Blog

Come behind the scenes for insights and interviews.

Tag Archive: Blog


Back to the future: Max Stafford-Clark on three major Autumn revivals

Black and white photo of two men in restoration wigs and clothes.

Out of Joint and the Royal Court’s production of The Libertine. Photo by John Haynes

Our artistic director MAX STAFFORD-CLARK introduces three plays which started life as Out of Joint commissions, and are now shining bright in new productions this autumn. 

It’s always validating when a play you commission gets a further life and becomes part of the national repertoire. And strange, too, seeing someone else’s take on something I’m that close to.

This autumn there are major revivals of three plays that were commissioned and first produced by Out of Joint. The Libertine by Stephen Jeffreys comes to the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, with Dominic Cooper in the title role. Caryl Churchill’s experimental Blue Heart is being produced by Bristol’s Tobacco Factory and the Orange Tree in Richmond. And the Lyric Hammersmith is giving a big new production of Shopping and F***ing by Mark Ravenhill.


SHOPPING AND F***ING by Mark Ravenhill

Two young men in animated conversation in front of a neon sign saying "home"

Out of Joint and the Royal Court Theatre’s production of Shopping and F***ing. Photo by John Haynes.

I went to a scratch night of new theatre writing, at which Mark presented a short play called Fist. Twenty minutes, very rude. I don’t remember much more than that apart from thinking he had a fresh voice and could command attention.

I told Mark, if you ever write something longer, send it to me. He said that he already had something he’d show me. I heard nothing for months so I decided to seek him out – I tracked him down to the Salisbury Playhouse education department where he was working. “Where’s my play?” He’d been lying – there was no play. But eventually he got a draft together and sent it to me, and I gave him £250 or something to develop it.

I had to do some convincing. Sonia Friedman, who was Out of Joint’s founding producer, was dead against it because she thought it would ruin our chances of any Arts Council funding. It started at the Royal Court upstairs, playing to fifty-something punters a night, and went on to play two West End runs. But perhaps more remarkably, I can see from my diary that on its first tour, Shopping and F***ing also played to over 350 people a night in Bury St Edmunds.

Meet Mark and Max at Out of Joint’s special fundraising event on 3 November

Buy Mark Ravenhill: Plays 1 at a special price from our shop.

Two young men on a sofa, one holding a script

David Moorst and Alex Arnold rehearse in the Lyric Hammersmith’s production of Shopping and F***ing. Photo by Helen Murray

Sean Holmes, director of Shopping & F***ing at the Lyric Hammersmith: 

I’d seen Max’s production but I hadn’t read it for a long time and I was taken by how prophetic it is. One of the characters talks about how there used to be big stories and big ideas, but now we’re making up our own little stories instead. That’s become true with the way we present edited versions of our lives on social media.

We’re a lot further on now from the fall of the Berlin Wall than when it was written. We live in a world with one system now, global capitalism, and that affects our behaviour and responses, whether that’s Trump or Corbyn or radical ideologies.

It remains a shocking play, but it’s not as violent or even sexual as people think. It’s the humour and the message that are subversive. I’m not directing it as a period piece. That doesn’t mean we’re filling it with iPhones, but we’re making a world that reflects today’s concerns. We’re transforming the auditorium and stage into a big studio or arena, so it’ll be very presentational, very aware of the audience.

Meet Sean, Mark and Max at Out of Joint’s special fundraising event on 3 November


THE LIBERTINE by Stephen Jeffreys

Johnny Depp dressed in restoration costume and long wig

Johnny Depp in the 2004 film of The Libertine

Poster for The Libertine, with actor Dominic Cooper reclining with semi-undressed young women

Poster for the 2016 production of The Libertine

I’ve enjoyed pairing new plays with revivals of classics a number of times and in this case I wanted to do something about the second Earl of Rochester to play in rep with the restoration play The Man of Mode.

Rochester had been the model for that play’s rakish central character, Dorimant. He was a courtier to Charles II, and a writer of brilliantly robust poems. His A Ramble in St James’s Park begins “Much wine had passed, with grave discourse / Of who fucks who, and who does worse”. I was going to commission Heathcote Williams, and mentioned the idea at a Royal Court script meeting. Stephen Jeffreys was also on the literary team and he jumped in saying “No that’s my area Max. Let me do it.”

It was later made into a film starring Johnny Depp, though for me nothing will beat David Westhead’s performance in our production.


BLUE HEART by Caryl Churchill

A middle aged woman and man at a dinner table look astonished at an ostrich

Out of Joint’s production of Blue Heart. Photo by Donald Cooper

I’d worked with Caryl on Top Girls and Serious Money at the Royal Court – they were both big hits – and before that, Cloud Nine with Joint Stock. When I commissioned Blue Heart there was no brief or suggestion on my part, just an invitation to Caryl to write something for us.

The script, which consisted of two short plays, was a surprise. Heart’s Desire is about the anticipated arrival of a woman coming home to visit her family from Australia where she has lived for many years. Blue Kettle is about a conman who seeks out women who gave up children for adoption and convinces them that he’s the son they gave away. Good dramatic situations, both, but what distinguished them was the way the plays themselves begin to break down or implode, as though there was a bug in the text – and because of that you became very aware of the text itself.

In Blue Kettle, the language becomes corrupted as the words “blue” and “kettle” start to replace the words that you’d expect until the language becomes meaningless. In Heart’s Desire, the play keeps restarting or “resetting” to earlier points in the story, with surreal moments intruding. At one point, gunmen break in to the very domestic scene. Later, characters answer the door to find an ostrich waiting to enter – probably the best costume I’ve ever commissioned.

There’s also a brief moment when a crowd of children run on shrieking and run off again almost immediately, so I had to rehearse a dozen kids in every venue we toured to – and we did a substantial international tour. An observation: the kids in Catholic countries were very well behaved. Finnish children were chaotic, perhaps because they start school later. In Israel it was like directing the Old Testiment. “Rebecca, come out of that cupboard. Ishmael, stop chasing Malachi…”

Blue Heart marked the beginning of a period of formal experimentation for Caryl that has continued even to her most recent plays. She talked at the time of “anti plays”. You could call Blue Heart “the plays that go wrong”.

Two men and two women drink wine around a table on a stage set

The 2016 production of Blue Heart by Tobacco Factory Theatres and the Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond. Photo by The Other Richard.

David Mercatali, director of the 2016 revival:

I was told about Blue Heart by Out of Joint alumni Barney Norris two years ago. I read it and thought ‘I have to get this on, it’s extraordinary’. It’s a huge logistical challenge, but the Orange Tree and Tobacco Factory Theatres were brave enough to take it on. It marked a change in direction for Caryl and you can see the influence on work like Escaped Alone. I wanted to bring it back into the conversation. The plays are like much of Caryl’s work: a simple conceit presented in such a bold, theatrical way that your brain goes on overload. I felt I had got a handle on them when I first read them, but a conversation with Caryl where she mentioned the word ‘virus’ made things much clearer. I’ll say no more than that!

There are two levels to the plays. We had to formulate the ‘facts’, to work out the straightforward domestic stories in both. We devoted time to that, like any other shows. The language breakdowns and resets we accepted on their own terms, and required much more of a technical process. It was exhausting but fulfilling work.

There are lots of Caryl’s plays I’d like to direct. Cloud Nine was one the best theatrical experiences I have ever had, Far Away is a great influence, Fen is a sometimes overlooked gem. I would be lucky to get to do any of them.

Paul Miller, Artistic Director of the Orange Tree Theatre

I remember seeing Out of Joint’s first production so well, and being blown away by the audacity of the pieces, and how very very funny they were, as much as anything. So I’d been surprised that the plays hadn’t been revived much until now. And I became more and more aware over time of how very influential these particular pieces were on a whole new generation of playwrights. The play questions its own nature, and that feels very contemporary. It’s right for the Orange Tree because we look at the present day and we look to the recent past. So a theatre that does plays by Alastair McDowall, Zoe Cooper and Alice Birch, for example, certainly seems the right place to see these pieces in.


The Libertine by Stephen Jeffreys
Theatre Royal Haymarket, London to 3 December

Blue Heart by Caryl Churchill
Tobacco Factory Theatres, Bristol, to 1 October
Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond, 13 Oct – 19 Nov

Shopping & F***ing by Mark Ravenhill
Lyric Hammersmith, London, 7 Oct – 5 Nov
Meet Mark and Max at our special fundraising event on 3 November

Buy Mark Ravenhill: Plays 1 at a special price from our shop.

Corbyn & May in the spotlight: read short satirical plays by top writers

Exclusive: read short new plays by Alistair Beaton, Stella Feehily and David Hare.

Sarah Alexander in The Accidental Leader. Photo by Robert Workman

“Oh, I do love your centre ground. Sounds so reasonable, doesn’t it? The centre ground. But does the centre ground stay in the same place? I don’t think so.”
– The Accidental Leader

READ THE PLAYS:

Alistair Beaton: The Accidental Leader
Stella Feehily: How To Get Ahead In Politics
David Hare: Ayn Rand Takes A Stand

In May we opened a show called A View From Islington North*, comprising short political satires. Here we publish three of the scripts in full, with the kind permission of writers Alistair Beaton, Stella Feehily and David Hare. We think they make for a funny, exasperating and illuminating read.

One proved uncannily prescient: Alistair Beaton’s The Accidental Leader imagined a Labour MP orchestrating a mass resignation of shadow cabinet members in protest at the party’s Corbyn-like leader. We could barely believe it when in late June, towards the end of our run, this happened in real life almost exactly as Alistair had written it, to the extent that people who saw the play subsequently got in touch to ask if it had been hastily rewritten. We hadn’t changed a word. Alistair’s play brilliantly articulates the debate in the Labour Party today: the arguments over its soul, its mission, its achievements and the compromises it must make to gain power.

In the highly imaginative Ayn Rand Takes A Stand, David Hare puts the then home secretary Theresa May on stage in a searing piece that found a deep contradiction in her political philosophy. It’s well worth a read now she’s the boss.

And Stella Feehily’s gloriously cynical How To Get Ahead In Politics was inspired by accusations of bullying and sexual harassment within the Conservative Party and sees a Chief Whip practising his dark arts to contain a scandal.

READ THE PLAYS:

Alistair Beaton: The Accidental Leader
Stella Feehily: How To Get Ahead In Politics
David Hare: Ayn Rand Takes A Stand

SEE ALSO:

A brief history of satire
Can laughter change the world? Satirists on satire

*Islington North is Jeremy Corbyn’s constituency – and it’s also where Out of Joint is based!


If you’ve enjoyed reading (or seeing) these plays, please consider making a small gift to Out of Joint.

Donate with JustGiving GiftAid

The Accidental Leader & Corbyn – how fiction became reality

A middle aged man in suit and tie using a mobile phone and holding a piece of paper

Bruce Alexander in The Accidental Leader by Alistair Beaton. Photo by Robert Workman.

The Chambers English Dictionary defines ‘plot’ variously as a conspiracy: a stratagem or secret contrivance and: the story or scheme of connected events running through a play, novel etc.

Imagine my astonishment to find those two definitions of ‘plot’ suddenly merging. The dust had scarcely settled from David Cameron’s successful attempt to blow up Britain, when I started receiving puzzled enquiries from theatre-goers attending my short play THE ACCIDENTAL LEADER currently running at the Arts Theatre in London’s West End. People couldn’t understand how the play could have been written in 24 hours.

It wasn’t, of course.

Written several months ago, THE ACCIDENTAL LEADER tells the tale of a plot to oust a bearded, left-wing allotment-loving politician whose parliamentary party have lost all faith in his ability to win the next election. I wrote the play because I felt the election of Jeremy Corbyn was both a moment of hope (the end of politics as merely a version of management) and a moment of high anxiety (can a decent old leftie backbencher hack it as a modern leader?) and, like many people, was unsure about the outcome.

In the play, the plotters meet secretly to arrange the coup. Their strategy is simple. In order to make the event appear spontaneous (yes, they are perhaps a bit naïve) they plan to resign one by one over the space of a single day. Two of the plotters talk:

JIM: It’s been one of the great weaknesses of our party, Eleanor. 

ELEANOR: What has?

JIM: We’re too sentimental. We should be as ruthless as the other lot. They know a loser when they see one. Anyway, tomorrow you say whatever you want. That’s up to you. The main thing is – you resign. By 8pm tomorrow, we’ll have had eleven resignations from the shadow cabinet. He’ll be gone by midnight.

Alistair Beaton

Alistair Beaton

But the leader fights back. His heavies twist arms to breaking point. What happens next I don’t want to say. There are still tickets left for this, the last week of the run, and I’d like to suggest you go along and find out how it ends.

As to how the real-life drama ends, well, at the time of writing, the man’s still in post. Though not, I suspect, for much longer. The lesson? Integrity is not enough. Authenticity is not enough. As we watch our politicians lie about the lies they told during the campaign, Labour needs a leader who can fight and win an election later this year. Otherwise it’s goodbye Britain, hello Borisland. I shudder.

Alistair Beaton. 27 June 2016

THE ACCIDENTAL LEADER is part of a five-play production entitled A VIEW FROM ISLINGTON NORTH, running at the Arts Theatre London. Ends Saturday.

 

 

 

 

“You can be hated but you mustn’t be laughed at”

a caricature puppet of Margaret Thatcher at a war meeting with colleagues, at a table with miniature military figures and vehicles, from the Spitting Image tv show

Spitting Image (ITV/Rex/Shuttersock)

Is laughing at politics a catalyst for change – or a substitute? With A View From Islington North about to open in the West End, we asked three brilliant satirists about the relationship between comedy and politics.

JONATHAN LYNN co-wrote Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister. He wrote and directed Clue and Nuns on the Run and has directed films including The Whole Nine YardsJOLYON RUBINSTEIN has won a BAFTA for writing and performing BBC3’s The Revolution Will Be Televised alongside Heydon Prowse. ALISTAIR BEATON wrote for Spitting Image and Not The Nine O’Clock News, and penned the TV films The Trail of Tony Blair and A Very Social Secretary. His play The Accidental Leader is premiered in A View From Islington North (the title of this article is a quote from the play).

Why does politics lend itself so well to comedy?

A young man in dark-rimmed glasses brandishing a video camera as if it was a gun

Jolyon Rubinstein

Jonathan Lynn: Insincerity, hypocrisy, self-righteousness, dishonesty and corruption are the ingredients of political activity. When these qualities are revealed in those who tell us how to live, what to think and what to do, the pleasure is irresistible.

Jolyon Rubinstein: Because the powerful dressing up the pursuit of their own rampant self interest as logical for the great unwashed is hilarious.

Alistair Beaton: Because it’s so serious. Its very hard to be funny about something that’s already funny.

What or who is ripe for satirical treatment at the moment?

JL: The target never changes: anyone who wants power over their fellow citizens.

JR: The left and right seem to both be simultaneously exploring their most extreme nether regions. Trump & sadly Zac Goldsmith seem to have ushered in the normalisation of open ‘no offence’ racism; whilst Sanders & Corbyn seem to have shown that collectivist, bottom-up hope needs silver hair and wrinkles to be considered authentic.

AB: Just about anyone who hasn’t yet faced up to climate change.

Tell us a piece of satire or political comedy you’ve particularly admired?

JL: The Government Inspector by Nikolai Gogol.

JR: Chris Morris and Brass Eye were a big influence on us.

AB: I love the savage intelligence of cartoonists such as Chris Riddell and Steve Bell. Going back in time, it’s hard to beat the Latin poets. Catullus is is up there with the best; he’s witty, filthy and fearless. Nowadays he’d probably be sued for libel.

close up of a man with a white beard smiling

Jonathan Lynn

Do you think satire has a purpose beyond entertainment – and do you think it ever succeeds?

JL: Satire is comedy with a purpose: it seeks to change society. But if it ever succeeds, which I doubt, the success is superficial and brief. Seven years of Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister produced many laughs and some understanding of the way we’re governed – but no change for the better. I can’t think of a play that ever changed anything but that doesn’t mean there’s no point in making the effort: art is criticism of life and satire is criticism of life by ridicule. Absolutely necessary.

JR: Yes I do. Satire’s job is to ridicule the powerful by highlighting the absurdity of their deeds and actions. I think once you see the balloon of the most powerful pop we are all empowered. It reminds us that they are in fact just like us and that’s empowering.

AB: I’m not sure satire changes anything, but at the very least it fosters outrage – and gives heart to the losers.

Do you think there’s anything specific or unique about how the British portray the establishment?

a middle aged man smiling and leaning on a banister

Alistair Beaton

JL: British politicians are in trouble if they are perceived as having no sense of humour. We can get away with much more than satirists in many other countries because every politician dreads not being seen as a ‘good sport’. So satirists don’t get jailed or shot. Instead, the establishment embraces us, flatters us, and hands out OBEs and knighthoods to writers and comedians who are seen as a potential threat. Satirists are thus made part of the establishment, which is a much more sophisticated way of neutering them.

JR: Not particularly. We have a uniquely consolidated ‘establishment’ in London. It runs through the highest echelons of all our major industries and it’s as tightly kit as it’s ever been. Our establishment think they’ve won. They are vitriolic and have reframed their self interest as good for all of us, just like George Orwell said they would.

AB: There’s a healthy British tradition of irreverence towards power. But curiously, it’s mixed with a sickly respect for outdated institutions. What other country would fail to abolish the House of Lords? (Not to mention the House of Windsor).

Steamy scenes – trains in theatre

blog - barnum

You can’t see the steam train that comes to a halt, hissing and clanking, in the middle of the auditorium during All That Fall – theatre-goers are blindfolded throughout. But you’d swear it was there, thanks to Dyfan Jones’ nine-directional sound design.

Beckett’s radio play tells the story of a woman’s arduous journey to a rural station to meet her blind husband, and the train’s mysterious delay. Its director, Max Stafford-Clark, is a big train aficionado (an impressive model railway takes up his spare bedroom).

Trains cast a strong spell– steam trains especially. Railway and miniature railway expert Tim Dunn suggests “They’re the closest we’ve come to creating life; and the need all the elements – fire, air, water and coal from the earth.”

Here are some other wheeled stars of the stage:

 

THE RAILWAY CHILDREN 

The York Theatre Royal/National Rail Museum production of The Railway Children, now at King's Cross

The York Theatre Royal/National Rail Museum production of The Railway Children, now at King’s Cross

York Theatre Royal teamed up with the city’s National Rail Museum for this successful adaptation of E. Nesbit’s novel, in a production whose undoubted star is a real steam train which chugs into the theatre. The show, staged around a railway track, moved to the old Eurostar terminal at Waterloo station before arriving at Kings Cross in a purpose built theatre.

 

STARLIGHT EXPRESS

Blog - starlight

The current, long-running production of Starlight Express in Bochum, Germany

A sort of gender-reversed Cinderella story (it was actually more… complicated than that, gender-wise: engines were male, coaches were female), Andrew Lloyd Webber and Richard Stilgoe’s musical pitted an underdog steam engine against arrogant and cheating electric and diesel engines in a racing competition. Choreographer Arlene Phillips sent the cast hurtling around a transformed Apollo Victoria theatre that was kitted out with multi-level tracks and a huge, moving bridge by the designer-supreme of 80s behemoth musicals John Napier. For a show that romanticised old technology it wasn’t shy about embracing the shiny and new. As such it’s unlikely to have a fringe theatre revival any time soon – but we’re only saying that in the hope that someone is inspired to try it. Roller Disco anyone?

 

PRAIRIE DU CHIEN

Another piece that was first written for radio, David Mamet’s claustrophobic, creepy one-act play is set on a night train crossing Wisconsin in 1910. As his fellow passengers gamble over an increasingly fraught game of cards, a travelling salesman recounts a story of murder and jealousy with a paranormal twist.

 

THE DUTCHMAN

A production of Dutchman at the Cherry Lane Theatre, New York

A production of Dutchman at the Cherry Lane Theatre, New York

Set entirely on a New York subway car, Amiri Baraka’s 1964 play (written under his birth name, LeRoi Jones), uses a charged encounter between a white woman and a black man to look at race relations. A 2013 revival was staged in the Russian and Turkish Baths in New York’s East Village, performed by skimpily glad actors to bathrobed audience members.

 

THE PERMANENT WAY

The Permanent Way

The Permanent Way

One of the most successful stage documentaries, David Hare’s verbatim play (for Out of Joint and the National Theatre) examined the 1990s privatisation of Britain’s railways and its consequences, as told through the series of four rail crashes that happened in its wake. “Like Groundhog Day” was the memorable, chilling observation. William Dudley’s set featured metal railway gantries framing a giant screen that initially brought to charming life an old steam railway poster (cue affectionate gasps from the audience); became an increasingly ominous departure board; and appeared to smash to pieces as a CGI train crashed through it while coming off the rails.

 

THE GHOST TRAIN

Told By An Idiot's production of The Ghost Train used foley-type live sound effects to create train noises and other sounds

Told By An Idiot’s production of The Ghost Train used foley-type live sound effects to create train noises and other sounds

[SPOILER ALERT] Arnold Ridley’s 1923 thriller is set in the waiting room of a remote station, supposedly haunted by a ghost train that dooms anyone who sees it to death. It turns out that the train is real, and being used to smuggle arms (Enid Blyton used a similar device in her Famous Five novel Five Go Off To Camp). Ridley was inspired to write it after being stranded overnight at a station.

 

ETTA JENKS

Marlane Mayer’s play is about a young woman who arrives in Hollywood with dreams of fame, and achieves it – by becoming a porn star. It opens with her arrival by train at the Los Angelis train terminal.

 

BRIEF ENCOUNTER

Kneehigh's adaptation of Brief Encounter

Kneehigh’s adaptation of Brief Encounter

Kneehigh theatre company brought Noel Coward and David Lean’s iconic station romance to life in an production at Cinema Haymarket, in which live actors interacted magically with newly-shot film footage.

 

All That Fall plays at the Arts Theatre, West End, from 13 April to 14 May 2016 following sell-out performances at Wilton’s Music Hall and Bristol Old Vic.

Interview with Max Stafford-Clark

Max Stafford-Clark, shot by Beinn Muir at Wilton's Music Hall during rehearsals for All That Fall

Max Stafford-Clark, shot by Beinn Muir at Wilton’s Music Hall during rehearsals for All That Fall

Out of Joint is bringing Max Stafford-Clark’s in-the-dark staging of Samuel Beckett’s radio play All That Fall  into the West End for just 5 weeks from 13 April, following sell-out performances in London and Bristol. He talks about why the play appeals to him more than Beckett’s better known work – and his love of trains – with Jon Bradfield.

JB: When did you first encounter All That Fall?

MSC: I read it I suppose about 25 years ago. I think I find myself out of sympathy with the nihilistic, non-specific worlds of Beckett’s better known stage plays, such as Waiting for Godot, so I was intrigued to find that Michael Billington had chosen not one of the better known plays but All That Fall for his book The 101 Greatest Plays.

What’s interesting is it contains the tropes of Beckett, the decay and death and that view of the world he had after the war when belief in Christianity, or socialism, seemed to have been eradicated…

But it’s softened in All That Fall?

It’s contextualised more, and therefore it’s more comprehensible. I find his a gloomy philosophy of life but it’s one he held, and when you read his life you begin to understand his certain cynicism. He was a medical orderly and a nurse in a bombed-out French village after the war. And indeed his experiences in occupied France – the local priest in the place he was hiding was involved in giving information to the Gestapo.

I think the fact that All That Fall is socially specific, that it evokes a particular suburban world of Anglo-Irish Protestantism drew me to the play.

It’s a very simple story – Mrs Rooney’s journey to the station to pick up her blind husband on a Saturday lunchtime. It would have been quite normal to for people in office jobs to work on a Saturday morning. But to that simple structure he adds a specificity of the social class of people she meets.

It’s certainly more naturalistic than Godot or Endgame or Happy Days. Is the Irishness part of the draw too? Like Beckett you were at Trinity College, your wife [playwright Stella Feehily] is Irish, you’ve worked regularly with Sebastian Barry, you’ve twice directed Tom Kilroy’s Irish version of The Seagull…

Well I’m a Hibernophile from way back. And Beckett was drawing on real life. Connolly’s van passes Mrs Rooney on her outward journey in the play, and there was a grocers called Connolly’s in Foxrock… When I was in Dublin in the early sixties it was still a collision of country and town. Donkeys were used as working animals in rural towns around Dublin.

So Foxrock would have been semi rural?

It would have been completely rural and is now suburban. The station has gone.

The play is slightly unresolved. We’re left not knowing if Mr Rooney had something to do with the incident that’s revealed at the end of the play – and there’s a mystery around the object that he’s dropped. Do you and the cast need to know these answers in rehearsal to make the play work?

I left it open as late as possible last year but by the middle of the run the actor playing Mr Rooney became convinced he was involved. When Beckett himself was asked he said “if I knew I’d tell you” so he was deliberately out to create an unresolved mystery.

And do you like that, or do you find it frustrating?

Initially frustrating, but eventually I found it very satisfying that we don’t know.

It’s a way of suggesting a distance between them as a couple.

The thing about them as a couple is that in the first half when Mrs Rooney’s going to the station by herself she’s entirely dominant. She’s a rather acerbic and fractious neighbour to the people she meets. Yet when she meets her husband she’s totally dominated by him. It rings true of a number of literary relationships and probably rings true of a number of relationships Beckett had.

You like your trains. Was that part of the appeal?

It was part of the appeal of the sound effects, yes! There’s scope for a couple of trains to pass and I have a very clear picture in my mind of what kind of locomotives would have been involved.

maxstafford-clark_leaning RGB

Max on the Bluebell steam railway during rehearsals for The Permanent Way, David Hare’s play about the privatisation of the railways. Photo by John Haynes.

Someone recently suggested to me that steam trains are magical to us because they’re the closest we’ve come to creating life.

I’ll have to digest that but they’re very exciting creatures.

They sort of breathe.

Yeah that’s right. I think my first memory was driving down to Devon with my parents for a holiday. There was a huge traffic jam outside Honiton and we stopped and walked across a field, my father and I, and sat on a fence above a railway cutting and saw these extraordinarily beautiful and noisy steam engines going by. And as you know I have an extensive model railway that I return to every night.

You play with it every day?

Operate it. Not play! It’s a complete world, it’s Vermont in 1956, about the same time as All That Fall in fact, so I’m fifteen when I go in there, and Stella doesn’t exist.

So coming back to the play, for this revival is there anything you’d like to change from when you staged it last year in Enniskillen?

I think I’ll make Mrs Rooney a bit more impossible. I mean, I think she’s a person that if you saw her coming down the street you might cross over to the other side of the road rather than risk a social confrontation with her.

She’s both flirty and scolding isn’t she.

That’s right – she’s that kind of unpredictability that’s quite difficult socially. You don’t know if she’s going to tear you off a strip or ask you to tea.

Did you know Beckett?

No. I met him a few times. He’d talk about the impossibility of guarding his work. “I spend my life trying…” So when we sought permission from the Beckett estate to stage All That Fall and Edward Beckett asked me what was my vision for the play, I knew the correct answer was that there was no vision at all. Beckett’s instruction was that the voices come “as from the void”.

Trains RGB

Max’s model railway

BOOK TICKETS TO ALL THAT FALL

Persuading Beckett

The setting for Irish theatre company Pan Pan's recorded version, which sits the audience in rocking chairs. Photo by Ros Kavanagh

The setting for Irish theatre company Pan Pan’s recorded version of All That Fall, which sits the audience in rocking chairs. Photo by Ros Kavanagh

One of Samuel Beckett’s most acclaimed and accessible plays, All That Fall is also one of his least known. The writer’s friend and biographer Jim Knowlson explains why – and why it is “too good, too funny and too moving” to be left on the shelf.

When Beckett’s first radio play was broadcast in 1957, Roy Walker wrote in The Tribune that ‘All that Fall is, I insist, the most important and irresistible new play for radio since Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood three Januaries ago.’

Inspired by boyhood memories of his native village of Foxrock, County Dublin, it is certainly one of Beckett’s most accessible plays but it is not nearly as well known as his stage works. Radio plays are rarely re-recorded or indeed replayed, and because Beckett was firmly opposed to the live staging of his radio plays, it has only occasionally been performed in theatres.

Michael Gambon and Eilenn Atkins in Trevor Nunn’s 2012 “radio-style” staging

His letters to friends reveal clearly why he did not want it to be staged. To his American publisher Barney Rosset, he wrote that the play was ‘a radio text, for voices, not bodies’, commenting ‘it is no more theatre than Endgame is radio and to “act” it is to kill it.’ In fact, it depended, he added, on ‘coming out of the dark’ for any quality it had, saying ‘frankly the thought of All that Fall on a stage, however discreetly, is intolerable to me.’

In 1963 he refused the eminent Swedish film director Ingmar Bergman permission to stage it with another of his radio plays Embers. He refused his favored American director, Alan Schneider, writing in 1974 that the play ‘is really for radio only’.

He even held out against Laurence Olivier.

When he allowed his friend Deryk Mendel, to stage a production in Berlin in 1966, he thought what he was authorizing was a straightforward reading. Mendel once admitted to me privately that he was ‘praying to God that Sam wouldn’t see any photographs, as I rather cheated on it, you see’.

He agreed to a film because he understood it would be directed by Alain Resnais whose documentary about the Holocaust had thought “very fine”. But he bitterly regretted the ‘disastrous results’ of the eventual television version broadcast on ORTF in 1963, directed by Michel Mitrani. 

However, he sometimes referred to the changes that would be required if it were to be staged, and so it may be that, given time and a director whose work he respected, he might just have relented, as he did in many other cases. If Alain Resnais had gone ahead and made a success of the transfer from radio to film, his attitude to a staging in the theatre might have altered. We shall never know.

Since Beckett’s death, the literary executor and the Beckett Estate have continued to oppose the staging of All That Fall. One or two variants have been allowed. Trevor Nunn’s 2012 production at the 70 seat Jermyn Street Theatre simulated a radio production, with microphones and sound effects visible as if the audience were evesdropping on a recording. In 2011, the Irish theatre company Pan Pan sat its audience in rocking chairs, naked light bulbs above them like stars, but with most of the play taking place in the dark.

William Gaskill's 2008 RADA student production. Photo by John Haynes.

William Gaskill’s 2008 RADA student production. Photo by John Haynes.

The most fully staged production was the late Bill Gaskill’s, with RADA students in 2008. In a thrilling production, no-one pretended that they were part of anything other than an imagined theatrical world. Mime, caricature and farce ruled and though there were young actors aged artificially by make-up, there was no insistence on making them look convincingly old. It was authorized as a ‘one-off’ and non-commercial production, and Gaskill himself was turned down when he wanted to restage it.

One can understand why Beckett did not want to ‘mix his media’: he had specifically chosen what he thought would work on the radio. In this light, Max Stafford-Clark’s idea of giving the spectators eye masks is a genial one. The audience remains free to imagine Mrs Rooney as, in her own words, ‘a big fat jelly’; and the various picturesque characters she encounters on her way to the railway station live in the mind’s eye as distinctive figures through their voices only.

Max’s other key idea is that the actors move around and among the spectators. This shift in the location and direction from which the voices come creates a fascinating aural landscape: Mrs Rooney can at one moment be quite distant from you, at another very close, perhaps even resting in a nearby vacant chair; blind Dan Rooney’s stick taps past you on the return journey from Boghill station once his train has delivered him there after its significant and ominous delay.

With a live audience present to respond collectively, the play emerges as even funnier than it did on the radio; yet its dark themes of death and dissolution still come through. 

Does All that Fall have a future on stage? Opinions will vary on this and whether indeed it should, but approaches such as Max’s are to be welcomed as a way of introducing newcomers to areas of Beckett’s writing that are less well known than Godot, Krapp’s Last Tape or Happy Days.

The play is just too good, too funny and too moving to remain the sole preserve of the scholar.

Jim Knowlson is Emeritus Professor of French at the University of Reading. He was a friend of Samuel Beckett for 19 years and is the author of many books on his theatre. He also wrote his biography, ‘Damned to Fame. The Life of Samuel Beckett’ (London: Bloomsbury, 1996).


Experience All That Fall in the paintshop of Bristol Old Vic (8-12 March) and at Wilton’s Music Hall, London (22 March – 9 April). Book tickets.

My first Beckett

Ciaran McIntyre in Endgame, Liverpool Playhouse 2008

Ciaran McIntyre in Endgame, Liverpool Playhouse 2008

Out of Joint is presenting a rare live production of Samuel Beckett’s radio play All That Fall, in which theatre-goers will be blindfolded, the actors moving about the auditorium. One of Beckett’s most naturalistic plays, it is inspired by his native Foxrock in Ireland.

We asked cast members about their first experience of Beckett.

 

 

BRÍD BRENNAN

“Waiting for Godot was my template for a great play”

I studied “En attendant Godot as part of my French degree course at Queen’s University. It was revelatory! For years, waiting for Godot was my template for a great play and since the beginning of my adventures in acting I’d hoped to be part of a Beckett production. I am delighted now to find myself in that world which was first revealed to me all those years ago in Belfast.

 

KILLIAN BURKE

“I realised I didn’t need to ‘get’ it. In watching his plays you have all you need”

If I’m being honest, my initial feeling toward Beckett was trepidation. A deeply lined, stern face floating in the darkness, staring out at you. My first encounters with his works was through reading it, and this lead to a feeling of needing to ‘get it’. ‘What does it mean?’. Undoubtedly a hangover from an education where poetry and drama is dissected into its component parts, each weighed and measured, then shoved back together, more often than not leaving one with a feeling of ‘I didn’t like that’.

Then in my first year of university I went to see a production of Waiting for Godot at The Gate Theatre in Dublin. I left the theatre, making my way down O’Connell Street toward my bus, and I wouldn’t go so far as to say my world was shattered or anything, but it was ever so slightly tilted on its axis. I was confused and satisfied, and realised I didn’t need to ‘get’ a thing. In watching (or listening to) his plays you have all you need. You may of course dissect it if you wish but I think it’s more enjoyable to walk along with the world at an ever so slightly strange angle.

 

TARA FLYNN

“I’d love to have gone for a drink with him”

I studied English and French at university, so Beckett and his influence began to creep into my consciousness then. I read Waiting for Godot during that time and wished desperately to see it in a theatre. To this day, I haven’t managed it yet. I can’t wait.

Once I became an actor, I’d bump into Beckett periodically. Not in real life, of course – although I’d love to have gone for a drink with him, who wouldn’t? – but it’s impossible to live and work in Ireland and not be aware of his reach, even outside the theatre. I’d read him sometimes and read about him more. His life is as fascinating as his work.

As much of my own work has centred on comedy and satire, one of my favourite aspects of Beckett, and All That Fall in particular, is the humour. He can be so darkly funny. The world in All That Fall sits not too far from the world of one of Ireland’s greatest satirists, Flann O’Brien – which might surprise some. I’ve never performed in Beckett before and I couldn’t be more thrilled for this to be my first.

 

GARY LILBURN

“Leaving three actors in charge seemed a recipe for disaster”

My first opportunity to perform in a Beckett play came in 1994 when I was cast as Estragon in a New Victoria Theatre production of Waiting For Godot. Other New Vic regulars Paul McCleary and Lennox Greaves were to play Vladimir and Pozzo respectively. When we arrived for the first read through our director Peter Cheeseman announced that he didn’t believe we would have much need of his services and handed over the direction of the production to us three .

The play is difficult, dense and multi layered enough for any experienced director, but to have not one but three actors, inexperienced at directing, who were also in the production, in charge, seemed a sure recipe for disaster.

Thankfully we were saved by a Birmingham University professor and Beckett expert who took pity on us, gave us a crash course on the play and playing Beckett, and we managed to pull it off.

 

 

CIARAN MCINTYRE

“I find him hilariously funny”

As a theatre-goer I first encountered Beckett when I was a student in Dublin. I saw Waiting For Godot at a student drama festival and loved it immediately. My first Beckett on the other side of the footlights was a few years ago at Liverpool Playhouse, wedged in a dustbin with my feet poking out the back hidden under rubble, playing Nagg in Endgame, which starred Matthew Kelly and his son.

I find Beckett funny – hilariously funny. Very dark, but so, so funny.

 


Hear All That Fall at Bristol Old Vic (8-12 Mar 2016) and Wilton’s Music Hall in London (22 Mar – 8 Apr 2016).

A statement about the cancellation of a performance by Jane Wenham

Our production Jane Wenham: The Witch of Walkern was to tour to the theatre at Ipswich High School for Girls, as part of a 2-week collaboration with Eastern Angles in which we take the show to small venues around East Anglia and Essex. This is part of a wider tour that takes in more conventional venues for week-long engagements.

The performance was confirmed by all parties in April 2015.

A month before the performance date, the school cancelled. The long-serving head of drama who made the booking had left. The new drama teacher and the headteacher decided the play was not appropriate for and “educator of girls”. Initially we were told that the inclusion of swearing in the play was inappropriate along with some of the themes. We have since heard from the school explaining that as the play talks about sex and, most specifically, alludes to child abuse, it would not be appropriate to stage it.

We made the story public because we think that any decisions akin to censorship should not be made easily or without consequence, and should be known about. We would like to set a few thoughts out on record.

Firstly, cancelling a performance a month beforehand means a loss of income for our partners Eastern Angles without the time to reschedule. Tours are booked several months ahead. This booking was confirmed in April. Tickets were to be available to both the school and the public.

Secondly, once you delve into the circumstances around witch hunts, you inevitably confront a number of troubling truths about society, then and now, because of course the fiction of witchery both masked and enabled such things. As the play shows, this included the treatment of those who are different or outsiders; the way we limit women’s lives; and yes the exploitation and abuse of young and impressionable people. It goes without saying that these are themes that remain relevant. That doesn’t mean to say they are easy themes to talk or think about, nor that we would recommend them to a class of 12 year olds. But we do not think they are ideas that to be hidden from older students, particularly within a supportive school environment.

Response from Rebecca Lenkiewicz, the writer:

“The statistics about child abuse are incredible and alarming. Most of it goes on within the family not in a park with strangers – people say ” fear the stranger” shifting the blame to some eccentric old man on a bench whilst the majority of sexual abuse goes on within the home and by a relative or someone the child knows. I feel passionately that it is a tragic part of the history and ongoing situation of women. It is now a huge and lucrative part of the internet. It is the first stage by which a girl’s sexuality is used against her.

“In writing about it in Wenham it was not gratuitous but in the hopes that any girl who is experiencing it might then feel the wrong of it even more keenly and share it. If I could make even one girl feel less alone or more prone to share through this story I would be very happy.   The whole point is that the men are telling the girls they invite it, when so clearly they do not and are victims. It would be sadly impossible to suppose that no girl at any high school had been through some sort of abuse. Tragically that is statistically impossible.

So yes I talk about it. In the hopes that it creates a strength and company for anyone who has gone through such appalling abuse. Also, the level of exposure that teenagers have in terms of you tube and video games is such that they really are not naive at fifteen.

Response from Max Stafford-Clark, Artistic Director of Out of Joint who commissioned the play:

“It is deeply troubling that a play which so eloquently examines witch persecutions from a feminist perspective, and looks at the way society treated and continues to treat women, is considered inappropriate for an audience of young women. The school has also said that the inclusion of swearing is inappropriate, a policy which presumably rules out much contemporary drama or fiction for study. There is nothing gratuitous in the play. It is as frank – and as wry, humane and poetic – as one would expect from a play by Rebecca. Theatre, more than any other artform or literature, is the way we examine our world and our history, and in this case with particular imagination and honesty. The school’s decision not to learn from the past seems spectacularly perverse.

“I passionately believe the school have taken the wrong decision. Reasons for censorship are invariably cloaked in protective moral reasoning and I’m afraid are invariably wrong. As an artistic director I have myself taken several decisions which, at the time, I was able to justify but which I subsequently realised were evasive. I’m thinking particularly of Perdition by Jim Allen which was condemned by the Jewish community as being anti-Semitic when in fact it was simply highly critical of Zionism. To my regret, I yielded to the pressure and withdrew the play.”

 

 

Women and witchcraft

four women are standing in a row all wearing black cloaks one is holding a small human like figure, next to her another is holding a candle and book and next to her is the other holding a basket full of these small human like figures. Beneath them are two other women bending over one in a yellow robe who is reaching out to the other woman who is bent even further down dressed in white. In the background there are three birds hovering behind the women.

One of Francesco de Goya’s witch paintings

Why were women so vulnerable to being accused of witchcraft?

By 1712, when our play Jane Wenham: Witch of Walkern is set, the most intense period of witch hunting was over, although still within living memory. During the height of the hunts somewhere between 100,000 and 200,000 people were tried and of those 50,000 to 100,000 executed. The idea of a witch had changed from someone who used magic for good or evil, to someone who had made a pact with the Devil to his bidding. It became not just about what you did but who you were, and to the authorities it became less important to prove a witch had committed evil magic in order to secure a conviction.

A huge proportion of those accused and killed were women. Here’s some background:

Women were the preservers of popular culture
It has been argued the “witchcraze” was part of a larger struggle by the elites to suppress popular culture, and to force those in rural areas to assimilate urban values. Women were  the preservers and transmitters of popular culture, and so particularly suspect.

There were increasing numbers of unmarried women
During the sixteenth century, there were more unmarried women who were seen as out of the control of a man, and hence more suspect. This happened because people married at a later age, the number of people who never married also increased, female life expectancy rose, and male life expectancy decreased as a result of religious wars.

Women were less powerful
Women were seen as having less physical, economic, and political power than men, and therefore likelier to resort scolding, cursing and casting spells.

Women worked with with the young and the sick
Women women worked in areas of life in which witchcraft appeared to explain tragic events: they watched over animals which could die mysteriously; prepared food which could become spoiled inexplicably; nursed the sick of all ages who could die without warning; and cared for children who were even more likely to die unexpectedly.

Some women embraced their reputation for witchcraft
We might assume that women would do everything they could to avoid accusations of witchcraft, but a reputation for witchcraft could protect a woman and some embraced it. This might explain the number of women who confessed to being witches without the application or even threat of torture—after years of providing magical services, they were as convinced as their neighbours of their own powers.

Women accused women
Women number prominently amongst accusers and witnesses because the actions witches were initially charged with were generally part of women’s sphere. Household or neighbourhood antagonisms often led to accusations, particularly between those women who knew each other’s lives intimately, such as servants and mistresses or close neighbours.


This information is taken from a brilliant programme essay by Dr Roberta Anderson. You can read the essay in the programme-script for Jane Wenham: The Witch of Walkern

Buy the Faber script of Jane Wenham: The Witch of Walkern at our exclusive price from our shop.

Also on the blog: witch tales from around the UK.