Monday, 10 October 2016

True 'enough'

Last week, I began co-teaching one of our creative writing courses with the playwright Ben Musgrave. And when Ben asked the class to write down something they believed in ‘as a writer’, I thought I’d take part in the exercise too. At first I was slightly surprised by what I wrote: ‘your writing needs to be true enough’. But as we started talking about our different answers, I realised I’d been thinking through versions of Ben’s question for a very long time.

The search for ‘authenticity’ and’ truth’ is a preoccupation for many writers. And at the same time, we’re often given advice like ‘write what you know’ – as if that will automatically confer some kind of truthfulness on our work. But writers are always champing at the bit to write what they don’t know, just as readers want to read what is new and unfamiliar. (Which reminds me of something similar I once heard a theatre director say: that an audience most wants an authentic voice from a world they’ve never been to.)

Writers quickly understand, therefore, that truth and truthfulness are very slippery ideas. What will happen to them both as our imaginations take flight, as characters drawn from our own experience develop lives of their own? And perhaps more worryingly, how can you be sure that your work speaks to your own wider sense of truth? Your feelings about the way the world is, or ought to be. Not all writers are motivated by such ‘moral’ concerns, but many of us worry about the ‘meaning’ of our work, and how that meaning translates onto our own values, our own beliefs about what is true.

The problem for me is that I always find it impossible to quite pinpoint meaning – at least, not without reducing what I’m writing to a banal platitude, or trivially obvious statement. It’s also impossible to ever say, once and for all, what I believe about something. Instead, I find myself constantly testing the things I feel most certain about, unable to avoid the possibility that I’m wrong, that things aren’t really that way at all. In other words, I never know what the whole truth is about what I’m writing, or about my own values, or what I think might need to change about the world.

Which is where true enough comes in – a strategy, maybe, to stop me becoming frozen in the headlights, confused and intimidated by the difficulty in achieving complete truthfulness or authenticity. I find that I can continue to have faith in something I’m working on as long as there is at least some truth – some moments of recognition, some details from my own life and experience which I feel, for now, I can stand by. Perhaps, for me, truth is like a single drop of dye in a pipette, with the power to colour an entire cup of water.

All this is why, when another writer comes to me and says that they are stuck with their idea – when they’ve lost interest, or belief in it – I suggest that they give the story, or one of its characters, a little bit of themselves. To hand over a detail from their own life. Because usually that tiny injection of the author’s real, lived experience is enough to re-vitalise the story, and rekindle the writer’s passion for telling it.

(cross-posted at

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

London Revolution

In my MA playwriting class at Westminster a couple of years ago, I looked at Alecky Blythe's play 'London Road'. Writing in this blog, I argued that the play was fascinating for the ways in which its troubling critique of 'community' was underpinned by specific dramaturgical choices. This week I've been reading another verbatim piece, also by Blythe, about the London riots. Again, the play demonstrates a striking interaction between form and content.

In its simplest terms, 'Little Revolution' is constructed out of the testimony of those directly affected by the events of summer, 2011. Issues of class are at the forefront, as rival support groups are set up by the more well-healed Clapton Square Users Group and the residents of the Pembury estate. What is most interesting about the play, however, is the way in which Blythe inserts herself into the action. Rather than being an invisible witness, she becomes one of the voices - a part of the story she is telling. It's a dramaturgical intervention that allows the play to be deeply insightful about the nature of the riots themselves - too often analysed for a 'meaning' independent of the commentary surrounding them.

The significance of 'bearing witness' is alluded to throughout the play. And certainly, acts of 'seeing' and 'being seen' were integral to the riots. As a local councillor notes at one point, '[...] that'll be exactly the way the riots were actually. / About twenty people actually doing it and everybody else watching'. There is also a powerful tension in the play between the performative nature of 'reclaiming' the streets, and the desire to avoid detection. Blythe herself has a hair-raising experience with one looter whom she has accidentally photographed. He demands that she delete the picture or surrender her phone. And then, of course, there's the way in which CCTV, media images, and records of mobile phone messaging helped to secure the convictions of those who were (often very minimally) involved. In other words, witnesses to, and recorders of, the riots were part of the fabric of the events themselves. The point is made explicit at another moment in the play when Blythe finds herself present at a stop and search. Another onlooker remarks '[...] if you wasn't there or we wasn't there they [the police] woulda handled him shabbier.' The act of observing things changes the nature of what is being observed.

Similarly, the act of storytelling is never neutral. There is another powerful scene in the play in which shopkeeper Siva, a victim of the looting, is asked to appear on This Morning. He expresses his anxiety as follows: 'Everybody ask the same question, "Do you think local people done it?"// I'm going to serve them again. What can I say?'. The story Siva will tell on live television will reflect complex circumstances.

Blythe's decision to include herself in the play - as a self-appointed chronicler - therefore becomes the means by which we better understand the events themselves. By drawing attention to the integral importance of acts of witnessing and being witnessed, of both being and telling the story, her play undermines any reductive attempt to analyse the riots as a discrete phenomenon. Throughout the play, many people express their opinions about what actually happened and why. It would be a mistake to think that any of these views are right or wrong - closer to, or further away from, some idea of objective truth. These conflicting voices - these conflicting stories - are part of this 'truth'. The tales told about the London riots cannot be divorced from the things they describe. That, at least, is the provocative argument Blythe's dramaturgical choices offer up.

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Ghost Writing...

Having recently seen The Turn of the Screw at The Almeida, I've been thinking about ghosts on stage, and also about literary adaptations. Both these things seem quite problematic to me, although I've always wanted to write a ghost story for the theatre, and I quite like the idea of adapting a novel.

Probably the most famous stage ghost is Hamlet's father, and I'm always fascinated to see how productions handle the battlement scenes. There's one very simple reason why they're so compelling (as well, probably, as lots of complicated ones): the ghost has an agenda, which is as concrete as any living character in the play. When a play's action is grounded in the mechanisms of cause and effect such agendas are pretty essential. After all, most forms of 'realism' depend on a clear relationship between actions and their predicted outcomes. But the 'ghosts' in The Turn of the Screw are quite different. In fact, they may well be pursuing particular devilish aims, but we can never be sure because of the persistent implication that they are figments of the governess' imagination. That isn't a problem in the novella - it's the heart of the story - but on stage...

The distinction between subjective narrative unreliability in prose and dramatic objectivity in realist forms of theatre has quite profound consequences. Indeed, I think it's possible to argue that characters in such plays have no 'meaningful' psychological reality beyond that which is expressed in action. Or to put it another way, there's no point telling me what a character 'really' feels or is 'really' thinking if I never get to understand that myself from what I see in front of me.

The attempt to sustain a purely subjective experience, therefore, seems to me to be beyond the reach of theatrical 'realism'. (I'm just using 'realism' as a short cut here - to pick out stories where the logic of the 'storyworld' can be learned and followed by the reader/audience, even if initially strange.) Yes, we can watch a stage character who sees things in a way we know to be skewed. But only if we can also recognise the reliable reality against which their actions and perceptions can be measured.

Hopping to the issue of adaptation, Salman Rushdie has some interesting things to say. He writes about the need to preserve a work's essential qualities when moving between art forms. If the governess' subjectivity is one of The Turn of the Screw's essential qualities (somewhat complicated by the novella's frame narrative, perhaps) then the question becomes: how can that be preserved in translation? I think 'realist' dramatic forms run into a problem here: the unreliability of her subjective viewpoint can only be preserved if we see the governess juxtaposed with an outside world that throws her beliefs and conclusions into question (for us, the audience). In other words, in order to preserve the subjectivity inherent in (essential to) the novella, we have to introduce an externality that is lacking from the novella. I'm not sure such a contradiction is sustainable. And I wonder if the playwright who wants to explore only the 'locked in' world of a character's subjective viewpoint has to dramatise that through a different, non-realist, dramatic form. I also think it explains why the recent production left me a bit cold. It functioned absolutely fine as a B-movie style chiller. But it lost the essence of the original without finding a true theatrical core to replace it.

(BTW, the photo is a still from The Innocents (1961). How film handles such adaptations is, no doubt, an entirely different question...)

Monday, 12 November 2012

Shakespeare in 3D...

Last week I finally made it to the ‘Staging the World’ exhibition at the British Museum. It’s only got another week to go, by the way, and it's well worth it:

The exhibition is mainly dedicated to artefacts from the period in which Shakespeare was writing. There is one of the very few surviving examples of his handwriting, as well as copies of the First Folio. (There’s also the modern collected edition smuggled onto Robben Island by anti-apartheid campaigners. It’s incredibly moving to see Nelson Mandela’s signature scrawled beside a passage on the nature of tyranny from ‘Julius Caesar’.) And then there are the maps - extraordinarily detailed visual descriptions of London (and Venice), drawn by hand or printed in intricate details from wood blocks. There are items of clothing from the time, paintings, swords and daggers, old clocks… And in all of it, an overwhelming sense of ‘making’ – a physical engagement with the materials of the time.

It’s often said that Shakespeare’s plays are all about the ear (you went to ‘hear’ a play, etc.). But what struck me was the sheer ‘materiality’ of theatre, and how this is one of its essential qualities. The magic of prose and poetry seems to derive from its ability to translate marks on the page into images and thought. Fine art is about texture, and creates the illusion of three-dimensionality. You can look all the way around a sculpture, but sculptures rarely move and speak. Film is all about the eye. Theatre is sometimes described as a metaphorical medium, but there is something literal about it too. Through costume, set, light and shade and the sheer fact of the actors’ presence, theatre speaks to our world in the physical language of our world.

Thursday, 1 November 2012

Escaping the city…

As well as Martin Crimp’s ‘The City’, I spent some time last week discussing ‘How Love is Spelt’ by Chloe Moss and ‘Eigengrau’ by Penelope Skinner. In different ways, these also use the urban space as a metaphor for constructing identity.

In ‘How Love is Spelt’ the central character, Peta, carries her building materials in from the outside world. Scene by scene she adopts attitudes and value systems as easily as the cardigan left by one of the strangers she invites to her bedsit. Then, when Colin – the lover she has run to the city to escape – finally arrives to take her home, she describes her discovery of a strange, almost fantastical, building near Crystal Palace. But attempting to locate it for a second time - with the hope of being able to tell Colin about it - she finds it has been completely demolished. Acts of construction and de-construction frame the play.

On the other hand, ‘Eigengrau’ is fascinating in the way it deals with the idea of ‘contingency’ in the city. Characters meet by accident and make fast, almost arbitrary, commitments to living spaces, friendships and ideologies. At the same time, a chorus of ‘voices’ manifests the city in broken extracts from Gumtree adverts. There is a sense that settled relationships are impossible – or, at least, under permanent existential threat - in an environment where movement, speed, conflict and coincidence are essential qualities. (‘Closer’ by Patrick Marber is probably the most famous play of recent years to explore this territory. Here, characters are pulled together momentarily by the ethereal figure of Alice, a binding agent or catalyst, whose reality is finally questioned by the play's mysterious resolution.) At the end of ‘Eigengrau’ two of the characters, Tim and Rose, form an ambiguous alliance – a happy ending, of sorts. But having created such a unit, it’s as if the metaphysics of the city can no longer accommodate them. They leave to live in Eastbourne.

By way of contrast, over the weekend I watched ‘The Village at the End of the World’, a documentary about a community of 59 people living in a remote corner of North East Greenland. One of the central characters is a teenager called Lars, whose aspirations and worldview are at odds with the ways of life surrounding him. Finally he leaves his home for one of the larger towns further south. This film seemed to re-enforce a key distinction between urban and non-urban stories. In the former, characters must confront contingency and continual restlessness. Peace can only be found beyond the city’s limits. In the latter, the act of leaving dramatises a contrasting desire for rebirth, free expression and change.

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Losing the plot...

For my MA playwriting class, I’ve just read Martin Crimp’s ‘The City’. The play opens with a woman, Clair, describing to her husband a meeting with a writer, Mohamed, at a railway station – one of those transitional spaces that feature so often in urban stories. Mohamed has nipped into a shop to buy his daughter a diary before she leaves to live with his sister-in-law, but it takes too long and he misses his last goodbye. Instead, he gives the diary to Clair.

Later in the play Clair meets Mohamed again at a conference. Arriving at her bedroom door, he reveals that his daughter has been killed. In a scene also loaded with sexual possibility, he confesses his guilt at having prioritised writing over parenthood whilst she was alive. More shockingly, he reveals how he now feels liberated by her death. Not only will he have more time to write, but he’ll also have new material: ‘My child, you see, is like a log thrown into the fire, making the fire burn… more brightly.’

Clair’s appalled reaction is an emotion we can relate to immediately, in a play where empathy and understanding are otherwise just beyond our grasp. But at the end of the play we discover that Mohamed is entirely a product of Clair’s own writer’s imagination – a fact she records, disorientatingly, in the very diary Mohamed is supposed to have given her. Her husband Chris is moved to ask if he, too, is merely a fiction. In fact, the danger is even greater. These self-referential slights of hand imply that the whole story has been created out of nothing. ‘The City’ becomes a kind of anti-story, existing and not existing at the same time.

It also reminded me of Martin McDonagh’s brilliant ‘The Pillowman’ – a surreal satire on the crossover between writing and totalitarianism. McDonagh’s play builds around an extraordinary set-piece fairytale featuring a creature (the Pillowman of the title) who travels back in time to convince children destined for suffering to kill themselves before their personal tragedies can unfold. So traumatic is this job, that eventually the Pillowman can’t bear it any longer. Returning to his own childhood, he persuades his younger self to commit suicide before he can fulfil his terrible vocation. At which point, the universe is filled with the screams of previously dead children coming back to life and living out their pain-filled lives. As with ‘My City’, this is both a story and not a story; the whole grim tale derives from the actions of a character who turns out never to have existed.

Similar features can be seen in other stories rooted in paradox. The new science fiction film ‘Looper’ is one example. Whilst on a certain level the story clearly ‘exists’, it also contains a sort of self-deleting code. Searching for meaning in these circular narratives can be a perplexing and frustrating task - which isn’t to say they’re meaningless. All stories are a ‘construction’ of one kind or another, with - depending on which way you want to look at it - more or less reality that ‘real life’.

Next week I’m going to see Hedda Gabler – a more straightforward play about what happens to a writer when their life’s work is undone. And I’m also quite tempted by the film ‘Ruby Sparks’. A film about a novelist who writes a character into existence…

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Engaging the audience...

Having seen Will Eno’s ‘Oh, The Humanity’ at Soho Theatre last week, a lot of my students commented on the unconventional ‘interactive’ elements of the production. Only, when I thought about it, I realised that the last four things I’d watched at the theatre had all attempted a quite deliberate and specific engagement with the audience. And in each case, something about that transaction defined my feelings towards the play. Those productions were: ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ at the Globe; the Danish theatre company Republique’s version of ‘Hamlet’; Will Eno’s collection of shorts mentioned above; and The RSC’s production of ‘Julius Caesar’.

As far as the two (original) Shakespeares were concerned, the nature of this engagement derived mainly from the place of performance. The Globe is a theatre that demands the acknowledgement of a shared space. Shakespeare’s characters often directly invoke the audience and, as well as a running metaphor of theatre-as-life, site-specific references are frequently embedded within the texts. (These days, we have the added anachronism of planes flying overhead; actors stopping to let them pass being a guaranteed crowd pleaser.) With that in mind, the critical response to ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ was interesting. Whilst the Daily Mail revelled in the simple fun of it all, the Guardian characterised it as ‘conventionally jolly’, never digging far beneath the surface. Michael Billington is sometimes criticised for a fixation with the ‘political’ in the theatre, but although I thoroughly enjoyed this production, part of me agrees that it was a missed opportunity to present one of Shakespeare’s most unsettling works in a relatively un-nuanced way. Isn’t a venue that has this relationship with its audience hardwired into it the perfect place to confront the play’s more troubling aspects? (By the by, it’s probably not worth being angry at the Daily Mail any more, but it’s amazing how effortlessly it can cause offence. Take this casual aside: ‘The Shrew will never be Harriet Harman’s favourite Shakespeare…’)

On the other hand, ‘Julius Caesar’, a West End transfer for the RSC, attempted to co-opt some of the Globe’s spirit. With the house lights up, the play was prefaced by music and dancing on stage, but the performers struggled in vain to reach out beyond the proscenium arch. Over the weekend, I read a piece of political commentary by Andrew Rawnsley that borrowed and adapted an Oscar Wilde quotation (quite freely, I think, as I haven’t been able to source the original…) Anyway, the basic idea was that authenticity is a uniquely prized possession. And once you can fake it, you’re made. It turns out to be a rather apt quotation in the context of Julius Caesar itself, but it also speaks to the dilemma of ‘artifice’ in the theatre. At any rate, this attempt to import something of the Globe’s participatory aesthetic into a West End venue didn’t fake it well enough for me.

In ‘Hamlet’ at the Queen Elizabeth Hall - a highly physical, multimedia ‘adaptation’ with live music by the Tiger Lilies - a different kind of engagement relied on the extent to which the audience knew the source material. Although some key scenes were preserved reasonably intact, much was skipped, re-ordered, or replaced. The result was a production that fell between two stools. Knowing the original fairly well, I found the snippets of text aggravating; I’d have preferred a freer interpretation. At the same time, I don’t think a newcomer to the play would have had much idea what was going on. The interaction with the audience was predicated on an assumed familiarity with the story, which simultaneously robbed it of its own energy.

And so to ‘Oh the Humanity’, a series of five short plays (mostly monologues) riff-ing on the gap between presentation and belief, and the hopeless ways in which we try to suppress our emotions. The plays are certainly beautifully crafted and lyrically realised. But they left me a bit cold. Perhaps the most distancing (if arguably the most interesting) was the fourth piece. Here the action spun 180 degrees, and the two characters on stage suddenly involved the audience in the setting up of a staged photograph. As we in the auditorium tried to fix our faces in an appropriate way, we were gently hectored and cajoled. The piece was all about authenticity - what can you read behind the eyes of those frozen on film? Formally, then, the device was in keeping with the wider questions of the play. So why did it feel so false? Why did I find myself becoming irritated by the faux spontaneity of the performers? The acting mantras of ‘living in the moment’ and ‘saying everything for the first time’, which count for so much behind a fourth wall, seemed contrived and disingenuous in this shared space. Ironically (perhaps) the audience’s inability to participate in a real conversation with the characters/performers was more starkly obvious here than in much naturalistic drama. Andrew Rawnsley’s butchered Oscar Wilde quotation seems appropriate in this context too. And while it’s a commonplace that the theatre depends on, demands, even inherently contains the concept of an audience, it’s also fascinating just how fragile and contingent that relationship can be.