Presence Theatre enthusiastically crossed onto the mainland European stage for the first time when Colin Ellwood and Simon Usher took part in the Dreams Before Dawn Festival in Paris, a few days after the Brexit vote that saw Britain start to retreat back across the threshold. Here Colin writes of their experience exploring the work two British writers, Robert Holman and William Shakespeare, in a truly international context.
Ten days after the Euro referendum in July, and Presence is crossing a border that suddenly feels a little more substantive. It’s as if a string has snapped and we’ve all been propelled into a more consequent and weighted reality, holding our breath to a drum roll of uncertainty and a vague sense of borrowed time. But then maybe that’s just being over-dramatic. It remains to be seen what any decoupling might actually entail. Either way what we are about to embark on feels very timely.
I am due to meet Simon Usher at St Pancras Eurostar terminal on Friday late afternoon. We are going to be spending the weekend running workshops as guests of the Dreams Before Dawn Festival of English–speaking theatre at the Theatre De Menilmontant in Paris. An event organized by my good friend and colleague from Rose Bruford, Matthieu Bellon. For the second year in succession he’s drawing a small flotilla of largely experimental performances from budding companies across the channel to glitter and bob for a whole week in the 20th arrondissement, near Pere Lachaise. We’re there to feed into this with workshops on Shakespeare and France, and on the plays of Robert Holman. The former is an obvious offering perhaps although we think we have an interesting angle to pursue. It’s also great to have the prospect of exploring the latter’s work in the context of a culture that might really value its quiet intensity, moral seriousness, boldness and individuality: qualities that in Robert’s work are nonetheless anchored in a richly evoked and very English sense of place. The perfect combination we hope for our aims here.
Our whole enterprise really begins the day before departure, on the Thursday afternoon in – appropriately enough - a small French café on Richmond High Street, meeting Robert who has generously agreed to let us film a conversation with him.
It’s a very hot day, but cool in the slightly echo-ey, shaded interior. After establishing whom the workshop will be for – largely students, young directors and performers is our guess – Robert begins by denying any ability to talk meaningfully or conceptually about his work. For the next hour though he is delightful and absorbing company: thoughtful, exploratory and engaged, all these qualities spiced by a determined vigilance against easy over-explicitness. Simon sets the tempo, playing the diligent, careful sapper, mining foundations while I occasionally intervene rather opportunistically. Robert weighs words, measuring and maintaining distance, easing in and out of intimacy. He is a man for specifics, for the emergent rather than the imposed. It’s a broad-ranging discussion, much more so than can be done justice to here – the following being merely a flavour.
Very early on in the conversation Robert acknowledges his absorption in character as a factor central to his work, and we tentatively point to the recurring in his plays of central figures reaching out from isolated interior worlds, searching perhaps for vicarious experience: ‘I never thought of that. People looking for others who will give them security’.
The figure of a handicapped girl in a hospital cafeteria, self-enclosed but somehow contentedly absorbed in life, features in Robert’s most recent play A Breakfast of Eels, perhaps, suggests Simon, admiring this quiet directness, as a corrective against self-pity in others. By way of what is perhaps a contrasting example but directed to the same end, I recall that Neil in the much earlier Rafts and Dreams has escaped from horrific child abuse to train as a doctor, but can’t in the end quite complete the journey into ongoing daily practice. He commits suicide. ‘Neil’s tragedy is of not being able to be a different person’ says Robert ‘I’ve written the same play over and over again I know that … about having the courage to learn from experience.’
How did he come upon the extraordinary central image of Rafts and Dreams in which the living room of the protagonists becoming a raft floating between continents as a great flood inundates the world? He says that at around the time he wrote it – 1990 - he realized he wasn’t going to be a directly political writer in the way of (his examples) an Edgar or Hare - so decided he might as well ‘do what I wanted’. Setting aside the subsequent currency of the threat of global flooding, the idea of Robert as ever having considered his work political in that direct, assertive, conscious way is a surprise. But on the other hand, in terms of politics as a matter of ethics: Robert reminds us he is from a family of Quakers, his father and grandfather conscientious objectors in consecutive world wars. His father shortly before he died told him that if he had known before the war what was to ensue, he might have fought. He points out that the existence or otherwise of evil is a focus of several of his plays. However he also offers a corrective to such abstract considerations: ‘The idea is to be not aware at all just write the next line’
Family is acknowledged as both a central concern and a resource. In the very last speech of Rafts and Dreams, 14-year-old Alex remembers returning from a school trip:
‘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.’
‘That speech is true’ says Robert, It’s a beguilingly simple formulation that he uses twice in the conversation, the other being in relation to the handicapped girl. In that instance he means that he witnessed a version of the scene, sitting in the café of a London hospital, absorbing, observing. With Alex, the connection seems more personal, more direct. Then a further reflection:
‘All plays fail. There is an innocence in Alex – Neil [who kills himself] can't deal with the innocence of Alex – I could have got that better now, made it clearer’
His says his writing has in recent years has become more collaborative.
‘I’ve always remembered actors in the theatre: Gielgud and Richardson in No Mans Land; Penelope Wilton at the Donmar. I’m interested in actors….and I’ve always said there’s no point in writing unless you enjoy your own company, your own loneliness even, and I think I now enjoy that less.’
As a consequence certain actors have become collaborators, sharing their own experiences as stimulus and material, and even on occasion choosing character names. He needs, he says actors with a weight, a low centre of gravity, who will stand still on stage and not move. ‘My plays are still’.
His most recent play, A Breakfast of Eels, was apparently difficult to place in theatres. ‘I don’t do as I’m told’. But having said this he characteristically tacks back, remembering occasions watching his own plays in performance ‘where I can’t be bothered either. I know why you don’t like it. Plays are about energy; people need to reciprocate’. His plays of course multiply replay that effort.
After the difficulty he found in writing Eels outside any relationship with a particular theatre, he wanted to write a long letter to Rufus Norris looking for a home for his next play. Fellow playwright David Eldridge, a good friend, sometime collaborator and great admirer of his work advised instead a short, direct email. The resulting commission was immediately forthcoming and this evening he’s off to see Beggars Opera at the National in the version by another self-confessed Holman admirer – as well as friend and collaborator – Simon Stephens. For someone who seems very much an individual, self-contained, he is discretely but deservedly well-connected and cherished.
‘I’ve learnt something over the years – I don’t know what’
It’s all great material for our purposes. We’ll show the film (taken rather shakily on my laptop) at the workshop on Robert’s work on Sunday morning.
The following afternoon Simon and I converge again at the St Pancras Eurostar terminal. In keeping with the odd atmosphere of that post-referendum moment, someone is belting out an unintentionally Les Dawson version of Rule Brittania on one of the battered pianos that leaven the surrounding cosmopolitan blandness.
We spend our time on the train reading for our first workshop in Saturday morning, both regretting not having had more time and enjoying this rather wonderful chance to concentrate on Shakespeare. We arrive at a rough format for the following mornings workshop, the topic of which is to be Shakespeare and France. We want to avoid the obvious Henry V and VI stuff and focus on the France of the comedies, and as it impinges on other plays such as Hamlet – a France much less marked out as the enemy, but rather characterized as a slightly rarified place of fantasy and formality…almost a cross between wonderland and Arcadia, shading – in Hamlet and at times in for example All’s Well - into something darker.
A mere three hours after setting off, we are arriving at the flat we are to stay in is in the 4th floor of a rather stylish 50’s block in the Rue Des Prairies about 20 minutes walk from the theatre. It’s a beautifully ordered, dignified and rather decorous place: Dark wood furniture, art books on immaculate shelves. We can only guess at the identity of the owner who has so generously made it available – and thank both them and Matthieu and his family for having organized our use of it. Rue Des Prairies sounds very ‘epic’. Prairies in such an urban setting makes me think of Brecht’s Jungle of the Cities … and a subsequent internet search turns up a 1950’s Jean Gabin film named after the street set at the time of its post-war brave-new-world construction, that seems to focus on a family not dissimilar to the one in Brecht’s play. But that’s all by the by. The epic-ness now seems a quirk, an anachronism throwing its current air into relief. Now it seems beguilingly tranquil and anonymous, dormant, biding its time silently - at least at weekends.
In the morning, refreshed, we find a café and finalise the preparation work we started on the train. We arrive at the theatre a little early and sit in the cool, airy foyer to meet Matthieu and Amanda Collins, who with her customary assiduous tact has been helping organize events. Apparently people will join us from a yoga class currently taking place so in the meantime we are given a tour. The Menilmontant complex turns out to be three performance spaces and several rehearsal rooms in the shell of an old abbey – all beautifully maintained. Seeing this it’s easy to recall the rather depressing air of neglect of equivalent semi-municipal institutions in London, that exist like beached flotsam from a much more communitarian age. The adjacent school playground injects a further subliminal soundtrack of youth and optimism.
On the tour we bump into a small group of would-be participants hurrying in, worried about being late, a hearteningly international group: A couple of Brazilian students and Victor a teacher from New York. By 11 o’clock there are around fifteen people present – Irish, Brazilian, Polish, UK, US, Icelandic. We all get into the main theatre space with its huge stage that opens out onto what is to all intents and purposes a sunlit patio. The chairs are pushed back and I introduce a couple of limbering exercises and then Simon launches in, first with a tag game and then some exercises of possessing and communication fragments of Shakespeare text, here from Miranda in The Tempest.
‘Oh I have suffered/with those that I saw suffer’
A participant is drawn into the centre of the circle to more fully attempt the speech. Simon’s intermittent, insistent demand to ‘shift’ seems to unbalance the participant into direct unmediated and instinctive response. The concentration around the group seems total … and there seems a general delight in this testing.
Later, turning to Hamlet, we collectively discover a verbally ‘stabbing’, pugnacious and explicitly-Danish Claudius, against a mellifluent, urbane and ‘Frenchified’ Laertes. Simon make the point that Laertes implicitly self-claimed ‘Frenchness’ accords with other instances of the ‘idea’ of Frenchness around in England at the time ... denoting an interest in form, in abstractions and surfaces: ‘a very formal Frenchman.’
And there we have to halt – we’ve already gone well beyond our allotted finishing time of 1pm.
Our shorter afternoon session is billed as a discussion on French influence on English theatre, but interest in this morning’s work is strong and it is decided we will continue with that work. So after a lunch al fresco at a nearby café we reassemble to focus on the Princess’s final speech of Love’s Labours Lost, with its demand that ideas and verbal formulations be tested against that most primal and empirical of experiences - death. Such is the general absorption we never quite get to our third and fourth examples, centring around Jaques’s Montaigne-like playfulness and skepticism in As You Like It and the nostalgic almost Proustian world of All’s Well That Ends Well.
This afternoon session is more reflective than the morning had been, but seems well received, and for the rest of the day we graze in the sunshine in and around the theatre, stepping into the cool darkness intermittently to see the three short performances curated by Bred in the Bone, Matthieu Bellon’s organizing collective. These are basically Shakespeare ‘mash-ups’ of Hamlet, Macbeth and Lear reconfigured around women protagonists and in entirely re-imagined scenarios. It’s a huge and bold range of work distilled in roughly 20-minute blasts. Given any knowledge of the plays, the resultant redeploying of individual fragments of text can be disconcerting (not necessarily a bad effect). The highlight is undoubtedly the Lear, performed with simplicity and clarity almost as a Beckettian ‘Not-I’ monologue albeit in a post-Hurricane Katrina family setting.
The following morning we are sad to leave ‘our’ flat for the last time, but console ourselves with coffee and croissants in one of the cafés that already feel a little like second homes, as we prepare for the Holman workshop in the afternoon
When we arrive at the theatre we first watch the half-hour film Matthieu’s brother has made of the latter’s rehearsal of a Bred in the Bone version of Don Quixote in a Kent barn the previous summer using Shakespeare text. It’s an account of what was clearly an extraordinarily intense exercise, and maybe also a corrective to our speculative focus this weekend on the formal, abstract linguistic burden of French culture [as, admittedly perceived by the English]. In the film, young performers give their all, generating emotion from the Shakespeare text, trying almost to chase their own tails. It’s both wonderful and at times agonising to watch. It’s the exploring of a kind of Shakespearean underbelly, and, I speculate, perhaps Matthieu’s own reaction against the received cultural formality of his homeland.
The Holman workshop seems a perfect conclusion to our contribution over the weekend – a gentle and forensic exploration of extracts in the shadowed and cool rehearsal room. It’s great having Victor the New Yorker there, since his engagement seems to cast yet another set of national characteristics into the mix, bringing into focus the restraint and obliqueness of some of Robert’s characters in contrast to Victor’s brilliant effusiveness. Of the four plays we intend to look at in the two hours, we really manage only one in any depth: Making Noise Quietly. We look at the opening two pages and it’s a delight rediscovering the poise and restraint of its dialogue and its sparseness and boldness in slowly building a tacit and unacknowledged relationship between two characters from entirely contrasting backgrounds. Their finding of an undemonstrative, shared intimacy – beautifully and ambiguously balanced between assertion and denial - seems like a perfect emblem of the cross-cultural connectedness we are attempting here, and of the festival as a whole. It also perhaps serves as antidote to the sentiments behind the defiant Rule Brittania from the St Pancras piano. Yet again the intimacy and particularity of a play by Robert seems to offer a resonance with more directly ‘political’ concerns, all the more effectively so for being so rooted in a specific dramatic moment and world. We end with the film of Thursday’s Robert interview, and leave people intrigued and keen to find out more.
And that’s it ...
Final food in a conveniently adjacent café, then we return to the theatre for the closing of the festival and a short heartfelt speech from the main stage by Matthieu to a weary but satisfied contingent of around 30 participants that are still around, many of whom have weathered the full week. There is a sense of attainment in the air, of experiences that will be remembered for a very long time. Our taxi to the station is slightly delayed by the tightening of traffic as Paris hunkers down for the final of the Euros at the Stade de France. A sudden flourishing of blue shirts on the streets and cries of ‘Allez les Bleus’ from the pillions of passing motorcycles. We are well beyond the Channel Tunnel when word filters through of the slow draining of French hopes. It’s been an illuminating weekend and one perhaps offering a sense that nationalities have a salience best savoured in their mutual exchange and presence rather than in their separation ...