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Prof Carol Rutter, Shakespeare Survey 67, October 2014
Letter to The Independent, August 2014
Phillip Breen's introduction to the printed edition of Holes, June 2014
Miles Jupp on A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, The Scotsman
Brian Beacom on A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, The Herald
Phillip Breen on meeting sculptor and playwright Jimmy Boyle, The Scotsman
Phillip Breen, The Hard Man introduction
Mark Brown, The Scotsman
Prof Carol Rutter, Shakespeare Review
Phillip Breen, Dumb Show programme
Extract from an article by Prof Carol Rutter, ‘Shakespeare Performances in England 2013’
, Shakespeare Survey 67, October 2014
Mid January. I'm sitting on a train headed for London; opposite me, a colleague who sees almost as much Shakespeare in a year as I do. We're nattering about the 'state of the art'. He says he's fed up to the back teeth with 'event' Shakespeare. 'Event' Shakespeare? The kind of theatre he thinks we had too much of last year, productions aimed at some 'event' or other – 'Globe to Globe'; the 'World Shakespeare Festival'; both attached to the London Olympics — where the 'event' seemed to be what was driving and defining and selecting the Shakespeare on offer, rather than the creative energy and imagination of actors and directors and designers. The result for spectators was a number of productions that frequently didn't work on their own terms, productions that didn't have to work on their own terms, but only as bits and pieces fitting up the conceit of the big corporate project. He longs, he says wistfully, for productions that give us a whole vision of a play, the kind of Shakespeare that was standard at the RSC back in ... (the date he offers is firmly in the last century). I say I saw a few 'whole vision' productions last year; most of them, it has to be said, independent of the frenzied corporate 'event'-making. A couple of them, it's true, had been officially 'umbrella-ed' by the sponsor but remained cockily resistant to wearing the corporate logo. Still, I take his point. We sit in silence. We gaze at each other's feet, considering the bottoms of our trousers, wondering if it's time we started wearing them rolled. Maybe we're just a couple of Prufrocks.
By the time we hit Marylebone, though, we've cheered up. We're going to the theatre, and for both of us, no matter how often we do it, nothing can take the shine off that statement: 'We're going to the theatre.' In 'post-event' Britain, we're eager to see how the personnel changes announced last year (new artistic directors at the RSC, the Royal Court, the Donmar, the Almeida) are panning out. Six months earlier, back in July, we'd first been excited by the headline in the Guardian (then deflated by the article that followed) announcing that 'Michael Boyd's last RSC season' would be a 'celebration of women in theatre', because that 'huzzah-huzzah!' moment was instantly wrecked when Boyd admitted to the arts correspondent in the interview that it was — ummm, errrh, only 'by accident' that Lucy Bailey, Maria Aberg, Nancy Meckler, Emma Rice and Lyndsey Turner would all be directing at the RSC in the coming season. So this 'celebration of women': it wasn't 'a conscious piece of positive action'? (Boyd: why not keep your mouth shut and pretend it was?) Still, he opined, it was 'great that we are doing something about it with a concentration and intensity that is new for the RSC.' You had to wonder about the elusive referent. 'It'? Positive action? Sexism in the theatre? Limited opportunities, historically, for women directing Shakespeare? Fair enough, you can put Boyd's apparent wooliness down to poor transcription of an interview. But what excuse can be made for the jaw-dropping implications of his (apparently serious) statement that 'doing something about it' was 'new' for the RSC? (Boyd put me in mind of those serio-comic scene captions announcing staggering revelations in Brecht's Galileo: 'December 1606, Galileo abolishes heaven.' So it's official, 'July 2012, RSC boss discovers gender disparity'. Just when he's on his way out the stage door. And about a decade after others have started seriously addressing it.)
Boyd's gaffes aside, my colleague and I know, as we stride through Covent Garden on that Saturday in January, that we're headed into a year (launched today, as we arrive at the Donmar where Harriet Walter is playing Brutus, and Frances de la Tour, Caesar) that is going to give women plenty of opportunities not just to act, direct, design and compose Shakespeare but to run theatres where Shakespeare is produced, as artistic directors and administrators. We're headed into a year in which gender will be constantly investigated, interrogated, performed and re-performed. I'll see all-women productions of Caesar (directed by a woman) and Shrew (directed by a man); also all-male productions of Shrew and Twelfth Night (directed by men). I'll see gender-neutral puppets performing in A Midsummer Night's Dream, and a hilariously 'feminist' ending to The Two Gentlemen of Verona that will leave all the men standing around empty handed and gormlessly gawping. And I'll see what I'll come to think of as a 'post-racial' Othello, an Othello that understands the profound trauma of that play to be nothing so superficial as skin colour, but rather, located in masculinity, in deep-structural homo-phobia, men hating men, and using women to kill them: a tragedy constructed around gender, then, not race. We're headed into a year where I'll be gender blind as I'm assessing the work of directors, not least because (Michael Boyd's late learning aside) it's no longer 'news' in most quarters that powerful women are directing Shakespeare, and succeeding and failing just like the boys.
You know that feeling your get, half way down the first page of a new novel when you realise you're in the safe hands of a master and you'll go wherever the writing takes you? I get it sometimes in the theatre. Case in point: Phillip Breen's The Merry Wives of Windsor at the RST. It was the jack'o'lantern that did it: burning in the upstairs window of the otherwise dark, timber-framed Tudor house whose facade, covered in autumn-turning Virginia creeper, stretched the width of the platform stage. The grin on the pumpkin told me this production knew where it was going: to keep an appointment at Herne's oak, via guisings and disguisings, menacing tricks and bitter treats, oofs and oafs and humiliating 'outings'; no twee, self-satisfied costume drama (Globe, 2008) or romping wannabe musical in ruffs and farthingales (RSC, 2006), but an edgy look at contemporary middle class marriage and the (disappointed) games people play; at the male imaginary (in self-delusional mode); making close-to-the-bone jokes about sex, money, and funny foreigners; written in (mostly) prose that smuggles in so much sedition between the lines that you could take it for a late-Elizabethan samiszdat. Breen's production took Shakespeare's play seriously. This Wives was revenge comedy, his 'merry' wives placed just short of 'merry', ax-wielding Clytemnestra.
Teamed up with Breen, Max Jones set this story today, in Windsor-upon-Avon, in autumn 2012, post-Jubilee, post-Olympics, a time for reckoning costs and settling accounts, his brilliantly observed design giving us a series of locations that zoomed from close-up into long shot and back again. The Tudor housefront (home to the well-heeled, well-settled, not to say terminally domestic, Pages) flew out to reveal a long view of a rugby pitch (where we saw in the foreground Meg Page receiving a letter). When the goal posts sailed out, the kitsch interior of 'ye olde' Garter public house rolled into view (decorating the lighting grid over the snooker table, numbers of stag's antlers, trophies of male environmental domination or ironic signifiers of man's horned destiny; on the table itself, another bloated beast, Falstaff asleep) to be replaced by the clinical waiting room of Dr. Caius's practice, the ultra-modern Vogue-designed glass-and-white carpet living room of the nouveaux riche (and childless) Fords, the low lying distant vistas of foggy Frogmore, the tawdry garret flat over the bar at the Garter where Falstaff lodged (his single battered suitcase shoved under an iron bedstead whose mattress looked like it had rescued from a dosser's life on the streets), and the final mock-gothic horror-scape of Herne's blighted oak.
The folk who inhabited these locations were recognisable County types, played just short of caricature. Page and Ford (Martin Hyder, John Ramm), near enough twins who'd prove two sides of the same male supremacist coin, were balding boys in short trousers, Saturday morning rugger-buggers (who needed their wives to solve the mystery of how to get the top off the beer cooler). Falstaff (Desmond Barritt) was a worn out chancer, a geriatric city lad who appeared to have spent the last of Shallow's £1000 (borrowed in the dying moments of 2 Henry IV) buying up sale racks of loud tweeds (so last century!), remaindered on Savile Row, to look the part among the Shire locals. A conspicuous mistake. Parson Evans (David Charles) was a weedy, reedy-voiced Welshman in a slack cardigan who arrived for his assignation with Dr Caius wobbling into view on his bicycle, his rapier stowed the length of the cross bar, while Caius (Bart Soroczynski), physician to the toffs who held clinics in formal dress, was in the full fencing rig-out of the French Olympic team, doing one hand press ups for warm up. Slender (Calum Findlay) was as a hapless a tangle of earnest arm-swinging idiocy as you'd meet in any Sixth Form car park, batting chat-up lines wide or into the net; Anne (Naomi Sheldon), still in school uniform, a lass who'd slip out her front door for a quick fag and a snog with her banned boyfriend, Fenton (Paapa Essiedu); Mrs Quickly (Anita Dobson), awed by aristos, like a pigeon pecking popcorn in Trafalgar Square, bobbed and curtseyed every time she mentioned 'Sir John', and wore a smile as professionally bright as her pencil skirts were tight.
And then there were the wives — the stars of this production. Sylvestra le Touzel's Burberry-and-Barbour Meg Page was as solid and sensible, watching the rugby in green gum boots and head scarf, as her vulgarian friend Alice (Alexandra Gilbreath) was ditzy in high-heeled Hunters. (It was typical, when they showed up for the trick-or-treating at Herne's oak, that Alice would be dressed as a cunning little vixen, Meg, as Bambi's mother.) Both were 50-somethings; both, 'missing out on somethings'. le Touzel's Meg was first girlishly flattered ('What, have I 'scaped love-letters in the holiday time of my beauty, and am I now a subject for them?') then, her brief flirtation with 'something else' humiliated, outraged at Falstaff's billet doux. Gilbreath's constitutionally suggestive Alice, the kind of woman men call a 'go-er', was nevertheless instantly steeled to 'be revenged' on 'the whale' tossed 'with so many tuns of oil in his belly, ashore at Windsor' with a plot that very nearly did fan the 'wicked fire' of the old lecher's lust so hot that he 'melted ... in his own grease'. Chez Ford, with Meg in the wings, Alice played wiggle-bum seductress in leopard print leggings to a goggle-eyed, sweating Falstaff whom she forced to frolic (more sweat) to Marvin Gaye's 'Let's Get It On' before Meg dashed out of hiding — and took pity on the now very greasy knight by dumping him in the buck-basket.
There was never any question but that the women were in charge in Breen's Windsor and would expose the jealous husband with as much wicked glee as they'd out the fantasist seducer. (This Alice would sit blandly sucking chocolates from the cheap Cadbury's selection box Falstaff had brought, eating the evidence, while her husband pawed manically through a buck-basket full of dirty knickers, searching for the lover he knew must be hiding among his wife's smalls.) But what was staggering, as both the wives and we pondered the need for their efforts, was that both the prospective cuckolder and the prospective cuckolded expected the same outcome. Both operated from the same 'knowledge': that the women would be corrupted. (And if Page didn't, it was only because he thought the hey-day in his wife's blood no longer heat-able: 'my wife is not young'). Men in this play imagine themselves the masters of language: a delicious joke, given the dubious performance of little William's Latin lesson and the amount of 'ranting', 'drawling', 'affecting', and 'hacking' of language that goes on as English, French and Welsh alike 'fright [ ] English out of his wits'. Falstaff is sure he can read Meg Page like a book: that he can 'construe ... her familiar style' and 'English [ ] her rightly' to 'spy entertainment'. Ford reads out of the same misogynist textbook: 'This 'tis to be married. This 'tis to have linen and buck-baskets': 'my wife ... plots ... ruminates ... devises'; and what women 'think in their hearts they may effect, they will break their hearts but they will effect'.
How dreary for this 'reading' to be current in 2012. How even drearier, in 2012, to be one of these men, trapped in the residual, persistent imaginary that Breen's production showed to be still current. Two of the most woeful images performance produced here were Barrit's Falstaff, contemplative predator, cranking up the charm for one more sting, perched on the edge of his bed, holding up to his girth what he'd pulled out of his suitcase, a pair of seducer-ware boxer shorts that he clearly hadn't worn since the days when he was an 'eagle's talon in the waist', and could only see the fit of now by flashing a mirror at his groin (how micro his 'yard'; how macro his belly); and Ramm's Ford, who'd earlier bounced like a demented rooster around his own living room crowing 'Buck? ... buck! Buck buck buck!', later at the Garter, in a fit of insane hyperactivity, snapping a snooker cue as he ranted about linen and buck-baskets, that he clapped to head: turning himself into a horned monster. The stag on the wall didn't bat an eye. Fortunately, this production offered the antidote to toxic male delusion: Alice's laughter (Gilbreath has one of the lewdest laughs in the business), and Meg's brains (le Touzel: what an intelligent actor!).
Jones's multiple scene changes gave us a whole social world in Breen's Wives. Working on the same stage at the RSC designing Lucy Bailey's The Winter's Tale, William Dudley produced only two locations, but these were hardly conventional re-imaginings of the play's shifts from Sicilia to Bohemia and back again.
Letter from Phillip Breen to The Independent, August 2014
I am writing in response to David Lister's assertion that we should have censored our production of Tom Basden's play Holes by pulling it in response to the shooting down of MH17 [“How the news turned a comedy into plane-crash theatre”, 2 August] . I would like to object in the strongest possible terms to the statement that we have been "downright disrespectful".
Firstly, Holes is not about plane crashes in the same way that One Flew Over The Cuckoos nest is not about asylums. It is merely the setting. A jumping off point for an exploration of how we are living now. It is not a "plane crash comedy". Any more than The Tempest is a "boat-crash comedy". We began work on Holes in 2010. MH17 happened the day after the first preview. David Lister on the other hand wrote his article this week. I assume the Independent will be donating the advertising revenue from that page to the victims of the crash.
Lister cited the critic of this paper who referred to the play as "ill-timed". As opposed to all of those exquisitely timed plane crash comedies? That wonderful "plane crash comedy" in the early 90s timed just at the point where people had stopped caring about Lockerbie? Since the play's beginning there have always been 450 charred corpses just offstage - it's always been uncomfortable - that's its point. I can't conceive of a point in history where that scenario is as David Lister says "innocuous". It has never appeared so to us.
I'm willing to wager that between here and the crash site of MH17 more children have been killed by their mothers than died in that plane crash in the last two weeks. Is Lister suggesting the National Theatre close Medea? The RSC comedies season of 2005 opened with Twelfth Night followed by The Comedy Of Errors in the light of the Boxing day tsunami the RSC did not postpone. Neither were those plays labelled "tsunami comedies" by anyone.
The play is an metaphorical exploration of how we're living in the same vein as Godot or Huis Clos or The Tempest (that famous and beautifully timed "boat crash comedy"). Its a poetic and absurd response to these dark, dark times. How are we supposed to act in the shadow of such a welter of information about so many enormous acts of violence. On a planet that is dying. What are we actually supposed to do? It seems to me we don't know HOW to make the world better. I don't know either. I'd love someone to come up with a plan. Like so much great comedy at root is a cry of despair. Like Chaplin responding to the great depression, Beckett to the A-Bomb and and the absurdists to communism.
Absurdity juxtaposed against unimaginable horror seem to me deeply appropriate responses to the zeitgeist. Just because the play makes people laugh, it doesn't mean that it is not saying something profound. Ask Chris Morris, Armando Ianucci, Beckett, Swift, Shakespeare, Euripedes and so on. The mantra of Basden's suited and booted demographics experts throughout this play is "It'll be fine"... "It's going to be OK" despite the fact that their situation is patently hopeless. This is what made the play speak to me as a director.
The one thing we do agree on is that some lines take on a certain electricity in light of recent events. There are many. "Planes just don't go missing" is one. One character making a rejoinder to someone who's just complained about a crass joke they made about a dead air steward says "it's not funny, yet...the chatrooms'll be full of this stuff...and good luck to 'em I say otherwise it's all a bit depressing, isn't it?" - to which the other character responds "there's an argument for saying it should be depressing". And yes there is speculation that the plane has been shot down by "terrorists". But the lines that ring most true to me in light of recent tragedies is this exchange about our fictional plane crash
IAN: What do you want me say then?
GUS: Nothing. Don't say anything.
Respectfully, perhaps Mr. Lister might like to consider these lines afresh.
I don't know how to make the lives of the families of the crash victims of MH17 better. It seems he does. It's to take to the opinion pages to erroneously label a play "a plane crash comedy", opine that its creative team have been "downright disrespectful" to them, and that the play ought to be censored as a result. I'm sure that these unfortunate people have got far weightier matters to concern themselves with at the moment. As for anyone else, I don't think its any of their business.
The idea that it is the place of the Arts Editor (the Arts Editor!) of the Independent to take offence on their behalf is precisely what Tom's difficult, knotty and yes, funny, play is satirising.
His view that the play is uncomfortable is shared by many critics. But his view that the play be closed is not.
Dark days indeed.
Phillip Breen's introduction to the printed edition of Holes, June 2014
This play was written long before MH370 went missing. Long before we started re-worrying about the global consequences of local military skirmishes. Long before "conscious uncoupling" had entered the lexicon and Coldplay had released Ghost Stories.
Tom Basden's play There Is A War (National Theatre, 2011) was written before we collectively looked on from the sidelines at the crisis in Syria utterly bewildered, wondering who was right, who was wrong, who was who and how the thing could possibly ever end.
Party (London, Edinburgh, Sydney 2009) in which a clueless dolt who'd never had to consider responsibility of real power ends up in a position of leadership after an electoral deadlock - was written a long time before ministerial limousines were driving Liberal Democrats around Westminster.
Tom Basden is one of the sharpest observers of politics and society around. This is the thing that makes him appear clairvoyant. And one the aspects that make directing a Tom Basden play satisfying and unnerving. Today's jokes frequently become tomorrow's real life nightmares.
The Scotsman, 19 October 2011
by Jay Richardson
Miles Jupp’s latest role is a man who tries to laugh through tragedy, but first he had to beat the urge to laugh at the wrong time
Miles Jupp is such a notorious corpser – breaking character by inappropriately laughing during scenes – that he contemplated undergoing hypnotherapy to cure himself.
Iain Davidson, who directed him in the BBC sitcom Gary: Tank Commander, wonders “if he’s ever done a single take on any show without corpsing? Just one take? My money’s on ‘no’”.
Jupp wonders whether the writers of The Thick of It actually changed a script to accommodate his sniggers. “After the first table reads, we came back and there were these new lines about this bloke ‘who always laughs’” he says. “And there’s at least one shot of me in the episode where I’m dark red and really holding back giggles.”
Worryingly perhaps, the 32-year-old comic has encountered the same problem rehearsing A Day In The Death of Joe Egg, Peter Nichol’s dark play about a couple, Brian and Sheila, struggling to keep their marriage together while caring for their daughter who has cerebral palsy.
“Acting-wise,” Jupp says, it’s “the most difficult thing I’ve ever done.”
Over a steadying cup of tea at the Citizens’ Theatre, where the revived modern classic had its world premiere in 1967, he speaks admiringly of co-star Miriam Margolyes, who plays his mother, Grace. But he says that “a lot of my time isn’t spent thinking about Brian’s relationship with Grace, but about me trying to hold it together and not laugh hysterically when she says words like ‘vacuum’, which she does very beautifully”.
He says this struggle to suppress his jocularity affords his characters energy. “In a pressurised scene, the closest I can get to laughing without laughing gives me a slight surge”. Which is oddly fitting for this singular comedy-drama. Characters regularly break the fourth wall to address the audience, while Brian and his wife Sheila, played by Sarah Tansey, enact dark comic routines in spite of themselves, alleviating the horror of caring for Joe, their unresponsive “vegetable” daughter.
Following Albert Finney, Alan Bates and Clive Owen, the last actor to portray Brian was Eddie Izzard. Jupp doesn’t see the role as tailored for a stand-up and hasn’t seen his predecessor’s performance for fear of being influenced. But he’s familiar with comedians who relentlessly seek laughter as a coping mechanism.
“It’s interesting to see how long it takes before Brian actually stops making jokes,” he observes. “Certain nervy types are like that all the time. And once he’s into that mood, it’s difficult to get out of.”
A decade ago, Jupp says, having achieved fame as Archie the Inventor in the children’s television series Balamory, he felt out of his depth.
“I was 16-and-a-half stone and if you’re roly-poly and making a few jokes, people just assume you’re fine.” Still, he found a sense of community in acting, with the desire to play characters his own age motivating him to lose weight.
Directed by Phillip Breen, Joe Egg also features Joseph Chance and Olivia Darnley, with ten year-old Abigail Gillespie and 11-year-old Florence Gray alternating as the little girl. The original proved too shocking for some when initially performed, and the censorious Lord Chamberlain’s Office demanded rewrites.
This latest production has excised quaintly racist terms like “fuzzy-wuzzy” but “spastic” is tossed around with period authenticity. As Ricky Gervais has courted controversy this week by defending his use of the word “mong” on Twitter, claiming that it’s now free of association with Down’s syndrome, the play is particularly relevant.
Last month, Jupp played a right-on diversity co-ordinator for Channel 4 in Tom Basden’s promising sitcom pilot Rick and Peter, in which a casually disablist television presenter is forced to share a house with a wheelchair-using actor. And as a friend of, and sometime co-writer with Frankie Boyle, who outraged many joking about Katie Price’s blind and autistic son Harvey, he is sensitive to causing offence. Part of the reason for dropping his early “lord of the manor” stand-up persona for a more personal, storytelling approach was his sense that the character’s class snobbery had become less ridiculous owing to society’s growing “chav-hatred”.
Equally, though, he’d like to highlight the hypocrisy of “a certain type of people and section of the media who think, ‘Great, that’s shocking, how brilliant, we can use that!’ when their take is the same as those enjoying it without conscience.”
Noting that euthanasia and the burdens of carers remain topical, emotive issues, as the father of two very young children, Jupp empathises with Brian’s frustration at being unable to communicate effectively with his offspring.
Nevertheless, “I can’t always understand his selfishness. The first few times we did the ending, I was very, very cross with him. Yet the more we’ve done it and the more I’ve discussed it with the other actors, the more I understand why he’s cracked.”
Partially, that’s out of sympathy for Brian’s frustrated libido. “I’ve never done a thing like this where I’m basically very horny,” he chuckles. “So that’s another thing I can put on my CV, ‘can act sexually if required’. I found the intimacy a bit nerve-racking at first but Sarah was very nice and relaxed about it and I’ve learned to stop thinking about it, other than relentlessly making pointless boyish jokes. And spending a lot on chewing gum.”
His forthcoming Radio 4 series, In and Out of the Kitchen, sees him further exploring sexuality as a gay food writer. And while his lay preacher Nigel in the sitcom Rev doesn’t go in for that sort of thing, he is becoming more schemingly ambitious, challenging Tom Hollander’s central character for the ministry in the second series, returning to BBC2 next month.
Acknowledging a short temper, Jupp reckons he has more dark emotions to explore. “I was doing Mock the Week and Andy Parsons said to me, ‘I reckon you still keep the real you back in your stand-up, you’ve got something you could unleash if you chose to.’ I’m not sure ‘unleash’ is the right word but he suggested I should say all the things I mutter under my breath. If I stopped being a bit nicey-nicey and just let myself go.”
The Herald, 18 October 2011
How the Citizens Theatre cracked Joe Egg
by Brian Beacom
If you had one word with which to sum up theatre legend Peter Nichols, creator of stage classics such as A Day In The Death Of Joe Egg and Privates On Parade, it would be honesty.
Right from the start of conversation he tells it like it is, whether it’s discussing current Joe Egg star Miriam Margolyes’s one-time fondness for fellatio (as confessed on Graham Norton’s TV chat show) or the performance of previous Egg leads; Eddie Izzard’s 2002 TV film effort was over-boiled, thanks to his self-referential ad-libbing, while acting giant Albert Finney was “too big”(in performance terms) for the part. “Yet Clive Owen, in 2001, was quite fantastic,” he says.
Nichols is also honest enough to reveal that the great Joe Orton once declared Joe Egg, the story of how an ordinary couple, Brian and Sheila, cope with the arrival of a mentally handicapped child, to be “sentimental rubbish”.
Yet, while the 84-year-old playwright is a warm, colourful conversationalist (he throws the F-word around like an abstract artist throws tins of paint), it’s Nichols’s refusal to be obtuse that’s so attractive. For example, when asked if Joe Egg has legs – since its Glasgow conception in 1967, it has played three times on Broadway, won a Tony Award and is set to return to its birthplace at the Citizens next week with Margolyes joined in the cast by comedian Miles Jupp – the rangy writer says he’s not sure.
“The whole climax of the play involves getting money to pay for the telephone,” he says, relaxing at his penthouse apartment in Oxford, while his wife Thelma pours coffee. “Now we all have mobile phones. But, as for the illness, that hasn’t changed. The play is always on somewhere,so I guess it’s become a sort of classic.”
No guesswork is needed. However, Nichols admits his play should never have made it on to the professional stage. Not that it wasn’t good enough; but it faced obstacles which would have tested the resolve of Sisyphus. For example? His agent hated it, the subject matter was almost taboo, and the minimum stage age was 18 while the play called for a 10-year-old to play the handicapped child. To add weight to the playwright’s boulder, Joe Egg violated the (then) dramatic convention in breaking the Fourth Wall. But to top it all Nichols, writing for the theatre for the first time, wrote Joe Egg as a comedy.Who in their right mind, I ask him, would stage a play with big laughs featuring a child with brain damage?
“Nobody,” he says with a wry grin. “I’d tried everybody. No producer or theatre company would touch it. And though my agent was a dear, amusing woman, she hatedmysort of plays.Yet I had a real feeling Joe Egg would work.”
Thelma had given birth to daughter Abigail – nicknamed Abo – five years earlier (the baby didn’t develop normally and they believed Thelma’s over-drugging during labour to be responsible) and the experience was too powerful not to commit to typewriter. But how did Joe Egg (in the play, Sheila’s grandmother uses the phrase “sitting about like Joe Egg”) ever make it on to the Glasgow stage on May 9, 1967?
The writer reveals a story of incredible fortunes.“It began with The Dave Clark Five,” he says, referring to the 1960s pop group. “I’d been writing TV plays at the time when an offer came from director John Boorman to write a film script about the group. It was an odd thing for me to consider, so I said, ‘Why should we do this?’ and he said,‘I’ll get a Hollywood contract and you’ll get enough money to let you afford the time to write a hit stageplay.’ And that’s exactly what happened. John landed Point Blank with Lee Marvin, and I got £5000, which at the time was colossal, and it paid off our debts.”
But how did the unwanted play come to be picked up? “An actor friend of mine, Michael Blakemore,was going up to Glasgow to act at the Citz and, by pure chance, David Williams, the Citz director,went to Israel and left Michael in charge. Now, Michael was wondering what to put on, called me up and asked if I had anything. I sent him Joe Egg and he made it happen.”
Was it quite that simple?
“No, not at all. The play was rewritten – I don’t remember how many times – because Mike felt it too strong. And there was the device of breaking the Fourth Wall to deal with. In fact, Michael was so tentative overall, he commissionedAndy Park to write the music, to help soften the experience.”
The play was cast between the friends – Joe Melia, Zena Walker and Joan Hickson were the original actors – but the next challenge involved getting past the censors, who claimed an actress playing the child shouldn’t hear the couple use the line “Let’s go to bed”.
“We argued her character was mentally handicapped, so she wouldn’t know what we were on about,” Nichols says. “They replied, ‘Ah, but the actress isn’t. She’ll know.’ It was f****** ridiculous. To get round it, we rewrote the scene with the actress in the wheelchair being pushed offstage at that moment.”
Finally, Nichols could look forward to his limited three-week run. Events, however, were to conspire to take the play to the world stage. But for that to happen, the alchemy – the writing, direction, casting and music – had to be perfect. Which it was.
“The first production was, I think, the best,” Nichols says. “You see, Mike really understood what I was saying in the play and that was if something like this happens to you, if you haveachild with mental illness, it’s not Greek tragedy.You just get on with it. I told Michael at the time, ‘This is Noel Coward,not Strinberg’ and that’s the way he directed it. Unfortunately, the play has been misdirected since so that people indulge the tragedy, as was the case with the film with Alan Bates and Janet Suzman. It was like Euripedes.”
The early box office wasn’t great (no surprise there, given the subject matter) but a terrific review in the Scottish edition of The Guardian was expanded to the national editions after Blakemore made a begging call to the newspaper. The following day, agents, critics, producers and actors followed the star that was Joe Egg to the Gorbals.
But how difficult had it been to write about such a difficult period? “The writing was problematic, like all plays,” Nichols offers. “The great Scots dramatist James Bridie once said, ‘Only God writes good third acts – and then not often.’ You see, anybody can start a play, but finishing? You need to send the audience out content. Joe Egg has a very good ending, but I’ve only managed that about twice.”
Did the playwright feel guilty about drawing from his own experience? “Neil Simon and Alan Ayckbourn also write about their own lives a great deal, but I think of this as a bonus rather than a penalty in life. You have an experience and think, ‘This could add up. This could work.’”
Joe Egg certainly wasn’t about eliciting sympathy. “The image I had of Joe Egg was of parents standing next to the wheelchair, talking to the child as if she were normal,”says Nichols. “What also helped was, by the time the play was written, we had three kids. After Abigail, we made a conscious effort to have another. But the truth is I’d never really wanted children, which also helped me to write the play. I think someone who’d been desperate to have a child would have been destroyed by it.”
It’s this sort of bare honesty that makes Nichols’s writing so powerful. This, and his critical faculty. “What? You didn’t know I’d played Dracula in Glasgow?” he quizzes me, grinning, at one point. “Haven’t you done your homework?”
But it’s his dark, no-nonsense humour that’s helped push the creative boulder over the hill time and time again. At the end of the interview, when asked about how he coped with the harsh reviewers, he recalls the experience of The Times theatre critic Harold Hobson, who “hated Joe Egg”.
“It could have been down to subject matter, and possibly the fact Harold was crippled and used a walking stick,”Nichols recalls, his face deadpan. “Or it could have something to do with the fact Thelma literally ran into him one night in a theatre – and knocked him right over. Perhaps that’s what prompted Hobson to say a current Brian Rix farce was way better than Joe Egg.” He breaks into a laugh. “Little b*****d that he was …”
The Scotsman, 25 March 2011
Phillip Breen on meeting sculptor and playwright Jimmy Boyle
I walked in to an Edinburgh bookshop recently and could have bought scores of different books on the Krays and their henchmen.
I could have bought 30 different books on Adolf Hitler but couldn't find a single one on Mother Theresa and they only had one copy of Gandhi An Autobiography on the whole four floors. On television, you can see Waking the Dead, Wire in the Blood or Midsomer Murders or tune in to the eight-part drama-doc, Scottish Killers just after Corrie on Monday nights. Our culture is saturated with violence and we seem to love it. Theatres with flagging box offices have always programmed The Scottish Play - Shakespeare's homicidal king shifts tickets like there's no tomorrow.
In 1977 The Hard Man by Tom McGrath and Jimmy Boyle was packing them in to theatres around Scotland. But this was no exercise in Grand Guignol. This semi-autobiographical play about the early life and subsequent imprisonment of Boyle, "Scotland's most violent man", was a theatrical game-changer. It was the Black Watch of its day. Imagine Scum meets The Threepenny Opera meets Goodfellas, staged in a music hall and underscored by Charlie Mingus, a play with the heart of Men Should Weep, the soul of Allen Ginsberg and the rage of Sarah Kane.
The play propelled McGrath to national stardom but gave fresh impetus to journalists for whom writing shrill opinion pieces in the Scottish press about Boyle had become something of a cottage industry. Tales of "drug-fuelled orgies" in the Special Unit of Barlinnie Prison, where Boyle was held, led for calls for a daring attempt to reform the most dangerous prisoners in Scotland to be abandoned.
It also gave rise to a new raft of gothic folklore in Glasgow about the eponymous Hard Man - the gangster who was speaking to them from behind the walls of Barlinnie prison - who had, it was said, cynically manipulated the mind of McGrath and sought to nefariously corral public support for an early release so he could go back to nailing people to their floorboards. It was all rubbish, but why let the reality spoil everyone's fun? Either way you couldn't get a ticket for love or money.
In preparation for directing the first professional revival of the play, I made plans to meet Jimmy at his home in Morocco. I learned quickly that everyone has a story (which is always relayed with total conviction of its veracity) - a tale from an uncle, who had a mate, who had done time with Jimmy in the 1960s; or from a father who had sat behind Jimmy at the pictures one night and could just tell that he had "something about him". The stories fell in roughly two camps - the bloodcurdling and the "he wusnae f***ing hard thut yin, you come here son, I'll tell you about real hard men", invariably followed by something bloodcurdling. The only story I have heard twice is the one about nailing debtors to their floorboards in cruciform - but I also heard that story about the Krays and Al Capone.
When I arrive at the hotel that Jimmy has recommended for me, I am greeted by an expat landlady who tells me I should expect to have a great time with Jimmy. I have been upgraded for free to the best room in the place, "anything for a friend of Jimmy's". Over tea and cake she asks how I know Jimmy and I say I don't, but have come to discuss his play. She didn't know he'd written a play, she says, but adds that she's heard Jimmy has "a bit of a past", but has never thought to ask about it.
Jimmy's driver picks me up at one o'clock, and on the way to the house he tells me how Jimmy helped him to pursue his studies and that he thinks of him as a "very great man". I have brought a bottle of wine from duty free and, as requested, all the Sunday papers from the airport.
And then I meet Jimmy. He has just come from his studio where he's working on his latest sculpture. He's wearing a pair of flip-flops and an old grey T-shirt. As we shake hands I get a flash of those piercing blue eyes. We sit on his balcony under an African sky, taking in the Atlas mountains.
Jimmy asks why I am here. I tell him I always try to meet writers whose work I am directing, that I find it helped to get a sense of why they wanted to write the play and to get further insight in to the mechanics of the drama. This is basically true, but there is a part of me that wants to see the "Hard Man" in the flesh. "What do I want him to be," I ask myself, "Why am I here?"
He talks with great openness about his life. There is not a jot of pride or relish in his stories or even a sense of self-justification. Most of them I know from his autobiography, A Sense of Freedom - but it's one thing to read about someone being naked in a cage, that measured four feet by four feet by seven feet, for six and a half years, and quite another to hear it being related by the man who has lived it. He speaks of being almost completely desensitised to all aspects of pain and violence. He speaks of the warders and the inmates never talking to each other and the two groups living side by side in huge fear of each other - locked in a cycle of violence and retribution. He speaks of his own violence while inside in purely practical terms, as a way of surviving. He talks of the importance of staying free in his mind. I have to constantly remind myself that when Boyle was sentenced to life in 1967 for a crime he claims he didn't commit, he was 23 years old. He went to the cages at 25.
Jimmy speaks about the Special Unit, and how quietly influential this controversial experiment was within the Scottish prison system. The unit was run as a collective, the inmates and the guards spoke to each other every day.
By speaking and listening to each other, understanding grew, trust grew and the inclination to hurt someone with whom they had an affinity diminished. He felt that they had begun to crack the problem of recidivism.
The only time I see a glint of steel in his eye is when I make a flippant remark about a production of mine that I wasn't been terribly proud of. "Ah well, it's only a play," I say.
"It's never 'only a play,'" he replies. Art saved Jimmy. He underwent a spiritual and political awakening after reading Crime and Punishment - a tale of a young man's redemption after committing senseless acts of violence - while in the cages at Inverness. Jimmy had never read a book before but here, he thought, was a writer who knew him - that very fact affected him deeply. But it was when he was given clay and encouraged to sculpt in the Special Unit that he felt the floodgates open. Suddenly he had a means of expression and his life took on a new purpose.
I ask him how he feels about us doing the The Hard Man again. "I don't want you to take this the wrong way," he says after a pause. "I'm pleased you're doing it, I think it's a good play, and I wish you well with it. But to be honest I don't care. That was my life then. I'm only concerned about now, the future, my next sculpture." It makes total sense. I feel bad for intruding.
His play reminds us that arguments about the punishment of criminals are general and abstract when applied to other people, but must feel very specific when applied to you. After the 2008 banking crisis it poses interesting questions about how different groups are criminalised and punished. It probes the cult of knife crime among young working-class men and how they are treated by the state. The play doesn't say that Johnny Byrne - McGrath and Boyle's semi-fictional central character - is innocent, or even that he is good, just that he is a man who was brutalisd, who brutalised others, who in turn brutalised him. To what extent he is a hero and what extent he is a bastard is entirely up to you. Boyle and McGrath don't seek to apply a conventional narrative to the violence - it happens and it destroys individuals, relationships and institutions. In the shocking final moments of the play Byrne is reduced to the status of an animal, living in a cage. We know that, given the opportunity, the real life Byrne was able to change his circumstances.
But more than anything I think the play is interested in why we have such an insatiable appetite for violent stories; why we repeatedly create "Jimmy Boyles" in the popular imagination. Even though the real one is now sitting by a lemon tree thousands of miles away contemplating his next sculpture.
Introduction by Phillip Breen to the 2011 edition of The Hard Man by Tom McGrath and Jimmy Boyle
After the huge and unexpected success of his first play, Laurel and Hardy in 1976, Glasgow playwright Tom McGrath was asked by the Traverse Theatre what his next play would be. ‘It’s going to be about violence’ he said. He was asked for a title; he quickly made one up. ‘It’s going to be called The Hard Man’. McGrath was concerned with his home city’s fetishisation of violence, and its prevalence in its working class culture. He had become fascinated by the violence in the work of Laurel and Hardy and began to imagine what the films would be like without the laughs. Or only with the violence.
As he worked away on ideas and sketches for his new play, he began an extraordinary correspondence with one of Scotland’s most notorious hard men, Jimmy Boyle. Boyle was an inmate at the special unit at Barlinnie prison, serving a life sentence for murder; a crime he claimed he did not commit. The correspondence between the two formed the basis of the powerful and influential play-cum-bloody cabaret The Hard Man. It changed the life of McGrath and the face of Scottish theatre. It was the Black Watch of its day. It was popular, challenging and contemporary. It was a theatrical game-changer. Imagine Scum, meets The Threepenny Opera, meets Goodfellas staged in a music hall and underscored by Charlie Mingus. It’s got the heart of Men Should Weep with the soul of Allen Ginsberg and the hairstyle of Jonny Rotten. It paved the way for Trainspotting, and shares a purpose with Sarah Kane.
The story is a fictionalised account of Boyle’s young life. From his days as petty criminal, through numerous stretches in brutal young offenders units, in to organized crime, money lending rackets, notoriety, arrest, imprisonment, more brutalization and a bloody battle-royale with the prison guards at HMP Peterhead. The play was derided in some quarters for adding lustre to the reputation of a violent criminal and convicted murderer. For others the play represented an attack on the corrosive influence of gang-culture. For others it was a poetic meditation on state violence and the question of who is criminalized and how they are punished. For others the play represented the rage of the indefatigable human spirit against the madness of the system – a Gorbals One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest. The politics of the play continue to be provocative in their ambiguity.
The play is complex, stylised and difficult to pin down; but it reflects the truth of our protagonist’s ‘version of his own story’ on a deeper level. It’s expressionistic, it seizes the essence of life without its context; as Tennesse Williams said of his own expressionism ‘it’s a closer approach to truth’. Its structure owes a lot to McGrath’s love of jazz, it freewheels like a Charlie Parker sax solo, but always returns effortlessly to the main theme. Its demotic language is rich with turns of phrase recalled from Boyle’s childhood in the Gorbals. The synthesis of the two gives us a play of startling originality.
When I first read The Hard Man two and a half years ago, I was swept up in its energy, frankness and jet black working class wit. Its zoetrope of violent imagery lodged in my brain like splinters of glass. It appealed to the adolescent in me that loves gangster films, the child that loves pantomimes, and laughing at dirty jokes. It appealed to the part of me that is curious to know why we are fascinated with violence and its perpetrators; the part that is riveted by Silent Witness and Macbeth. The part of me that questions why I can check my phone while watching far off cities get bombed on the news.
The more I read it, the more I felt that 2011 was a fecund time to explore the play. The end of 2010 saw Manchester United’s Rio Ferdinand campaigning for action to stop kids killing each other with knives in Peckham and the strangling of a young woman in Bristol. It saw Wikileaks reveal how British prisoner abuses at Abu-Ghraib has led to the radicalization of thousands of young Iraqi men, creating a foothold for Al-Qaeda where there was none. It saw millions being paid in compensation to former inmates of Guantanamo Bay. In each case ‘them’, ‘the others’ suddenly became people who had names and feelings and spoke on Newsnight. Johnny Byrne’s sardonic spoken leitmotif ‘the animal is thinking’, had an increasingly sonorous resonance.
There is a theme of debt in the play too, which felt deeply contemporary. This is expressed on a figurative and moral level, as the actors who play the characters that Byrne betrays in act one return in the guise of his jailers and tormentors in act two. But the issue of working class debt and the problem of what happens when people have no-recourse to ‘legitimate’ credit is tackled head on also. Johnny Byrne says:
‘I was providing a social service ... I’d been prepared to do business with them when you hadn’t. While you were sitting back pretending not to notice I had been there to care for their needs. My methods with defaulters were quick and to the point but they weren’t any different from your precious world just a bit less hypocritical and undisguised. Let’s face it the whole world is a money lending racket and if it takes a man’s whole life to kill him with his debts it doesn’t make it any the less an act of murder’
The juxtaposition of moral law with written law and the troubling gap between the two is of profound interest to McGrath and Boyle. As is the issue of who society deems to be ‘criminal’. It was perfectly legal for banks to sell mortgages to people who couldn’t afford to pay them back. The illegal sale of toxic debt remains largely unpunished. Bankers continue to receive their bonuses, and the banks are bailed out to the tune of thirteen trillion dollars in the US and counting. Tony Blair started what many believe to be an illegal war and gets £1million per gig, speaking on leadership. Brutal prisons the world over, are crammed with the mentally ill and addicts of all kinds who do not have powerful friends, or happen to disagree with their government, or who had the misfortune to deal in sums society could comprehend.
The British government attempted to have Jimmy Boyle sentenced to hang in 1967 for a murder charge that was eventually thrown out of court. His actions in prison, as far as he was concerned, were purely a practical matter of surviving the actions of a state that had physically and sexually assaulted him in his teens and at the age of twenty-three tried to rush through a flawed conviction that would have seen him dead. However the shadow of Jimmy Boyle doesn’t loom as large over the play as it did in 1977. Maybe we are more able, with distance, to dispassionately consider the fictional character of Johnny Byrne and hear the play’s jagged poetic rhythms and its passionate polemic on its own terms.
The play doesn’t say that Byrne is innocent or even that he is good, just that he is man who was brutalized, who brutalized others, who in turn brutalized him. To what extent he is a hero and to what extent he is a bastard is entirely up to you. He was reduced to the status of an animal, living in a cage, caked in his own shit. We know that after the shocking final moments of the play, given the opportunity, the real life ‘animal’ was able to change his circumstances. Although the special unit that did so much to change Boyle’s life was closed down in 1994. Between 1996 and 1998 eight inmates committed suicide.
The play reminds the audience that arguments about the punishment of criminals are general and abstract when applied to other people, but very specific when applied to you. It’s fine to punish ‘them’, ‘they’ deserve it, ‘they’ have broken the law, ‘they’ deserve everything that’s coming to them. ‘They’ have a name. ‘They’ are not going to disappear.
The Scotsman, 14 October 2008
Harold Pinter's great play of broken dreams, The Caretaker, is strangely relevant to the economic crisis, director Phillip Breen tells Mark Brown
A caretaker for troubled times
When I meet Phillip Breen – who is staging the Citizens Theatre's forthcoming production of Nobel laureate Harold Pinter's acclaimed early play The Caretaker – at the Gorbals playhouse, he is in a contemplative mood. "Pinter says he wrote the play because he was very down-at-heel and felt an affinity with the character of the vagrant. I certainly know how he feels," he says.
Breen is referring to the eponymous character of Davies, the homeless old man who becomes caretaker to brothers Mick and Aston. Pinter, pictured right, based the drama upon a real-life situation of cohabiting brothers of his acquaintance who had, for a short time, taken in a homeless man. The playwright had spoken with the destitute man on a number of occasions, and felt his plight keenly.
"Pinter wrote The Caretaker after The Birthday Party," Breen comments, "a play which was absolutely derided (by critics and audiences]. It closed after six performances, and was considered to be an enormous failure.
"He was living in poverty, in rented rooms, with his new wife, Vivien Merchant, and with his baby son, Daniel, at his feet. That's what the theatre profession does to a lot of people, it infantilises them, it denigrates the traditional male role of the breadwinner, the provider and protector. This was something, coming from quite a traditional Jewish family in the east end of London, Pinter was very concerned about."
The Caretaker is, says the director, a play "about destitution, the insecurity of one's living space and pipe dreams of security". Breen finds it at least as relevant in 2008 as it was when it was first staged (at the Arts Theatre, London) in 1960. The economic crisis that is currently crashing around us makes the precariousness of the characters' lives seem extremely pertinent.
"It's very interesting doing this play now. We're not talking about the theme in the abstract any more. Ten years ago, with Mick's aspirations for his rundown Chiswick apartment (which he wants to turn into a flash penthouse], there would have been a sense that he was ahead of his time, and almost a sense that he's going to be all right. Now, of course, all that stuff feels very different, it feels like pipe dreams."
Breen believes that Pinter is "our most realistic playwright". It's an interesting, some would say strange, opinion. The widely held view of Pinter's plays – particularly earlier ones such as The Caretaker and The Homecoming – is that they owe a great debt to the abstract, assiduously non-naturalistic theatre of Pinter's great friend and mentor Samuel Beckett. Pinter's dialogues are uncertain, ambiguous, and given to sudden, erratic shifts. Can this really be what the director means by "realistic"?
"It's interesting to think of Pinter at the age of 29, when he wrote The Caretaker. The tradition he came from was as an actor in repertory theatre, performing in plays by people like Ibsen and Chekhov, dramas that we absolutely without question considered to be 'naturalistic plays'.
"The characters come on and they talk to each other, they can really talk. They seem to know themselves. They're aware of their motives, and they seem to be able to fully explain themselves. My experience with Pinter is that conversation is much more difficult than that. He sees conversation as a constant stratagem to cover nakedness. In that sense, his characters are like real human beings. They are evasive, they don't wish to be known."
Ambiguity, the director insists, is realism. Indeed, he believes, the ambiguities and uncertainties of a play such as The Caretaker go back much further than 20th-century modernism. "I don't think Pinter's any more ambiguous than Shakespeare, for example. One of the greatest stage characters ever committed to paper was Iago (from Shakespeare's Othello], and we never find out what motivates him. It's been a subject for reams of academic discourse."
Breen – who has in recent years directed Sean O'Casey's The Shadow of a Gunman and Brecht's The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui for the Citz – believes that Pinter falls on the right side of a very clear divide in theatre writing. "Good writing finds a form for something unsayable, and ordinary writing finds a form (for] something that's eminently sayable. There are many plays in which characters seem to be able to explain themselves, and there is a lack of ambiguity. But, as a director, they're not plays that attract me so much."
Like most people with an interest in Pinter's theatre, the director is fascinated by how the English playwright relates to Beckett's dramas. "There are a number of interesting crossovers between Beckett and Pinter. I think Pinter does everything that Beckett does on a philosophical level, but Pinter's great genius as a theatre writer is that he takes it from the end of the world to the end of the pier. He takes it from the realm of the abstract and the poetical, and roots it in the popular drama of the time."
One might argue that Beckett – who loved vaudeville and early screen comedies – achieved a similar combination of elements in his work.
However, says Breen, "Beckett's work is on a big, more abstract political scale. Pinter's is so ultra, ultra specific that such a thing as a pair of shoes becomes not only a power paradigm, in terms of the play, but also a fascinating political paradigm as well (a reference to the power struggle over a pair of shoes offered to Davies in The Caretaker]."
Pinter, like Beckett, enjoys playing with the theatrical context in which his work is presented. "It's a private concern of mine," says Breen, "to try to match plays to their environments." The ostensibly domestic nature of Pinter's plays has led to a trend of presenting them in studio theatres. However, says Breen, there's something special about playing the dramas on a grand proscenium arch stage, such as in the Citz's main auditorium.
"I love the auditorium here, I love the Citizens' Theatre. It gives me great pleasure to see it come alive with plays which are written for theatres like this. It's part of the game Pinter's playing. He creates a uniquely theatrical experience, and to experience it in the Citz's auditorium, with its seedy grandeur, is great."
There's nothing seedy, but there is plenty of grandeur in the cast Breen has secured for his production. Eugene O'Hare, who recently understudied to Kevin Spacey in Eugene O'Neill's A Moon for the Misbegotten on Broadway, will play Mick, with sometime Royal Shakespeare Company actor Robert Hastie as his mentally ill brother Aston.
Best known to Citz audiences is Tam Dean Burn, the accomplished Scottish actor who will play the title role. "Tam brings something very fresh and irreverent to the role of Davies", observes Breen, "but he loses none of the pathos and humanity."
If Breen's previous Citz productions are any guide, we can expect plenty of pathos, humanity and insight from his presentation of this modern classic.
Article by Prof Carol Rutter (published in the 2008 Shakespeare Review)
The stink of lechery hung like low-level fog over the 1890s Vienna of Phillip Breen’s intense and searching Measure for Measure at Clwyd Theatr Cymru. The culture on view was a culture that took itself seriously – a culture who wore black, played Chopin etudes, and, for kicks, dressed its whores in Kaiser helmets; a culture whose physical geography inscribed on its surfaces hypocrisies (or perhaps just confusions of purpose) that it simultaneously exposed and repressed, an urban geography shared by the licit and illicit. The brooding set, brilliantly designed by Max Jones for Clwyd's studio space, was both public and secret, promiscuous and claustrophobic, indoor and outside. High black walls of what felt like a courtroom (perhaps) or a railway station or a cloister reached up to one single opening, a high-set rose window filled with clear glass that let into the gloom the only natural light. The elegantly tiled floor spoke of pattern, order, social intricacy. But its central space was in-set with a metal grill – like a lid on lavatories or police cells buried underground – that oozed smoke. Lit from below, it suffused the space with the shadows of expressionist nightmare. Along the back wall, an iron stairway trundled pedestrians up and down – perhaps to prison, or to knee-tremblers against damp surfaces. For openers, as Chopin played, there was a leather hat box on stage, a couple of suitcases, and a single, formally dressed flunkey. Waiting. Clasped hands occasionally tensing. Waiting. Another figure appeared. Then another. Each time, the noise of the entrance made those waiting tense. Each time, the courtier entering took up a formal position. And waited. So did Angelo (Paul Amos), whose frock coat and little beard made him young Freud, but whose burning eyes, the eyes of a firebrand, turned him into young Marx. Waiting.
The time this took, the tension it built, showed a director taking risks and pulling them off. When Vincentio (David Fielder) finally entered, lank grey hair grazing his overcoat, looking like a pettifogging lawyer pursuing Jarndyce v. Jarndyce, wearing his failure stale about him and itching to get out of town, the scene slammed into top gear, and the pace never let up. Scenes overlapped with scenes, but constantly got held up in the cross-over, making me aware how much of this play is about interrupted exits, exits called back, new entrances wrong-footed on the brink of things. Except for a disappointing Duke, Breen’s ensemble were right on the money, their finely judged portraits of Vienna’s would-be saints and has-been slummers constantly reversing understanding of who, precisely, the city’s monsters were. Steven Elliot’s rouge-lipped playboy Lucio went everywhere in wilted evening dress and champagne haze, but his wit was as lacerating as the ebony cane he whipped out to illustrate it. Richard Elis’s beefy Pompey in brown bowler, soiled rag neckerchief, and waistcoat losing the fight to cover his paunch might have been a drover calling prices in Smithfield meat market. His Welsh voice moving caressingly over all the r’s in a line like ‘Groping for trouts, in a peculiar river’ delivered something like aural sex – though his bug-eyed amazement at each instalment of the news he was delivering made him the perpetual innocent, or at least gave the impression of someone surprised by sleaze. Effete, bent like an apology, screwing his defence before the law out of pinched fingers, Guy Lewis’s Froth in spats and cutaway coat was a toff’s Uriah Heep with an ice cream cone quiff. Grahame Fox’s skinhead Abhorson was terrifying – not because of his blood-stiff leather apron and cradled meat axe, but because of his absolute stillness, the menace of the cobra just before it strikes. The one bright moth flapping around this darkness was Rachel Lumberg’s Mrs. Overdone: her cheeks as livid as plague sores; her yellow curls screwed to her scalp; her abundant avoirdupois spilling out of her velvet gown, and her washer-woman right arm capable of slinging her girls downstairs without their feet so much as touching the ground. Low-life Vienna was not so much Under Milkwood as under Cardiff docks.
At the centre of this production, Leila Crerar’s Isabella and Amos’s Angelo really were innocents: her face shining under her short veil; his face twisting as new thoughts knotted in his brain. Her first ‘YES!’ (‘Yes: I do think you might pardon him’) came out so loud it shocked her. His voice, picking his way across the tortured debates Shakespeare writes, line by line, into Measure’s impacted utterance lifted up each contradiction, each rhetorical shift and turn to inspection. She followed the argument, physically leaning into the contours of the persuasion. Here, the cerebral was erotic; the words they exchanged, arousal. When she touched him (‘Go to your bosom / Knock there, and ask your heart…’) it was as though she had slammed 10000 volts through his nervous system. When he scrambled inexpertly to grope her (‘Be that you are /…a woman’) and almost by accident yanked off her veil, the violation felt like rape.
Finally, though, it was Mariana – the incandescent Louise Collins – who saved the life of this Measure for comedy: who simply wouldn’t be silenced by the Duke’s (as it happens, wrong) judgements (‘we are definitive’; ‘Away with him to death’; ‘Against all sense you do importune’). A tiny Welsh terrier worrying away at blind authority, she performed the miracle of making Vincentio think again. Making him remember a prisoner. When Jordan Bernarde’s prison-wrecked, shuffling Claudio, unhooded, blinking in the light, fell into his sister’s arms and Angelo, wonderingly, embraced Mariana, the heart-breaking love story this play tells felt complete.
Article by Phillip Breen for the programme of Dumb Show
A true story.
The names have been changed to protect the innocent.
In 2001 I was 22, living in my University town and directing students in a semi-professional comedy revue. Soon after I got the job the funding was pulled and we were contemplating cancelling the tour for the first time in over a century. At the 11th hour a leading international cigarette manufacturing company stepped in with £30,000 to ensure the tour went ahead. I was delighted. It meant we could embark on our ambitious project and it meant that the revue remained open to people from modest backgrounds, not just to people who could afford to participate. I had a drink to celebrate and a day off to lovingly nurse the hangover to follow.
At shortly after 7am on a stinking hot June morning my phone rang. Unknown numbers calling at that ungodly hour rarely bode well. It was Reuters.
"Good Morning Mr. Breen"
My dry tongue in my thick head returned the salutation. I have only a hazy recollection of the conversation that followed.
"Mr. Breen, is it true that you have accepted £30,000 from a leading international tobacco manufacturer?"
"Yes" I replied.
"Mr. Breen were you aware that this company forces toddlers to smoke 60 a day in parts of the far east?". Or words to that effect.
"How do you feel about this Mr. Breen?"
"Um. Well. Gosh. That's bad, isn't it? Is that bad?"
"Thank you, Mr. Breen"
The phone went dead.
I had just convinced myself that I was dreaming when my phone rang again. It was the Press Association.
No pleasentry this time.
"Is it true that you are distancing yourself from sponsorship money donated to you by a leading international tobacco manufacturer?"
"Um. I don't think so."
"You have gone on record to condemn their marketing strategies in the far east"
"Were you aware of their support of the oppressive military regime in Somewhereistan?". Or some such.
"What do you think about that?"
"That's terrible, isn't it?"
"Thank you Mr. Breen".
The phone went dead.
I reasoned that whatever was happening could wait. I wasn't not drunk yet. I turned off my phone, closed the gap in my curtains and went back to sleep.
I woke at midday or thereabouts, the memory of seven am kicked in and turned on my phone.
"You have 53 new messages"
Wading through these took quite sometime, as I did so I slowly started to realise that something significant was afoot. Every national newspaper had left a message on my phone, one British based rolling news channel had got my number from someone and left a message on my phone, an international cable news outlet had paid someone to find private mobile phone number and left a message. One broadsheet (when it was still a broadsheet) had dispatched reporters to follow the cast to lectures. Students were being approached in coffee shops. Young women were being photographed outside their college mailrooms. I was being personally condemned on news broadcasts by an anti smoking pressure group outside the House of Commons.
"Mr. Breen and his Revue troupe have clearly fallen for a cynical piece of PR from the tobacco companies. They might as well take out a banner saying 'Smoking is funny and cool".
I went to sleep gently slurring the words to the Fields of Athenry and by twenty five past one the following day I was in league with 'big tobacco' and responsible for making children smoke.
There was a message from the theatre manager requesting my immediate presence, as the car park of the theatre was stuffed to the gills with news vans and satellite dishes. It looked like the final ten minutes of ET in there. I was led in to the auditorium where there was a cue of reporters waiting to speak to me. I thought it would be my opportunity to put the record straight, to talk about the subject of access to the University from state school applicants, about how this story was at the very heart of the 'access' issue. I reminded them that I was of course grateful for the money from the leading international cigarette manufacturer, but I wish we were properly funded and didn't have to go cap-in-hand to big business. They promised me coverage for the tour, big articles in August during the Edinburgh Fringe Festival (the sort of thing that can make a show there) in exchange for my views on this subject. And they let me speak. Boy, did they let me speak. The more I spoke the more confident I became, the more strident my opinions, the more sensational my language. I had almost forgotten that I smelled like a dray horse. And the press corps kept a straight face, they were sincere and sympathetic, their acting was controlled and subtle.
The following morning I was invited to speak to a national breakfast news programme and the local news stations. By then interest had clearly waned. The presenter on the regional news bulletin was clearly reading something more interesting on his computer screen as I recounted yesterday's events. My thirty second spot was followed by news of the under 13 district football competition.
After an afternoon feeling like I was at the epicentre of the interntational news agenda. I was somewhat bemused when I went to my local newsagent the following morning. We had made page 6 of the broadsheets. There were huge pictures of Emma Thompson, Hugh Laurie, Stephen Fry and other notable almuni of our revue troupe, a statement from the cigarette manufacturer (one of the few organisations that had neglected to call me), and reams of quotes designed to make me sound like a 'Wolfie' Smith style stereotype.
I was hoping the student newspaper, knowing us all as they did would take a more sensible line and put the record straight. But predictably the hacks of tomorrow decided to take this opportunity to impress their future employers. The front page read "THESPS IN ASH CASH HASH" next to a picture of me looking pissed and a banner screaming "Smoking is funny and cool". I know at least three of that news team are on the news desks of national newspapers writing your morning edition as you read this article.
My bluster had ensured that they had missed the big story. Its turns out that this was a case of corporate nepotism after all, the handsome son of the chief executive was the boyfriend of a beautiful female cast member. To this day I never found out whether it was stupidity, laziness or something more sinister that kept this version of the story out of the press. Or to that matter how they came to call me in the first place.
We did get the money in the end, the tour went ahead to great critical acclaim and even played for a night at a west end Theatre after being nominated for the prestigious Perrier Comedy Award. Don't get me started on Perrier / Nescafe and the aggressive marketing of baby milk formula in Asia. I was fulminating on the subject when we didn't win.
When I met Joe Penhall near his home in Hammersmith to discuss making a new production of Dumb Show, we talked about our excitement at revisiting this play at a time where we gorge ourselves on reductive tabloid sensationalism more greedily than ever. We discussed our worry that after Jade Goody dying live on television, Michael Barrymore finding a body in his swimming pool and the Home Secretary's husband making a humiliating statement to the press about watching porn while home alone a year ago, might make the actions of our characters seem somewhat tame. The truth is far stranger by comparison.
But I think Joe's play is more than a comedy set in the seedy underworld of corrupt news reporting and 'celebrity' entrapment. It's about something nasty, moralising, jealous and prurient in the English character that creates such a vast market for gossip. An exploration of a fetid collective unconscious. Like pornography, no-one ready admits to consuming it, but there is a reason for the vastness of the market for tittle tattle from the broadsheets to the 'shock-monkeys'. The play explores a deep rooted unspoken hypocritical puritanism in the British that is poured on to the pages of our newspapers, that twitches at net curtains and delights in passing moral judgement on others. If our newspapers are any guide we are a culture that rejoices in schadenfreude and is a stranger to complexity.
The daring observation at the heart of Joe's play is that if we wanted to read about famous people, we'd put them on the front page of our newspapers and magazines, but it's our collective delight in bitching about our neighbours that makes Jacqui Smith's husband's unfortunate wank a front page story. If we wanted news we'd read it rather than a stream of opinion dressed up as news. In Dumb Show Barry says "If Jesus Christ were alive today, they'd be going through his bins", they'd also be door stepping his mum in Nazareth.
The play explores the dance between the media, it's subjects and its consumers. No one really cares what the truth is, as long as the story is good, as long as it plays to our prejudices and doesn't demand us to think. God forbid that I should buy a newspaper that I disagreed with.
Charlie Brooker brilliantly remarked that Sky News and BBC News 24 gave full unedited coverage to Jack Tweedy's funeral oration over the coffin of Jade Goody yet the same two channels did not broadcast one word from the speeches in protest at the Iraq war which nearly 2 million people attended. Neither was one word of the G20 speeches appealing for a different approach to politics broadcast. Terry Johnson, the first person to direct Dumb Show wrote of these characters that "they are all lying, all of the time", the journalists, the people they write about and the people that read it. "They are all lying all of the time" that's important to remember. Because they are.
It's strange to think that despite the number of free boxes of cigarettes I could have smoked back in 2001 I never took it up. I'd have liked to. My lungs just can't handle it. But I'm afraid that as much as I want to, I just can't kick the habit of my daily newspaper.
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