[First draft - mine, not Ravenhill’s]
Paines Plough’s Ravenhill for Breakfast was one of the highlights of this year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival. It was a major event. From Tuesday to Sunday, at 9.30am, audiences could see the world premiere of a new 20 minute play by leading British playwright Mark Ravenhill every day - 17 new plays across the whole festival. Such was the demand that the show transferred almost immediately from the studio space of Traverse 2 into the main 256-seat* auditorium. The original plan had been for Ravenhill to write 17 entirely discrete plays - each with the title of a pre-existing novel, poem, song, film or play - with no linking structure, but during the writing process themes began to emerge, characters from one play turned up in another creating a cycle, which has been called Shoot/Get Treasure/Repeat. There is a growing possibility that the plays will at some stage be staged together, hopefully culminating in a full-on 17x20minute marathon.
Yesterday Paines Plough staged six of the plays at the Hampstead theatre as a one off, again in rehearsed reading format, allowing an audience to experience for the first time the extent to which the plays had created a meaningful, ongoing corpus. At the beginning of the relevant section, I’ve linked the title of each play to the relevant excerpts which appeared daily on the Guardian website throughout the festival.
[Index of excerpts from all 17 plays]
Intolerance - named after DW Griffith’s 1916 response to those who criticised his previous film, Birth of a Nation, for its racist content - the second of the plays to be staged in Edinburgh, is a monologue by Helen, a middle-aged woman discussing her caffeine intolerance. The title cleverly trades on the way that intolerance can mean two of contemporary society’s greatest preoccupations: bigotry and health issues. The play itself is a meandering affair, parts of which could easily have been transposed from a particularly sharp Victoria Wood sketch. Many of the laughs come from a similar trope, ridiculing the middle-class, faith-healing, regression therapy and organic wholefoods lifestyle described. Being Ravenhill it quickly gets a whole lot darker. She talks about her husband Tom and her son Zachary, who draws endless pictures of headless soldiers that his parents duly stick to the fridge anyway. There is a moment when she realises that they have both gone out when a look of sheer misery crosses her face that neither bothered to say goodbye. But at the centre of the story is Helen’s caffeine intolerance. She describes the agony it caused and how it prevented her from even working - but it’s all fine now that she’s cut caffeine out of her diet. Except that after embarking on an anti-semitic rant about her Jewish regression therapist she doubles over in pain again. Visibly shaken she takes back what she said.
Next, War and Peace, finds a seven year old boy, Alex, in conversation with the headless soldier that visits him at night. The script is written as a sort of two-part bedtime story, so despite essentially playing Alex and the soldier, the two actors intersperse their dialogue with “Alex said”s and “he said” - so the whole looks like a kind of parlour game in which each character must narrate himself. It’s a nice device that works superbly with the material. As the scene unfolds, it becomes apparent that the soldier wants to steal the child’s head. It plays like a multi-lateral Grimms’ fairytale, initially playing on fears of child abuse, moving through some potential innuendo-laden discussion - where the boy wants to feel the soldier’s gun (nudge-nudge) in exchange for letting the soldier feel his head (wink-wink) - to a point where all the potential for metaphor gathers into a very fine reveal where the soldier talks (don’t ask me how a headless soldier talks) about The War on Terror. The way that this simple phase resonates when uttered by the headless soldier from a child’s nightmare beautifully highlights how “terror” is a basic, fundamental part of human experience and suggests the idea of a war against it to be palpably absurd. As a debunking of this Orwellian phrase, it is more effective than any number of “Not in my name” marches.
The last peace of the first half is stranger still. Paradise Lost - recalling the description of the fall of Lucifer from Intolerance - opens with an air-hostess remonstrating with the woman from the flat downstairs about her continually screaming in the middle of every night. The piece draws much of its power from the sheer strangeness of the scenario. As a staged reading, with only the title projected onto the blank wall at the back of the stage and four plain chairs set out, the audience tries to place the action with only the script as clues. There is a sense of freedom about the whole project that allows us to imagine that this action could be set anywhere. As a result the piece teems with possibilities. The action could be taking place in a kind of Beckett-y no-man’s land; the sort of metaphorical space where Not I or Play are located. The air hostess from the flat upstairs, dressed in a faintly diaphanous bright yellow dress could be an angel visiting hell. This possibility is deliberately played on, it seems, when it transpires the silent, clearly terrified inhabitant of the downstairs flat reveals that she is covered in burns; that the flat stinks of burning human flesh. The air hostess character, inside this ambiguity, reacts in a continually naturalistic way, talking about self-harm, domestic violence and women’s refuges. Then two men enter, and the play lurches into a darker, more Pinteresque mode. Ambiguities fade to be replaced by a miasma of shifting sympathies. The piece starts to look at ideas of torture, and liberal objections to it. It is a mark of Ravenhill’s excellence as a writer, combined with director Roxana Silbert’s acute direction that the first use of the word “extraordinary” - totally out of context - hangs in the air automatically conjuring “rendition” out of the air in the minds of the audience. Still, this is no liberal out-an-out condemnation of torture. It asks far harder questions about the role of ordinary members of society and their reactions to it, flatly refusing to offer anything even approaching an easy answer.
Following the interval we return to Love (But I Won’t Do That) - a negotiation between a middle-aged woman and a young soldier who has been billeted to protect her house. This had incidental similarities to the Eighth instalment, which was the one I caught in Edinburgh (Crime and Punishment). It rapidly becomes clear that in this version of the world - it is unclear whether the soldier is part of an occupying invading force or of allies such as GIs were in WWII - the billeting includes “benefits” for the soldier, courtesy of the housewife. What follows is a fairly straight-forward dialogue wherein the soldier pleads, wheedles and threatens as the woman demur, protests then submits. There is once again that sense of intellectual free-fall as possible reading after possible reading of the situation becomes clear. The sexualised politics of incursion and occupation as a language to imagine a real invasion work well here, as they have in other plays (notably a passage from Peter Morris’s Guardians). While the graphically lewd language deployed keeps the piece as a whole fairly funny, it is an uncomfortable sort of laughter since its objects are both the sexual subjugation of women and the suppression of whole countries. That said, for my money Crime and Punishment went further with a similar theme, and - given the non-naturalism of the previous two pieces, may have sat more comfortably in this particular run of six.
The Mother (cf. Hanif Kureshi) is the most straightforwardly naturalistic piece of the evening. It depicts two soldiers attempting to inform a slovenly, long-term-unemployed mother that her son has been killed (in Iraq or Afghanistan, one assumes). It is as linguistically inventive as it is straightforward. Describing it as naturalism doesn’t quite do justice to the sheer explosive power of the mother’s speech - brilliant delivered in one of the evening’s (many) outstanding performances by Lesley Sharp. As a part of the set, standing alone as a piece of reasonably straight realism, it seems somewhat stranded - it will be interesting to see what else from the full set of seventeen crops up to put it in a more comfortable context.
The final piece - also the final piece from Edinburgh - written during the festival itself and, like the evening’s first, named after a DW Griffith film, Birth of a Nation - is the most riotous of the evening. It pictures an (or “the” - perhaps there is only one common to all the scenes) invaded country (all the terms used here suggest Iraq) after the occupying forces have left. The action is an address from the stage by four speakers direct to the audience. For a while it is pure Crimp - the use of his characteristic overlapping speakers, all helping each other out as they try to describe the same thing or tell the same story. It rapidly becomes clear that the speakers are artists from four disciplines (painting, dance, writing and “Art performance installation bonkers thing”) who have arrived in this war shattered country to bring art-therapy and devised pieces to help heal the population. Of course it is risible, and then, it is increasingly sinister. One can almost hear the Festival fatigue in the apparently savage contempt for the idea that art is going to be any use whatsoever in a war zone. But then it’s never as simple as that with Ravenhill. There is an excellent passage in which the dancer describes his upbringing in a Yorkshire mining town destroyed in the eighties and in a moment of unplanned candour (“I’ve never said this before, but...”) confesses to thinking that on the whole it was probably better that the mines had been closed down, and that over time Yorkshire has been reborn with a reputation for great shopping and arts facilities - mining, after all, gives you cancer and 16-hour-days working in the dark in a hole in the ground. It is almost shocking to see such a sacred cow of the left taken out and unceremoniously shot on stage in front of you.
While there are plenty of cheap laughs to be had elsewhere for an audience of - last night - mostly arts professionals (and who wasn’t wondering exactly how close some of these caricatures got to being personal attacks rather than simple stock types?), it is hard to say whether the darkness of the questions asked was fully intended to damn the enterprise out of hand. At the climax of the piece, a terribly injured survivor of the war is pushed on stage - blind and with her tongue cut out - and asked, almost forced, to dance; to paint; to write. In last night’s production this felt like the final nail in the coffin of the protagonists’ enterprise - they had been so warped by their agenda that they would pursue it beyond humane means (shades of Pool- No Water). In Enda Walsh’s Edinburgh production the part was taken by Natalie Best - the slightly built black actress from his own Walworth Farce - and instead of the triumphal strains of Beethoven’s 9th seeping in, the music used was apparently taken from The Lion King - while instead of looking obviously destroyed, Best (I quote) “really went for it” with the result that the ending became far more troubling and ambiguous.
Overall, the way in which just these six pieces interacted with one another was quite astonishingly demanding - pinging off synapses faster than is strictly comfortable. As an evening of theatre it was incredibly exciting. Not least because even in “experimental” writing one rarely gets to see something quite so fractured and abstract presented unashamedly as a whole. Admittedly this had a long enough tail of qualifying factors to mitigate its existence, but nonetheless, whole productions of Shoot/Get Treasure/Repeat could very well become a staple of the Fringe and the student repertory in years to come. It joins the ranks of only a tiny handful of plays which offer a totally non-linear experience, while trading in metaphor and uncertainty over research and specifics. Off the top of my head, I can only think of Wallace Shawn’s A Thought in Three Parts, Barker’s The Possibilities and Crimp’s Attempts... and Fewer Emergencies that do the same sort of thing (although this is doubtless due in part to my thinly-read frame of reference, and all suggestions of similar sorts of thing that I should be looking at will be gratefully received).
*Edit: see 1st comment.
Also: my Chatroom/Citizenship review is now online here.