wood Story

In association with Nick Hern Books. In this episode, we take an in-depth look at the Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting, which celebrates its tenth anniversary this year. Presenter Tim Bano follows the progress of scripts from submission to shortlisting by speaking to judges, readers and writers. Featuring interviews with: Michael Oglesby, Anna Jordan, Sarah Frankcom.

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Did you find that funny?

Heaving a collective sigh of relief after the recent by-election in Oldham (the place just north of Manchester in which Martin McDonagh’s new play is set) there is, with some, still the bad aftertaste of having only narrowly avoided a renewed surge of ugly UKIP-led chauvinism. And it is indeed Englishness that is most under scrutiny in McDonagh’s first stage show in over a decade. Hangemen uses the event of the abolition of the capital punishment in the UK in 1965 to slowly spell out the workings of a dangerous self-perpetuating circle of abuse of power, loss of it and male insecurity. Along with casual racism and mysogyny the piece, which has now transfered from the Royal Court to the West End, places the country’s fascination with violence firmly in its centre and reveals it as England’s untreated rotten tooth. Eerily, it does so mostly by making us laugh.

Director Matthew Dunster offers an intelligent and handsome production of what is decidedly not a kitchen sink drama. This is a pub play, and it’s not just any old pub, it’s gorgeous boozer, an ur-pub if you will, that Anna Fleischle has designed here. In its wooden warmth and brassy glow Harry Wade (David Morrissey), pub landlord and also the last hangmen in the country, has gathered a group of admiring lonely souls who are genuinely thrilled to be served their pints by a bona-fide killer. Hangmen at the time had gathered considerable celebrity status. Morrisey who sports a ridiculous dickie bow is all booming voice and long strides but they never quite suffice to cover up a gaping hole of insecurity. In the public perception he remains forever inferior to another hangmen, the infamous Pierrepoint, who has killed more people and presumably has done so better, however bizzare such a comparision might strike you.

As with every good pub play (think Conor McPherson’s The Weir or Simon Stephen’s Christmas) Wade’s pub is also visited by an intruder who disrupts the carefully established balance between landlord and punters. Here the guest is a shaggy-haired youngster from London called Mooney played by Johnny Flynn who directs the character’s charge into a sinister territory. Full of pretentious quips and lairy behaviour he becomes the catalyst for a series of thrilling plot twists involving Wade’s daughter Shirley and Wade’s former assistant Syd. Andy Nyman, after taking on the role from Reece Shearsmith, brings a laughable meakness to the role of the stuttering sidekick. The female characters, Bronwyn James’s Shirley and Sally Rogers who plays Wade’s gin-guzzling wife, are subjected to constant put-downs and insults but at least they offer a defiant chin to the posturing pub machos once in a while.

The play is not simply about the people up on stage and the shocking spiral of slapstick-dressed complicity they run themselves into. It is also about the audience and the way it laughs at what it sees. Do you ever wonder what happens in your head when you laugh at a racist joke? You might think that’s easy to answer because you wouldn’t laugh at one of those. What about misogynist ones when they’re really, really funny? You’re still good? How about Northeners? They can take it, right? How about robbing a recently excecuted individual of their diginity by making jokes about their genitals? Surely, that’s the tipping point? Come on, everyone likes a good dick joke!

The horrific effect of McDonagh’s sharp and twisty language becomes most palpable listening to a London audience laugh merrily at the haplessness of these Northern pub lads, the ineffective policemen and the exchange of verbose provocations. They all drink heartily from a pool of very vile humour and we chink glasses with them. This show walks an incredibly fine line between farcical undermining, difficult perpetuation and all too subtle condemnation of the linguistic and physical violence it depicts. The thing is, I doubt that the script is ever unaware of what it is doing and I don’t believe that McDonagh really writes jokes simply to shock. It’s just that Matthew Dunster’s production doesn’t quite go far enough in pointing out the complicit quality of our laughter. I think McDonagh’s humour is just as violent as some of the actions his characters take on stage. These sexist and racist lines come up again and again and again, and instead of shocked silence when a man gets clubbed in the neck a simple quip is enough to redeem him and dissolve any worry about un-PC-ness into uprorious laughter. McDonagh sticks a valve right into the middle of this hypocritical mess and releases the pressure through the audience laughter in the dark. It’s like he says that as the viewer I can pretend all I like that I am appalled by the sound of someone farting (or making racist jokes) but secretely I am quite pleased by the stench because I know that it’s my own.

The fusion of farcical, slapstick-like form with all-too-real violent themes turns the comedic language into a strange kind of torture that slaps you in the face until you give in and take pleasure in the abuse taking place in front of your eyes. By the end, when the author’s proclivity for circular storytelling closes with an outrageous mockery of a happy ending, it is the production’s shyness about stylistically matching the text’s delicious crudeness and not the text itself which is at fault for the audience’s grinning jaws not going limp in horror. It’s not about whether McDonagh’s play is funny, it’s about whether and how it makes you laugh.

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A woman screams. It’s an unbearably long wail. First, I’m sure it’s from pain, the utter agony of child birth and then something changes in her face, almost imperceptibly. Now it’s no longer physical pain but a woman in mourning. Sarai is barren. She runs her hands through the blood that must have splattered to the ground during this inconceivable cruelty. She weeps but already she talks about how she has become used to the undead phantoms she keeps bringing into this world. Then, by way of divine revelation, Sarai is intent on turning her physical weakness into a strength and so she helps in leading her people into the promised land. When this land turns out to be just as barren, Sarai is tested further: hardship along the journey, illnesses and jealously. While the opening to Sarai is truly chilling the rest of the play struggles to make the biblical source material of Abraham and Sarah relevant to an audience today.

The dance-infused one-woman show which switches between moments of storytelling and choreographed movement scenes sees performer Karlina Grace-Paṣeda accompanied by four musicians from different cultural backgrounds. Musically, the fusion between Arabic flute and percussion, trumpet, cello and unconventional drum arrangements is stunning and it truly creates the strong and steady pulse for this otherwise uneven show. While I’m generally all up for genre mix experiments, this feels like a fairly muddy mélange of different modes of expression which lets down each of its parts. Shane Shambu’s choreography for example appears to be confined either solely to the psychological exploration of the main character or illustrating mime action.

And then there is the storytelling. There is a stretch earlier on in the play when it’s actually not quite clear that this is really the simple retelling of biblical material. Weighty names such as Abraham and Ishmael have not been invoked yet and Sarai talks about the deadly consequences of being poor and the violent gangs that ambush her travelling people. When Byron Wallen’s soulful jazz trumpet then gently tugs the listener’s mind into the modern world, in that moment Sarai could have been one of the Syrian refugees and the revelation she heard could be the promise she has dreamt up herself, a promise of a better future in a different country. Sadly, this potential remains untapped as does the chance of a radical female rewriting of the antiquated ideologies implied in the bible story of Abraham and Sarah: that women’s only task is to bear children to men, that women need to please men. Even nationalistic sentiments get celebrated in a scene of swelling music and enthusiastic arm waving, without the slightest iota of irony. Paul Anthony Morris anchors the work around a distressingly tribalistic core and the more specific references to the original material are introduced, the more the piece trundles into irrelevance.

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I see him put the paper final cup onto her lips. He tips the liquid into her mouth. He clasps her tightly, she swallows. Agamemnon is now guilty of poisoning his daughter Iphigenia. I brace myself for the minute that I’m about to endure. I take a deep breath and wait for the chill to slowly crawl down from the nape of my neck to my temples and then down my arms as he cradles her. But the shiver doesn’t come. He helplessly strokes down her legs administering the last caresses to a body that has been consigned to death. There’s no visible slump in the little body but I know exactly when it happens. I’m oddly serene and feel complicit. It had to happen. I have seen it happen before.

Robert Icke’s Oresteia has just transferred from the Almeida, where it launched the theatre’s ambitious Greek season, to the Trafalgar Studios and while it has lost nothing of its edge-of-the-seat tension throughout the near 4 hour running time, on second viewing the visceral impact of the piece has cooled considerably. Now, from underneath its slick surfaces and modern take on the text, the intricate wiring of its dramaturgical engine emerges.

At the beginning is a divine prophesy about the sacrifice of a child for the greater good and the detestable consequences it causes: a father killing his daughter, the mother killing her husband as revenge. Then, more grief, more killings. All the while Orestes, the traumatised son of the tragic couple, is put on trial for matricide and grapples with his guilt. The show switches back and forth between the main story of the demise of the house and a therapy-like confrontation with a doctor as Orestes tries to uncover who exactly is to blame for it all. It’s a playback of Orestes memory I see in front of me. Icke, together with dramaturg Duska Radosavljevic, have wound the themes of masculinity and violence, self-narration and guilt, women and crime into a tight spool of inevitability. Not just a play about a family curse but a play that also has the structure of the curse, haunting this viewer with what-ifs and sinister foreshadowing. As it all slowly uncoils again I too like Luke Thompson’s haunted Orestes can feel absolution dangling right in front of eyes. But what this family’s house has gone through can’t be neatly stashed away into boxes of right and wrong.

Angus Wright’s Agamemnon is a gaunt-looking man who at the beginning of the piece has had all joy sapped out of him by a looming decision. He is a devoted father who clings on to domestic rituals while knowing very well that he will have to put his public office over his family to win the war with Troy. When he returns after years his wife is initially forced to put up a brave front. Lia Williams is simply stunning when her Clytemnestra finally gets her revenge in a spectacularly gory outburst of bloodlust. Heaving, arms flailing and screeching unbearably loud as if when she cut her husband’s flesh open the valve was opened to release years of pent-up resentment.

Hildegard Bechtler’s design superimposes a visual clarity onto all of this slowly unravelling moral mess. Wide, rectangular glass panels that are moveable and switch between transparent and opaque reach all across the stage. Private life and public life are clearly separated through broadcasted video projections that are transmitted onto screens in the auditorium. On second viewing the constant opening and closing of the huge sliding doors becomes much more prominent. It’s a hide and seek with Orestes’ unreliable memories. Already dead figures reappear in nightmarish flickers in the background and might join in with the main action. Specks of red clothing and liquid speckled throughout serve as a constant reminder of the bloodshed that has happened and that is yet to come. The slightly steeper raking of the audience seating at the Trafalgar Studios makes some of these concepts a little less effective. The way the final court room scene uses the layered mirroring surfaces of the panels to reflect the audience onto the stage and the judge into the audience is still very impressive.

As I try to unpick motivations and determine whether the curse could have been broken and which signs could have been interpreted differently along the way I keep hitting a wall and am quite literally reflected back onto myself. It’s a frustratingly unresolved cascade of events and there seems only one way to overcome the fatalistic pull of history. There is not one side to come down on. I must always hold two judgments in my head to keep on breathing. There must always be two possible outcomes even though I know that Iphigenia is going to die on her father’s lap. I’ve seen it before.

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