Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Programme Piece on Violence in Theatre commissioned by Hampstead Theatre - published April 2005 - (3 months before the tragic events of 7/7/05)

Edward Bond: ‘I write about violence as naturally as Jane Austen wrote about manners. Violence shapes and obsesses our society, and if we do not stop being violent we have no future. People who do not want writers to write about violence want to stop them writing about us and our time. It would be immoral not to write about violence.’

These words inspire a scary little retrospective. I’ve been attempting the mathematics of brutality, by adding up the number of violent acts I’ve witnessed.

Here goes. An audit of fear: I’ve seen beatings, kickings, stabbings, garrottings, gassings, throat-slashings, electrocutions, shootings; suicide and self-harm; torture, cannibalism, the stoning of a baby, a red-hot Stratford-skewer up Simon Russell Beale’s backside - and many other atrocities; courtesy of Sophocles, Shakespeare, Marlowe, Lorca, Treadwell, Bond, Dorfmann, Barker, Buchner and Kane.

I recall the countless dead bodies, in domestic or street scenes, work-place or battlefield; corpseless heads and headless corpses; I’ve witnessed the blinding of an old man called Gloucester (numerous times) and seen a royal prince, in a darkened room above a Notting Hill pub, have his genitals barbecued and his innards ripped out by a vulture. His response at the time was this: ‘if there could have been more moments like this.’

So - that’s violence in the theatre. And I’ve seen a surfeit of violence in photographs and on screen.

But how much violence have I seen in my fortunate and sheltered real life? Mercifully little. I’ve never even seen a dead body. In my forty years outside the theatre I’ve been lucky enough to witness very few violent acts. But of the real-life violence I have seen, the pointless corporal punishment, the drunken brawling, the over-zealous arrests, the futile lashing out; none of it has made much sense to me.

In real-life I’ve seen it many times, but never once, on the stage, have I seen senseless violence.

I sat in on a university seminar the other day, and heard a talented teacher confront one of his students who drew a parallel between witnessing a murder compellingly portrayed by Lorca and the experience of driving past a motorway crash and ‘having to watch’. She implied that there was a some generalised positive lesson to learn from rubbernecking on the M4.

The teacher was agitated; for him there was no useful comparison between the two experiences, one was art, he said, created to carry a message, the other prosaic misfortune: regrettable reality. He’d seen stage dramas full of murders, death and destruction; such works could be cathartic, educative, moving - even uplifting. But never once had he found a constructive lesson in witnessing a real-life tragedy.

It’s election time. Our parliamentary representatives are suddenly interested in us, they need us off couches and fences on 05.05.05, on our feet en route to the Polling Station. No negative campaigning is the boast: but, particularly post-9/11, fear is a refined political tool. We live in a frightening world, they tell us, a violent, unstable world; they play to these fears with promises of greater sanctions for unstable or violent members of society.

Each party prides itself on a portfolio of authoritarian pledges. The terrorist threat is ubiquitous, unpredictable, army tanks patrol Heathrow, evacuation plans are published. Protect and Survive (Mk II). The politicians promise ASBOS and electronic tagging, stiffer sentences, more prison-building. And to protect us from violent foreigners, our political masters take us to regime-changing conflict in someone else’s country.

And always, when a government wants to sanction violence, it does so by appropriating the vocabulary of the artist: Basra and Baghdad become Theatres of War.

So what scares you? Being murdered in your bed by an masked intruder? A terrorist act on the tube? The threat of violence which takes away your freedom of speech?

Some violence is misdirected passion, some is borne of fear. The violence that shuts down a theatre is the latter.

In our second city last December, a cumulative threat of violence became a virtual mob-rule and cancelled performances of a play. The Lord Chamberlain’s purple pencil has, in our times, become a brick-throwing gang who stay outside the theatre: they have no desire to enter the building and become audience members.

Perhaps only a couple of this mob have actually read the text of the play.
But a play-text is not a play, any more than a designer’s model constitutes a theatre set. A play only truly becomes itself in performance, in being acted before and audience who are prepared to watch, to listen and to think.

A theatre devoid of provocation, a theatre bowdlerised of violence; like Nahum Tate’s 1681 evisceration of KING LEAR, which ends with Lear not dead but restored to the throne - and the happy marriage of Edgar to an un-hanged Cordelia; this is an unchallenging theatre with an attenuated, atrophied voice.

As long as the theatre challenges and provokes, shows us conflict to which an audience can add its imaginary puissance and draw its own conclusions, a theatre which presents violence which is never pointless; we’ll leave the auditorium able to paraphrase the dying Hippolytus in Sarah Kane’s 1996 masterpiece PHAEDRA’S LOVE: ‘if only there could have been more plays like these’.

Recent Article about Sleeper Trains

My mother took an overnight Sleeper train to Cornwall in the summer of 1957. She was 18, and working as live-in nanny to the children of a Kensington barrister. She travelled with her two little charges and their kindly mother. She remembers little about the journey except that, against railway regulations, they smuggled the family cat into their Sleeper Cabin in its basket. The head of the household stayed behind in London, with his demanding legal work and his equally demanding mistresses.

Following in my mother’s footsteps, I took my first Sleeper Train the other day, from Paddington to St Austell.

It was my first time with a berth booked on an overnight train. I’ve taken night trains before, years back, as a student, and tried to sleep, slumped against carriage windows, neck-cricked, a woollen hat pulled over the eyes to escape the blinding universal strip-light, the upright seat, the unyielding armrests, the manifold discomforts of travelling without style.

This may not be the Royal Train, nor the Orient Express, but customer care on a Sleeper is redolent of a lost age of service. Midnight at Paddington, and a steward greets you by name, leads you to your cabin, explains its limited but functional light and heating controls and points out the toilets (which, mirabile dictu, may be used even when the train is stationary). He checks your wake-up-call time, when he’ll bring tea or coffee and biscuits; and is available, should you need him in the night, in his bolthole at the carriage-end. £30 ensures a cabin to yourself. Top bunk folded up, it’s surprisingly spacious. There’s a sink in the corner, mineral water, a towel, a little wash-bag containing tiny flannel and toiletries.

Welcome, traveller - let’s be on our way! Here’s your ambulant hotel room, a novel mobile home from home, crisp sheets on your bunk, a tartan blanket. Expect the treasures of Britain’s railway outside your bedroom window at first light, that wonderful stretch of Brunel’s coastal track between Exeter and Newton Abbot, Dawlish at dawn, Exmouth across the water, the red rock ocean stacks of Teignmouth, then on to the Tamar bridge and Cornwall. But you need not hide in your bedroom, sir! The comfortable carriage next door serves as an exclusive lounge, for passengers with berths, with its cheery buffet bar, open all night.

Donning my nightclothes, I was content at the prospect of a good night’s sleep, and arrival refreshed for work in Cornwall the next morning. Lights out, blind down - the cabin in complete soporific darkness - soon I was drifting off to sleep in my little bed, the train taking the strain, oblivious to the passing miles.

But, my God, what a miserable night. I’ve rarely been as downcast. It’s almost impossible to sleep for the rocking around, the stopping and starting, the stuffy-sad cabin air. Any rest is plagued and fitful. Each dream sequence is a bad one, and it’s a long, long night. This is no express journey. By definition, the Sleeper Train is obliged to take the whole night to arrive at its terminus, so it dawdles, loiters at stations en route, skulking along stretches of track, making way for freight trains, ashamed to be the snail of the service. Soon, restless and dejected, you are switching on your bedside lamp, and off for a desultory pee. The over-starched sheets feel papery, the heating ineffectual, the blankets rough, the pillows cheap. You’re in transit, dispossessed. The worst of it is this realisation: you’re alone, uncomfortable and, albeit temporarily, you’re homeless.

But travel and insomnia are ancient bed-fellows. I have a friend who’s a retired airline pilot. He’s stayed all over Europe in the best hotels, with a generous per diem of local currency. But being away from home soon palls. He’s grown to hate hotel life, the snoring next door, the raucous party downstairs; too often allocated an echo-chamber adjacent to the lift shaft, sleeping sporadically before the early morning summons to the airport.

Business travel too, only looks glamorous from the outside. On an aircraft, once the curtain is closed which parts premium from economy, we plebs in the hindquarters feel an irascible envy. But the truth is this: most commercial high-flyers aren’t having fun, they’re stressed and lonely, hardened to corporate treats, they miss their families and would rather be at home. All they really need from an airport are limited delays and unlimited internet access.

I was delighted once to get a ticket upgrade at Heathrow, which entitled me to use a business lounge. I’d pressed my nose up against its windows many times. Once inside, I relished every freebie, the gratis publications and sustenance, the comfy chairs, the extended hospitality. But soon my flight was boarding, and I’d wasted half my time trying to work out who to pay for the complimentary croissants.

In a recent magazine questionnaire, a famous Captain of Industry was asked what single thing would most improve the quality of his life. His answer: ‘To spend more time with my wife. I’m always having to go away.’

My mother telephoned when I got back from Cornwall. ‘How was the Sleeper Train?’ she said. ‘Great, thanks,’ I replied. ‘Did you sleep well?’ she asked. ‘Pretty well,’ I said, using the truth economically.

Back at my modest suburban homestead, the washing machine’s playing up and probably needs a costly replacement. There’s a leak in the shower, and those cracks in the ceiling are a worry. Our little flat is cramped and unglamorous, and we can’t afford to move. But I’m happy to be home, with an unchanging view from the bedroom window, tucked up with my other half, in a bed that’s going nowhere except, hopefully, to the Land of Nod.

Piece about Script Reading Published in Independent on Sunday

Gulp. Nearly 30 of them, in that cupboard - longing to be unleashed. Read me! Read me! - they’re wailing. Some will be dreadful - nonsensical or laborious; other easy reading, but corny, clichéd, or just plain dull. Another tough month, slaving over plenty of rubbish. But there might be the odd peach, ripe for development or encouragement.

I’m a play-reader for the literary departments of three London theatres, one large and two fringe venues. More than a dozen London companies develop new plays, accepting unsolicited manuscripts by the sackful from hopeful writers. Each week they receive several hundred plays, and each needs to be read and adjudicated.

Sometimes it seems everyone’s a budding writer; submissions come from all kinds of people. They’ve heard about James Herriot, trapped in a steamy cowshed, one arm halfway up a heifer’s backside, dreaming up a best-selling series of books; and they they, too, should be putting autobiographical pen to paper.

True, we all have stories to tell, and often the best creative writing is not crammed with spectacular incident, but is a simple dissection of the minutiae of prosaic, but unexamined lives. But why should we all reckon we can write? Angela Lambert once observed that everyone seems to think they’ve got a book in them, but not everyone thinks they’ve got, say, a bridge in them. And the chance of many of us writing a compelling play or novel is about as likely as turning our hands to a successful engineering project. London’s Millennium Bridge is testament to the fact that even an expert bridge-builder can have trouble making a wobble-free river crossing. But still it surges on, this relentless dtide of unsolicited manuscripts, flooding into the script departments of London, about tot burst out of my cupboard and inundate an unwilling desk.

The Panel of Readers at each theatre meets monthly to discuss the plays submitted. After a meeting, I might take away as many as 10 plays to read; for each I have to write a synopsis and commentary. The fees are not princely: between £11 and £14 per script, plus travel expenses. Sometimes a complicated script will take hours to unravel.

I should have given up years ago, it’s dispiriting to read the first few pages of a bad script and be obliged to read the whole ting. Often I wonder why I’m wasting my time when I could be catching up on masterpieces I’ve missed: but the thrill of finding an exciting new voice, or a cracking new play keeps me in harness.

And the monthly meetings make it all worthwhile. One panel comprises a literary agent, a producer, a journalist, an editor, an actor (fluent in four languages) and a director and others from vared arts backgrounds; good, thoughtful, interesting people, all of whom have a passion for new writing. There’s a certain amount of gallows humour at the meetings: faced with the umpteenth submission from a deluded hobbyist, we can become slightly hysterical - but we never fail to get excited by an intriguing new playwright. Enthusiasm plus experience mean there’s little chance we’ll reject a potential star, like that misguided A&R man who bypassed the Beatles.

So, what makes a good play? One literary manager says a playwright can be taught structure, plot and all the devices that come with shaping a play, but can’t be taught to writer good dialogue; that’s an innate talent. Good dialogue leaps out as you read it - there’s something immediately engaging in the way a serious playwright can make characters interact. Good dialogue isn’t necessarily naturalistic - it can by stylized to the hilt; arch, mannered, idiosyncratic - but it still has to have that Quotient-X that makes it readable, and, more importantly, hearable in a theatre.

Good dialogue doesn’t have to replicate quotidian speech. David Hare says he has to listen to bad dialogue around him all the time in “real life”. What people say, word for word in everyday situations, just won’t translate onto paper. Natural speech is full of illogical omissions, repetitions and semantic blind alleys - that’s why, for example, it can be so frustrating to make transcripts of taped interviews. In the flesh people can seem eloquent, full of intellectual vigour, eminently quotable - but play back the tape, and, verbataim, their words can look vapid or inconsequential.

Theatrical dialogue is something else; it’s heightened speech that triggers something in an audience’s collective imagination. Bad drama won’t allow the audience to do its part of the contract - joining up the dramatic dots using what Shakespeare calls “imaginary puissance”. The finest plays in the language were written for theatres with little in the way of costume, sets of special effects; what they did possess was abundantly inventive wordplay, and a diverse audience of Elizabethan Londoners who knew how to use their imaginations.

I’ve just judged a London play-writing competition. The two clear winners stood out a mile. Both were dramatic pieces that needed to be played in the theatre: neither would have worked in any other medium. Both had the right mixture of spontanaiety and discipline, a balance that must be present in any work of art. The text of a play, unlike a novel, is not the play itself. The text is nothing but dyed paper. It can’t begin to ignite until actors are speaking the words.

But I must get on with my script-reading. My cupboard’s creaking again, there’s a panel meeting on Saturday - both the godawful and the (please God), good plays need a fair hearing. I shall just have to resist the demonic urge to hurl the scripts, unread, into the incinerator. O, for a Muse of Fire, indeed.

Saturday, August 20, 2005



HMS Belfast is a living part of the Imperial War Museum. Her raison d’etre is war. Not a cruise ship, but a warship. The kitchens, the mess rooms, the post room, the high slung hammocks - all exist for one purpose: to support the sailors who manned Belfast’s monstrous guns.

What better place for the National Youth Theatre to present a play inspired by combatants’ corresponence, by LETTERS OF WAR?

On my first visit to the ship, I arrived at the same time as an excited group of schoolboys. For a previous generation these young souls would be cannon fodder. In the hospital wing, looking at a reconstruction of bloody surgery on the ship’s operating table, a kindly tourist who stood next to me said the sight was ‘a bit too realistic’. The truth is that the reality of war is unimaginable for the lucky ones, like us, whose experience of war has been indirect, with conflicts far from home; or far away enough to ignore.

But that’s why this ship has been saved for the nation. To enable us to see a little of the existence of the seamen who gave their lives for the freedoms we now so easily take for granted; not least of which is the freedom to make artistic statements, to write, to create art, to make plays.

The process of devising an original piece of drama is a tough, but a simple one. Without a playwright, theatre-makers must harness their creative appetites, and get fed. First part of the recipe: collect as much material as you can, next: choose the bits you like best, finally: shape them into a performance.

The National Youth Theatre season for 2005 is entitled Young at War. There isn’t a single family in this country which hasn’t been touched by war, somehow. Before rehearsals began, I asked the actors to get nosey, to ask awkward questions of elderly relatives, to rummage in attics for wartime correspondence; to bring their own source material to the project.

You are about to see the result of our labours.

But, remember that the best theatre is made for a context, a place. And even military men appropriate the language of the artist - for an Admiral or a General, a battlefield is a Theatre of War.

And remember that on this ship you are surrounded by the brave departed. Among their ranks are the ghosts of Scharnhorst (the German ship hunted and destroyed by HMS Belfast in Danish waters in1943 - there were only 36 survivors from a crew of 1,963 men). Remember the sad ghost of a Olga the Reindeer - a mascot given as a present by the Soviet navy in 1944 - driven mad with fear at the sound of Belfast’s six-inch guns, she had to have her brains blown out after a couple of days on board.

All around you are the spirits of the sailors who made this place their home, their workplace, their refuge, their weapon of war. Where’s the best place to tell a story about the universal themes of combatants longing for their loved ones, hoping for an end to the fighting? Here, on board a ship which brings the realities of war into sharp dramatic focus.

Belfast’s guns have a range of some 16 miles. She’s capable of huge destruction at great distance. Currently the guns are trained on a target some 12 miles away, ready to destroy the M1 Motorway services at Scratchwood. Perhaps it’s a curious way to exact revenge for a sub-standard motorway meal; a museum curator’s joke which masks a terrific destructive force. But we should be thankful, in this world which is always full of conflict, if no such guns are targeting our daily lives.

As we salute the bravery of previous generations we have a duty to try, with the best peaceable weapons at our disposal, theatre and imagination; to understand just how lucky we are to have the challenge of making art, not of making war.

We hope you enjoy our production of LETTERS OF WAR.

Monday, August 01, 2005

RECENT PRODUCTION: LET'S MAKE AN OPERA at the Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh for Aldeburgh Productions

In October 2004, I directed a new production of Let's Make an Opera, Benjamin Britten's children's opera, in the place where it had it's very first performances in 1949 - The Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh.

The Britten-Pears Estate had commissioned a new version of the play, which forms the first half of Let's Make an Opera, from the writer Simon Butteriss. My production was the world premiere of this excellent new piece.

I was very proud to have Basil Coleman, who directed the first production, in the audience.

You can find more details of the production at the Aldeburgh Productions website:

  • Let's Make an Opera directed by William Kerley

  • and follow this link to see Nigel Luckhurst's photographs of the production:

  • Let's Make an Opera production photographs