I’m just heading back from a week in Manchester, working on a new play, Whistleblower. It’s been a great writing week for a number of reasons, some of them public, some personal.
The public positives are that I arrived
on Sunday with two thirds of a draft written. By Thursday morning I had
finished a substantial second draft. This was given a public rehearsed
(slightly staged) reading today (Friday) and, as far as I can tell, held
the audience. No, fuck it, gripped the audience. We had a full house
and the reading was met with explosive laughs and deep silences. One of
the weird things I find about writing a play is the way that you can
write a line because you know it’ll break the tension with a laugh -
then, as your attention changes to different aspects of the play - you
can forget that little effect was there, and you only remember when you
hear the laughter, which is why audiences always always always teach you
so much about your own play.
And silence: there’s about a dozen
decent laughs in the play, which unsettles me. I can be a bit of a
laugh-whore; sitting in a laughing audience is very reassuring because
you know they’re enjoying it. They may not
be loving it or admiring it or thinking it’s a great play but if they’re
laughing then at least you know the jokes are going over. In this play,
there are only a dozen decent laughs (and I’d say two of them are
laughs of anxious release, several others half-laughs about
incongruity). So it’s a good opportunity to learn about silence. There’s
a central sequence in the play where an army officer looks at a series
of photographs on a phone. It probably takes two minutes and the silence
is interrupted by barely more than half a dozen short low-key lines.
It’s something I’ve experience a lot as an audience member, less often
in one of my plays: the intensity that comes from an audience listening
in silence, each person’s silence amplified by everyone else’s. It’s
very exciting, even in a fairly informal reading, to have created the
conditions for that kind of silence.
The play’s a two-hander, one location,
in real time, so there’s not a lot of visual interest and variety to
keep people’s attention. This is the challenge, making essentially a
conversation between two people into something consistently engaging for
75 minutes, because if you lose the audience, it’s very hard to get
them back. There’s no scene-change, new character, or time jump to
restart their interest. You need to lock them in to a battle of wits
between two characters.
The form of the play was absolutely key
for me. I’m rather interested in the duologue form and I find it - when
it works - extraordinarily thrilling: think of Blackbird, Stitching, Tender Napalm, A Number, Contractions, Yard Gal, Jonah and Otto, Disco Pigs, Midsummer and Oleanna.
What strikes me about these plays very often is the way that they pit
two views of the world or one event against each other. The lack of a
third person turns the play into a ferocious battle for the meaning of
the world. And out of that you get a very intense sense of debate and
dissensus. So, while the play is on one level a psychological thriller, a
battle of wits between two characters, in doing so it opens up big
questions about the ethics of war, liberal interventionism, humanitarian
law, and how far you can compromise with immorality for moral ends.
This play came about when, at the end of
last year, I got fed up with being so responsive in my writing. Waiting
for commissions, working to deadlines. I envy friends who work
regularly with particular theatre companies. I wanted to originate my
own project, get my own team together, place it myself, make the work on
my own terms. That may seem odd to say about a piece that is far from
being outlandishly experimental. But it felt to me that this was in some
ways a rather personal play, both in its dramaturgical challenge and in
some of its ideas. I worked with Lucy Kerbel on a short play
last year and, apart from simply getting on well with her, I was
immediately struck by her seriousness and rigour. I asked if she’s be
interested in working on this project. I asked around a few theatres and
companies. It was a terrible time to ask, with the then-unknown results
of the National Portfolio decisions
hanging over everyone’s heads. But Sarah Frankcom, at the Royal
Exchange, did bite. She agreed to pay for a week of R&D with me and
Lucy, then a week working on a draft with two actors and a public
showing. That was today.
The personal successes for the week were
twofold. One was simply about re-writing. Like a lot of lazy people, I
hate rewrites. I just wish the first draft of something were perfect and
I didn’t have to do anything else. Rewriting is always a trial, when I
have to undo all my hard work, discard things I’m fond of, come up with
new solutions. I used to think my plays couldn’t be rewritten, that
writing a play is like drilling through rock, that you can’t tinker with
the channel produced, and all you can do is start from a different
angle and drill again. This week, the rewriting process, difficult
though it was, seemed liberating. I would even say I enjoyed it. The
play immeasurably improved in the redrafting. And that’s because of the
I’ve always been a bit suspicious of
dramaturgy. I teach it, how to take a play apart, how to understand its
underlying architecture, how to build out that architecture through
actions. But I’ve been suspicious; I always worry that it normalises a
play, turns it into something expected, ordinary, conventional. This
week, with Lucy’s help and prompting, I found a clean and clear way
through the play, breaking it down into units and actions, and then
rewriting. It’s a kind of Stanislaskian discipline which separates
structure from dialogue, and allows you to see clearly the shape you’re
going for. Far from taking the fun out of writing (which I occasionally
feel with planning) you can trust in your ability to write dialogue and
the architecture does all the work. And rewriting becomes enjoyable. You
feel the play improving, toughening up, under your fingers. And in this
instance, becoming stranger, more unsettling, more surprising, more unconventional. So, thank you Lucy.
There are some things to do: (this is a list for me not you)
The ending needs to become hypothetical, not necessarily a confession. It’s asking the moral question: what if I were a monster?
More Greek. There’s a structure of gods and beliefs, a mythology to draw on. This is potentially funny but also could unify the moral questions (fate etc.) and the poetic language (where’s that going? The moon, white shadow, etc.). It needs a good joke about that early on to really establish it.
The characters can be more individualised, not so exhausted by their public roles. The Greek thing tends to generalisation. More personal, his anxieties in the camp, her frustrations in the job.