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As serious as it gets

In quotables, writers writing now on January 20, 2011 at 8:38 pm

Notes on and quotes from Fallout (2003) Roy Williams

fallout royal court

“See dat woman’s face? See how scared? Feel my heart… Better than weed.” (Perry)

Fallout barrels onstage via a brilliant coup-de-theatre – four characters kicking a fifth – who isn’t present – to death. Deftly, Williams sidesteps the awkwardness, the ultimate insufficiency of stage violence (especially something so one-sided, so undignified, so free of grand gestures as a street ambush). Equally, the audience find themselves focusing precisely on the victim, lost in more than one sense – but who will echo throughout the action, as police descend and the kids involved – killers, witnesses and friends – button up.

“One time we had dis new teacher in, yeah. So we all decided to play a joke on him. No one was gonna speak fer the whole lesson, not do any work, juss stare out, see wat happens, wat he does. Everyone was up fer it right, except Kwame. Deh he was, sittin deh, doin his work. He ruined the joke.” (Shanice)

Nailed by the title, this is all aftermath – but that doesn’t equal solving a crime (officially), changing anyone’s character (outwardly), even explaining the act (reductively). Formally, the play reels from step-by-step scenes unfolding for a constant flow between crowds – endless jokes and jockeying for position, only occasional mumbled intimacies.

“Have you noticed, everything’s scaling down? … It’s not news any more. Soon, he’ll just be another dead black kid. Kids round here aren’t made to feel important. They never have. They know a token gesture when they see it.” (Joe)

Williams stays on the surface because his mission is to show how complicated this world is, how patronising to presume that, in writing from above, one can unearth, clean off, and exhibit the cause beneath the effect. When the fabric is embroidered with such rich interchanges as girls menacing the teacher who expelled and thus lost authority over them, inept car thieves as a spectator sport, a father too far gone on his daily booze to put a name to his son and even clashes between the officers investigating, a ‘point’ (as such) would deflate the world.

“Yu made me feel special. I wasn’t juss some yattie to yu. Dwayne comes along, and yu stop noticing me. Yu were too busy impressin him. Yu made me lose faith not just in yu, but in me, man.” (Shanice)

This world has its own, often unspoken rules – nowhere are crime series cliches allowed to overwrite. Emile, ground down by grief, is willing to share his girl (Shanice) with his leader (Dwayne), just for some quiet. There is widespread resentment at the victim’s supposed special treatment by the media. And, at the end of the play, this world’s own logic prevails. Time finally seems to be moving forward again – one character gets his qualification, others leave the area for self-protection, and Dwayne and Shanice step toward each other. Life goes on, for the survivors.

“Yer hauntin me, yu know dat?” (Dwayne)

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It isn’t my duty to be unhappy

In quotables, writers writing now on January 17, 2011 at 7:54 pm

Notes on and quotes from Under the Blue Sky (2000) David Eldridge

I’ve been away. Mostly internally. Meanwhile, Subjectiviste splutters back to life with a series of posts based on the string of 10 plays chosen by Methuen to represent the Noughties in their recently published collections Royal Court Plays 2000-2010 and Twenty-First Century British Plays. This, as you may have already noticed, is the first. And that’s enough intro.

under the blue sky / telegraph

“You were heavy and pissed and you moved me around the bed like I was a prone body. But your words? The things you said. Your promises.” (Helen)

‘Under the Blue Sky’ is a tryptich of long, pointedly naturalistic scenes (the first even synchronised to the step-by-step cooking of a meal) between couples of teachers. The first sees said dinner – which one assumes is a romantic gesture – ratchet instead into confrontation as it’s revealed as an apologetic leave-taking. But Eldridge’s intentions are so anti-dramatic, a knife brandished (pathetically) at the fight’s height is returned to domesticity without a word – ‘He takes the knife from her, wipes it with a cloth and uses it to slice the bread’. The play’s world is as much defined by its mass, its mess of rhythms, as its content.

The second pairing is yet more disastrous – an effete history teacher and a promiscuous maths teacher, equally brutalised by booze, using a horribly embarrassing fantasy as their only means of meeting in the middle. When even that goes wrong, we are left with revelations, recriminations and blackmail. It’s pure poison – amid a tone set in large part by the symbolic role of teachers in our culture, ideals compromised and lessons unlearned.

“A thousand humiliations behind closed doors and yet so, so pleasant on parents’ evening.” (Michelle)

And, since these two first acts reflect each other in all essentials – unequal relationships where the most loved holds the power, where negotiations lead to artificial, all too adult arrangements – one can imagine the original audience bracing for the third. Eldridge makes every effort not to disappoint, with a still older couple attempting a civilised split in the aftermath of a party.

It becomes apparent the scenic structure does not merely echo – each becomes a lens to reframe the previous. And thus, we learn what happened next to each of the other couples with gossipy precision – these offstage endings only reinforcing the bleakness descending. After the histrionics of youngish love gone wrong and the sour libidinal twists of more or less middle age, we’re set for a finale which enforces the law of gravity and puts the story to two single beds.

“I’m holding you back. I know I am.” (Anne)

But no! There is to be no long elegiac taper toward numbed applause. This last love is not doomed – although it must navigate the traps of sentiment (a relative’s historical lost love story) and convention (their age difference) – at long, long last, it’s not romance but pragmatism that constructs this particular happy ending:

“I don’t know what love is but I do know that your face is the face I think about every morning… Your twinkling eyes and your hair. Your appalling bad manners in restaurants. Reading me favourite bits of books you’re reading. I think about your lined hands and kissing them… I know I’m just a fat English teacher who drinks too much and insults your students but I think you love me in fact you said a minute ago that you did so let’s please do it and be happy becuase I know we can…” (Robert)

Because, you see, the other thing about ‘the symbolic role of teachers in our culture’ is that they’re in charge of the future.

under the blue sky two

lines from the strip

In quotables, writers writing now on February 9, 2010 at 11:26 am

“Female impersonation is a rather curious career choice for a woman, Miss Coo.” (Otto)

A feted first line for Nagy’s fourth play, and the last I’m zapping through for right now. Again, it takes a form somewhat beyond conventon – as Michael Coveney writes in the Methuen edition’s introduction: “…all the various strands of action seem to be manipulated by Otto Mink, a sleazy, shadowy figure not unlike, as my colleague Paul Taylor pointed out, the Duke of dark corners in Measure for Measure

“Do you think Saint Veronica had any talent? Or Saints Theresa, Bernadette and Anthony, for that matter? […] The hand of God provided their direction. They were empty vessels waiting to be filled with relevance. Just as you are an empty vessel waiting for me to fill you.” (Otto)

And he fills plenty, an unreadable puppetmaster pulling the plotlines of disperate characters – including a female female impersonator, a repo man, a supremacist fugitive, a disgraced reporter  and more – ever tighter, until they all come together for a finale which is also an eclipse. “Adapt to circumstance. Assimilate. Conquer. Mr. Mink’s triple crown for success.” (Loretta)

the strip

I could be wrong, but The Strip feels like the point where all the devices Nagy had jury-rigged for serious purposes – often employed in quite an austere fashion – ripened to an extent she not only had total control, but could start to have fun – it’s positively carnivalesque. Especially nice is how narrative acts can trigger short circuit symbolism – a homophobe, kissed, drops dead (he thinks – gets better).

“I’m like a doormat. People coming and going, breaking and entering, the whole time.” (Ava)

Lateralism keeps seeping – characters spill across the stage – occasionally united via phone calls and letters between scenes, rippling via domino dumbshow and mime performances, relaying via infections and computer astrology, subtitled via a ouija board which spells out messages, via, well… “Baby Ray likes you. He’s a genius and communicates with me telepathically. What is your sun sign?” (Loretta). The climax of the first act sees the whole parade simultaneously up-ended like a chain of island realities under one heavy psychic weather system.

“Have you noticed the alarming rate of coincidences lately?” (Suzy)

lines from disappeared

In quotables, writers writing now on February 5, 2010 at 1:00 pm

“I take things away from people to provide them with a false sense of renewal. When you take something from somebody, it stays took. They don’t understand that. I do.” (Elston)

Disappeared is very simple. Sarah Casey, a travel agent, goes missing in the first scene. Aside from flashbacks, the rest of the play explores the wake. Her mother insists she’s dead. The bar where she was last seen tries to cash in. A detective unearths nothing, especially in his dealings with the chief suspect, an oddball of compelling dimensions called Elston Rupp.

“…in your people job, you give them things. Information, accommodation. The potential for snapshots. Me, I remove things from people. Information, accommodation. Cash.” Elston works in a thrift store, wears others’ clothes, adopts their identities, has no furniture, sleeps in a closet. He is never revealed as a killer, or discredited as a fantasist. He very much enjoys the attention afforded by his suspect status. But he’s alienatingly neurotic: “I wish I could go with the flow. But I can’t. I read too much.” He prostrates himself before authority figures – to his boss: “…you don’t work. You own…I work for you. I belong to you.” – and Ted, the detective. He also somehow connects with Sarah in a way neither he nor she understand. As he says to her: “It must be sad having a job where there’s no psychic stability. Always coming or going. Never staying put. The travel motif.”

That Nagy can flag her subtext so is due to her resistance as a writer to ever let suggestion ripen (and flatten) into plot point. It’s enough to make the shape without articulating the parts or, worse, setting the whole contraption shuddering away to eventually spit out a product (the ‘meaning’). A one-sentence synopsis would be: travel agent provides journeys for others, never moving herself – until, one night, she disappears from the face of the map. Many conventional writers would, in expanding the story, deflate it – declawing any paradox, sorting and binding each parallel, answering every last question in an artful reverse strip. But if the detective novel proved modernism’s ideal form, so sci-fi/fantasy – the art of possibility which only need make sense in its own terms – has provided the same for postmodernism. Also consider that, contrary to popular belief, Freud didn’t believe in dream analysis but free association – and this makes for an expanding universe, not one which contracts to a ultimate lump of unambiguous fact.

nagy collected

It’s a play for today ’cause, formally, it’s a net (reticular) – details hint at the larger form, fractally, casual comments chime with dramatic acts distant in the narrative – and this doesn’t glue the two belatedly together (as a ‘clue’ would). A good scientist would remind: correlation does not equal causation. The strength of writers like Nagy (and Churchill, most obviously) is that their work swells with repetition – unlike most, which return to standby when they’ve achieved their ‘function’. Elston knows: “I won’t answer your questions any more, Ted. Because if I answered them, you wouldn’t come back here.”

lines from butterfly kiss

In quotables, writers writing now on February 4, 2010 at 2:08 pm

“Martha. Listen to me. My mother asked me to kill her.” (Lily)

Butterfly Kiss unfolds to fill the limbo between the arrest and trial of Lily Ross, for matricide: “I’ve been reading a lot lately. Sensational crime cases. Mostly murder cases. There’s a vested interest, I’ll admit.”

butterfly set

A telling stage direction: ‘The time is the present, the imagined past and the imagined future’. And it’s the continual, cumulative overlap of times, spaces, places, the bleed between dialogue and monologue, the dance of figures skipping in and out of each other’s orbits which makes Butterfly Kiss so almost liquid crystal. Form solidifies in patterns around events – each of which lasts a matter of minutes, sometimes moments, before dissolving, allowing the configuration to refacet itself. It’s more fluid again than Weldon Rising‘s series of circular frames – and feels as freshly freestyle and futureproof as Churchill & Lan’s A Mouthful of Birds or Kane’s 4:48 Psychosis.

“It’s a long time before I actually speak to Lily. I was transferred quite a bit, you see, and I could taste the distance between us through the telephone lines. As if each transfer, each click of each switchboard, took me deeper underground. Under something I could not accept.” (Martha)

Another stage direction reads: ‘Although Lily’s age ranges substantially during the course of the play, no attempt should be made to ‘play’ the younger ages.’ This is how to do contemporary unrealism: ‘”How old did you say you were, Lily? Forty-six? Twelve? Seventy-seven?” (Jenny) Reverberating through the play’s ‘real’ world, Lily’s mother (Jenny) becomes demented, old before even her own mother (Lily’s grandmother, Sally): “I could leave you here, you know that. Let you rot in place. Shrivel up with a shot glass in one hand and a blood pressure kit in the other. I shrivel little by little myself, just thinking about how I could have given birth to something like you.” Time out of joint.

Vignettes from Lily’s life evaporate into one another, sometimes react. Her awakening sexuality. Her parents’ mistaken lovematch: “Your daddy was a wrong number, Lily, who ought never been answered.” (Jenny); “My father is a scientist. He likes to watch.” (Lily) Her latest (last?) relationship, with Martha – another source of simmering tension between Lily and her mother and grandmother. Ultimately, it is the casual everyday cruelty between the three that drives toward an end with no consummation, conclusion, or verdict – only an act of deep, hidden love.

lines from weldon rising

In quotables, writers writing now on February 3, 2010 at 9:27 am

“We used to be civilised, you know.” (Tilly)

Nagy’s debut opened in Liverpool, but hopped half the length of the country onto the Royal Court stage within two months. As almost an act of teleportation, a knight’s gambit, the abruptness of the transfer could be a realworld reflection of Weldon Rising‘s indistinct drift. She’s often tagged as ‘lateral’ – situations rather than narratives, carousels rather than rollercoasters – and her distinguishing characteristics are apparent from this first production. This is less surprising when one realises it was written after her second and third to be  produced (‘Butterfly Kiss’ and ‘Disappeared’) but, again, such shuffling fits her elliptical style. What follows contains plenty spoilers…

“I hear someone say: FAGGOT. I always hear that word when it’s said. Always.” (Jaye)

If the background is perennially out-of-focus,her characters possess a concision of expression. Natty, for example, is one half of a same-sex relationship uncomfortable with his orientation (or at least the stereotypical culture surrounding it): “They’re not my peers. I own a small business. I have customers. I’m not political. They’re your peers…You can dance. I can’t. You know I look like Peter Lorre in M when I dance.” The partner to who this is addressed, Jimmy, is rather more secure: “Maybe I’d like to hold your hand. Walk along Eighth Avenue and spit at passers-by…The boys don’t believe me when I say I have a lover. You ought to prove I’m not a liar.” If the relationship feels like a losing battle – Natty replies, “But I am a liar. I’m pathological. I lie about everything. I crave it” – they muddle along happily enough in their own way. Then, in almost the play’s first movement, Jimmy is meaninglessly murdered via a stranger/street flashpoint which sparks from nothing (Natty splits as it gets serious).

weldon staging

“What was it like? To see him die. I didn’t. See it. I should have.” (Natty)

Tilly and Jaye, also lovers, live overlooking the murder scene, and witnessing it comes to obsess them somewhat: “We witnessed a horrible crime and we’ve responded by becoming criminals ourselves…We watched him from above. We thought we were safe” (Tilly). Meanwhile, the temperature of the outside world is continually rising at a freakish pace – the repercussions of centre-stage violence punctuated by increasingly nightmarish news reports (“…a Greyhound bus bound for Lincoln, Nebraska melted within seconds of entering the Holland Tunnel. Current Central Park temperature a hundred and sixty-seven and RISING”.) The play’s resolution doesn’t retreat into fantasy, but it does defy realism, cause and effect. It’s a magic ritual.

“We did watch him die. The sky split open. The temperature rose. And nothing’s been the same since.” (Tilly)

here to start with phyllis nagy

In bio, writers writing now on February 1, 2010 at 11:13 am

The first contemporary writer to get a spot on Subjectiviste (except for my launch icon), today’s post will be a brief intro mediated through other web resources before I quickstep through notes on her first four plays over (let’s believe) the next four days.

Coming through in the Nineties alongside the In Yer Face writers, Nagy is an American transplant, whose work therefore lacked the same obsession with lower end UK pop culture plus offered less aggro than was standard practice (you can access an interview in which Nagy discusses Sarah Kane here).

nagy works

there are few pictures of usable size - please forgive these clumsy pixels

There’s not an abundance of content about her on the web – the wikipedia entry is stubby and the interviews are often ends-directed promotional gush – but perhaps this reflects how little theatre / realtime performance overlap the internet (as of right now). Certainly, there seems more material on the film career she has embarked on since, with the success of her adaptation of The Talented Mr Ripley (duologue extract here) building to a directorial debut with Mrs Harris.

For more than scraps on our subject, then, I have to look toward Michael Coveney‘s introduction to her first collection of plays. “The theatrical cross-fading and flash-backing demanded by the play…which seemed nonetheless to be played in a constant theatrical present” is a trim little evocation of her style – a kind of centreless materialised cinematics. As for tone, Coveney speculates Nagy: “…is fired by her own experience [working abroad] to express and explore other dreams of leaving. And it is because these stories are bedded in ideals of emotional and sexual possibility and of fulfilment that they resonate so effectively in performance…” There’s something in that. Tomorrow: her debut, Weldon Rising.