Tuesday 9 July 2013

Collaboration #2: The Travel Agent / MeanRoyal Court

Collaboration #3: Some of these things... / Add Your Workplace Royal Court

Happily, the brand newest piece by Joel Horwood is the second piece on the friday night (#2) edition of Anthony Neilson’s Collaboration strand, presented as part of Open Court.

The Big Idea here was for six writers to try out a short version of the method which Neilson himself uses to create his plays, which is to say, going into rehearsals with a group of actors but no script, and then generating the script partly inspired by the actors’ improvisations.

This is a fascinating area, around which my thoughts are still coalescing. Not least due to watching the rehearsals for Secret Theatre at the Lyric and Chris Goode’s week of workshops at the National Theatre Studio, both of which are using actors to break open extant scripts – which feels like more or less the same process, but precisely in reverse. Although I haven’t worked out yet what this reverse means for theatre yet...

Neilson’s method – as I think he pretty much candidly admitted (twice) – is a result largely of him not liking the process of going away and sitting in a room and agonising over a script alone for the length of time it takes to write a play. So instead he forces himself to do it in five weeks, mostly in overnight sessions, while having the company of a bunch of actors to keep him active and focussed during the day. As someone who might also wish that the process of writing could be a bit more sociable, and who might well work better when there are immediate deadlines with human faces and social consequences attached, I completely see where he’s coming from – although I might say it’s also one of many reasons why I’ve never been tempted to be a playwright.

The results of making six (four discussed here) other playwrights try this method sounds like an excellent idea, even if only as an experiment. For my money, the results are mixed (although I worry that by Saturday night I was possibly a bit too theatred-ed out (and sweltering in the Royal Court Upstairs without air-con) to have fully appreciated the second two I saw).

Janice Okoh’s The Travel Agent and Joel Horwood’s Mean both struck me as little short of remarkable (especially given previously discussed time restraint factors). E.V. Crowe’s Some Things That Happened in the Workshop, and Some Things That Didn’t, and I Made Up The Story About Kitty (approximate title) is a sustained piece of meta-theatre – of writing about writing for theatre with endless Pirandellan recursions. While Robin French’s Add Your Workplace (a title given as “Ad Your Workplace” on Saturday, which confused me all weekend – while I think “Add Your Workplace” is actually a really good title) ended up feeling more like a series of sketches – perhaps almost a sketch comedy show. (I won’t say “felt more like... than a play”, though, because I reckon a Sketch Comedy format could equally work as a play. Given the time possible here, I shan’t say this one quite did, but, oh, you see what I mean, right?)

Possibly my favourite was Janice Okoh’s The Travel Agent. (Because having favourites is good, right?)  It opens in, well, unsurprisingly a Travel Agent’s shop with some light-hearted banter from various people wanting different stuff from their holidays, and ended up half an hour later with what might have been a voice-shifting alien/fly-creature in a jungle having stolen several people’s identities. In fact, it was more or less exactly as if Martin Crimp had written the Doctor Who episode Midnight (sorry, that’s a bit niche, isn’t it? But it is more or less precisely what the thing is). Actually, it’s never really that clear/explicit what the voice-stealing creature (Sophie Russell) is all about, but if anything, that greater latitude for interpretation feels welcome.

Joel Horwood’s piece, Mean, starts with (or near as damnit starts with) a young women (Sophie Russell again, IIRC) having a chat with a magically articulate Ken™ doll (as voiced, and later hilariously played, by Jonjo O’Neill in a ridiculous blond wig) and essentially travels through her entire life in the space of half an hour, barely ever stopping to explain that’s what’s happening, or bothering to catch us up or make formally tidy. And it’s all the better for that. Somewhere in the middle is an arresting five-minute speech about why yhr 37-year-old woman doesn’t want to have a child, which feels like a sudden, more brutal version of the whole of Duncan Macmillan’s Lungs slammed into your brain at impossible speed.

And then there’s the ending. Up until then, there had been a lot of quite funny stuff and jokes. So it was kind of fair enough that when Russell first misses her mouth with a spoonful of very melty-looking Haagen Dazs that the audience laughed. The slippage is incredibly sudden. But I don’t think I’ve ever seen that switch to the Sixth Age of Man (and then on inexorably, and here rapidly, to the Seventh) made quite so painful quite so succinctly.

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