Not Exactly Billington has set themselves a challenge to read a new (to them) playtext every week. In August, their #ReadaPlayaWeek titles included John Osborne’s Luther, Christopher Shinn’s Dying City, Abi Zakarian’s This is Not an Exit, E.V. Crowe’s I Can Hear You, and Alice Birch’s Revolt. She said. Revolt again.
Luther (1961), by John Osborne
As a new production of Osborne’s The Entertainer opens, I thought I’d visit one of his other hits. Luther depicts the life of theologian, monk and heretic Martin Luther, a role originated by Albert Finney at the Royal Court before being performed in the West End, on Broadway and across Europe. It won the Tony Award for Best Play in 1964.
Spanning 25 years in early-1500s Germany, it doesn’t sound like standard commercial fare, but it perhaps capitalises on a desire for historical dramas at that time (Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons stormed New York a few years earlier). It’s also fascinating story full of sinewy, rich language and large characters straight from a renaissance painting.
It’s a far stretch from the English lower-class settings of some of his other plays (characters are called things like Staupitz and Tetzel), and the form is grander and more expansive. The bulk of the play focuses on Luther’s fight against the Catholic church’s debauchery, especially when it comes to relics and so-called indulgences (bits of paper that people can buy in return for eternal redemption). But we also see his rise from his early days as a monk, sick with nerves, to an outspoken controversial figure in the church. It’s a personal and detailed exploration of an individual’s doubt and sticking to one’s faith.
But the most curious thing about Luther is the title character’s relationship with one of his mentors Staupitz, an easily deducible parallel of Osborne’s relationship with his friend and mentor George Devine.
Devine played Staupitz in the original production and in the foreword, Osborne writes: “[Devine] must have known that the part… was a tentative tribute to a possibly romanticised account of our relationship.” In doing so, Osborne has pitched himself as Luther which offers an interesting reading if you extend this to the rest of the play.
Are we to infer that Osborne is someone who saw himself as some great arbiter of the theatre wanting to expel those who make a mockery of it? Consider Staupitz’s reassurance to Luther: “It’s a house you’ve been able to unlock for a great many of us. I never dreamed when I first came here that the University’s reputation would ever become what it has… and it’s mostly due to you.” If this is to be read in the context of Osborne and Devine’s relationship, how masturbatory is that?! Published by Faber.
Dying City (2006), by Christopher Shinn
Shinn’s Pulitzer-nominated play is a taut yet claustrophobic affair, delving into psyche of post-9/11 America. Widowed Kelly is in the middle of clearing out her New York apartment when her husband’s twin brother unexpectedly calls in, dragging up the past and posing awkward questions about the present and future.
The play alternates between the present reunion between Kelly and Peter, and their final evening with husband/brother, Craig, a year earlier. Posted to Iraq, Craig never returns and over the course of the play we realise that his death has had a seismic effect on those left behind.
Shinn’s interest in the personal vs the societal vs the political vs the philosophical, as employed perhaps less effectively in his 2017 play Against, provides a myriad of conundrums and topical clout – impressive for a play so slight in length. Peter and Kelly’s personality clashes (eg. differences in politics and humour) heightens the tension between their disparate approaches to grief. Kelly is desperate to move on while Peter wants to reminisce. Peter’s nervous energy contrasts well with Kelly’s reticence, creating an intriguing tension to proceedings as Shinn holds his cards close until the final few pages.
While the big reveal is somewhat predictable, Shinn pulls it off by making the play very much a character study. Sibling rivalry and the unique relationship that twins have – best friend and idol, yet also the harshest critic and one another’s biggest competition in Life – is explored with touching honesty. Peter reveals that he became an actor after spending years impersonating Craig, trying to be more popular, and while the brothers are two very distinct characters, by alternating their scenes and having a single actor play both brothers, Shinn holds up a mirror which reflects both their uncanny similarities as well as presenting them as binaries; Craig is a married heterosexual soldier, while Peter is a gay Hollywood film star who struggles to hold down a relationship; both suffer from an identity crisis, both have massive commitment issues – perhaps stemming from a shared upbringing by loveless parents. Kelly’s career as a psychologist also weighs heavy over events. A running joke about one of her clients, in hindsight, becomes an omen for her own grievances.
Shinn’s intricately woven familial web of secrets, lies, lust, heartbreak and confusion is a masterclass in chamber theatre. Two actors, three voices, one space all merging together under Shinn’s sleight of hand. Thus, come the denouement, it feels as though Kelly has been doubly betrayed, by Craig and Peter, a living echo of her dead husband. Shinn’s work is exciting despite its imperfections, and while Against perhaps misfired in its rendering, his ideas and the way he brings them to life on the page are thrilling. Dying City is lean, keen and very enjoyable.
Published by Methuen
This is Not an Exit (2014), by Abi Zakarian
‘Everyone so sensitive…nearly broke me it did; all that banter’
The next three plays are from the Midsummer Mischief Festival held by the RSC in 2014. The four commissioned writers were given a quote from Laurel Thatcher Ulrich – ‘Well-behaved women seldom make history’ – to provoke and inspire their writing.
In Zakarian’s play, we meet Nora, a successful journalist. Although what is success? To her mother Blanche (note the names of famous theatrical heroines), Nora has settled by writing for a glossy magazine. She writes features with the sort of click-bait headlines like ‘879 Jeans that make you look slimmer’ and ‘Why it’s time to listen to your inner lioness…’. They are meant to be powerful articles that celebrate and promote strong womanhood but Zakarian is interested in the sometimes-toxic world behind these articles. My main memory from the play is Nora crouching by the radiator with a pillowcase over her head, whilst her mother tries to give her life advice. She’s figuratively attached to her laptop, that being her channel for her power and creativity. Meanwhile, there is an air of disappointment about her to Blanche, who wanted more for her daughter. There is an unmistakeable echo here of the mother-daughter relationship here in Laura Wade’s Home, I’m Darling. Although this is a short play (and it could be the diving off point for a bigger piece of work), Zakarian’s dialogue is sharp and funny, and she creates some effective stage images.
Published by Oberon
I Can Hear You (2014), by E.V. Crowe
‘We’re excited by the possibilities. Of what could be. Without any limitations. That maybe everything is possible’
What I liked about this play is that it’s quietly radical. Not that there’s anything wrong with a loudly radical play. But for a play to be framed as part of a selection of ‘radical’ plays (possibly also commissioned as that also), then it’s probably more radical to not be radical at all. Or for it to at least seem so. I Can Hear Youtakes place in a family’s living room somewhere outside of Birmingham. I think it’s set in the present day although I initially thought slightly earlier, mainly because there’s a lot of lamenting the loss of Woolworths, but, then again, I think a lot of people still use it as a focal point of the dying high street. Dying, or more generally loss and change, are key themes in the play. David and his daughter Ruth are preparing for the funeral of her brother Tommy, who’s died young and suddenly in an accident. Their mum has also gone and it’s hinted that Ruth’s marriage is breaking down. There’s a palpable feel of a need for hope but some find it more easily than others.
Searching for this, and left re-evaluating her life, Tommy’s partner invites a medium to the funeral and gives him a lock of his hair. In a later scene, Tommy, in tangible form, walks in, plonks himself down on the sofa and puts on the football as if nothing’s changed. The multitude of questions that spring from this are teasingly unexplored, but it leaves the family wanting to try something similar with their mum. But they can’t. Perhaps because she doesn’t want to come back. The play (quite short over four scenes) ends with Tommy sat in the living room once again watching the TV. The play straddles between a need to cling on and want further answers, and the push to move forward and let go. At the end of Crowe’s play, I feel the characters are left in a frustrating limbo of not having fully reached their catharsis.
Published by Oberon
Revolt. She said. Revolt again. (2014), by Alice Birch
‘Not or. Not really Or, there isn’t really an Or’
I found this to be the most remarkable play in the series – as a play and as a text. There is nothing superfluous on the page; every space between lines, every punctuation mark, every capital letter serves a specific purpose and carries meaning. It’s not the first time a play text has been used where everything which appears on the page is a suggestion for performance (I wonder what was?) but it’s striking how it’s used here. As an example, a dash on a new line indicates a new speaker. This creates a certain amount of clarity but, like with Adam Barnard’s Buckets, it may not always be specified how many people are in a scene and who says the first line. An interpretation, a performance choice, still has to be made. Likewise, a full stop on a line of its own indicates a pause, but it’s up to someone else to determine how long that should be. And the use of capitals in ‘we’ll have More chocolate’ or ‘I’m Contracted to smile’ can indicate weight and evoke meaning which serves as a tool to the actor. It’s a fascinating text: always shifting, evolving and surprising.
In the play, Birch explores the language of sexism, the roles handed out to women, and the prescribed behaviours entrenched in society. It’s a play which scrutinises, in the most fun and unruliest ways possible, the forces which shape women’s lives. There’s no wonder why it’s been a hit in fringe and student theatre in recent years, and more time and attention should be given to it before writing about it in more detail. But, for the sake of summarising, it’s a bold and fearless play, written in the spirit of the festival.
Published by Oberon