Present: Emmanuela Lia, Colin Ellwood, David Whitworth, Kevin McMonagle, Paul Hamilton, Sakuntala Ramanee, Anthony Ofoegbu, Jamie Newall, Rachel Bavidge, John Chancer, Julia Winwood, Helen Budge, Hemi Yeroham, Marta Kielkovicz, Adam Tyler, Rob Pomfret, Valerie Gogan, Simon Usher.
A strudel is a type of sweet or savoury layered pastry with a filling inside. The rolled version of the pastry looks like the inside of a whirlpool. It is most often associated with Austrian cuisine, but is also a traditional pastry in the area formerly belonging to the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
“My homeland,' says the guest, 'no longer exists. My homeland was Poland, Vienna, this house, the barracks in the city, Galicia, and Chopin. What’s left? Whatever mysterious substance held it all together no longer works. Everything’s come apart. My homeland was a feeling, and that feeling was mortally wounded. When that happens, the only thing to do is go away.” Sándor Márai, Embers, on the Austro Hungarian Empire
Well, a long, hot afternoon but with some wonderful rich, insightful individual 'soundings' sparked from a combined edifice of absolutely granite 'long-game' plays. For the final session of our thirteen-week epic virtual perambulation we expanded on our recent focus on the circumstances and fallout of the 1914 Sarajevo assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, this time looking more broadly at the Austro-Hungarian Empire and also back a further twenty years to its final flourishing (or late-stage rheumy, cynical decadence…take your pick), via John Osborne’s extraordinary, mighty, intricate, measured, subversive slow-burn larghetto of a play A Patriot for Me (written for the Royal Court in 1966, and one of the twin wrecking balls – the other being Edward Bond’s Saved – of the Lord Chamberlain’s censorious ascendancy) and Arthur Schnitzler’s La Ronde. Also featured was a Brecht scene as a Hapsburgian premonitory prelude/coda. We mirrored the mittel-kingdom’s scale with a (for us) record twenty participants; and also perhaps its multiplicity in our attempted ‘melding’ of the Schnitzler and Brecht scenes with the Osborne. This latter promised to work wonderfully well, although sadly time limits meant we were only able to read a small sample of the interposed Ronde extracts. But with even those limited additions, the effect created was of an all-levelling, proliferation of Hapsburg bedrooms featuring multiple genders and proclivities: A textual and situational immersiveness. The Osborne is set exactly in the time and milieu out of which the Schnitzler was written. The queer intrigue and subversive eroticism of the former was contextualised beautifully by the equally transgressive heterosexual daisy-chain bed-hopping of the latter, with the whole thing becoming a continuum of fluid eroticism beneath a crust of Hapsburg protocol. Together they embodied a tension between characters’ residual belief in fundamentalist Catholic Hapsburg ideals and the broad cosmopolitan tolerance (shading into cynicism) that sanctioned and/or drove the cavorting. Which was the more thoroughgoing ‘drag’ mode: the men’s in the famous Osborne ball scene, or the same men (and their straight contemporaries) in their ostrich-plumed Empire-parade-ground finery? There is surely a middle phase in all imperialist enterprises, after the departure of the founding ideologues, obsessives and psychopaths, when functionality and decadence; primness and permissiveness; licensing and licentiousness exist all together as, respectively, mechanism and lubrication. Then the mechanism tightens and the lubricious lubrication begins to run out-of-phase and turns corrosive. So, the ever-more-formalised racist ideologies of the latter British Empire reportedly existed on an increasingly decadent subsoil; and latter-day Soviet Marxism was largely no more than cant disguising graft. A similar stand-off was clearly a feature of establishment London at the time of Osborne’s writing (witness the Profumo goings on), and perhaps nowhere more notably than at the Royal Court itself, at the time supposedly a bastion of Anglo-Saxon spade-is-a-spade ‘vibrancy’ set against the ‘continental’ sexual subversiveness of the preceding HM Tennant ascendancy, but in fact a sexually complex and conflicted place all by itself. Osborne’s riven protagonist in Patriot is the upwardly mobile and talented Redl, pulled apart by competing and incompatible (in his world) needs for personal and societal acceptance and success. As with the Cambridge spies, espionage and betrayal form Redl’s attempt to square that circle, with genuinely tragic results.
Although we only managed to read two of Osborne’s three acts together with a sample of the Ronde scenes (actually doing the whole thing in three shorter maybe two-hour sessions over a day would have been ideal!), we nonetheless navigated the key stages of Redl’s compromising and his professional corruption (in a ‘bed’ of Rondedness), with only his eventual downfall untouched. As a character, Redl is in some ways the opposite of Jimmy Porter in Look Back: a man not given to blowing his own trumpet, mostly self-contained, readable by the audience through silent night crying rather than extended verbal peroration. Patriot is surely a very major work, with Osborne beautifully and forensically anatomising the complex mechanisms, subversions and micro-transactions of Hapsburg regimen in a flinty and un-showy way. And from what we now know of Osborne himself, he is clearly here negotiating his own internal ambivalences and contradictions, working to contain and express rather than to pre-emptively resolve. As with Jimmy Porter though, Redl’s thwarted romanticism is apparent even as his behaviour becomes more hopeless and contradictory, and the play itself also has a magisterial and insouciant sense of slow-unfolding confidence: Osborne is, by this stage in his career, theatrical aristocracy: laidback in dramaturgical attitude and understated in accomplishment. In Friday’s reading the group really tapped the work’s dark, illicit, eroticised and watchful tone, which is an especially amazing feat over zoom. Even the stage directions (which as stage directions generally go are fantastic in the Osborne: beautifully novelistic/cinematic) were wonderfully conjured.
We had begun the afternoon fifty years beyond Patriot’s/Ronde’s Hapsburg highpoint (so concluding some unfinished business from a couple of weeks back,) with the magnificent final major scene of Schweyk in the Second World War, in which Brecht’s version of Jaroslav Hasek’s other First War corporal, lights out in search of Nazi-besieged Stalingrad. This is perhaps where - by means of the subversive, insinuating Schweyk and the whole Nazi regime itself - the two contradictory tendencies of the Hapsburg ethos meet their final nemesis. Our reading of the scene included a brilliant Gisela May account of the first of its Eisler-composed songs, and a plangent Fumio Yasuda/Theo Bleckmann arrangement of its second, the haunting, bitterly poignant Deutsche Requiem. The Brecht scrubbed up beautifully as a rich, nostalgic - and coruscating and subversive – premonition of this ultimate Hapsburg vanishing point.
Altogether a very satisfying if 'incomplete' afternoon, and hopefully a fitting end to our twelve-week lockdown journey, which has tackled over twenty scripts, including classics and new writing in the original English, and in translations from Italy, Chile, Norway, Czech Republic, Hungary, Germany, Austria and USA; featuring around thirty-five performers collectively putting in something like one hundred and sixty separate appearances (and goodness knows how many roles and individual readings of roles that has included: many multiples of that); also guest playwrights, translators and directors; a musician and a psychotherapist.
For me, a particular satisfaction over the weeks has been witnessing regular participants relaxing into the zoom medium. Zoom tends to isolate and focus on individual contributions, to put them on a zoom-square-circumscribed ‘slab’. In response, participants have increasingly ‘owned and explored’ their individual spaces and opportunities, creating in effect a series of beautiful animated and expressive tessellations (examples visible sometimes in the ‘stills’ of each session uploaded onto this blog). Aside from the voices in these, there has also been a hugely expressive mosaic of faces caught in the process of actually speaking but perhaps even more so in listening and responding mode, in for example the smiles of appreciation of colleagues work, or in unselfconscious ‘catching’ of the mood or tone of a play or of a single moment. This was certainly evident in the tense and measured unwinding of the Osborne on Friday. Which effect - in the spirit of at least two of Friday’s plays – might perhaps be termed a fitting consummation for our getting into virtual bed with each other over thirteen ‘daisy chain’ weeks
More, by way of zoom and also perhaps beyond and growing from that, over the summer I hope.
Anyway, huge thanks to all who have taken part.
And finally a mention of an issue that emerged – very much in line with the current societal zeitgeist – in relation to the play selection on Friday: some concerns arising out of the racism, misogyny and homophobia expressed by characters in all three scripts. A bit and complex issue that we can only attempt to navigate with honesty and good heart, and that perhaps should be a subject for a future post.
Participants: Oystein Brager, Helen Budge, Colin Ellwood, Emily Essery, Julia Gale, Valerie Gogan, Emmanuela Lia, Rob Pomfret, Charlotte Pyke, Dom Shaw Zara Tomkinson Simon Usher, Julia Winwood, Hemi Yeroham
Friday’s session (19th June) was a covering of the waterfront of human experience and an exploring of dramaturgical possibility. Two new plays (with writers in attendance) each implying opposite conceptions of the universe, and both in different ways questioning the dramatic effectiveness of linear causative action.
Clouded Yellow, by Norwegian playwright and dramaturge Oystein Brager. centres around the mid-life crisis of thirty-something rock festival producer Jason. In his efforts to set up a ‘grassroots’ event without headliners, he repeatedly encounters musicians whose lives he has inadvertently changed through their having met at one of his festivals and became partners, or left their partners for each other. Is this fate - or randomness, the butterfly effect, as embodied by the eponymous species here making a Hitchcock-like cameo appearance in the action? The play also offers its own version of pathetic fallacy in the form of turbulent weather and - as an examples of a system half-way between design and chaos - dodgy plumbing. On subsequently discovering that the orientating anchors of his life, his wife and marriage, aren’t as solid as he claims (his wife is suddenly in need of extreme support on her sister’s unexpected death from cancer) Jason’s mid-life-crisis hits full breakdown mode, further prompted by his realisation that any decision/action he makes might have catastrophic unintended consequences. The ensuing physical and room-trashing violence is the play’s well-judged cathartic moment, the electric storm that clears the preceding uneasy (literal and metaphorical) turbulence. We are all, it seems, embodiments of haplessness, all Jaques Tatis morphing occasionally into mini Oedipuses. This of course is the opposite of what the standard want/need-based drama implies, and through which audiences are reassured by the clear effectiveness of intended actions, however morally illicit they might be. Here the characters’ collateral effects are more significant and interesting than their intended ones. If the lynchpin of the play is Jason’s tragi-comedic meltdown, the action then goes freeform, with a wonderful choric ‘sounding’ of recalled voices slowly echoing and alliterating around words potentially talismanic to meaningful survival in a chaotic world. Its ’words worth remembering’ include ‘craft’, ‘complicity’, ‘control’, ‘concede’ and ‘choice’ but also ‘cruel’ and ‘chaos’, all of course tacitly generated in the context of the plays catharsis-provoking big ‘c’, cancer, this latter being perhaps the ultimate apparently randomised variable. Having opened with a swirl of rather relaxed chatty ‘recounting’ scenes, then tightened ‘ things round Jason’s home-returned breakdown before movingly ambushing the audience with his subsequent plangent, stark ‘starburst’ of floating voices, Brager ends with a suggestion that art can redeem chaos or at least surf it through recognising and formally processing its randomly-generated patterns (rather as in the play itself). ‘I rise because of you’ (‘you’ being the ‘winds’ of chance) is the concluding lyric composed by another significant character, a professionally and personally jilted singer songwriter. Another lovely touch is the restorative moment before the play’s ‘big bang’ into choral abstraction, consisting entirely of, and named, ‘breath’. Breath of course in general being a mini-wind that recuperates rather than destroys. In the reading itself many memorable things emerged, such as the tragi-comedic melt down of Jason, and two participants spontaneously and jointly musicalizing lyrics to a song that as characters they are supposed to know well. Overall, some really great ‘owned’ and inflected individual readings.
If the joyfully profane Clouded Yellow was an exploration of the creativity of mess, A Beautiful Room To Die In, Julia Gale’s meditative dramatic engagement with the thought and experience of mid-Twentieth-century mystic and philosopher Simone Weil, implies a much more concerted and ultimately centripetal universe. Very much in contrast to Brager’s entropic, centrifugal one. Gale’s is an ambitious attempt at that apparently oxymoronic form ‘dramatic contemplation’, here rendered with the electric charge of a symphonic movement by Bruckner. The script consists of moments leading up to Weil’s death in a hospital in Ashford, Kent in 1943, and of her earlier epiphanies here evoked as if stations of the cross. The play also attempts a very ambitious concentration of modes: Representation – the fictional dramatic situation – part cedes centrality to Being. Insofar as the former persists it is in concentrated and reduced form, a residual ‘saturated’ representation of part-emblematic character, place, space and situation. These in turn are rendered trans- (rather than post-) dramatic: we are simultaneously and multiply in a hospital room, a ‘fictionalised/real theatre and, most tellingly, in the ‘beautiful’ room of a life-ending grace. In classic ‘symbolist-drama’ conceit, a window here offers a much contemplated view into infinity. The central characters, the dying, self-mortifying Weil and the querulous, bibulous, clearly ‘wanting’ (in both the appetitive and pejorative sense of that term) Wanta, are waiting for God, or at least for gifted baptismal grace. The play owes a clear debt to its ‘waiting drama’ avatar, Becket’s Godot, including for some ‘shoe’ action and regarding the presence of an abject, wordless ‘Lucky’ character. Overall, though, its experience is like watching a giant space craft in the final stages of a perilous docking: one false slip by the central character at this late stage would lead to disaster. Each scene is precipitated by Wanta’s mis-firing re-entry into Weil’s ‘beautiful room’. Like a fly to a light bulb, Wanta’s assays are a misfiring search (and act as a foil) for what Weil is slowly and deliberately moving towards: grace, absolution and uniting with God. The action is built around the tension between these two vectors; the straight and the crooked line. Weil also momentarily wobbles. The only available effective ‘truth’, we are told, is the desire for God, and the recognition of that desire rather than any speculation or deliberate moves towards its slaking. We must acknowledge only ‘our freedom/to accept the thing/we necessarily are’. Human misfortune, the apparent chaos of the universe, is here designed to drive a nail into the human soul as a necessary mortifying agent, of which we must be passive and accepting recipients. The human imagination ‘works continually to block all the fissures through which grace would pass’. As with Clouded Yellow, but in a different way, all this is the opposite to conventional ‘instrumental’ dramatic action. The play’s gestalt is further layered, for as well as the beatific, dying Weil and the needy, hapless Wanta, we are offered the witnessing (and commenting) presence of Weil’s biographer Simone Pétrement, and the audience-representing haut-bourgeois ‘Husband and Wife’ come to watch what they imagine will be a straightforward biographical dramatization of Weil’s life as the highest of high culture. The keen-to-please Wanta feels obliged to enlighten the Husband with the biographical details of Weil that he expects, and the play further implies that Wanta and the Wife may have had an affair. Weil’s back story is therefore multiply motivated, as a way of bearing witness to the audience/husband, as an instrumental component of Weil’s final docking and also as a way of Wanta beating herself up. A recently-bereaved young cleaner, her fiancé killed in the war, latterly offers another quietly searching foil for Weil, evoking the latter's period spent working on an industrial production line in a show of Marxist solidarity. Aiming for immanent presence (in this case with God) without Eliot’s ‘distraction from distraction by distraction’, the play makes sophisticated use of gestural – including verbal gestures – rhymes and echoes in its evoking of the sense of something slowly emergent, slowly moving to a self-completion: ‘All the natural movements of the soul are regulated/by laws analogous to those of/material gravity’. The play’s text, possibly unlike the god it seeks to invoke, is unforgiving and stark, offering no hiding place for the actor, who must surely simply commit. Its thought is rewardingly complex and subtle (for example when different modes of waiting are evaluated). Shades perhaps of Eliot’s Four Quartets in both its pared-down prosody and such as its Bergsonian treatment of time. For the most part it was here given a measured and probing reading, with nerves creditably being held throughout.
Present (left to right on each row from top): David Whitworth, Colin Ellwood, Anna Mors, Kevin McMonagle, Jamie Newall, Oliver Yellop, Susan Raasay, Simon Furness, Rachel Bavidge, Sakuntala Ramanee, Anthony Ofoegbu, Valerie Gogan/Simon Usher, Adam Tyler, Benji Hooper.
On Friday (9th June) our focus was on the ‘little’ person in history and their ability to unsettle or disrupt power, even to change the course of things generally, sometimes very generally….world-cataclysmic ‘generally’…..
After taking inspiration from a sampling of the ‘I am Spartacus’ scene in the Kubrick/Kirk Douglas film (the real-time spreading of the ‘virus’ of the original power-disrupting ‘little man’…) we began the reading proper with a group version of the opening pages of Jaroslav Hasek’s early 20th Century Czech masterpiece, The Good Soldier Schwey, featuring dodgy dog-dealer Schweyk hearing from his landlady news of Franz Ferdinand’s Sarajevo assassination…with subsequent inaccurate speculation on the deed from Schweyk himself. Then we moved from fiction’s ultimate little man to possibly his real life avatar, Gavrilo Princip, the actual assassin of Franz Ferdinand, in actor Oliver Yellop’s one-actor script I am Gavrilo Princip. This became We Are Gavrilo for the afternoon, (a kind-of shared ‘Spartification’) with participation of musician Benji’s Hooper’s guitar as a musical voice complementing the vocal ones, and with the writer also present. What a story. How indeed do you remain an individual, an 'I am...', when both you and the world are overwhelmed by the consequences of your actions, that in any case turn out to have been the result of your unwitting manipulation at others’ hands. And THEN your reputation and legacy are co-opted to support the very opposite of what you intended. Poor Princip was buried three times: Firstly alive, in gaol, then in the usual way (from TB at 24), then occluded a third time by history itself. Ollie's script lets the real boy break out from history’s and politics’s misrepresentations, to declare himself for what he specifically, humanly was, felt and intended. And he was only a boy, really, a nineteen-year-old clever kid from a poor rural background caught up in the maelstrom of the Balkans’ historic tensions, and easy game for whichever political ‘player’ came along. Here a 'Lord Jim' figure gesturing from behind the 20th Century’s wall of fire.....and like fictional Schweyk also, but on a much larger scale, he initiated havoc, but without the comedy,
Subsequently we tackled Brecht’s dramatic co-opting of the Schweyk character for his own contemporaneous purposes, in Schweyk in the Second World War. This is in many ways a perplexing piece. He wrote it in Hollywood at a time when I don’t think he had been actually working in theatre for a while. It was never staged in his lifetime, and it certainly could do with some theatrical sharpening, although maybe that's partly the point. It is discursive rather than dramatic for a lot of the time.. We hang out with these people, rather than watch them ‘hunkering down’ for grand action. It's the Nazis getting embroiled in Schweyk-ian triviality (revealing themselves to be comically pathetic in their petty internal rivalries and dogged pursuit of the banal). It's almost an anti-play in its shaggy-doggedness...as Schweyk sort-of gets his way and sort-of undermines the Nazis, none of whom know how to deal with the disastrous consequences of his apparent cooperation… suggesting (in a parallel with the counter-intuitive supposed effects of hope and despair) that it’s not the dissent that gets you in the end, but the acclamation. The play was conceived at a moment, 1943, when Hitler’s Russian invasion had gone disastrously wrong at Stalingrad, and the myth of the Nazis’ toxic invincibility had been well and truly rumbled. I think the play might function for audiences rather as Schweyk's meandering, misdirecting stories function for the Nazis.....making you wonder 'what the f**k....' Although of course Schweyk’s power-disrupting 'signal-blocking' (a bit like a plane dropping fragments of metal foil to disrupt radar...) is a prime example of Brecht 'underdog' tactics. Schweyk is the ultimate mal-ware for Nazi software (or that of any other power-mad narcissistic entities). It is a technique long practiced in classrooms everywhere by kids against officious teachers. Who would be a great Schweyk? I keep thinking of the late Chic Murray... The Czechs in the play (in relation to the Germans in the Brecht or the Austrians in the original Hassek) are like any colonised community in relation to an 'imperium': The Scots or Irish to the English, or English to the US, or any of the cultures occupied by the British Empire. Bill Paterson played the part in Richard Eyre’s 1982 National Theatre production. In the reading, we sampled Brecht and Eisler’s astonishing songs from the show as we read, in Gisela May’s wonderful recordings. We got to halfway through the script, to the interval, having covered a lot of ground over the afternoon. The play depends on rich, pungent characterisations, and despite the fact that the group were of course sight reading, there were some tremendous flickers, and some amazing direct hits. We might sample one of the second half’s stand-alone scenes before the summer break
Present (row by row left to right from top): Zara Tomkinson; Colin Ellwood; Paul Hamilton; David Whitworth; Rachel Bavidge; John Chancer; Ami Sayers; Susan Raasay; Kevin McMonagle; Charlotte Pyke; Emmanuela Lia; Valerie Gogan/Simon Usher
Exploring three fragile and challenged ecosystems on Friday, each fragile in different ways. Briefly, the post-9/11 USA in Kia Corthron’s very short, succinct 7/11, in which an already warped and compromised US constitutional settlement is buckled perhaps beyond breaking point by fallout from the twin-towers attack. A black man named Mohamed and a long-term-interned-without-due-process ‘Arab man’, also named Mohamed (‘Mohamed 1 and Mohamed 2’ – a tacit acknowledgment that the system sees them as overlapping iterations of the same ‘problem’) share a penitentiary cell in 2002. The former seems inured to his inurement, shooting improvised hoops with paper cup and rolled-up sock; the latter, established for ten years in the States as a refugee from Sadaam’s Iraq, waits for his lawyer to help him back to his family and his struggling New York corner grocery store – a 7/11. The black man's resignation encompasses historic, baked-in US racial prejudice, while the Arab man hopes and hustles, believes in the system, only for his attorney to break the news of his likely deportment on a pretext of the tiniest of visa infractions. Constitutional quotes from the founding fathers swirl around, partly comfort-mantras for the men and partly an ironic indictment of the system, also offering historical perspective and context. Two different trajectories of injustice, one involving a kind of burying alive at the bottom of the system, the other, more recently embarked on, a potential expulsion into a stateless void. The patina and echo of two American lives (respectively, citizen by birth and by naturalisation), condensed into a single moment, emblematic but individuated, with these two aspects held in productive tension. In this richly nuanced, compacted play/scene, the tensions are not just between the system and the men, but also between the born-American and the immigrant-American. Different kinds of entitlement and citizenship amongst the comparatively unentitled, in a time of uneasy transition and trauma. Fear and Misery in New York.
The fair point is made by a participant in the session that there are no black or Arabic-heritage actors present. Performers of these and other minority heritages are regular and also occasional participants in the reading group, and each session is booked on a first-come-first-served basis. Attendance (and inclusion on the invitation list) is open to all who self-identify as ‘working actors’, and the ethos of the group is that everyone is able to play/read everything….with best efforts made to ensure that everyone present gets equal opportunities to read. But is there something more/different to be done?
Next up is Noel Coward’s one-act Star Chamber. 1930s theatrical luminaries congregate in a West End theatre for a charitable committee in support of an actors’ retirement home. Coward writes with extraordinary detail, delicacy and observation, and also with a well-developed sense of the absurd, especially for the micro-frictions and manoeuvrings between attendees. Beyond all this, however, is his love, savour, rich appreciation and understanding of the characters and of the deeply-evolved and mutually understood processes of the theatre itself. These beings are delicately held in the palm of Coward's hand like night visitors; exotic and delicate fauna congregating at the watering hole. The single-scene action animates a beautifully maintained ensemble, a choir of wonderfully blended/differentiated voices, and the play has the naturalistic logic and strict discipline dictated by the arriving to, conducting of and departing from the committee. A channelling of the ghosts of West End past…..that also touches on the melancholy of aging (the actors in the retirement home, the possible future of all the committee members). Also, these ghosts inhabits a geographical and professional landscape very familiar to us (the named theatres of course still there…), echoing now more resonantly in current Covid-evacuated conditions. At one point in the play an intensely eccentric and child-like older actress, made genial fun of by Coward, describes her acting process…
Nothing puts me off really once I start, because I shut off absolutely everything, but the getting to the shutting-off stage is sheer misery – you have to mean so much yourself before you can begin to make the play mean whatever it ought to mean – you see what I mean?
Which is of course a very fair statement of a serious and effective (and very recognisable) way of working, as Coward clearly knows and fully appreciates. The reading itself is a temperately relished delight
Finally, the first part of Gerlind Reinshagen’s Sunday’s Children trilogy, set (over the three parts of which we read the first) in a small German town from the early part of WW2 to it’s cataclysmic conclusion. The family and associates of a provincial pharmacist; the teenaged generation looking at that of their parents’, witnessing initially-patriotic, but complex attitudes shift and curdle, blended with a plangent account of the timeless journey from adolescence to adulthood. This is writing of huge power and nuance, infused with mystery almost to the density of a dream state, slowly becoming a nightmare. The father is discovered having an affair with the maid, and subsequently enlists; the daughter is confronted by the horribly disfigured tank soldier she has been writing to, in the process lying about her age and identity. On meeting her, he thinks she is her own younger sister. In this play the insight runs very deep: no character reaction or response is conventionalised or as might be expected, yet each seems revelatory and true. Following the daughter’s discovery of her father’s affair with the maid, she asks the latter for some insight into her father’s inexplicable decision to enlist, but (despite the latter’s sexual relationship) the response is that such issues are too intimate for her to ask him about. Overall, a poignant and compassionate sense of transition; a savouring of life, its richness and evanescence, and especially of the joys and bafflements of youth, within the distant and progressively-encroaching sound of drums; a valediction for a world rich in history, tradition and community about to be lost forever. A kind of theatrical Buddenbrooks., but richly Chekovian in its clear eyed, premonitory compassion
Reinshagen does for her unknowingly-fragile world what Coward does for the West End in Star Chamber, and what Corthron implies for the vanished world of the idealised US commonwealth in 7/11.
Present from top row left to right: David Whitworth; Colin Ellwood; Sakuntala Ramanee; Dom Shaw; Susan Raasay; Jamie Newall; Kevin McMonagle; Julia Winwood; Fran Olivares; Rob Pomfret; Simon Furness; Larisa Munoz; Valerie Gogan/Simon Usher; Emmanuela Lia
I'd Rather Be Eaten By Dogs
Great contrast last Friday (29th May), reading another play by Chilean writer Carla Zunega, following on from the great experience of her The S.A.D. Summers of Princess Diana a few weeks ago. This time we read her 2017 I’d Rather Be Eaten By Dogs, again in translation by Fran Olivares (who again was able to join us for the session). As with Diana this play is based on a real-life incident, and follows attempts by young lesbian and sometime-prostitute Eugenia to get therapy for a traumatic incident experienced ten years prior when working as a nursery nurse, and which may or may not have featured a potted plant. But her chosen therapist wants nothing to do with her and has her own traumas to deal with. Meanwhile Eugenia’s imaginary ‘friend’, in the form of the father she has never met, is giving her a very hard time indeed, including suggesting that there may be more imaginary people in her life she hasn’t noticed. Eugenia’s mother hates her and wishes she hadn’t been born, because of her sexuality. As a coping mechanism, Eugenia also has a habit of breaking into houses and hiding in closets in a bid to feel close to people and ‘normal’. She targets one particular house and family, connected to the trauma of the ‘plant’….but also, now, the house of her therapist. In a bid to get rid of her, the therapist suggests pills, but for Eugenia, their effect would not be ‘real’. However her current state of reality is pretty unbearable, and in any case may not be real either (c.f. the plant, and the possible proliferation of imaginary associates). No-one wants to know Eugenia, and everything she tries turns to disaster. Bystanders get inadvertently shot, an entirely unconnected therapy client is pushed towards another suicide attempt, all as collateral damage in her wake. On one level the play is a deadpan exploration of how bad it can get, an inexpressive-expression of terrible, raw, emotional pain. But on another, the immiserated haplessness of Eugenia and indeed of just about everyone else yields the blackest of black comedy, and generates hysterical laughter at its unremitting awfulness. If Eugenia’s world didn’t feel real to her, the experience of reading the play felt very real to us, very fresh and alive, very difficult to ‘compartmentalise’. Carla Zunega is a genuinely original theatre voice, a poet of misery, perhaps (taking this play in tandem with Diana.). She seems to find a poised beauty and dramatic inevitability in the bleakest of experiences and through the flattest of voices. Its as if a trained dancer, with exquisite technique, were embodying a classical tragedy while heavily tranquilised. You laugh because you don’t think you should be laughing: at the disjuncture between the material and the voice; at the haplessness of the characters, stunned into clumsiness and casual cruelty by their pain. In Dogs for example a suicidal young man so unhappy that he draws a picture of his imaginary friend on a wall so that he can shoots him too in a suicide pact. The play ends brilliantly, ambiguously, offering hope...or is that ironic, or imaginary…? It’s a kind of boldly free-floating ending, only partly connected to the remorseless dramatic logic and measured unfolding of what has gone before. If it is ‘real’, the route to it is not fully explained. That in itself is wonderfully bold dramaturgy
A Night Out
I really enjoyed and completely related to poor Albert in A Night Out. Pinter’s exploration of male territorial combat is anthropological. It reminded me of the unwritten 'gang rules' in the Army or Public School: same wine, different bottles. I’d forgotten the ending and thought he was going to murder her. Male fear is under the microscope in this play. Outsiders want to join the insiders but deep down they remain outsiders. Simon Furness on the reading of Pinter's A Night Out
Zunega’s play features mainly women characters and a comparatively powerless young woman as central character, and the most negative voice in the play is male: her (imaginary) father. In Harold Pinter's short 1960 television script A Night Out, the protagonist is a comparatively powerless young man, and the negative controlling voice here is his mother. So our second read contributed a certain gendered symmetry to the session. Albert is a young office worker, still living at home, and tonight intent on attending a co-worker’s retirement party, in the process escaping the controlling attentions of his recently-widowed mother. Clearly, there would be a case to be made for the loneliness and anxiety of the mother, but Pinter doesn’t make it. Instead we witness her devices and tricks intended to guilt trip poor Albert into staying home. He escapes, but at the party is wrongly accused of ‘touching’ one of the office girls. Women, eh? Always causing or being the cause of problems for us men, seems to be the general tenor. Having also anatomised the absurdities and contortions of male office rivalry and mating rituals, Pinter then follows Albert back home to his mother. But her nagging at his late return provokes him into taking the clock that validates her attempted regimen ‘into his own hands’ and he, well, 'clocks' her with it, with possibly fatal results. Subsequently wandering the late night streets, he ends up in the bed-sit of a girl who has casually picked him up. In this deeply ambiguous encounter he threatens to repeat the offensive clock-action. Having achieved a kind of double-temporal revenge against the female gender, and perhaps having also reclaimed control, via clock-as-offensive-weapon, of the ‘time’ necessary for male regimentation and professional punctuality (I'd note that Pozzo's watch in Waiting for Godot is an emblem of status and control, until of course it stops working...), he returns home to find his mother very much alive, and bashed but also unabashed. Like Zunega’s, the play is partly a deadpan delineation of hapless interpersonal cruelty and bathetic power manoeuvring amongst the fundamentally powerless. For Pinter, though, a certain anger at women seems to be at work. In the play’s favour are the wit and precision – and the recognisable accuracy - of its portrayal of male power manoeuvres and guarded friendships. And the scene with the girl in the bedsit is on a different level, harking forward to later, more mature Pinter, exploring a mutual territory of loneliness and defensiveness with delicacy and genuine strangeness.
Present (each row from left to right, from top): Sakuntalla Ramanee; Colin Ellwood; Paul Hamilton; Rachel Bavidge; Kevin McMonagle; John Chancer; Emmanuela Lia; Emily Essery; Charlotte Pyke; Susan Raasay; Julia Winwood; Rob Pomfret; Valerie Gogan/Simon Usher
Both of Friday’s (22nd May's) otherwise contrasting plays centrally examined the relationship between the simplicity of inner convictions and the intractable complexity of external realities. According to David Greig’s short 2003 two-hander Being Norwegian, our inner ‘chimes’ can be good, useful, life-affirming and connection-facilitating. Akin in fact to ‘good’ art. By contrast the settled – in fact sclerotic - moral and self-identity-defining convictions of the main character in Odon Von Horvath’s astonishing 1937 Judgement Day induce only isolation, drift, and a tragic inability to respond to unfolding events, with appalling consequences. Both plays in fact chart their characters’ ultimate shift towards personal and social authenticity, but through apparently opposite means: Greig’s through a mutual, honest investment in a kind of ‘facilitating fiction’, a role play; Horvath’s through a painful abandonment of all such insulating self-constructions, and of the reassuring fiction that we can accurately attribute individual causality and moral responsibility through simple deployment of our mental ‘operating systems’, rather than through painstaking examination of detailed fact. Is there any common ground in these plays’ apparently opposite attitude to the ‘assuaging illusion’? More than at first might appear, since Greig’s characters’ 'internal fiction' is tacitly acknowledged as such by those who share it and make use of it, while Horvath’s protagonist’s inflexible equivalent functions as a substitute for reality rather than a way of knowingly shaping it. Beguiling cognitive simplifications might be ok, both writers seem to allow, but only if deployed contingently and with self-awareness. More broadly, both Horvath and Greig in writing plays at all are surely themselves tacitly making use of 'acknowledged' fictions to interact with and influence their audience’s reality. And, as we often find in the reading group, sounding these plays in the current zeit-stream induced ripples and echoes that could perhaps influence contemporary thinking, here in Covid-aware and Brexit-beleaguered Britain (and yes I appreciate that that national characterisation is also a gross simplification, contingent or otherwise…)
In the Greig, then, a young woman hooks-up in a bar and goes back to the guy’s run-down flat, discovered to be littered with boxes of possession still packed after several years' residence. His subsequent awkwardness contrasts markedly with her assured manoeuvring towards sex. The secret of her confidence? Being Norwegian, she says, and Norwegians are straightforward about these things. His continuing reluctance slowly discovers him as an ex-con hobbled with self-recrimination for having messed up his own and others’ lives. But then we get an inkling that she also might not be what she seemed. Maybe she’s not Norwegian after all? What ensues suggests that as long as the ‘ontological status’ of the mental construct is acknowledged, playing can be both fun and facilitating. ‘Norwegian-ality ’ is here a mental tone, a state of mind that unlocks a mutual ability to (in the play, literally) dance. Don’t ‘essentialise’, the play seems to suggest, and especially don’t essentialise your identity if its based on an obvious fiction. But do feel free to play. Good news of course for all artists looking to inhabit the mind-set and identity-position of a character different from themselves. Taking another tack, its difficult not to reflect on the relational efficacy of Greig’s ‘tincture of Norway’ (however inaccurate the character’s sense of Norwegian spirit might be, in their activating of an imaginary and purely mental potentiality) compared to the UK’s own currently rather pungent national ethos…which at times seems more redolent of old socks and rancid union-jack underpants than of midnight sun and silent fjords. However maybe we can rethink our own national software. Clearly, according to Greig a shared community ‘chime’, an imagined group reality is useful…but only a benevolent one, neither unwarrantedly aggrandising nor sentimental; a functional operating system, not a fancy dress outfit disguising a toxic pursuit of atomising self-interest. Maybe, inspired by Greig’s play, we could think of this as a recourse to a ‘Norway plus plus’ model, but for it to work we’d need to acquire not herd immunity but herd susceptibility, a broad social consensus that the currently-available UK retro-version seems to have no chance of offering.
That UK version maybe feels a bit more like the national spirit abroad in Horvath’s extraordinarily premonitory (it was written in Vienna in 1937) Judgement Day, as embodied by the play’s pivotal figure Thomas Hudetz, the apparently efficient and decent young stationmaster of a small provincial town. Popular locally and apparently a model of traditional German duty and efficiency, he makes a constant show of keeping up appearances. But even his status is in a sense a self-aggrandising fiction: he is the station's ‘master’ but in fact also its only employee. The bigger problem is that living in a town rotten to the core with bad feeling and small hypocrisies, his show of capability doesn’t involve any meaningful engagement with an increasingly sour and dysfunctional reality. Unhappily married and apparently impotent, an unplanned, lurching encounter with the innkeeper’s desperate-for-affection daughter causes him to miss a signal for the express train, with catastrophic results.
As the only potential witness to his mistake, the innkeeper's daughter initially supports his story, just about allowing him to cling to his imagined sense of fundamental decency. Paradoxically their tacit pact seems briefly also to afford them a shared illicit authenticity, but her emerging desire to come clean results in him killing her, apparently while in the grip of a temporary psychosis. His self-identity, his sclerotic sense of his own virtue, must be preserved at all cost. Yet he subsequently refers to the incident as his ‘marrying her’, as if subconsciously at least he regards it as some sort of nihilistic authenticity-seeking death pact. As was tellingly pointed out in the discussion after the reading, this symbolic ‘marriage’ feels almost Lorca-esque in its embrace of death as a kind of simultaneous yearning for and destruction of innocence and honesty. When it looks like the truth of his behaviour will come out, and the town lurches to yet another over-simplistic judgment this time of his culpability for the crash and for her death, he contemplates suicide only in the end to give himself up to face the consequences of what actually happened, in all its multi-faceted, causal-complexity rather than as characterised by his and the town's pre-emptive judgments and imagined realities. The main thing, says Hudetz, is ‘not to judge your self guilty or innocent’. His – and our – human situated-ness is surely too complex for that. And yet… at the end of the play the wind (‘it’s only the wind’ says the play’s raisonner, the local chemist) howls like biblical trumpets of judgement and previously ghosts and symbols have increasingly intruded, as if the more reality is denied by the Hudetz, the more it emerges into the play's dramatic world in psychotic dream form, such as in the afore-mentioned 'death/marriage' to the white-clad girl. Horvath wrote the play in light of German and Austrian ‘respectable’ society’s inability to face and combat fascism, a failure driven in part by its own delusions of decency and capability. The extraordinary ambivalence and ambiguity of character-psychology and relationships that Horvath achieves here, as well as the complex model of causality he contrasts with the townsfolks' endless attempts to judge, simplify and assert, surely offers a model of social dissonance and disfunction as salient now as it was then.
Do lets continue imagining and 'distilling' then - to have recourse to convenient and satisfying fictions - but contingently, never losing sight of the underlying reality. As both Horvath and Greig, from their very different moments and perspectives, might agree
Below, a young Odon Von Horvath
Present (line by line from top left): Oystein Brager; Colin Ellwood; Zara Tomkinson; John Chancer; David Whitworth; Maria Nygren; Emanuella Lia; Julia Barrie; Jamie Newall; Regine Rossnes; Adam Tyler; Sophie Juge; Simon Furness; Hemi Yeroham; Anthony Ofoegbu; Valerie Gogan/Simon Usher; Sakuntala Ramanee
As sometimes happens, our Friday (15th May) plays unexpectedly discovered common ground. This time the principal common denominator was a focus on women caught between confinement and freedom, questioning the validity of both concepts. For this it was our privilege to be joined by Norwegian friends from Unge Viken Theater: dramaturg and playwright Oystein Brager and two young playwrights whose work we have been exploring in the ‘non-virtual’ world: Regine Rossnes, whose school ‘revenge porn’ drama Exposed was featured very successfully in a combined Holborn reading group session and day-long workshop in those far-distant pre-Covid days of March this year; and Maria Nygren, whose Missing Cat was due for a similar arrangement in April until that became the cruellest month and we all had to retreat to our cramped domestic and virtual confinements. That opportunity still awaits whenever the corona-coast is clear, so it was nice in the meantime to have the chance to read Marie’s earlier Hummingbird, a stark, meditative account of a young woman’s encounters with significant and/or ministering ‘others’ while an inmate at a psychiatric clinic. The trio of progagonist 'Me's' ‘voices’ (boyfriend ‘Him’; friend and fellow inmate ‘You’ and the ‘Doctor’) might be in her room or in her head, or in some liminal and limbic combination of both (an ambiguity contributing beautifully to a delicate sense of intimacy throughout, as of voices whispering in ‘Me’s’ ear in a dream ). As here evoked, the clinic might be a prison or a necessary retreat; her attendant voices restorative or oppressive. The suicide of Virginia Woolf is evoked, but inconclusively, and the attentions of ‘Me’s’ similarly pronominal ‘voices’ are set against the impersonal ever-present chatter of Wikipedia. The play has a distilled sadness as well as moments evoking the brutal reality of a suicide attempt, all tempered by gentle pokes at the strange contradictions of being drawn simultaneously towards life and death; to both containment and nurturing on the one hand and to escape and ‘freedom’ on the other. The hummingbird of the title appears in text from Wikipedia, attributed to no particular voice, so available to be claimed by ‘Me’, or possibly only as a potentially inaccurate external characterisation. ‘Marie’ ‘appears’ as 'herself' at the play's beginning and end, to claim authorship while denying authority over the action. In the Norwegian schools’ tour of the show she apparently did play herself here (but not, I assume, the more-fictionalised ‘Me’?), and she also read these sections on Friday. This, perhaps above all was the most interesting and moving aspect of a compelling experience: the ‘moment of dramatization’ of the mysterious relationship between apparently inexpressible private suffering and its contingent objectification as performed drama. ‘Marie’s’ (the ‘character’s) closing assertion (again invoking Virginia Woolf), gave a beautiful sense of the delicate balance between ‘reality’ and dramatic fiction. Its final line is also perhaps the plays most understated, hard-won but heartening endorsement of life itself: a statement of one who has ‘come through’ (to borrow a phrase from a D.H. Lawrence poem) sufficiently to have written the play, and to be able then to repeatedly witness its enactment as an independent, shared entity:
My name is Maria, and it is me who has written this. It is true. It’s also not true. Virginia’s story wasn’t my story. But I was sick. And it’s very hard to talk about it now, hard because, I don't re- member it. I remember particular situations and thoughts I had, but I can't remember how I felt or how I experienced it. It's like a black hole in my memory. Which is why I write.
And when I talk about it now, I no longer talk about it for myself. I talk about it for others.
Because I don’t feel like that anymore.
Next up was Rona Munro’s short two-hander The Basement Flat, set in a world that could have been our own dystopian future or simply a contemporary anxiety dream. A middle-aged, middle-class couple face the new reality of their former lodger become their landlord, stomping around upstairs with a gun, and of their absent now-feral daughter having escaped bourgeois confinement to live out ‘freedom’ in the garden-become-jungle outside along it seems with all the other young people. After attempting to reach out, the couple slowly retreat into the comforts of denial, tea and the confines of their small flat. This was a genuinely unsettling, richly imagined half-dream-play capturing our very current sense of imminent societal collapse and loss of bearings. We then concluded a very rich afternoon with another Norwegian script – Jon Fosse’s brief coda to Ibsen’s The Doll’s House, Freedom, in which a Nora figure comes back, years later, tired of the discovered bleakness of ‘freedom’ but much too late to reclaim whatever possibly nourishing ‘containment’ she has previously escaped, seeking the equivalent of Marie’s institution and Munro’s couple’s flat….would any return here have a more fulfilling and authentic than either? We never find out, as her ex-husband has re-married, and all three end up denying any validity to what had gone before.
Present (row-by-row, left-to-right from top): Zara Tomkinson; Colin Ellwood; Sakuntala Ramanee; Rob Pomfret; Jamie Newall; Adam Tyler; Marta Kielkovicz; Hemi Yeroham; Valerie Gogan/Simon Usher; Lewis Hart, Susan Raasay; John Chancer; Eugenia Caruso; Emmanuela Lia
With our current Covid-provoked social restrictions very much in mind, yesterday’s reading session (8th May) visited another ‘lockdown’ era, one in which the ‘virus’ was very deliberately brewed in illicit stills and with half a nation tacitly or actively engaged in its transmission and the consequent subverting of govt. ‘advice’. And great to have a nice mix of regular and new members in attendance.
A visit to prohibition-era America, then, seen from a very fresh perspective in John Chancer’s new radio script tracing the life and exploits of his great aunt (?) Vi, as she endeavoured to escape the dullness of 1920s rural South Dakota for a life of bootlegging excitement in company with the charismatic and hugely capable ex-war-hero Verne. Wonderfully spare, idiomatic dialogue and a beautifully immediate sense of the social fabric and chime of an extraordinary ‘moment’, seen free from the ‘peeling lacquer’ of the usual period gangster-noir clichés. Over the course of the afternoon we discovered a richly-evoked community on - and beyond - the edges of the law, but not so far beyond as to seem unreal; a life in the suburbs of the criminal underworld that was very much a variation on ‘legit’ domesticity rather than its colourful but old-movie-inflected opposite. And at the drama’s heart, a very grown-up, loving story of settled partnership between a man in many ways loyal, principled, reliable and talented, and a woman who was in love both with him and with the illicit excitement he trafficked along with the booze. Vi’s gradual transition from small-town skittishness to a settled work-a-day ambiance of career crime; her nemesis at the hands of the FBI and her subsequent alcoholic death as the addled and incapable concierge of a rural hotel at the hands of her consolational (but far from consoling) third husband, were all intricately and compellingly mapped as a series of very plausible and beautifully-implied, incremental micro-choices and acquiescences on Vi’s part, each involving a moth-like orientation towards light and life. Very effective also were the contrasting portrayals of Verne’s dodgy coterie of criminal associates and of Vi’s wider 'civilian' family back in the rural Midwest. The latter were presented as being very aware, in a vague ask-no-questions sort-of way, that she and Verne were involved in something majorly nefarious, but seeing as they liked and admired the couple they discretely offered them support and an occasional bolthole, while also benefitting from the compensatory largesse Verne and Vi were able, intermittently, to provide. All of this was realised in the script by means of a deft, allusive, take-no-hostages narrative tilt and with a commendable absence of moral censoriousness. Perhaps a few unsettling bumps resulting mainly from the script’s ambitious attempt to integrate an early account of then-teenage Vi’s first marriage to the hot-blooded but limited Stanley, who father of her long-suffering daughter Betty, but nothing that couldn’t be steadied, perhaps by the development of the Stanley episode into a slightly more expansive short ‘first act’ (which it surely is worthy of being) as evidence of Vi’s first frustrated attempt at fulfilment, priming her for the arrival in her life of real-deal Verne? Overall, a great afternoon and a wonderful and well-taken opportunity for the group’s American accents and characterisations to get a full-blooded canter out onto the digital prairie (representing – as they turned out to - a very broad geographical range stretching from New Jersey to the Mississippi Delta). A great bootleg time was had by all, and at the end and in subsequent emails many hopes were expressed that the script make it onto the airwaves or to a wider audience in some other medium soon. Thanks to John (who at the end of the reading came out of virtual-world hiding to admit he had been covertly listening to the performance all along) for allowing us to experience the world of his forebears, especially in such a beautifully turned piece of work, and also to hear afterwards about the true-life family circumstances - and see the photos…..(see below).
Present: Julia Barry, Rachel Bavidge, John Chancer, Colin Ellwood, Simon Furness, Valerie Gogan, Paul Hamilton, Marta Kielkovicz, Kevin McMonagle, Rob Pomfret, Adam Tyler, Simon Usher, Julia Whitwood, David Whitworth
One of the best things about the reading group is that participants are discovering the play as they read it aloud. Their response, and the consequent ‘in-process’ fashioning of a performance is therefore largely instinctual and ‘in the moment’. The exhilaration of discovery, and of improvisation, go together. The encounter between actor and text (or role) is almost a collision, and a creative one. Sparks fly, something catches fire, and then the fire can be continually shaped. Not unlike the formal encounter between an actor and a mask: the suddenness, the deliberate 'shock' and the singleness of the moment of ‘recognition’ are necessary to generate the requisite instinctual energy, to provoke bold choices in engagement and realisation. However, here the unfolding text - unlike the mask -continues to provide an ever-evolving flow of new information, allowing the actor to continually modifying the original flame, to pivoting and swerve and re-connect in mid-flight. And it's not just the text that offers the possibility of 'creative collisions': other actors do too when sharing the same role, as regularly happens, so encouraging the actor to instinctually scope the role's broader coordinates and then to ‘dig deep’ to find something different, something unique, something new from deep within. Also, older often gets to play younger, female to play male and so on, so again the ‘connection’ of role with actor can transcend any ‘conventional’ casting. The overall result can be a tessellated quilt of individual insights, owned, held and imagined communally by the group. And , tellingly, none of it really matters: The stakes are ultimately very low, with little or no audience beyond the participants themselves. All present are equally ‘in jeopardy’, all equally invested in and vulnerable to the ‘game’. People take risks, play, and if things don’t fly, nobody minds. There is an ancient-Greek-derived term: ‘phronesis’, meaning a kind of implicit ‘nous’; a spontaneous in-the-moment ability for measured and canny response based on the instinctual absorption of previous experience and the deployment of a trained intuition. The reading group is an exercise in such 'phronetic’ abilities, amplified by the actors' boldness and willingness to fly. It doesn’t always work out like that, but sometimes it does. As perhaps it did in Friday’s session, even though the range and number involved in the ‘tapestry’ of characters in Simon Stephens’s Rage meant that the plan was for each participants to settle a bit more on a single (or couple of) characters for the duration, rather than split and share roles around as is usual
Rage is Stephens’s response to a production of Elfriede Jelinek’s play of the same name (‘Wut’ in German), itself a response to the Charlie Hebdo shootings in Paris, seen by him in a production by long-time collaborator Sebastian Nübling (see this live trailer etc. embedded here of a different production at The Deutsches Theater, Berlin):
Judging by the above, Jelinek’s play is a powerful mix of pure rage, character perplexity and a kind of desperate religious transcendence. Stephens’s response however draws also on a different source: Joel Goodman’s eerily beautiful, painterly, almost-religious photographs of late night New Year revelling in Manchester City Centre:
...in which beauty seems dropped-in like a subliminal image, or arisen from an elemental quality within the action itself. It might partly be this full-spectrum emergent humanity, achieved through their subjects' 'full-bodied' sheer body-ness, that underwrites their often-made comparison to Renaissance religious paintings. After all, human beings in full spate, fully and unselfconsciously engaged….are beautiful. Put a group of us/them together, in a given space, all fully and momentarily 'erupting’ or hunkering down to action and something very charged happens. The scenario of Stephens’s play is simple: late New Year’s Eve in a city centre with the characteristics and street names of Manchester. The world is turning and a tapestried flow of apparently continuous but concentrated real-time action arcs in its wake. Young people are the ‘poachers’ of the evening, the hunters, the snufflers for meaning, pleasure, intimacy and transcendence amidst the cracks and fissures of the city and the night. And there is also a smattering of largely phlegmatic ‘gamekeepers’: a quartet of dogged bobbies, a taxi driver, all with their own carefully-incubated issues. SO: lunatics and attendants; incipient nuclear reactions and attenuated carbon rods, all flaming in the high octane ectoplasm thrown on the flames by dint of the occasion. Given its differing source of inspiration, but also surely a function of Stephens’ hugely infectious big-hearted indie-record lyrical richness, Stephens' Rage is not a simple echo of Wut but rather a conversion of its dark anger into something (perhaps) richer, ultimately more uplifting, even borderline transcendant. With him, here, the rage is a calling card, a token of admission, a deferential tipping of the hat to Jelinek, but then, like a good jazz improvisor, Stephens takes Jelinek’s ‘offer’ and transforms it. His battle-casualties of the night staggering and wandering around the city centre are caught more often in moments of stillness, self-confrontation, mutual support or unexpected intimate connection than in full-on aggressive attack mode. The most extraordinarily offensive (and endlessly-inventively-offensive) invective is sometimes deployed, but more as - in an entirely unsentimental way - a symptom of individual need and lovelessness or childlike need to be naughty, to joyously let rip at the universe, transgressing with whatever ammunition is to hand. Here is a logorrhoeic vomiting to match the very salient actual vomiting; an expulsion of societal toxins rather than a reinforcement of them. As the year turns we witness friends dealing with buried traumas; a girl in a sparkly dresses unexpectedly declares love and then proposes to her best friend; a crack in a nondescript wall offers a glimpse of a kind of localised underworld, a Mancunian Nirvana where the dead frolic in miniature, un-reachable but happy. The city centre has become a magic place for the night. Stephens clearly has huge empathy for all his characters, gamekeepers and poachers alike. All are lovingly fashioned and fettled for their individually-customised apotheoses of excess, their extravagent demonstrations of verbal and physical creativity and their sheer joyous Rabelasian, life-affirming slurpy gusto and verve. By means of their linguistic, physical and emotive abundance, the play manages to be both intimate and extravagantly operatic; realist AND poetically transcendent; a joyous clearing of the societal throat; an alchemic transmutation of rage into dreams. On Friday the experience of reading the play seemed to bring huge delight to all who were there. The participants - often in this case inevitably more 'mature' than the roles they took of course - brought phronesis in abundance, playing with delicacy, poise, insight and love, as we hope the following short video extract will demonstrate:
Helen Budge, Colin Ellwood , Kirsten Foster, Simon Furness-Gibbon, Valerie Gogan, David Hounslow, Emmanuela Lia, Robert Lightfoot, Kevin McMonagle, Jamie Newall, Anthony Ofoegbu, Susan Raasay, Zara Tomkinson, Simon Usher, David Whitworth, Julia Winwood, Hemi Yeroham, Laurie Slade (Guest)
For our 3rd-ever Zoom session, this was a full-afternoon’s journey reading Robert Holman's intimate epic Rafts and Dreams from 1991, in which a tale of escape from domestic abuse gets subsumed by almost another narrative entirely, of cataclysmic global flooding. The Tufnell Park house-share of the main characters becomes literally a raft swept by flood waters (which emanate from a hole in the characters’ garden caused by an uprooted tree) via polar regions to equatorial Africa. The survivors – an OCD-suffering army wife, her insecure but loving Sgt. Major husband, and their neighbour, a trainee-doctor whose childhood with a pimp/prostitute mother involved some horrendous abuse recounted here in baroque and disturbing detail – all wrestle with the fallout from both the unfolding aquatic global emergency and from their earlier traumas. They variously overcome or succumb to the latter by means of challenges presented by the former, such as are offered for example by encounters with a live chicken and a decomposing caribou. The former encounter is strikingly and unexpectedly moving, as the OCD sufferer faces and overcomes her fear of contamination when the raft reaches Africa, by means of physical contact with said chicken when offered it by a local woman suffering from leprosy, apparently as a welcoming gift. Close to an ultimate test for a germaphobe, surely. This is a play that somehow makes the borderline-risible seem inevitable, necessary and telling. Not unlike in a dream, in fact. On their travels the central trio are joined first by the wife of a now-imprisoned solicitor who had repeatedly staged and filmed the student-doctor’s childhood abuse, and subsequently by the precocious teenaged son of an aged C of E Bishop found drifting on a passing ice-flow. The script, after a highly dramatic and determinedly realist opening, amplifies the apparently-random-but-significant ‘feel’ of a dream in regard to its external incident, as if the flood water had cracked open and warped the play's space-time continuum, while the characters themselves continue to behave in a psychologically realist way, taking the various serendipitous arrivals and strange global journeyings almost in their stride, as of course you do in dreams. At the point where the rotting caribou carcass is quietly repurposed as a sail for the raft, you begin to realise the play is even more sneakily subversive than even its ‘flood’ narrative implies. With its characters' realistic mental health issues and admittedly grotesque childhood trauma held in tension with its broader dislocated 'ecological/global/dream' dimension, there is a bold sense of the whole being disorientatingly ‘out of phase’. But that almost Kafkaesque effect makes the play stick to the unconscious like burrs. The trajectory of the characters’ inner journey is perhaps mirrored/amplified in the over-arching epic travel narrative, transitioning from Arctic cold towards Equatorial warmth, and there is fresh directness and simplicity of statement in the dialogue. Everyone just 'delivers' their back story and their diagnoses of each others psyches in a very stark way which, together with the home-made, equivalently stark feel of the drama as a whole, is at times refreshing. In fact it's as if the play is the dream of the slightly autistic-spectrum Bishop’s son who was found adrift on an ice flow painting the vista before him in oils. Tellingly, despite the human and animal drama in his painting, his main focus is on the colours on display. Latterly he is tacitly adopted by the student doctor and the disgraced solicitor’s wife. Unaware that his unacknowledged new ‘father’ has subsequently walked out of earshot and apparently shot himself rather than face the challenges of living, the boy has what is in effect the play’s final and perhaps ultimately orientating, anchoring statement. This apparent non-sequitur recalls a moment earlier in his life and implies that the play' prevailing sense of ‘un-moored-ness’ has bee on account of something that has been missing from everyone’s experience all along, a sense of familial love and trust:
At Gatwick, Jo, coming home, my parents were there, and I absolutely surprised myself by rushing straight into their arms. That was it, that's all it was, I was home.
The group's reading overall was careful and measured, everyone sticking with it and feeling their way through, probing constantly, rather as if we were ourselves guardedly crossing a vast, mysterious tundra, sparsely populated with some gloriously exotic fauna. As Oscar Wilde almost said of Wagner, this play had many exquisite moments embedded in some perplexing half-hours.