It’s that time of year when I write two plays in four days and rehearse each one for eight hours. This is the annual performance project at Wimbledon College of Art, where I teach, from time to time, in the Theatre School, which delivers one of the most respected theatre and screen design courses in the country. I have written about my endeavours there before in Strength Weekly. Working with the design students is an annual lark with an extremely permissive writing brief and a design team that invariably rises to the occasion with great energy and imagination.
When I write performances for a paying public – outside the haven of Wimbledon – I feel a certain caution with regard to matters of coherence. I have no desire to be utterly incoherent but I am very absorbed in the possibilities of experimenting with the conventions and established forms of theatre and this, in turn, can lead to the production of unfamiliar forms. My plays generally have rather slender narratives and are barely concerned with story-telling. My characters lack character though I like to think they are replete with psychology. When the opportunity arises to play to an in-house audience I feel I can push these aspects further and test their limits.
At the moment I find myself drifting steadily further and further away from even the most tenuous narrrative continuity. I get irritated when I read, transcribed from the volubilities of an earnest playwright, that ‘story-telling is a healing process’. Why would you want to be healed? Nobody else is. Furthermore, if it does work, how long does it last? Two days? Then you have to see another one. I’ll stop there before I go off on one.
The idea that, in a world of rubble, theatre has an ‘urgent duty’ to shape and articulate ‘as never before’ is hopelessly redundant. All I want to do is make work that takes note of the irreversible fractures and reflects them, possibly offering a modicum of poignancy in the process. It’s much too late for instructive and consolatory models. Oops, I went off on one.
Anyway, since the fall of the Towers, the rise of consumerised psychic deracination, the consolidation of permanent war (this book is excellent on the latter) and the rapid descent into the shitter of all known ecological systems, I have felt a strong desire to write shows that, at the level of what you see and hear, are as disconnected as a snake over which a railway train has recently passed.
The idea that you might write a scene in which some people want something then either get it or do not get it strikes me as luxurious. Surely it makes more sense, in the sense of not making sense because it’s not an appropriate response anymore, to write a scene in which some people want something then some other people come in and start something that has nothing remotely to do with the first people’s desires or fears, to the extent that the first people go away and you never see them again. Now that’s what I call theatre.
This is all very well, I am finding. It’s very hard to shake off the temptation to make one scene somehow modify the one before it and set up, in a coherent way, expectations for its successor. One of the delicious playlets I have just written, ‘In the Bosom of Roy’, was intended to be as connected as a rat and a raincoat, to the extent that I started writing deliberately at great speed without planning, piling up short scenes that, I thought, were as complementary as syndiotactic polypropylene and Celine Dion. Then damn me, on an interim read through, if I didn’t find I’d written a story but with the scenes in the wrong order. (I’m aware that I’ve contradicted this claim elsewhere in Strength Weekly, and should note that while I thought that ‘I’d written a story’, many audience members did not share this view. Ed. (2019)) Having noticed this I was subsequently unable to resist completing the story so that all the people in it who wanted something did or didn’t get it. Blimey. Clearly, the West End beckons.