The Stock Da'wa


Hampstead are opening their downstairs space for an experimental season. This is becoming the thing for established new writing theatres to do; Soho recently announced a similar idea. In Hampstead’s case this experimentalism extends to not inviting critics yet giving somewhat full productions. An earlier example of this work was Small Hours. The Michael Frayn Space - as this downstairs is called - is, to judge simply by these two showings, highly adaptable. For Small Hours, the space was transformed into a front-and-back living room, immaculately real, a full immersive installation in which we shared the space of the performer. Here it’s a somewhat more conventional theatre space on three sides, but it’s a large rural kitchen (pictured) that runs on beyond the limits of the stage. The experimentalism is also that the script here seems to me an improvisation, a draft, a work-in-progress. This is a David Eldridge script so it’s still very highly achieved but you can feel ideas being worked out, choices still finally to be  made.

SPOILERS: Paul turns up at Joan’s house late one night covered in blood. Paul was a good friend of her son, Oliver, who was knocked down and killed by a train 22 years before. Paul was so often at Joan’s house before and after the accident, that he became a kind of surrogate son, despite being from a much poorer family. But now he has converted to Islam and he brings with him the severed head of a British soldier. He’s come to preach and he’s come to explain; he’s come to tell Joan that Oliver was suicidal but that it was he, Paul, who pushed him under that train. He has also come to reveal that Mr Wilson, his old teacher and a longtime friend of Joan’s who is there that night, knows more about Paul’s story than he let on. Eventually Joan collapses and dies, perhaps from an injury sustained just before Paul arrived, perhaps from the stress of his visit.

A Da’wa is a preaching of the Muslim faith. Stock is a small village just north of Billericay in Essex. This is a play about the feared other coming home. It reminded me of Simon Stephens’s Motortown; that play shows us a British soldier, having served in Iraq, coming home and seeing Britain for the first time as decadent and cruel and he exacts a meaningless but vicious revenge. Here it’s the same, though Paul has become Other himself.

The basic shape is a simple one. A figure from the past turns up with a story to tell; the action of the play is the telling of that story. In this sense it resembles a play like Orphans by Dennis Kelly (whose intruder also shows up covered in blood). It’s a play of exposition, of gradual revelation. The energy of the play is verbal, once the situation is established - which here is that Paul is violent and the two other characters are old and weak, so they have to listen. It is difficult to maintain momentum in a play like that, for two reasons: one, the revelations really need to pay off; I felt with Orphans that Dennis Kelly was having to ramp up the horrors of the revelations beyond credulity just to keep the play from stalling; two, a play of revelation is really a play of concealment - all the energy has to go into not spilling the beans early on. In fact, writing such a play is a fascinating balancing act, because the writer has to satisfactorily answer two questions: (a) why is he telling this story? (if he doesn’t there’s no play) and (b) why isn’t he telling this story? (if he tells it straight away, there’s no play). You have to find a perfect balance between these two opposing forces.

Here, once we have discovered (with echoes of Emlyn Williams’s brilliant 1930s potboiler Night Must Fall) that the intruder has a severed head in a bag, the revelations are more delicate: Paul confronts Joan with his sense of how she made him feel about his class and confronts Mr Wilson with the truth of his predatory behaviour and deception of Joan. I did feel that Joan’s death was a moment where the script - in this draft - was confecting a climax rather than letting it emerge fully from the action. (It’s complicated because the play begins with Joan appearing having bumped her head; it’s not tonally clear whether there is a mystery in this, whether it’s comic slapstick, or whether it’s sheer accident, so the significance of her death is also opaque.) I was more concerned by the way the play - and Paul - seemed to be spooling out its revelations too slowly. Why didn’t Paul say it all more quickly? Why did he choose to pre-announce his revelations so portentously? I wasn’t convinced that this was wholly character and not at least partly the necessity of the form.

Our view of Paul swings erratically through the play. At times he seemed like a true zealot, convinced of his cause; at others, he seems still to be the frightened boy, terrified and even apologetic for what he had done; and then at others it seemed that the religious rhetoric and ideological zeal was simply a cover for personal revenge and even class and sexual confusion. I really felt the first two were the most interesting and the last seemed just personal. I thought it might be interesting if it seemed as though Paul’s religious conversion were a response to a society’s fucked-up attitudes to class and desire, less so if it was a response to Joan and Mr Wilson.

The dialogue style is vigorous and dynamic, as always with David Eldridge’s stuff. There are probably three different styles that by and large he combines, though I feel the mixture splits on occasion. There’s a realist, human story of psychological hurt and dignity; then there’s an Ortonesque aphoristic comedy (from memory: ‘You have no dependents!’ ‘I have my cats’ ‘That’s no albatross in financial terms’). And then there are moments that remind me that David did a (brilliant) version of Ibsen’s The Wild Duck - another play in which an outsider enters a home, forces the inhabitants to face the truth about themselves, and in doing so results in the death of one of them. Here it’s a kind of nineteenth-centuryish. At one moment, Joan murmurs (to herself? to the audience?) ‘Betrayed!’ and sounds like Lady Audley. This is not a criticism, I should say; it was an interesting moment that suggested that these are grand passions that are boiling over in this kitchen.

It felt first- or second- drafty. I’d be prepared to bet that it was written straight through and perhaps only tinkered with afterwards. I think it’s quite likely that he wrote with only a light sense of where he was going with the story. It’s a script of discovery and what he’s discovered, it seems to me, is the makings of a very powerful play about our own otherness, the way that, horrifically, the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and 7/7 have made our own culture strange to us, how we all know how hateful we have become.