Back to the future: Max Stafford-Clark on three major Autumn revivals
30th Sep 2016
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
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.
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.
THE LIBERTINE by Stephen Jeffreys
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
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”.
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