Edinburgh Fringe Report 2016 Part 1: Final preparations

Getting ready for The Fringe? Our Edinburgh Fringe Report is back (you can still read last year’s Report here) with six more amateur theatre companies – all of them performing plays licensed by Nick Hern Books – revealing the state of their play as they get ready to launch themselves on The Fringe…

Holes by Tom Basden
Lyons Productions
C South Main Theatre, 14–20 August

Holes is an absurd, hilarious and fast-paced comedy by Tom Basden, the writer of some of Britain’s most acclaimed TV comedies (Fresh Meat, Plebs). Flight BA043 has crashed on an island. Stranded, four survivors wait. Surely somebody will find them. Planes don’t just disappear, do they? And, if no one’s coming… what do they do now?

We are Lyons Productions, a theatre company made up of University of Exeter students and graduates. Last year we performed our highly successful debut show, Party by Tom Basden, across Devon and at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, where we achieved a five-star sell-out run. Our choice to return to the Fringe with another Basden play was a very simple one – we feel that Basden’s writing is perfect for Fringe audiences, delivering big laughs whilst being subtly balanced with politics and poignancy, often making his work scarily relevant to our world today.

Rehearsals have been in full swing this week (in between the odd graduation and fundraising event!) which has propelled the company to the next level of the rehearsal process. The blocking is becoming more fluid and layered as the actors develop their confidence and understanding of the script. We have also thrown every prop imaginable at them in order to create the chaos of the plane crash on an island. Although the scale of the show is challenging, the group is in high spirits and we are eager to get Holes to Edinburgh!

– Talia Winn, Producer

In rehearsal for Holes by Tom Basden, Lyons Productions

In rehearsal for Holes by Tom Basden, Lyons Productions


BullBull by Mike Bartlett
The Rude Mechanicals Amateur Dramatics
SpaceTriplex, 23–27 August

‘Don’t hunch. Stand up to him, stand up straight, smile a bit, you never know, you might win.
I mean you won’t.
But you might.’

Bull by Mike Bartlett is a dark comedy about the brutality of workplace politics and the pleasures of being mean. As Isobel, Tony and Thomas compete to keep their jobs, nothing is off limits. Mind games and dirty tricks abound as each character negotiates the brutal, Darwinist world they are trapped in.

So we’re half way through rehearsals for Bull, and it’s still making us laugh. We chose the play because it’s an impactful, dialogue-driven comedy with a healthy streak of menace. Having been up to the Fringe with plays in the past, Bull seemed perfect for what we wanted to do this year – its minimal set allows for an unwavering focus on the complex characters Bartlett has created.

The good thing about doing a play with meaty characters is that it always feels like everyone’s fully engaged in each rehearsal. Nick and I (co-directing the play) have chosen to take a more collaborative approach to the project, so before each rehearsal we all sit down to discuss and debate the scene before us. This has really helped our actors to identify with the characters they are playing, and their interactions on stage already feel very natural.

We still have lots of work ahead of us; a play such as Bull, driven as it is by sharp and precise dialogue, needs careful choreographing and creative direction to constantly challenge ourselves and our actors to look at the play from different angles. With just a few weeks left now before we head up to Edinburgh, we’re all very excited to put the finishing touches on our production of an amazing play!

– Priya Manwaring, Co-Director


BURYING_YOUR_BROTHER_EHSBurying Your Brother in the Pavement by Jack Thorne
Eagle House School
SpaceTriplex, 8–13 August

Wow – this is a great play! We’re performing Burying Your Brother in the Pavement by Jack Thorne, a play written specifically for young people to perform, by the playwright behind Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.

We have all learnt lots as a company and rehearsals have been quite an adventure as we tell the story of Tom, who decides he wants to bury his brother, Luke, in the pavement, on the exact spot where he died rather horrifically.  Tom, unable to cope at home, camps out on the pavement where his brother died and begins to meet all sorts of people who inhabit the Tunstall Estate.

It is both funny, sad and gripping as we watch a boy deal with his grief in the most unexpected way. For young people this has all the ingredients for a great show: music, drama, emotion, joy and our audiences are in for a real treat. A vibrant soundtrack, including some pieces we have written for the show, pulses through the narrative. The young cast, aged 12–15, are current and former pupils of Eagle House and are thrilled to be showcasing both the play and their talents in Edinburgh.

Jack Thorne, one of the UK’s brightest playwrights, has written a mesmerising piece of youth theatre and we are delighted to be performing it at this year’s Fringe.  Come and see us!

– Matthew Edwards, Head of Drama, Eagle House School

BuryingYourBrother3

In rehearsal for Burying Your Brother in the Pavement by Jack Thorne, Eagle House School


HANG A5 Flyerhang by debbie tucker green
Yellow Jacket Productions
C Venues, C Nova, 3–27 August

‘When they’ve seen their dad damaged, their mother motionless, our marriage disfigured our family f***ed…You tell me what to do then.’

Today is the day that Three (the character I’m playing in hang by debbie tucker green) must finally decide how her attacker is to be executed for his crimes against her and her family.  This is a new Britain, a Britain where the death penalty exists. And state officials One (Kim Christie) and Two (Jessica Flood) must see that she comes to a decision.  hang has the capacity to send a thrilling chill down the spine, for it takes place in a world that could exist, is not far from existing and, in some parts of the world, actually does exist.

Having been lucky enough to watch Marianne Jean Baptiste’s powerful performance in hang at the Royal Court Theatre in 2015, I was left clutching the script and feeling inspired. I was keen to tackle the text with an all-female cast, so I recruited Kim and Jessica, fellow graduates from The Poor School, and together we formed an exciting new company, Yellow Jacket Productions.

Tiannah

Tiannah Viechweg in rehearsal for hang by debbie tucker green, Yellow Jacket Productions

We started rehearsals in June and it didn’t take long before we realized that the text we were working with had a powerful simplicity paired with a structural complexity that was going to be an exciting challenge. The writing is truly superb and we discover new things and levels of meaning in each rehearsal.  This is an extremely clever text.

Our director Kevin Russell, founder of New Dreams Theatre, brings a playful energy to each rehearsal.  Kevin has a unique ability to find the humour in the darkest of moments, the perfect balance for a dark comedy like hang.  There are moments in the play when even we, the actors, don’t know whether to laugh or cry. It’s genius.

Amusingly, there have been moments when we’ve seen ourselves in the characters – their habits, phrases, gestures. Some uncanny resemblances have left us often wondering if the play was actually written with us three in mind.

Now in the final few weeks of rehearsals, it’s all coming together. We’ve had the privilege to work with some extremely talented creatives along the way. Complete with an original score, purpose-designed costumes and a vivacious cast, we are proud to bring a fresh new version of a great play to the audiences of the Edinburgh Fringe.

– Tiannah Viechweg, cast member


HowieHowie the Rookie by Mark O’Rowe
Revived Emmanuel Dramatics Society
Paradise in the Vault, 15–28 August

We are a group of four students from the University of Cambridge working with the Revived Emmanuel Dramatics Society in order to bring a stellar performance to the Edinburgh Fringe this summer.

The play we’ve selected for this year’s Fringe is Mark O’Rowe’s Howie the Rookie. O’Rowe’s 1999 verse play is a drama of two halves, featuring The Howie Lee and The Rookie Lee, two men with nothing in common except a last name and one ill-fated day.

Set in the suburbs of Dublin, Howie the Rookie takes a nightmarish dive into the darkest turns of human behaviour, littering the descent with moments of comedy and intensely lyrical verse. The play consists of two monologues, delivered by each of the two characters consecutively, giving their story of the day’s twists and turns. The actors speak directly to the audience, and the play becomes a fascinating exhibition of the importance of point of view, and how it shapes the experience of the audience. Furthermore, it becomes a masterful example of the importance of story-telling in theatre, which we have spent a lot of time focusing on in rehearsals.

We’ve spent a lot of rehearsal time on researching the environment in which Howie and Rookie live, which has been truly enlightening for bringing the performance to life. We’ve mapped out our precise vision of Tallaght, the suburb of Dublin in which the play takes place; we’ve drawn up the pubs and bars where fights take place, the houses our characters and our characters’ friends live in; we’ve even been learning how to box so we can really visualise the fights themselves. This is more important than just a backstory, though; it’s a way to really do justice to the nature of the play. Each monologue is essentially its own story, and with no set, no other actors and no props, our job is to take the audience through the town of Tallaght and the, at times, terrifying detail of the action: purely with the words of O’Rowe.

When we ourselves know how everything looks, sounds, smells and feels in our heads, only then can we hope to create this environment, flavoured by the characters’ emotions, in the audience’s heads too.

We think this is going to be a truly exciting show, and we cannot wait to get it to Edinburgh!

– Rebecca Vaa, Producer

Howie the Rookie by Mark O'Rowe

Howie the Rookie by Mark O’Rowe, Revived Emmanuel Dramatics Society: director Eleanor Warr with actors Thomas Taplin (left) and Ed Limb (right)


Immaculate_poster_FinalImmaculate by Oliver Lansley
Harpoon
C Venues, C Nova, 3–9 August

Finding a way to balance rehearsals for Immaculate with revising for A-Levels was much easier said than done. Despite this, the comical nature of the play has certainly helped inspire the cast to get the balance just right.

After performing Immaculate in front of a school audience for three days, and receiving a very positive response, we were spurred on to perform at the Edinburgh Fringe. I think it’s fair to say that as a cast of young, keen actors, we underestimated just how tough this would be. However, the drive of our two directors/producers turned ideas into reality and have opened the door for an incredible opportunity.

The play itself is fast moving and funny, and the situation that the characters find themselves in is very relatable to a contemporary audience. Oliver Lansley manages to make the Second Coming a modern-day comedy drama as opposed to a biblical prophecy. Mia is the mother of either Christ reborn or the spawn of the devil. This problem is further complicated by the arrival of her needy ex-boyfriend and a friend from school with whom, it turns out, she’d had a one-night stand.

The nature of the plot and the way in which we, as a cast, have decided to dramatise the script has created a very amusing production which was well received by members of staff, parents and students alike when performed at school, and so we hope that it will be enjoyed by everyone, whatever their age, when we bring it to the Fringe!

– William Ellis Hancock, cast member

Immaculate by Oliver Lansley

Immaculate by Oliver Lansley, Harpoon (pre-Edinburgh production)


1143114837LOGO_ORANGE[1]Look out for Part II of our Edinburgh Fringe Report next month, when we find out how our companies fared on the Fringe.

And don’t forget to check out the exciting new plays we’re publishing alongside their Edinburgh premieres this year. Click here for all the details, plus a special discount code you can use to buy any of the playtexts.

FringeCollage

See you in Edinburgh!

‘A Field of Dreams’: Joyce McMillan on Theatre in Scotland

Joyce McMillan, lead drama critic at The Scotsman, is an unrivalled authority on modern Scottish theatre and a leading thinker and writer about Scotland. Her new book, Theatre in Scotland: A Field of Dreams, is a collection of more than three decades of her writings about theatre, selected by theatre director Philip Howard. Here, in his introduction to the book, Howard explores the connections between McMillan’s career and the recent cultural and political renaissance in Scotland, as well as her unfailing ability to detect a great new play. And, below, we present some choice excerpts from her writings, ranging from her review of the 1987 Edinburgh Fringe, to the launch show of the National Theatre of Scotland…

Philip Howard: Theatre in Scotland: A Field of Dreams traces Joyce McMillan’s journey from self-taught, passionate contributing writer to the short-lived Sunday Standard (1981-1983), to her current life as the chief theatre critic of The Scotsman. No other critic in Scotland covers as much ground as she does in her working week, or has done for so many years. And so the premise of the book is simple: gather all of the most insightful material from over the past three decades, add new essays by McMillan herself to underscore the narrative – and what you have is a history of modern Scottish theatre, reported from the frontline. The volume is not a hit parade. While the vast majority of landmark theatre productions in Scotland have been covered, it was important also to acknowledge McMillan’s footfall across the whole country and celebrate the truly national portrait that emerges.

McMillan’s first reviewing jobs were for BBC Radio Scotland in the 1970s, talking about Edinburgh Festival shows for Festival View, presented by Neville Garden – and she credits the inspiration of this annual cultural spectacle as a determining factor in her ambition to write about theatre. In 1978 the great Allen Wright at The Scotsman commissioned her to cover a production of The Good Person of Szechwan for him in St Andrews, and she soon became his second-string reviewer. When the Sunday Standard was founded in 1981, McMillan set her sights on becoming their principal theatre critic, and, despite the newspaper lasting only two years, it is here that she begins to find her voice, or, as she puts it, ‘This is where the dialogue with myself really starts.’ There followed ten distinguished years as the Guardian’s Scotland theatre critic (1984-1994) and three at Scotland on Sunday (1994-1997), where for the first time she was writing a longer weekly column, essay-style, covering all the week’s theatre openings, and exploiting her skill in detecting wider cultural resonances and thematic links between the work. After a lightning-quick spell as an arts writer for The Herald in 1997, she started in 1998 at The Scotsman, and it is in this current incarnation as a critic and political commentator that she has become defined as a leading thinker and writer about Scotland.

She wasn’t born to it. There were visits to the theatre as a child – her first memory is of a Kenneth McKellar Christmas show at the Alhambra, Glasgow – but she was never an enthusiastic amateur audience member, or certainly not for very long. A half-completed PhD at the University of Edinburgh on the tragedies of Ben Jonson crystallised for her the indivisibility of theatre and politics, and she talks interestingly about her new passion for theatre at that time stemming from her disenchantment with the direction of British politics, i.e. towards the right, and a conviction that theatre is one place where you might find ‘an alternative truth about what it means to be human’. And perhaps it is this wide-angle lens on theatre and parallel enquiry as a political writer which explain her tenacity and longevity. Of course, she’s not the only theatre writer to apply herself to political writing – think of Fintan O’Toole, for many years political columnist and chief theatre critic of The Irish Times – but McMillan’s career is coinciding with the very period where Scotland is remaking itself more energetically than ever before. The ground is fertile.

It is surely the goal of any critic, certainly in terms of legacy, to contribute in some way to the evolution of the art form itself, Kenneth Tynan in England and America in the 1950s and ’60s being the iconic example of this. McMillan has far too long a working life left for it to be possible to make this kind of retrospective analysis, but certain themes do emerge from her critical writing which arguably have tuned with the times, if not influenced them: for example, an obstinate insistence that the director of a classic revival must know very precisely why they are reviving an old play rather than making a new one – her sympathy for directors who also have to run monolithic theatre buildings does not extend to them programming plays just because they feature in compendia of ‘the 100 greatest plays’. Predictably, as a leading political commentator, she will despise an unthinkingly or lazily apolitical interpretation of a play, reserving her greatest spleen for the ‘Loamshire’ play (as Tynan did before her), or self-absorbed new writing that makes no attempt to connect with the public sphere. But then – in a wonderfully contradictory way – she will often surprise us by enthusing about something shamelessly sentimental, entertaining or romantic, as long as it’s beautifully executed. Most importantly of all, she has, to my knowledge, an almost unblemished record in never having failed to spot a great new play; and, rare among critics, she has the ability to watch an unsuccessful new play and detect whether it’s the playwright or director at fault. This can make for uncomfortable reading. (‘Philip Howard’s Traverse production seems to fall stillborn on to the stage’ on Grace in America by Antoine Ó Flatharta, Scotland on Sunday, 1 May 1994 – sticks in the mind.)

She isn’t shy of skewering some sacred cows: the empty heart of the RSC’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses (1990); the reactionary flippancy (Travesties, 1987) and bourgeois self-satisfaction (Rough Crossing, 1996) of Tom Stoppard. And occasionally she deploys a devastating ability to take hold of a superficially successful production – think Bill Bryden’s The Big Picnic (1994) or the Brian Cox The Master Builder (1993) – and then, like a drone or laser, zero in on its fatal flaw. But McMillan is also bold in finding something to commend even in work of mixed success, and stick her neck out to champion unfashionable work which she suspects her colleagues might dismiss. Perhaps this is because she knows it’s easier to write a bad review than a good one, intellectually easier to puncture than to validate. And so there are plenty of roses among the barbed wire – and an unswerving commitment to shout praise from the rooftops where it is due, and celebrate the art form in all its mad messy glory (Macbeth on the Isle of Inchcolm, 1989).

The book works chronologically rather than thematically, and yet is divided, unevenly, into three parts telling three essential stories of how Scottish theatre has grown in confidence over the decades: the road to 1990, the year of Glasgow’s reign as European Capital of Culture, which marked a generational change in how that great city viewed itself and was viewed by the world; the 1990s and early years of the new millennium, which witnessed an extraordinary explosion in self-confidence among both new and older Scottish playwrights, leading to, finally: the birth and hegemony of the National Theatre of Scotland, bringing the role of our theatre culture as close as it has ever got to the heart of the nation. The vast majority of entries in the book are reviews; the rest are feature articles or programme notes. New linking pieces by McMillan range throughout the volume, providing additional context.

Students of theatre criticism may enjoy the underlying portrait of a critic teaching herself to be the best, from the passionate newcomer at the Sunday Standard in the early 1980s, trying to find her style but never missing a political beat, through mounting confidence, occasional fierceness of judgement and an increasingly fine writing style, to the older, authoritative and interestingly more mellow critic that we have today. She testifies to the collegiate atmosphere of theatre criticism in Scotland, where being part of that ‘public conversation’ helps ensure that the genre faces outward – and guards against the lonesomeness of the profession.

Students of theatre literature may read the book as a collection of essays on English language playwriting, from the twentieth-century greats (Coward, Osborne, Pinter, etc.) to all the leading Scottish playwrights, from John Byrne and Liz Lochhead to David Greig and David Harrower. And ultimately, it is as a writer about Scotland and about what the art form of theatre can tell us about Scotland that distinguishes McMillan’s work: her piece ‘Theatre and Nationhood’ (1991), written for Tramway’s Theatres and Nations season which heralded the permanent opening of Glasgow’s key Capital of Culture venue from 1990, is a defining essay on Scottishness, written against the backdrop of the dismantlement of the Soviet Union. Sometimes it’s in the critique of a theatre production which would not be taken as seriously by the rest of the Scottish theatre community (even if they had seen it), that she writes most flawlessly about the culture of the nation – for example, Accounts in Town Yetholm (1991) or Bright Water on Easdale Island (2007). The combination of this panoramic view, political acuity, and the ability to marry the head and the heart, has sealed her reputation far beyond Scotland’s borders.

Joyce McMillan: By chance – or perhaps for reasons I barely understood at the time – it was at an important moment of transition in Scottish politics and cultural identity, at the end of the 1970s and the beginning of the 1980s, that I felt myself drawn, perhaps almost driven, to become a theatre critic in Scotland. I was already almost thirty, I had no history of interest in theatre beyond an academic one, and like many people who grew up in the 1960s, I saw theatre as an old-fashioned art form, already half-dead on its feet.

Yet in the late 1970s, I was suddenly gripped by the power of the shared experience of theatre, by the idea of it as a place where ideas could be made flesh, and could be tested against the real reactions of the audience. Perhaps it was a reaction to the repetitiveness, and frequent intellectual rigidity, of the left-wing and feminist politics in which I was vaguely involved. Perhaps it was an unconscious response to the coming of Thatcherism: an insistence that somewhere, even if only in a series of small darkened rooms, a serious collective life would continue through this age of individualism. Or perhaps it was something in Scottish theatre itself, evolving fast and freely after a long age of quiescence and marginalisation. If Scotland’s professional theatre tradition had been limited and interrupted by centuries of official Presbyterianism, that very history – or rather the lack of it – meant that it entered the late twentieth century with relatively little baggage, and an exhilarating freedom to reinvent itself, in forms that were both popular and experimental.

So, at the beginning of 1982, I began to set out my stall as the Sunday Standard’s main theatre critic. In the big world beyond theatre, there were three huge arguments in progress. There was one about the future of the British left, after Margaret Thatcher’s victory in 1979; in theatre, that was often articulated through my arguments with, and about, John McGrath’s 7:84 Company, and its sister company Wildcat Stage Productions. There was an argument about feminism, a fraught coming-to-terms with the huge revolution in consciousness that had taken place during the 1970s. And, of course, there was the argument about Scotland: rousing itself after the failed home-rule referendum of 1979, and once again setting out to redefine and reshape itself. At the time, the Scottish Arts Council was funding around fifteen major professional companies in Scotland, including the building-based ones in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Dundee, Perth and Pitlochry; and, in 1981, it had also decided to fund an initiative by the actor Ewan Hooper to launch a new Scottish Theatre Company, dedicated to creating Scottish-made shows for mainstage theatres, and – in some respects at least – to pursuing a more traditional Scottish repertoire than could be found at the Traverse or the Citizens’. It was through the work of the STC, and my often sceptical reactions to it, that I began to evolve my own ideas about what the word ‘Scottish’ could and should mean, in the late twentieth century; and about our evolving relationship with the standard repertoire of English-language theatre.


Extracts from reviews collected in Theatre in Scotland: A Field of Dreams

Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off
Little Lyceum, Edinburgh
The Guardian, 13 August 1987

Like the official Festival, this year’s Fringe seems to be all about Scots and Russians, with a generous sprinkling of Americans and other, more exotic visitors; the English Fringe – as represented by shows like Hull Truck’s Teechers, playing at the George Square Theatre to large crowds of off-duty educational face-workers, or by the charming It’s a Girl from the Duke’s Playhouse, Lancaster, or even by an oddly laid-back and giggly Jenny Lecoat at the Assembly Rooms – seems in strangely subdued mood. Perhaps, like the Labour Party, English alternative theatre has reached a point where it must rethink its entire politics; at any rate, these soft-centred, well-staged, witty, humanistic and utterly predictable shows look like the last gasp of a Fringe culture that’s reached the end of its line.

MQS2.inddIn Scotland, though, things seem slightly different – rougher, harsher, more colourful and cosmopolitan, shot through with a kind of brash, nothing-to-lose energy. In the official Festival, the energy blisters through the strange, heightened, ritualistically foul-mouthed new-speak of Iain Heggie’s A Wholly Healthy Glasgow, and shouts from the canvases at the Vigorous Imagination exhibition of new Scottish painting at the Modern Art Gallery. And it’s reflected with terrific, show-stopping force in Liz Lochhead’s Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off, a ferociously iconoclastic re-examination of Mary Stuart’s life and its significance – in sixteenth-century Scots and standard English, fierce poetic monologue, stylised movement and sharp, almost improvised dialogue – that’s been one of the brilliant high points of this first Fringe week. Specially commissioned by the young Edinburgh-based touring company Communicado, performed at the Lyceum Studio in the very shadow of Mary’s castle, it simply blasts to smithereens the heavy, obscuring deposit of romantic claptrap that has gathered around the story down the centuries, and instead draws the most dramatic and uncomfortable parallels between the sacrifice of Mary in her day, and the myriad sexual, political and religious deformities that still plague the Scottish psyche now.

The Guid Sisters
Tron, Glasgow
The Guardian, 3 May 1989

It’s one of the myths of our civilisation that, whereas middle-class culture is international and universal, working-class culture is somehow local and parochial, a matter of ‘Cockney slang’ or ‘Glasgow humour’. It’s a comforting idea, in that it reduces the common experience of the millions of human beings who were drawn into the cities in the industrial age – their courage, their humour, their resilience in the face of unrelenting poverty and drastic overcrowding – to a matter of ‘local character’; it makes a private civic joke of an experience that was, in fact, central to the development of industrial capitalism everywhere from Chicago to Kraków.

guidsisters&othersOne of Mayfest’s most striking achievements, as a festival dedicated to presenting the best of Scottish ‘popular’ theatre alongside similar work from Europe and overseas, has been the consistency with which it has blasted that myth that the Glasgow experience is somehow unique, idiosyncratic. And now, in that tradition, the Tron Theatre’s Mayfest production of Michel Tremblay’s Les Belles-sœurs – a play born in the turbulent Québec of the 1960s, and now translated into a pithy, fierce, foul-mouthed urban Scots by Bill Findlay and Martin Bowman – offers us a portrait of a bunch of worn-out housewives in a Montréal tenement that matches the experience of generations of Glasgow women in almost uncanny detail.

Macbeth
Inchcolm Island, Firth of Forth
The Guardian, 15 August 1989

The rain drove, the wind blustered, the witches heaved up from the bowels of the ship as if they had risen from the water itself, to screech and whirl across the decks with their knowledge of evil and doom in the offing; never in my life will I forget the sound of the words ‘Though his bark shall not be lost | Yet it shall be tempest-toss’d!’ snatched from the mouth of the chief witch by the wind and echoing away across the steel-grey waves. […] See Macbeth on Inchcolm – the wind whipping, the gulls screeching, the old capital across the stormy firth climbing grey and smoky towards its skyline – and you’ll never want to see it anywhere else.

Theatre and Nationhood
for Tramway, Glasgow
25 August 1991

It seems strange to be writing about theatre and nationhood on a weekend when one of the two greatest nations on earth is disappearing before our eyes. Nations are like Tinkerbell in Barrie’s Peter Pan: they only exist so long as we believe in them. For reasons too complex to explore here, people have been withdrawing their belief from the idea of the Soviet Union for decades now; and this weekend, that unbelief reached a critical mass. In that sense, nations are fictions, man-made communities conjured up and defined, on the shifting human surface of the earth, within the minds of men and women. If we feel Scottish, then Scotland is, despite 284 years of union; if people no longer feel like Soviet citizens, then the combined power of the party, the KGB and the army command cannot keep the USSR together. And it’s because nationhood is this kind of thing – an intangible sense of community, subject to change and flux – that theatre often plays such a vital part in expressing and defining it. Theatre is, at its best, a forum where people come together to discover, through their live response to the same event, the feelings and experiences they share with other people; and a sense of national identity is a shared feeling, or it is nothing.

Rough Crossing
Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh
Scotland on Sunday, 16 June 1996

Kenny Ireland’s Royal Lyceum production of Tom Stoppard’s Rough Crossing is the kind of show that makes me feel vaguely ashamed of having any connection with theatre at all. Freely adapted from a Hungarian comedy by Ferenc Molnár, Rough Crossing is a coy little spoof on the genre of 1930s musical comedy, set on an ocean liner crossing from London to New York, and featuring all the usual clichés, from a slightly ageing diva of a leading lady to a scene-stealing drunken steward. Since the plot concerns the tribulations of a pair of musical-comedy writers trying to finish off their latest Broadway opus, the text is also stuffed with self-referring witticisms about the playwright’s art, obviously fascinating to Stoppard, less so to the rest of us.

[…] The trouble is that Stoppard, like many who have embraced Britishness as an adopted nationality, knows only one element of British culture, namely the manners, language, and style of the English upper-middle class; and in this play, he does not even attempt to achieve the moral seriousness and philosophical depth that make that narrow social focus relatively unimportant in most of his work. The result is a sad little joke of a show that sprays messages of class and cultural exclusion around the auditorium like some kind of theatrical bird-scarer.

Home
National Theatre of Scotland
The Scotsman, 27 February 2006

It’s half-past six on a chill February evening in Aberdeen, and a new era in Scottish theatre begins, not with a bang, but with the familiar rattle of a small hopper bus, carrying an audience of excited theatregoers out to the edge of the city. Waiting for us in the Middlefield estate are twenty actors, young and old, professional and community; and six unoccupied flats on the same low-rise staircase, each with a nameplate on the door featuring the word ‘Home’.

For ‘home’ was the theme chosen by the National Theatre of Scotland for its unique launch event, featuring ten site-specific shows in ten locations all over Scotland. […] The new company has achieved a dazzling geographical reach, and a real sense of connection with local communities that has both enabled those communities to re-examine their own story, and given them a new voice on the national stage. It’s been a start, in other words; and, taken as a whole, a brave and imaginative one, designed to smash and rearrange many hostile Scottish preconceptions about theatre. But there are still many miles to travel before Scotland can begin to take this long-neglected art form back into its heart, and into its sense of what home is, and what it might become.


FormattedThe above extracts are taken from Theatre in Scotland: A Field of Dreams by Joyce McMillan, edited by Philip Howard.

The book is out now, published by Nick Hern Books. To buy your copy for just £11.99 (RRP £14.99) click here.

Join the author and a distinguished panel of critics and theatre makers at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, to discuss the remarkable journey of modern Scottish theatre, and to explore the directions it might take in the years to come. Theatre in Scotland: Reflecting the Nation is at the Traverse, 29 June, 7.30pm. Tickets available here.

Photo of Joyce McMillan by Chris Hill.

‘Wonder tales’: Philip Pullman and Philip Wilson on staging the Grimm Tales

For Philip Pullman, working on a new version of the Grimm Tales was a ‘dream job’.  Here, he explains why they work so well on the stage, while below, theatre director Philip Wilson describes how he adapted and staged the Tales, and what to consider when staging them yourself…

Philip Pullman: When Penguin Classics asked me if I was interested in writing a fresh version of some of the tales of the Brothers Grimm, I had to suppress a whoop of delight. Actually, I’m not sure that I did suppress it. I’ve always relished folk tales, and the famous Grimm collection is one of the richest of all. It was a dream of a job.

Reading them through carefully and making notes, I was struck again by the freshness, the swiftness, the sheer strangeness of the best of them. I was being asked to choose fifty or so out of the more than two hundred, and there were certainly at least that many that deserved a new outing. The most interesting thing, perhaps, from a dramatic point of view, is that they consist entirely of events: there’s no character development, because the characters are not fully developed three-dimensional human beings so much as fixed, flat types like those of the commedia dell’arte, or like the little cardboard actors (a penny plain, tuppence-coloured) we find in the toy theatre. If we’re looking for psychological depth, we won’t find it in the fairy tale.

Nor is there anything in the way of poetic description or rich and musical language. Princesses are beautiful, forests are dark, witches are wicked, things are as red as blood or as white as snow: it’s all very perfunctory.

What we find instead of these literary qualities is a wonderful freedom and zest, entirely unencumbered by likelihood. The most marvellous or preposterous or hilarious or terrifying events happen with all the swiftness of dreams. They work splendidly for oral telling, and the very best of them have a quality that C.S. Lewis ascribed to myths: we remember them instantly after only one hearing, and we never forget them. The job of anyone telling them again is to do so as clearly as possible, and not let their own personality get in the way.

They can be told, of course, and they can be dramatised, in any of a thousand different ways. They have been many times, and they will be many more. This particular version was very enjoyable for me to read and to watch because Philip Wilson is so faithful to the clarity and the force of the events, just as Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm were faithful to the talents of the various storytellers whose words they listened to and transcribed two hundred years ago. And they still work.


Wilson, PhilipPhilip Wilson: The Brothers Grimm’s stories have been retold countless times over the past two centuries. Katharine Mary Briggs, Italo Calvino and Marina Warner included versions in their classic collections of fairy tales, and writers such as Angela Carter, Terry Pratchett and Carol Ann Duffy have revelled in inventive variations. In recent years, two films of Snow White appeared, Maleficent re-imagined the story of Sleeping Beauty, Sondheim’s Into the Woods was filmed, and Terry Gilliam gave the lives of the brothers themselves a high-spirited storybook twist in The Brothers Grimm. Moreover, the latest anthropological research indicates that the origins of folk tales such as Little Red Riding Hood and Beauty and the Beast can be traced back millennia.

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Annabel Betts as Little Red Riding Hood in the 2014 production of Grimm Tales at Shoreditch Town Hall

In 2012, Philip Pullman selected fifty of his favourite Grimm Tales to retell. His intention in doing this, he declared, was ‘to produce a version that was as clear as water’. In the same way, my dramatisations seek to retain the limpid and beautifully crafted character of the original stories. The telling of the Tales is shared between an ensemble of performers, who play husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, princes and princesses, wise kings and wicked witches, snakes and birds.

The original productions, drawing on puppetry, movement and music, were a theatrical celebration of live storytelling. At Shoreditch Town Hall, we brought to life the adventures of Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, The Three Snake Leaves, Hans-my-Hedgehog and The Juniper Tree. At Bargehouse, meanwhile, we retold the Tales of The Frog King, or Iron Heinrich, The Three Little Men in the Woods, Thousandfurs, The Goose Girl at the Spring, Hansel and Gretel and Faithful Johannes. Also included in the published volume is my adaptation of The Donkey Cabbage, a story we didn’t find a home for, but is too good to forgo.

This was a deliberately eclectic selection, which embraced a variety of classic story plots – quests and voyages, rags to riches and overcoming monsters – within the core genres of comedy, tragedy, romance… and, sometimes, surrealist farce! Their appeal lay also in how they have echoes of Shakespeare and Ancient Greek tragedy, incorporating as they do rites of passage, ghosts of fathers, animal transformations. And how they embody the themes of human life: births, marriages and deaths; sibling support (or rivalry); parental cruelty; the hardships of poverty; jealousy and desire.

Leda Hodgson and Nessa Matthews in The Goose Girl At The Spring in the 2015 production at Bargehouse on the South Bank

While it is eminently possible to stage these stories in traditional theatre environments, ours was an immersive approach: the audience were divided into groups, and took different journeys through the various parts of the venue. After each Tale, this group was guided by the performers to another space. On their way, they glimpsed images evoking hints of other Tales untold, as they passed through rooms from which other characters seemed to have only just departed – leaving Cinderella’s pile of lentils by an iron stove; Snow White’s glass coffin, along with seven identical small beds; Rumpelstiltskin’s spinning wheel in a shaft of light, in a room with straw on one side and a cloud of gold objects on the other. And so on…

The world of the play was ‘scruffy salvage’: an elemental world of rough-hewn wood, tarnished metal, unrefined cloth. The costumes were tattered, puppets were constructed from found objects, and everyday items were often used in place of the thing described. All were transfomed by the Storytellers’ investment in them. Wooden scrubbing brushes were sewn onto a duffle coat for Hans-my-Hedgehog’s prickly skin; thick rope stood in for Rapunzel’s hair; an enamel coffee pot became a white duck. This approach both ensured that these dark Tales were not prettified, and gave a sense that the performers had drawn on what might lie around them, to supplement and enhance the storytelling. We invited the audience to complete the picture with their imagination.

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The Three Little Men In The Woods, in the Bargehouse production of Grimm Tales

But that is just one approach. There are as many ways to tell a story as there are stories themselves. You only have to look at how the Tales have been illustrated: a brief internet search will reveal endless depictions in different styles, to offer inspiration. A very brief list might include: Elenore Abbott, Angela Barrett, Edward Burne-Jones, Katharine Cameron, Walter Crane, George Cruikshank, Gustave Doré, Edmund Dulac, David Hockney, Franz Jüttner, Margaret Pocock, Evans Price, Arthur Rackham… In recent years, fairy tales have also been drawn upon by a range of artists, from Paula Rego to the fashion photographer Tim Walker.

Although the stories are uncluttered in language and spare in detail, nonetheless they resonate with all manner of human experience. Philip Pullman is right that on the page, the characters appear flat: these are archetypes, defined by their class, profession or role in society. In fairy tales, people are what they do. This does not mean, though, that there is no room for dramatic characterisation. The stories certainly include tension and conflict. And they deal with universal situations, in which the drama often springs from family ties: the characters could be us.

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Simon Wegrzyn as The Wolf in Little Red Riding Hood, in the Shoreditch production of Grimm Tales

In German, fairy tales are known as wonder tales, a term that encourages us to celebrate these fantastic characters and episodes in all their eccentric glory, from the picturesque to the grotesque, and from the magical to the mundane – free, above all, from the sanitisation and lavish naturalism of later versions, not least Disney films.

Although the Tales were written down, shaped and curated by the Brothers Grimm, these stories emerged from oral traditions: they have always been intended to be spoken aloud. There is an innate human desire to gather together and listen to a storyteller, or to witness a group reenacting a tale. My approach has been to divide up the voices among a group of Storytellers. Each Tale starts with some variation on ‘Once…’ (the universally agreed way of starting a story), followed by a brief introduction to the key figures and situation – along with their voices. Thereafter, the words are shared in three modes of speech: dialogue, narration and ‘thinking aloud’. Viewpoint and attitude is crucial throughout. Also, you’ll note how characters move from retelling to reliving events: the intention is always to ensure that the story is immediate, is happening right now – not comfortably in the past.

Philip Pullman compares storytelling to jazz, observing that, ‘the substance of the tale is there already, just as the sequence of chords in a song is there ready for a jazz musician, and our task is to step from chord to chord, from event to event, with all the lightness and swing we can.’ That sense of working in tandem with other players, while retaining an improvisatory quality, is key to staging these Tales. It’s all about the ensemble.

Although any number of these Tales can be told, and in any order, in the original productions more familiar stories were performed first, before the audience was led into darker, less-well-known territories: deeper into the forest. Most importantly, these Tales live most when they are imbued with the imaginations of those who are telling them: so it is not only right but crucial that you find your own path through the text.

Whichever route you take, what’s important is what happens next. Philip Pullman has observed that, ‘Swiftness is a great virtue in the fairy tale. A good tale moves with a dreamlike speed from event to event, pausing only to say as much as is needed and no more.’

My intention has been to tell these Tales with a similar economy, clarity and passion.


Tamara von WerthernFrom our Performing Rights Manager, Tamara von Werthern: I’m delighted to announce that amateur performing rights for Philip Pullman’s Grimm Tales are now available on application. Like the very popular Arabian Nights by Dominic Cooke, this version of the Tales is a simple but effective adaptation that harnesses the power of storytelling to take audiences into a magical world.

It also offers you great flexibility: there are twelve Tales included in the published playtext, enough for two complete productions, and companies can choose any number and combination to suit their own requirements (the performing rights fee will reflect the number of Tales to be performed). There is also great flexibility in casting. There are more than a hundred potential roles for very large casts, or the play can be staged with just 4f 4m and lots of doubling.

The Tales themselves range from the familiar ones beloved by children everywhere, to the unexpected and yet-to-be-discovered. So there really is something for everyone.

To enquire about performing rights, contact me by email, phone (020 8749 4953) or via the form on our Plays to Perform website.


FormattedPhilip Pullman’s Grimm Tales, adapted for the stage by Philip Wilson, is out now, published by Nick Hern Books.

To buy a copy for just £8.79 (RRP £10.99), visit the Nick Hern Books website here.

Production photographs by Tom Medwell.

‘We see only what we want to see’: Simon McBurney on Complicite’s The Encounter

Production shot 3 (c) Robbie JackWhen actor and theatre-maker Simon McBurney first read Amazon Beaming – Petru Popescu’s book about a National Geographic photographer, Loren McIntyre, who went into the rainforest to take photos of the rarely seen Mayoruna tribe, only to lose his way back – he knew he would one day attempt to stage it. But how?

Twenty years later he found a way. The Encounter, a solo show performed by McBurney, opened at the Barbican this month as part of Complicite’s UK and international tour. It incorporates innovative technology to build a shifting world of sound as it traces McIntyre’s extraordinary journey, and along the way explores the outer limits of human consciousness. Here, McBurney describes some key moments in the development of the show, from experiencing total sensory deprivation in a research laboratory in Watford, to his own encounter with the Mayoruna tribe in the Brazilian Amazon…

When making a piece of theatre I am, frequently, if not most of the time, in the dark. I truly do not know where we will end up.

—    We’re going to shut the door now and we’ll open it again in twenty minutes. Is that okay?
—    Yep, I guess.
—    Have you ever sat in total silence? In the dark?
—    I’ll be fine.

As a result of spending sixty-three days in silence on a Vipassana retreat, Yuval Noah Harari, the acclaimed author of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, proclaimed it the ideal tool with which to scientifically observe his own mind. He came to realise he had no idea who he really was and that the fictional story in his head, and the connection between that and reality, was extremely tenuous.

—    Okay well… if you freak out then push this button and we’ll open the door.

Anechoic Chamber (c) Simon McBurney

Designer Michael Levine in BRE anechoic chamber. Photo by Simon McBurney

The vast door to the anechoic chamber, which is, as the name suggests, a room without echoes, at the Building Research Establishment (BRE) in Watford, closes definitively behind me.

The concrete walls are so thick no sound from the outside world enters your ear canals and the vast foam wedges that cover the walls absorb sound to such an extent that a clap becomes a tap.

I am in total darkness. And total silence. I don’t mean the silence of three in the morning at home, or even the silence of the remotest place on Earth, I mean total silence.

My breathing sounds like a set of bellows; my heartbeat like an arrhythmic drum machine.

—    Why am I here?

It is 40°C, my clothes are already sodden, although we have only been here an hour. Or have we? I’ve lost track of time and I have no battery on my phone. In fact I don’t know why I have a phone at all given there is no signal here.

We are sitting in the house of Lourival Mayoruna, the headman or Cacique of Marajaí, a village of Mayoruna people deep in the Brazilian Amazon, an hour’s flight west of Manaus and four hours by boat up the River Solimões.

Photo by Chloe Courtney

Lourival, according to local protocol, talks to us as part of our welcome into the village – and has been doing so for the best part of an hour. The hut is crammed with people and sitting between us all like some twenty-first-century totem is a binaural head, the microphone that records in, so called, ‘3D’.

Paul Heritage, head of People’s Palace Projects, who has lived for more than twenty years in Brazil, translates as Lourival winds down…

—    So you have come all this way and I have one question…

Lourival leans forward looking me in the eye.

—    Why are you here?

I nervously lick the wet salt off my upper lip, and sweat stings my eyes as everyone’s eyes turn towards me.

—    I think you need to reply, says Paul.

Binaural head in the Amazon Rainforest. Photo by Chloe Courtney

The sounds of the forest and the village become extremely loud all of a sudden. I clear my throat.

The slight rising panic makes me realise the noise I am now hearing is the sound of fluids circulating in my head. And there is a high-pitched hiss caused by spontaneous firings of the auditory nerve. How long have I been sitting here in darkness? I squeeze my phone. Five minutes. I thought it was at least half an hour.

—    Where are you going?
—    To work on my show…
—    What are you doing?
—    Um… sitting in a dark silent room in Watford.
—    Why?
—    To see what it’s like.

I look at my son. He is four. I’m not sure he buys this answer.

—    When is Christmas?
—    A long time. Several months. When it is winter, when it will be cold again.
—    It was cold today.
—    Yes, okay, but not very cold.
—    Yes it was. I was cold.
—    You’re right, it was cold.
—    How long is several months?

I mutter something about moons and loads of sleeps.

Maybe this high-pitched hiss generated by my auditory nerves is something more sinister. I should get my ears checked for tinnitus when I get out of here. How much longer?

—    Forty-five minutes.
—    What?
—    You’ve been speaking for forty-five minutes.
—    Good God.

I got it all, whispers Gareth my sound designer, who looks even more sodden than I do in the Amazonian heat, unplugging the totem.

Amazon 3 (c) Chloe Courtney

Lourival and Joaquina, Complicite’s hosts in Marajaí, listening to the binaural head. Photo by Chloe Courtney

I look round the room. Silence. I am not sure how it has gone down. In English, the word ‘rehearsal’ derives from ‘hearse’ which means to rake over. To prepare the ground. And one way for me to prepare has always been to perform or improvise a show I am making to those who have never heard it. Because the story is not the show. It is not even the performance that is the show. The show is made in the minds of the audience. I want to know what they see. What they hear. I look at Lourival. He smiles.

INSIDE COVER IMAGE (c) Chloe Courtney

A girl from the Mayoruna community listening to the binaural head. Photo by Chloe Courtney

—    We are moved by your story, he says. Your story about this man who was lost, but who survived. Your story is about many people, but it is also about us, the Mayoruna. And it tells us that others in this world know of the Mayoruna people. You tell the world that we have survived. Many have perished. We have survived. But whether we will all survive… that is another matter.

He laughs.

—    So is it funny?
—    What?
—    Your performance.

My son examines me. I glance at him sideways. Draw in my breath.

Production shot 7 (c) Robbie Jack

Simon McBurney. Photo by Robbie Jack

The door suddenly creaks open and I am out in the Watford sunlight again, blinking. What greets me I don’t expect. It shocks me. It is a roar. So loud I want to block my ears. Traffic, voices, machinery, planes… industrial, all-encompassing, unstoppable. The shock is that most of the time, I do not hear it because our auditory system blocks out our conscious mind. Our ears, without us asking, form a filter and help to create a ‘normal’ reality, but one in which we hear ‘selectively’. As with our ears, so it is with all our senses. Our eyes, our sense of smell, every way in which we perceive the world creates a gap between what is actually happening and the story we make of it. We only see what we want to see…

The technician looks at me enquiringly.

—    How was it?
—    Disorientating.
—    And how did that feel?
—    Familiar.

Schaubuehne am Lehniner Platz. F.I.N.D. 2015, Amazon Beaming: Work in Progress, Complicite, inspiriert von dem Roman »Amazon Beaming« von Petru Popescu, Performance und Regie: Simon McBurney.

The Encounter. Photo by Gianmarco Bresadola


Formatted

The above article appears in the playtext of The Encounter published by Nick Hern Books, along with 32 pages of essays and colour photographs.

The playtext is available now. To buy your copy for just £7 – that’s 30% off the rrp of £9.99 – use the code ENCOUNTER when ordering through the NHB website here. This offer is valid until 31 March 2016.

The Encounter is at the Barbican, London, until 6 March, then touring.

Author photo at the top of this page by Robbie Jack.


THE ENCOUNTER: LIVE STREAM

The Encounter was live streamed from the Barbican on Tuesday 1 March. This video is no longer available.

Out of the vault: highlights from VAULT Festival 2016

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VAULT Festival is fast becoming one of the most exciting events on London’s cultural calendar. Taking place each year in the vaults beneath Waterloo, this year’s festival (running until 6 March) is host to over 100 events, from hard-hitting drama to comedy, dance, cabaret, installation, and of course late-night parties. This year Nick Hern Books publishes an anthology containing five of the best plays appearing at the festival, Plays from VAULT (don’t miss the special offer at the bottom of this page). We asked each of the writers to sum up what their plays are about and what VAULT means to them – plus, at the bottom, a few handy tips on what to see at the festival…

Kellett, RosieRosie Kellett on her one-woman play Primadonna, 17-21 Feb, which she also performs:

Primadonna is about being a PA. It’s about being young and keen and impressionable and the lengths we go to to please the people we respect. It’s somewhat based on experiences Jamie [Jackson, the play’s director] and I have had of being assistants ourselves, but in a way it’s more about questioning the cult of overwork and the void between service and servitude that we’ve found ourselves in. I was in Edinburgh with a show in 2015 and saw a lot of solo shows whilst I was there – some were awful, but a few were brilliant and I became fascinated by the challenge of writing one myself. This struck me as the perfect story to tell in monologue form, and it has proven to be equally challenging and rewarding to make.

VAULT Festival is such a special place. I think it might be one of my favourite places to be in London. Big words, but seriously, if you’re not down there in deepest darkest winter, you’re in the wrong place. I mean, not only is it one of the very few places in London that you can put on a show with relative financial ease, it’s also made up of the kindest and most supportive production team you’re ever going to meet. Tim, Mat and Andy seem to only hire lovely, professional people. It’s like a gang that you want to be a part of and for a few weeks you are. It’s the best. It’s one of London’s treasures.

Primadonna

Rosie Kellett in a publicity shot for her play Primadonna


Forsyth, OliOli Forsyth on his play Cornermen, 2-6 March, set in the world of boxing:

Cornermen came out the time I’ve spent in boxing clubs over the years. They’re really fascinating places to be. You get trainers, promoters and boxers of all levels working there, and they’re all looking for the right fight for the right money. I realised the most fascinating relationship of all was between boxer and manager: it seemed full of conflicts of interest. Managers are expected to know their fighters intimately, to care for their well-being and guide their career in a way that generates the most income and the most longevity. But in that lies a conflict. What happens if you manage a boxer who isn’t good enough to compete for titles or book large purse fights? What happens to the vast majority of boxers? The answer is that they become journeymen, boxers who make a living out of fighting any opponent, often at short notice and largely with the expectation that they’ll loose. It’s a hard career, both physically taxing and often short lived. The complexities of that business and the relationships within it are what inspired Cornermen.

We’re hugely excited to be taking the show to the 2016 VAULT Festival. The work last year was exceptional and it looks set to be even better this time around. We’re very fortunate to be on in the closing week, bringing the curtain down on the festival, so to speak, but it does mean the pressure’s on to live up to what came before! To have also been published by Nick Hern Books is something really special – it’s a strange feeling when you see people walking around holding a script you wrote in your local greasy spoon.

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Cornermen by Oli Forsyth


Keith-Roach, Florence_Cropped_Credit Lily Bertrand-Webb

Author photo by Lily Bertrand-Webb

Florence Keith-Roach on her dark comedy about female friendship, Eggs, 24 Feb-6 March:

I wrote Eggs to try to examine the volatility and unique calibre of the variety of female friendships I saw around me and felt was underexplored in art. I was also interested in making theatre that nodded to its own artifice, was non-naturalistic and highlighted the absurd in the mundane.

Eggs is a dark comedy about female friendship, fertility and freaking out. It’s an intimate two-hander looking at the struggle of growing up as a part of Generation Y.

It’s structured as a series of dialogues between two women in their late-twenties, taking place intermittently over the course of a year. They have been friends since university, but in the years since they have started to make very different life choices, and as a result live utterly divergent, almost incommensurable lives. They also lost a friend a while ago, and in the time that has passed since this traumatic event, they realise that without the link of this ‘third leg of their tripod’, they actually have very little in common.

Eggs presents two very complex, intelligent, witty, at times irrational, women, facing life’s obstacles and making bold, but tortured and sometimes quite reckless decisions about how they choose to live their lives. The piece focusses on their friendship, their journey. Both women are at an age where society forces them to confront the ‘ticking time bomb’ that apparently is their fertility, and we witness how these two different women internalise this systemic anxiety. It deals with broader questions about the link between the political and the personal, the visceral alienation that our laissez-faire, capitalist society engenders in people’s subjectivities. And it’s about human beings coping with a mounting sense of alienation in an increasingly fragmented world.

VAULT Festival provides an amazing platform for emerging artists like me and I am incredibly grateful for the huge support they’ve given me. They came to see Eggs in Edinburgh and have offered us their biggest stage for one of their longest runs, which is a huge step for our team. Fringe theatre is becoming increasingly unviable in our profit-driven capital city. This is a real problem as London still prides itself on being a cultural capital of the world and yet most of the artists living here cannot afford to make work. The Vaults however offer an uniquely affordable platform for new work to be exposed to large audiences, younger theatregoers who normally can’t afford the tickets, and industry members. The opportunities they have given me have been essential to the development of my career. It’s a very special place.

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Eggs by Florence Keith-Roach (photo by Lily Ashley)


Laughton, Stephen 1Stephen Laughton on writing Run, 10-14 Feb, his play about a young man who risks everything for love:

So in a short sentence, Run is basically about a 17-year-old who falls in love – and that kind of takes over his entire universe. It’s about love, life, loss, growing up into the man you’re supposed to be and everything in between. And space. There’s a lot of that.

Rather than coming from something  external that inspired me, which is the way I usually work – this time I sat down and thought, I’ve never written a monologue before, I’d like to write about being in love at 17, I’d like to write something about being gay and Jewish, and I’d like to write about a boy who’s a bit obsessed with space. I was then approached about writing a short for Theatre Renegade’s Courting Drama showcase, so I sat down and wrote a twenty-minute version and we all (cast and crew) loved the process so much we decided to have a go at making a full length version. Fastforward nine months or so, and here we are!

It also occurred to me last week that, on a really personal level, it’s also about the moment when my partner and I took a break for a little bit last January. Although it was ultimately a good move, looking back it’s clear that I really had a hard time dealing with that – including a disastrous rebound. And that space apart really affected me.  (But it’s all okay, now, because we got back together and we’re really happy!)

I love VAULT Festival. I’ve been going for a few years now and it’s one of my favourite things to do in London. So being a part of it is just, well… wow…. I’m absolutely super chuffed.

It’s special having this particular play in the festival too… with this team… it’s all kind of just fallen into place wonderfully! Oh and I got a play published because of it… that just rocks!

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Run by Stephen Laughton


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Camilla Whitehill on her monologue about modern love and old-fashioned entitlement, Mr Incredible, 10-14 Feb:

Mr Incredible is about the dark side of modern romantic relationships; it’s about toxic privilege and entitlement; it uses the word ‘love’ a lot but is not a love story. I think a lot of people who have co-habited with a significant other will recognise a lot of the behaviour and language.

VAULT Festival is utterly unique – it is a genuinely egalitarian testing ground for new work and experimental styles. There’s nothing else like it. And once you go, you’ll be addicted. The atmosphere is electric.

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Mr Incredible by Camilla Whitehill


Our writers recommend at VAULT Festival 2016…

Rosie Kellett: It goes without saying that you should see all the other plays in the Nick Hern Books anthology: Mr Incredible, Run, Eggs and Cornermen. Rebecca Durbin is doing really exciting things with Play, I’m totally going to try and make it down to a show. And Vinay Patel has a reading of his play Known Unknowns which I’m really excited for – I loved True Brits which was at the Festival last year.

Florence Keith-Roach: The VAULT Festival seems to be the place for this year’s exciting new writing. It’s not all polished, but that’s what’s so thrilling about it. I am heading straight to the performance poetry/one-woman play by Lily Ashley called You are Me and I am You. After the Heat We Battle for the Heart by Tallulah Brown, about a female bullfighter, will be great too. I am also excited to see Play, a series of devised plays bringing together some really great talent across acting, writing and directing. All of the other plays in the Nick Hern Books anthology are by writers who I have been hearing great things about, so I’m going to be seeing their shows and cannot wait.

Camilla Whitehill: I’m excited to see all the other plays in the anthology, Isley Lynn’s Skin A Cat, and Plunge Theatre’s scratch of their new show Success. I’m also running a fundraiser called A Night For Syria on 5 February, with loads of brilliant theatre and comedy, and all proceeds going to the UNHCR emergency fund.

Oli Forsyth: There’s so much on! I’m working with an Edinburgh Fringe model of running my finger down the programme and going to see whatever I stop on. That said, there are undoubtedly some highlights I’ll be in to see. I Got Dressed In Front of my Nephew Today is as mental as it sounds but is brilliantly funny, clever and makes a real point about the pressures woman are under to conform to a modern perception of beauty. I’m really excited to see Run, Primadonna and Mr Incredible. Chill Pill is usually an excellent night and it’ll be good to see some spoken word during the Festival. Police Cops is exceptional and very, very funny and I can’t wait to catch Eggs – our shows clashed during Edinburgh so I’ll take my chance now!

Stephen Laughton: Isley Lynn’s Skin A Cat, Rosie Kellet’s Primadonna, Camilla Whitehill’s Mr Incredible and Viscera Theatre’s In Tents and Purposes are looking like particular highlights for me. Also check out what Play are doing and basically everything that’s going on at The Locker, there are some great pieces playing there; Crowley and Co are doing a takeover for a couple of weeks and they have an awesome programme… and you’ll def find me at Sarah Kosar’s new play Armadillo and Vinay Patel’s Known Unknown.

FormattedPlays from VAULT contains five of the best plays from VAULT Festival 2016:

Eggs by Florence Keith-Roach
Mr Incredible by Camilla Whitehill
Primadonna by Rosie Kellett
Cornermen by Oli Forsyth
Run by Stephen Laughton

The anthology is out now, published by Nick Hern Books.

SPECIAL OFFER: To buy your copy for just £7.79 (40% off the RRP £12.99), order via the Nick Hern Books website here and use voucher code VAULTBLOG at checkout. Offer valid until 31 March 2016.

VAULT Festival 2016 runs from 27 January – 6 March. Visit the festival website here.

‘The people loved her because she was one of them’: Jessica Swale on her play Nell Gwynn

Nell Gwynn rose from poverty to become the most celebrated actress of her day and a mistress of King Charles II. And now she is returning to the West End as the subject of Jessica Swale’s acclaimed play Nell Gwynn, first seen at Shakespeare’s Globe in 2015 and to be revived at the Apollo Theatre next month with Gemma Arterton in the title role. Here, Jessica Swale speaks to Heather Neill about Nell’s world and why she’s still such a potent figure for us today.

Nell Gwynn, orange-seller and mistress of Charles II, is a figure of legend, but where did she come from?

It’s hard to know exactly; working-class lives weren’t recorded in enough detail for there to be accurate records, but many believe she was brought up in Coal Yard Alley in Covent Garden, where her mother, ‘Old Ma Gwynn’, kept a brothel. Nell probably worked there, either serving drinks to clients or as a prostitute. Some say she worked as a herring gutter or oyster hawker before she began selling oranges in the pit at Drury Lane. Her father died in a debtors’ prison and she had one sister called Rose.

Part of the joy of writing Nell Gwynn has been sketching around the bones of the known facts, imagining and inventing. I never set out to write a documentary-style play, but even if I had, the task would have proved impossible with the inconsistencies and contradictions in her history.

Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Nell in Nell Gwynn by Jessica Swale at Shakespeare's Globe. Photo by Tristram Kenton

Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Nell in Nell Gwynn by Jessica Swale at Shakespeare’s Globe. Photo by Tristram Kenton

What was the life of an orange-seller like?

The girls sold sharp China oranges and sweetmeats in baskets, whilst earning tips passing messages between punters and backstage – like a seventeenth-century Tinder. Many were prostitutes too. It’s not clear how Nell got onstage, but I like
to imagine that she was spotted wittily doing her job by Charles Hart.

Hart was the star of the day.

Yes, and she did become his mistress. Dryden wrote plays for them both in Thomas Killigrew’s company. Nell was a highly successful and popular comic actress and, although she was illiterate, it’s very likely that she really did invent and perform the Epilogue that appears at the end of Nell Gwynn.

What was theatre like when it was re-established after Cromwell’s Commonwealth?

When Charles II returned from France in 1660, he licensed two theatre companies in London: Killigrew’s King’s Company at Drury Lane and Davenant’s Duke’s Company at Lincoln’s Inn Fields. I imagine Killigrew must have been under tremendous pressure as the two companies were in constant competition. At Drury Lane there was an apron stage and a pit filled with benches rather than standing groundlings. Society was much smaller then, so all classes would meet at the theatre – and the Globe emulates that democratic feel.

Graham Butler as John Dryden in the Shakespeare's Globe production. Photo by Tristram Kenton

Graham Butler as John Dryden in the Shakespeare’s Globe production. Photo by Tristram Kenton

As for Dryden, it is funny that so many of his plays are badly written, but he must have felt the weight of expectation; theatre was re-emerging after an eleven-year gap, he was at the helm of the new culture, the King wanted new plays – it can’t have been easy. No wonder they reinvented so many familiar texts. There was a fashion for rewriting Shakespeare, particularly cheering up the tragedies. King Lear was given a new ending in which Cordelia survives, and Dryden wrote a ‘new play’ called The Enchanted Island, about Prospero and his two daughters – Miranda and Dorinda. Sound familiar? Yet, though his plays haven’t stood the test of time, he was a successful poet and even became Poet Laureate.

How did the first actresses fit into the picture?

Charles II had seen actresses on stage in Paris and decided it was high time we followed fashion. However, the early actresses got a rather raw deal. Writers knew the audiences’ interest in actresses was often voyeuristic, so played into this by writing body-exposing rape scenes, or writing ‘breeches parts’, in which women, disguised as tight-trousered men (exposing their shapely legs) were then revealed to be female with the dramatic exposure of their breasts. Punters often paid an extra penny to watch the actresses change, many of whom were prostitutes. This was Nell’s world, but I wanted her to question it. If she was learning the craft, falling in love with acting, surely someone of her wit and intelligence would want better parts to play than the ‘wilting waifish woman’. She wasn’t the first woman on stage; that was probably Margaret Hughes, or possibly (as in this play) Moll Davies at the rival company, but Nell was in the first wave of actresses.

Photo by Tristram Kenton

Photo by Tristram Kenton

You have had considerable success directing plays of this period. Did you consider writing in the style of a Restoration play?

Whilst I originally considered writing in a Restoration style, I thought it would be alienating (and a little perverse) to use archaic language, to be overly verbose and use magniloquent phraseology unnecessarily (you see). What was far more important to me was to capture the quick wit of the time – and the equivalent of that for us is more akin to modern farce. So that’s what I decided to go with for Nell Gwynn. I’ve peppered it with period references, but I’ve chosen to use modern syntax and diction, with the occasional anachronism for comic effect.

You have actors demonstrating ‘attitudes’, poses to indicate emotions. Would the acting style have seemed alien to us?

Photo by Tristram Kenton

Photo by Tristram Kenton

It’s easy to assume that it was melodramatic, but actually Pepys describes the best actors as seeming real, so I wonder if the style somehow used precise physical positions as a structure, rather like ballet, whilst still being emotionally connected, like naturalism. The ‘attitudes’ weren’t static poses but frameworks of movements and gestures which actors used to underscore the text. As theatres were large buildings, it was important that emotion could be read in an actor’s posture. Heightened emotion, stylised, but still real.

Are the songs in the play based on the music of the period?

They’re certainly inspired by it. I love writing lyrics, and had been listening to everything from Purcell to an album called The History of Bawdy Songs, the title of which tells you all you need to know! So I would write in pastiche of a style, then pass the lyrics on to [composer] Nigel Hess, who would transform them by writing original melodies and scoring them so beautifully that they’d become unrecognisable. He is a genius, I think.

Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Nell and David Sturzaker as Charles II. Photo by Tristram Kenton

Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Nell and David Sturzaker as Charles II. Photo by Tristram Kenton

How much is known of Nell’s relationship with the King?

I think they really were in love. She was his favourite mistress for many years, and they spent a lot of private time together. He had a secret passage built from his court rooms in Westminster to her house in Pall Mall, so they could rendezvous for card games and evenings away from the public. Unlike Barbara Castlemaine [another mistress of Charles II, sometimes referred to as ‘the Uncrowned Queen’], she made no attempt to interfere in politics and never asked for a title for herself (though she did for her sons). Louise de Keroualle, another favourite mistress and Nell’s rival, was tremendously unpopular and was known as ‘the Catholic whore’. There’s a story that a crowd once attacked Nell’s coach thinking Louise was inside, so Nell merrily stuck her head out and said ‘Hold, good people, I am the Protestant whore!’, which garnered whoops and cheers from the delighted onlookers. The people loved her because she was one of them. And, of course, there’s Charles’s famous dying wish: ‘Don’t let poor Nellie starve.’

Gemma Arterton as Nell in a publicity shot for the forthcoming West End production

Gemma Arterton as Nell in a publicity shot for the forthcoming West End production

One of your themes is celebrity.

It’s fascinating to ask whether Nell’s celebrity was due to her brilliance as an actress or because she was the King’s mistress. Pamphleteers – like paparazzi today – would quickly report the activities of the famous, and Charles (and his mistresses) were the hot topic. There was such a frenzy to see him that they even allowed the public into the gallery to watch him eat dinner at night. There was a culture of writing lewd poems about society figures; just look at Rochester [John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester, the renowned poet and courtier, famous for his libertinism and profane verse] . So if there’s a few dirty jokes in the play, don’t blame me, it’s all in the name of historical accuracy…

Was it difficult to distinguish fact from legend and gossip?

Yes, and I made a decision early on that the play should be an entertaining homage to Nell rather than an attempt at documentary-style historical accuracy. Otherwise the play would be a week long, and have to include the fire of London, the plague and the entire Court decamping to Oxford in 1665, just for starters. I made giant wall charts coursing the events of the theatre and the Court, but even then there are contradictions where historians debate when and how. I have drawn on hearsay; the story of the laxatives, for example. But primarily I wanted to honour Nell’s memory, to capture her spirit and what she stood for rather than stick slavishly to facts. The key events of the play are historically accurate, but I’ve allowed myself to embellish. Primarily, I wanted it to be fun. And if it’s a play that Nell would have enjoyed, that’s enough for me.

Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Nell in the Shakespeare's Globe production. Photo by Tristram Kenton

Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Nell in the Shakespeare’s Globe production. Photo by Tristram Kenton

Reprinted with kind permission of Shakespeare’s Globe. Heather Neill is a freelance journalist and theatre historian.


Tamara von WerthernFrom our Performing Rights Manager: Jessica Swale has had remarkable success within the amateur market with her first play Blue Stockings, which shot straight to the top of our most-performed plays of 2014 and managed to keep its position there last year as well. So we have extremely high hopes for Nell Gwynn too. It is such a wonderful show with a larger-than-life female protagonist injecting it with zest and life, I can only see a very bright future for it amongst amateur companies up and down the country. And the good news is that, despite the forthcoming West End revival, we are already inviting interest in the play, as suitable potential productions will be given the green light. So please get in touch with us at rights@nickhernbooks.co.uk and send us the details of your planned production and we’ll do all we can to get it to go ahead. Looking forward to hearing from you soon! Tamara von Werthern, Performing Rights Manager


The Shakespeare’s Globe production of Nell Gwynn opens at the Apollo Theatre, West End, on 12 February, with previews from 4 February. To book tickets, click here.

The playtext, including a longer version of the interview extracted above, is published by Nick Hern Books. To buy a copy with a 20% discount, click here.

Drama Online: the Netflix of Theatre

DO_On BlackThis week saw the launch of the Nick Hern Books Collection on Drama Online, a groundbreaking new educational resource for reading and studying drama. Here, NHB’s Digital Editor Tim Digby-Bell explains how it works, and how it sheds new light on familiar plays.

Finally, it’s launch week. We’ve been working hard preparing a selection of our plays for Drama Online, the amazing new platform for anyone studying drama. For more than twelve months we’ve been planning, editing, revising, checking, drinking cups of strong coffee, fretting, and then doing some more editing. It’s all been worth it, though. It’s a thing of wonder, and it’s open for business.

Drama Online is a joint venture with other leading theatre publishers including Bloomsbury, Faber and Faber and L.A. Theatre Works, and incorporates archival material from the Victoria and Albert Museum and The American Shakespeare Center. As the name suggests, its focus is very much drama, and the place very much online. It’s essentially a subscription service aimed at schools, universities and libraries, giving instant online access to the best of world drama alongside a range of scholarly works for criticism and context. There is also a range of tools for exploring and analysing plays in new and extremely useful ways (more about those later).

Because it’s all online, students can access the plays they’re studying at any time of the day and night, without having to wait for a copy to become available. Think of it as a theatre-based Netflix. ‘Want to come round to my place for some Drama Online and chill?’ is now an actual thing.

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Drama Online – The Deep Blue Sea by Terence Rattigan, from the Nick Hern Books Collection

There are some 1,900 plays already available, with more being added all the time. You’ll find everything from Aeschylus to the present day, with a full range of classic drama, the complete Arden Shakespeare Series, modern classics and the latest work from contemporary playwrights. The Nick Hern Books Collection comprises 400 titles, including classic plays by writers such as Molière, Gogol, Strindberg and Alfred Jarry, the works of Terence Rattigan, modern classics by Caryl Churchill, Conor McPherson, David Edgar and Howard Brenton, and some of the most exciting new writing from the likes of debbie tucker green, Lucy Kirkwood, Jack Thorne, Steve Waters and Enda Walsh. With a Drama Online subscription, you have the whole pantheon of drama in English at your fingertips.

And, as if that’s not enough, you also get some really impressive tools to work with. At a keystroke you can call up Character Grids, Words and Speech graphs and Part Books for any play. For instance, if you want to compare the number of words spoken by different characters in a play, act by act, or even scene by scene, you can quickly and easily generate a table that lays it all out for you. If you’re performing a play, you can call up a Part Book showing just the lines spoken by your character. If you want to see plays set in London, or in nineteenth-century Paris, or written during the Belle Époque or the Spanish Golden Age, you can call up a list, and cross-refer to your heart’s content.

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Character Grid for Jerusalem by Jez Butterworth, from the Nick Hern Books Collection

WordsTable

Words and Speeches table for Clybourne Park by Bruce Norris, from the Nick Hern Books Collection

The platform is designed to give you a simple but powerful set of tools to break down any play, making them easier to study. It might all sound a bit Orwellian at first, but start using it and you find it both incredibly useful and really quite addictive. The plays in the collections are all interconnected: every play is connected to other plays via their themes, characters, settings and genres, allowing faster analysis and deeper insights into the works themselves.

Beyond that, the site provides you with every bit of information you could possibly need about each title – including insightful introductions and expert analysis, production history, performing rights information to enquire about staging the plays, and even links to places where you can buy the good old-fashioned print editions (remember them?).

So if you’re studying plays at school, college, drama school or university, you absolutely must have Drama Online. Ask your librarian or resources manager to get a subscription immediately. If they say no, then stage a non-violent protest citing the fact that the first thing any totalitarian regime does when it comes to power is to ban access to the theatre. But do check if you already have a subscription before you do any of that – it could save you some embarrassment.

Having worked on preparing Drama Online for many months I can genuinely say that it’s an exciting new way to read and study plays. It’s the future, right here.


For more information about subscriptions, trials and pricing, visit: www.dramaonlinelibrary.com/pages/how-to-subscribe.