Artistic Associate and "new boy" Colin Ellwood pulls back the curtain on Presence Theatre's Reading Group to reveal the hidden treasures beyond on the day that Simon Stephens brought Country Music to the group.
Just prior to 11 o’clock, a slow gathering outside on the pavement and a brief confusion over access. Among those to roll up is special guest Simon Stephens, one of whose early plays is to be read. Entrance effected, we insinuate ourselves into the depths. This slightly mysterious establishment always reminds me of Steppenwolf; or of Verloc’s shop in Conrad’s Secret Agent; or the bowler-hatted Mr Benn’s 70’s T.V. emporium of trans-historical psychedelia. Transit through a mysterious curtain is involved here too, on the way to the small basement’s surprisingly accommodating windowless grey void.
It feels like an almost illicit pleasure to be sharing this experience with fellow sufferers of whatever need or appetite draws us in against the grain of the more noisome prevailing cultural tides. Here, refreshingly, there is no pitching for parts nor rehearsal claims being staked. Our presence is devoid of pretext and so feels like a tacit and slightly scary admission of interest in the thing itself, whatever that might be: Maybe a ‘being’, a simple attentiveness; a present-ness sufficient to and inflected by the skein of words soon to be threading between us; an unforced Quakerish-ness; a (literal) ‘amateurishness’ that in an increasingly ‘professionalised’ world is surely the beating heart of all who truly profess.
Today as always, an initial air of benevolent transgression prevails, a sense of mildly dissident possibility, as well as a delicious day-beginning dreaminess, the metaphorical soft-fuzz on the un-squeezed peach of expectation (the prospect of a language-fix occasionally over-stimulates the organ of metaphor….)
We sit in a round, maybe 12 of us, a pleasing variety of ages and genders. There is amongst the men a preponderance of trilbies (disappointingly not bowlers) that vanish as people settle. The piano is not to be played, costing extra according to the attached notice, and the prohibition fires a terrible unspoken temptation, barely but impressively resisted.
Having been both puzzled and moved by Caryl Churchill’s Escaped Alone at the Royal Court the evening before, our arraying here to me recalls that play’s core accommodation: random chairs gathered together in anticipation of small gifts of attentiveness in the context of larger disturbances over which we have no control; fragments gathered and offered against our collective distrait….Auden’s ‘small ironic points of light’….
Presence is surely a beautiful name for a theatre company: The very sound of the word somehow evoking a release of pneumatic pressure, a leaking from the individual into the oceanic. Of course presence comes in different intensities and types. Here is not the lumbering, over-earnest, individualist kind sometimes striven for in readings but rather, in the main, presence fleet, exploratory, provisional, interactive and insightful; redolent of confidence, awareness and ease. The presence of the plays, the texts, draws out the presence of the readers as a group as much as individually. For those attending, such presence is two-fold: potential and kinetic, with no absolute boundary between the two, and the former slipping easily and speculatively into the latter; with the resultant ‘present’ materialization of the play being a slow accretion of these multiple individual ‘kinetic’ offerings, unforced and (in every sense) un-forged; each one as if effecting a ‘passage through’ some small but vital door, opening into yet another hidden passageway along which the ‘real’ play must secretly pass.
Over the course of the day the thought frequently occurs that here I am amongst accomplished experts, truly, but above all expert in exploring; essaying now in the nets rather than on the field; curious, where curiosity has only its own stakes and rewards, and open to the discovery of new mechanisms: waiting, searching for and alive to the clicks of multiple and serial locks being sprung (all plays have a kind of individual lock-mechanism, surely).
Proceedings are convened today by Joint Artistic Director Jack Tarlton, than whom it would be impossible to imagine a more sensitively attentive host, and here operating as the ever-adaptive facilitator, floating expertly like Ali’s butterfly. Simon Usher – fellow (and originating) Joint Artistic Director – complements as the more oracular bee-stinging still-point. Together they are wave and particle; the Goldberg and McCann of what proves to be a very gentle play-interrogation process. I am the new boy (this my third of these more-or-less monthly events) already mildly addicted.
We begin with Simon Stephens’ Country Music. As is the custom in these parts, roles are re-distributed (here by Simon Usher) scene-by-scene, with what appears to be an initial loose awareness of conventional casting suitability. Participants are asked not to read the plays in advance, so to encourage freshness of discovery, response and adaptation. This is the acting equivalent of fly-by-wire with the text as the cockpit radar signal, and readers simultaneously responding and expressing; constantly recalibrating their offerings in a creative feedback loop. It’s a joy listening to each contributor home onto the text’s emerging signal, sometimes elegantly ‘back-flipping’ or neatly u-turning as some crucial aspect of character or dramaturgy becomes apparent; ruthlessly burning off earlier attempts in the ongoing mapping of what works, is true and resonates. Such recalibrations warrant here no shrug or other tacit admission of ‘error’: everyone present understands that a preliminary bold choice primes for its better-targeted replacement.
As someone who has over the last couple of sessions found myself occasionally administering roles, I am aware that this is done best as if through half-closed eyes, in a mild panic, from the hip, with an awareness of the importance of as many people as possible participating, yet also wary of unduly fragmenting the play; so taking advantage of natural resolutions and breaks in the writing to shift roles around the group. Simon U seems to start here quite ‘conventionally’ – ‘yes such-and-such could play that part’ – and that is in itself often (and certainly here) a revelation: participants seem suddenly to shed a skin, to develop a concentration and unselfconsciousness in the offering and creative varying of versions of themselves that have not quite been previously legible in their charmingly unassuming social personas.
As time goes on Simon U's distribution of roles proceeds as it were deeper into the group, and perhaps this is where some of the richest revelations come: richest because in some ways least expected. What might initially seem slightly implausible castings begin to reveal a deeper compatibility, offer new perspectives.
Country Music turns out to be an extraordinary series of surgical strikes, an exercise in consecutive and ruthless dramaturgical keyhole surgery: A whole generational saga, life story, articulated and anatomized through four ruthlessly-sunk bore-hole scenes, each a single, intricate and sparely-written duologue anatomising the central character’s slow crumple from exuberant Don Quixote to bewildered Sancho Panza, over some 30 years. A life-tragedy in four strokes, four agonizing striations, caught with the compassion and big-heartedness of a Dickens operating within the formal control of Webern; and with the central, initiating and explicatory encounter, the Rosebud keystone – devastating in the irony of its possibility – accommodated last: its high-octane ‘everything-possible’ teen-spirit revealed as the secret fuel firing every subsequent disastrous choice the protagonist makes. It’s the perfect reading-group play: all gesture, no cumbersome scaffolding: a Boyle Family recreation evoking whole landscapes of loss.
Simon Stephens watches each contributor intently as they speak, angular like a half-unfolded heron caught between drowse, intense inquisitiveness and what looks like moderate surprise; or like a fond parent savouring the half-recognised, half discovered emergence of a favoured child’s long-suspected talent; quietly willing the revelations to keep coming. He is a benevolent magnet gently drawing forth the performances like iron filings; recognition and discovery fused in one cherishing, inviting physical ideogram. I’ve never seen anything quite like it, and as someone who attempts sometimes to help young directors develop, this immediately becomes my model for the appropriate directorial attitude for the willed ‘drawing forth’ of actorly extrusions.
Simon S is of course as if born to test the descriptive limits of words like ‘rangy’; ‘lope’ and ‘bounce’; built as if for traversing long-distances on foot, he has the speculative angularity of a high-jumper addressing a bar set to new personal best. All chairs seem slightly too small for Simon the human question mark, yet he folds himself into even the most unpromising of them – as here – like some complex and expensively telescopic surgical instrument being returned to its contracted state; or as the elegant wording of an international treaty might address some contentious and intractable issue, assuaging all awkwardness and tension in the deft inclusiveness of its accomplished gesture.
The reading of Country Music invites in my mind comparison with the rather approximately anthemic production of his Herons, recently at the Lyric, a potent but slightly cloth-eared production that seemed bent on realising the specifics of the play as rhetorical generalities; reimagining its unplugged granularity as stadium rock. It is a broadly effective strategy, bold and at times hugely exciting, but yielding results that are……well…..approximate, and – arguably – sentimental in the treatment of antagonist Scott, who is given a Willem Defoe Platoon moment of wrecked transfiguration, in the process wrenching the play from the central Billy and over-egging the already very clearly-etched social context for his borderline psychopathy. Scott is clearly the incipient artist in this production, a provocative situationist with a Fassbinder fascination for manikins and manipulation; a smudged Egon Schiele channelling Johnny Rotten and Malcolm McLaren while oozing otherness like primal spoor. By contrast the supposedly artistic Billy here circumambulates with the very worldly but thwarted air of a slightly bemused stockbroker whose car has broken down in a dodgy area. Billy nice-but-dim seems barely to have any connection with his journal-cum-sketchbook, supposedly the umbilicus mundi of a richly notated future. And he doesn’t fish.
Overall, then, that production doesn’t so much tinker with the delicate mechanism of the play as paint it over. An unnecessary loss, surely, and one not characteristic of the equally bold but extremely ‘etched’, imaginative and large-gestured work of Ostermeier and Nubling from which it clearly draws inspiration. Boldness surely need not be at the expense of interactional precision; the needle can and must surely remain sharply in contact with the groove, all else being mere variety of amplification; optics magnifying the originating flame (many varieties and emphases of which optics/amplifications are of course possible, but only if the originating signal is sharp and true).
And at the centre of any true signal is of course silence. In Country Music silence resides in the beautiful soul of Jamie, whereas in Herons it lives in the water and its wildlife, in the notebook and imagination of Billy, and in the unspoken regard between him and his dad. All these things are surely in essence the same.
Despite its limitations, and from beneath its excitedly-applied daubs of Jackson-Pollock spatter, the Lyric’s Herons seems now to call out to its younger sibling, here being read in this Waterloo basement, and whose intricate mechanism emerges now naked and exposed. Some of the same concerns and configurations of Herons are visible here, re-arranged in a deeper and more sharply realized way. This is the play where Billy/Jamie shoots and avenges rather than absolves; the one that is justly centred around the ‘Scott’ figure rather than Billy. That rearrangement and re-engagement is surely a symptom not of the absence of invention but its deepening. Stephens like all very good writers surely heads continually towards the sound of his own gunfire; wrestles serially like Jacob with his own reconfigured angels and demons…
After the reading a brief group discussion offers insight and immediacy, with a fascinating series of exchanges between the two Simons in particular. Then Simon S talks a little about the play’s inception; he tells a story about a performance turning a hostile and antagonized prison audience around. On the face of it this might be exactly the kind of ‘theatrical’ story it would normally be possible to be deeply skeptical about, but having just experienced the play’s combination of hard-nosed realism and big-heartedness, it seems impossible to doubt it. A further telling memory: When in the prison performance the daughter refuses to pretend any bond with her prison-estranged father, apparently there were shouts of ‘bitch’ from the audience, reassuring as signals of engagement yet depressing in the attitude revealed. The women in the play are clearly the real heroes…searingly brave in their sensitive but ultimately fruitless promotion of unpalatable but potentially therapeutic realities.
Also revealed is that the playwright’s only recent contact with this unexpectedly and intricately lyrical of English pastorals (In which a Ballard-ian concrete mega-polis is imbued with an almost Houseman-esque numinousness) has been in German. Such are the travails of the globally-networked artist, such networks being of course the source of more recent Stephens angel-wrestlng and gunfire-chasing.
Discoveries in the reading too: with the central character being read by three different actors in the three different timescales, whereas in the original production one actor remained throughout. The separation seems to fully embrace the devastating dislocations of the boy’s journey and personality, while allowing the more fundamental continuities to stand out with devastating clarity.
And it’s only 11:30….