting, as it is often when different utopias collide that the most fascinating discussions occur – a fact that Marmion and Roberts surely recognise, considering their central aim to provoke debate. It seems, then, an odd choice to have pieced together the show in the way that they have done, creating separate entities, smashing these apart and gluing their jagged edges together.

When mixed with the text of historical and literary utopias, the two directors have a deluge of content to channel into a finished piece, which seems partly to be the point but also makes for an inevitably messy production. Marmion and Roberts’ project is still to be admired for its aim and ambition alone; it is a beguiling idea, and one that is given a fittingly democratic treatment by mingling so many voices, if not entirely successfully. Perhaps, just like its subject, any attempt to tackle the concept of Utopia without isolating a single vision of perfection is doomed to fail.

In the end, it all just feels like a bit of a shame. Look at how good we could have made it, Utopia tries to say. Yes, quite.