Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Opera and muddle...

On Monday night, I had the more unusual experience of going to see a production of Verdi's opera La Traviata - and for all that some people dismiss opera for being overblown or melodramatic, what struck me was the simplicity and subtlety of the storytelling. A friend once told me that they loved drama because it was just about human beings getting themselves into a muddle. I was reminded of that when I realised that (in this interpretation at least) the opera lacked anyone obviously villainous. Instead, characters just make wrong choices (although right, at the time, from their own points of view). There’s a particularly moving scene between the heroine and her would-be father in law, in which he tries to dissuade her from marrying his son (her past as a courtesan is wrecking the family honour). There’s no malice in the interaction, just determined positions. But the fallout is as great as in any tragedy.

The opera is in four acts, and each one has an entirely different energy, which was beautifully reflected in the aesthetics of the design. I left the theatre with a strong sense of the ‘colour’ of each phrase of the storytelling, both figuratively and literally. It reminded me that ‘structure’ in writing is much more than just ‘narrative structure’. Indeed, perhaps the most important thing about a story is that we see it from all angles, as if it were a three dimensional object. So, we witness all the central characters interacting with each other, revealing different aspects of themselves in the fresh permutations. And we need to see those same characters in different ‘universes’ too, to deepen our sense of them by observing their choices in these contexts. This kind of structural ‘patterning’ allows a story to be pulled along by the slightest of ‘plots’, giving us space to concentrate on the richer elements of characterisation. Many of Harold Pinter’s plays seem to operate in this way. In The Caretaker, for example, there are three very simple acts. In the first, Aston brings a manipulative outsider (Davies) into the house, where he is also exposed to Aston’s vicious brother Mick. In Act 2, Davies is established as the 'caretaker' and enjoys a fragile acceptance. In the third act, Davies overplays his hand and is ejected. These three sections sit at dramatic right angles to each other. I wonder if their elegance would be undermined by the kind of Robert McKee style ‘plotting’ that seems to dominate contemporary approaches to dramatic writing?

On a completely separate note, I’m off to see Foxfinder at The Finborough tonight. It’s part of a festival of new writing that a play of mine is also appearing in. So apologies - the link below is really just a shameless plug…

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Blogs on Blogs

A friend of mine’s just a done a bit of research to discover some of the blogs/websites playwrights find most interesting or helpful.

So, in an example of the blogosphere eating itself, I thought it might be useful to quickly re-post here…

-Lyn Gardner’s Guardian blog:
-Chris Wilkinson's Noises Off column/twitter feed: http://www.guardian.co.uk/stage/series/noisesoff
-Aleks Sierz' blog: http://sierz.blogspot.com/
-BBC Writersroom: http://www.bbc.co.uk/writersroom/
-Spread the Word (for Londoners): http://www.spreadtheword.org.uk/index.php
-Dan Rebellato’s website: www.danrebellato.co.uk
-Playwriting UK page on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Playwriting-Network-UK/116625928420542
- the many theatre websites – especially new writing companies (Theatre503, The Bush, The Arcola, Soho, The Royal Court, etc…)

Friday, 11 November 2011

From the West End to revolution...

In my MA playwriting class on Wednesday, we discussed Jez Butterworth’s play ‘Jerusalem’ and the extent to which it could, or couldn’t, be considered a radical text. As part of that conversation, we looked at the significance of the place of performance: although originally a Royal Court production, it’s now a sell-out West End hit. Although I’m a fan of the play, I asked why a story with such a subversive or marginalised central character should be so easily embraced by the mainstream (in a way that the residents of Dale Farm, for example, were not). Is there actually something conventional about the play - formally at least - that encourages us to engage with it from a position of safety? Is the character of Johnny Bryon romanticised; is there an element of voyeurism or ‘tourism’ at work? Such a debate has been made fascinatingly more complex, however, by the news that one of the Occupy the Stock Exchange protesters is now staging ad hoc readings at the foot of St. Paul’s. Here’s a link, via Jez Butterworth’s publishers, to ‘Bill’s’ incredible blog documenting these guerrilla performances:


Still on the West End, I also wanted to mention ‘One Man, Two Govnors’, which has recently returned to The Adephi. I wasn’t looking forward to this much, but it turned out to be one of the most enjoyable productions I’ve seen for ages – and perhaps the best farce I’ve ever seen. What impressed me in particular was the level of skill on display: the physicality, the comic timing, the improvisation, the music. Human beings love displays of virtuosity, and plays that embrace that can be a joy to watch. This thought also reminded of an old writing trick for building audience/reader empathy: if you want to make an audience like one of your characters, write the scene in which they do something they’re genuinely good at…

Monday, 7 November 2011

To research or not to research...

A couple of links to start the week. First, an interview with Jez Butterworth about his play ‘Jerusalem’:


I was particularly interested in what he says here about how he researches (or doesn’t research) his work. I certainly agree that researching a play is very different to researching a piece of journalism. And maybe this thought links back (see my post of 28 September) to a difficulty I have with plays that try to ‘prove’ certain political or scientific theories. Ultimately, I don’t think it’s helpful, or even legitimate, for writers to set themselves up as ‘experts’. I’d argue that great writers reveal truth by exposing the cracks between people’s value systems, rather than by proposing solutions of their own.

Over the weekend, my friend Samantha Ellis also drew my attention to this article on the BBC’s Writers Room website (an invaluable resource if you don’t already know it). As the author himself says, he’s really just restating the old idea that to succeed you should ‘write what you know’. But he brings a fresh clarity to that idea here, with respect to the commissioning of his first TV drama ‘Death in Paradise’: http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/writersroom/2011/11/death_in_paradise_my_first_bro.shtml

And still with TV, here’s a final link to an E20 episode, written by a second year Westminster student. Really impressive as a first piece of TV scripting - precise storytelling and characters drawn with maximum economy: http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/p00l5ymk/EastEnders_E20_Series_3_Episode_15/