Tag Archives: Northern Stage

“Playing Up” night at Newcastle’s Northern Stage

Playing Up is an exciting new theatre company of emerging writers from the North-East. Amongst the preparations for their scratch night at Northern Stage I caught up with two of the writers involved- Lewis Cuthbert and John Harrison. They were both eager to talk about their new plays- Causeway and Deltic.

Tell me a bit about your play

Lewis: It’s a two-hander. Absurd comedy drama. It’s New Year’s Eve on a remote island. Old friends Colm and Nye meet for their longstanding ritual celebration (Jools Holland from 1996, Guess Who, blueberries, poems, sitting) and to put a brave face on things once again

John: Dave, a member of a local railway society ‘buys’ a Class 37 diesel locomotive and plans to put it in the rear garden of his suburban semi. Dave loves Class 37’s and feels its preservation is being neglected by the society in favour of the more prestigious Deltic locomotive they have recently acquired. Dave’s acquisition quickly brings him into conflict with his Wife, Melanie, his neighbours, the Council Environmental Health department, a vicious local scrap metal dealer and the Police.

Who is your favourite playwright?

Lewis: I’ve got plenty but I’ll go for Harold Pinter at the moment. For the vicious beauty of his language and the work he makes the audience do.

John: Ibsen, Arthur Miller, Shakespeare.

Which playwright has influenced you the most?

Lewis: Lots of people have called this piece Beckettian (which is fair enough given the absurdity and general air of desolation) but I think this piece was probably inspired by Martin McDonagh, if only for the fake Irish accents and repressed violence.

John: I admire how Ibsen and Miller used the theatrical form to critique contemporary society and its values. The controversial nature of their work provoked reaction that was sometimes personally detrimental, yet their dramas neither preach nor sacrifice character, plots, language or structure to political objectives

What compels you to write?

Lewis: I’ve no idea what compels me to write. It’s something I enjoy, a stress-reliever, something that keeps me sane.

John: It brings the reassurance that creativity can occasionally offset the tedium of existence.

Does anything else inspire your writing?

Lewis: Again, quite a hard question. I suppose life in general, snippets of conversation, relationships between people. I’m also reading through the back-catalogue of David ‘not Peep Show’ Mitchell and am very much buoyed by his mastery of different genres.

John: Overheard conversations, media articles, poetry, the writings of Raymond Carver, Haruki Murakami and Jonathan Franzen, and most of all, the love of language and the power of words.

Could you explain a bit about your creative process?

Lewis: Usually I get an abstract idea for a situation or, more likely, one or two characters. I scribble this down somewhere. Forget about it. Come back to it, think ‘ah, this is good’. Forget about it. Then build up a larger world that this character or whatever would fit into. Spend a lot of time sorting out the plot – but not too much or I’ll get bored – then set about writing it. Try to set a specific time aside each day, generally early afternoon, and follow my plan until I draw inexorably towards the close. There’ll generally be a point before then during which I’ll become disheartened with the whole thing, take a lonely walk up Jesmond Dene then get a ‘bright idea’ that sets me back on track. And finally, the rewriting. A terrible but crucial element far too boring to discuss here.

John: For plays, once I have the basic idea, I like to try and sketch out a structure. The aim is to give a story, consider characters and character development, identify where the problem will sit and how it is revealed and think about how that problem will be resolved. Once I have a structure I write to that structure to try and give a first draft. This never materialises in one go as I am often tempted into revision before I have even got a first draft down.

How did you choose the title of your play?

Lewis:The title came first. It was a nice peaceful image. I was originally going to write something set on Holy Island but then I thought the title may have Irish connotations, what with Giant’s Causeway in the North. And it also vaguely fits in with the underlying notion of ‘things are the way they are cause (that’s the) way they are’, which is the thought process of the two characters.

John: The play really about Dave’s love of class 37’s. Class 37 would have been a misleading title so I decided to name it after the more recognisable cuckoo in the nest, the Deltic.

TICKETS ARE AVALIABLE HERE: http://www.northernstage.co.uk/whats-on/Playing-up


Rhythm in Theatre (A review of ‘The Secret Agent’ at Northern Stage)

Rhythm in ‘The Secret Agent’

It was haunting. A blue spotlight and a limber woman in a floating dress, was all Theatre O needed to create a highly disturbing image. It was the image of a woman slowly drowning; bumping gently against the sea bed as she sank. An image that not only froze the audience together, in one moment, but must have stuck with them long after the performance was over. Unfortunately it came near the end of a horribly clumsy interpretation of Conrad’s novella: ‘The Secret Agent.’

‘The Secret Agent’ was an hour and a half crammed full of theatrical techniques and styles. It is rare, even in theatre, for a creative piece to be overly intense. That it managed to maintain visual beauty, completely out of sync with its dull wording, was the most frustrating thing about it. It was like watching an episode of ‘You’ve Been Framed’ and having to press the mute button because Harry Hill’s voice is so annoying. I wish I could have muted most of the play, taken a step back and just observed the action.

The play’s most impressive feature, and the only thing that held it together, was the rhythm of the images it presented. There were a range of methods used, including dance, animation and absurdist scenes. Whatever the technique, the aesthetics throughout were photographic. Even before the play began; an attempt to entice the audience was made by leaving a single antique armchair centre stage and pouring in smoke. The music played over this opening was the first marker of the rhythm of the piece.

The careful movements of the actors, as well as their painted faces, were reminiscent of a mime artist. Perhaps they should have considered producing the play as a mime, as it was the addition of meandering layers of monologue and awkward dialogue, which spoilt the stunning visuals and their rhythm. Meanwhile the action of the characters was choreographed into a steady beat. The actors moved and re-organised the stage like dancers. However Theatre O and writer Matthew Hurt seem to have completely ignored the rhythms that are inherent to speech. If the character’s mouths had matched their bodies, it would have made the play much more effective.

Since ancient times speech in drama has been able to move as rhythmically as any of Theatre O’s actors. Shakespeare wrote in iambic pentameter because it mimicked the natural rhythm in human speech. More recently Dylan Thomas wrote his radio play ‘Under Milk Wood’ entirely in verse to remind people that the world was still beautiful even when it also contained nuclear bombs. This respect for the effect of words could have greatly improved Theatre O’s effort.

Even modernist writers like Carol Churchill, who prunes her dialogue write down to the basics, still maintain rhythm of speech in their plays. The curt, often one-word exchanges between her characters results in a rhythm that is quickly passed back and forth across the stage. In contrast Theatre O just kept piling in more dialogue until its meaning was incomprehensible. Their theme of terrorism was buried somewhere amongst Verloc’s endless speeches.