The Road Weeps, The Well Runs Dry (2013), by Marcus Gardley
‘Ain’t no such thing as a bad history.
There’s only a bad way to tell it’
The premise for Gardley’s play promises much – murder, sex, racial tension, mythology – all set within a historical backdrop oft neglected by textbooks and dramatization alike. Gardley immerses us in the mid-19th Century USA, immediately before and after the civil war, where a community of freed Black-Seminole slaves experience treachery, revenge and the quest for spiritual leadership. While aspiring to the heightened imagery, musical language and sucker punch of emotion typified by classical Greek tragedies, Gardley’s play lacks clarity, producing a hotchpotch of frantic mythologizing and historical melodrama.
The drama centres on the family rivalry between frenemies (and one-time lovers) Trowbridge, the Seminole Sherriff of the community, and Number Two, a supposedly immortal ex-slave. When Trowbridge’s son is murdered the local well mysteriously dries up. Members of the town are convinced that either a neighbouring Seminole village has cursed them, meaning to re-enslave them, or that God is inflicting upon them a version of the Ten Plagues. Gardley mixes melodrama (forbidden love; stolen children), politics (usurpation; racial hierarchies) and religion (the antagonism between the Christian Church and Native American Theology) within a framework of fantastical folklore (possible ghosts appear; the moon itself takes on a character). These are exciting themes, and I found the cultural conflicts of particular interest as embodied by the characters of M. Gene, the reverend’s wife and self-appointed prophet, and her Grandfather Horse Power, the town elder and spiritual advisor. Their sparring produces an engrossing, yet fleeting, dialogue on socio-cultural appropriation and fusion, particularly that between the oppressor and the oppressed.
However, the amount of plot involved in the play causes Gardley to stumble. Jumps in time, dream/memory sequences, pacing issues and inconsistency in characterisation make the drama falter and less impactful. There were moments I was reminded of moralising heights of Greek or Shakespearean tragedy in plot (Number Two cannot be slain by any but his own blood) and language (the gallivanting town fool, Colorado, speaks mostly in verse), the play’s bloody conclusion seems less the gut-wrenchingly inevitable end to a tortuous life, and more a cop-out that is puzzlingly twee in its imitative stylings. The Road Weeps is not without its strong points, but ultimately promises more in concept than Gardley delivers.
Published by Methuen
Jumpers by Tom Stoppard (1972)
‘This is a British murder inquiry and some degree of justice must be seen to be more or less done’
I’ve come to expect the cerebral wit and verbal dexterity from Stoppard’s plays now. Although I’ve read a few, I’ve only seen Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. It would be easy to presume that the next major play he wrote would suffer from ‘Tricky second album’ difficulties. But that’s not the case with Jumpers, a form-bending, philosophy-pondering farce-cum-thriller. George is in his apartment’s office preparing his philosophy lecture on the existence of God. His wife, a retired showgirl, is in the bedroom having possibly but maybe not shot a man dead. This is all on a backdrop of a new revolutionary radical liberal government.
It’s a peculiar play, even more so because of its dream-like coda, but not without intrigue. 50 years on from the first man on the Moon, it’s interesting to read a play (a happily timed accident) which has been prompted by it to ask questions. Now that man has achieved the once thought to be unachievable, the apex of discovery, what left is there to aspire to? Now that its mysteriousness and poetry have been somewhat dissolved, and things perhaps seem so inconsequential when looking at Earth from orbit, will it lead to the destruction of society’s well-established morals? This gets to Dotty: ‘all our absolutes, the thou-shalts and the though-shalt-nots that seemed to be the very condition of our existence, how did they look to two moonmen’? ‘There is going to be such… breakage’. Such philosophising, arguably more interesting than George’s lofty speculations, are the crux of the play.
It’s a play interested in change, what do we do when the ‘What if?’ has happened, whether that’s landing on the moon or changing the government? And Stoppard asks no less demanding questions of theatre. The play’s interest in taste, the mixture of seemingly highbrow philosophical content mixed with the lowbrow forms of crime thriller (an Inspector snooping for the body) and farce (lots of slamming of doors) and end of the pier music hall, seems to me to be typically Stoppardian.
Published by The Faber Library
The Author (2009), by Tim Crouch
‘“that writer has imagined me”. I’ve been imagined! Poorly imagined! The audience has been badly written’
This is a fascinating play which happens inside its audience. First performed at the Royal Count Upstairs, and set there even in subsequent productions, the stage space is made up of two banks of seating which face each other. There’s no traditional performance space in between, so actors are presumably in and amongst the audience. Characters talk to the audience directly, and there are gaps in the text to allow the actors to insert certain names they’ve learnt. If this smells like audience participation to you, it’s not meant to be feared. In fact, from the stage directions and performance note, Crouch has put a lot of focus into making sure the audience feels as comfortable and part of a group as possible. The amount of emphasis shows that it clearly matters. And I suppose that this is one of the ‘devices’ to lull the audience into a false sense of security.
It’s understandably easy to initially think that things are as they seem. The author Tim Crouch is playing Tim the author, the actor Adrian Howells is playing Adrian, and so on. But things soon develop and by the shockingly horrible end, it’s clear that as an audience, or as a reader, we’ve been duped. Actually, it’s not that we’ve been fooled, it’s more that we’ve falsely assumed in the first place. And I think that that’s what The Author is about. In the play, a playwright called Tim has written a violent in-yer-face play (another interesting link with the Royal Court). The Author explores its aftermath and impact on the writer, two of its actors and one audience member. It’s interested in the thought process behind it, and asks do we really think about what we’re seeing on stage, even if we know it’s fiction. How does your brain differentiate between, for example, what is represented as real violence, what we are told is blood, and what we know to be stagecraft and fake blood? What responsibility does an author have, and does a theatre have to its cast, creatives and audiences? 10 years on from its premiere, trigger warnings are becoming more common which perhaps goes some way toward responding to that call for responsibility. But what else should be done? I also think it’s interesting that it assumes, in this case, the role of playwright to be figure of authority, the original creator. What part, I think the play asks, do actors play as co-creators and what effect does this have on them as people? A really intriguing read.
Published by Oberon Modern Plays
Via Dolorosa (1998), by David Hare
“My subject is belief… And so it comes to seem appropriate… that the fifty-year-old British playwright should finally visit the fifty-year-old state”
Good for him.
I jest, but there is undoubtedly something ostensibly noble about Hare’s trip to Israel and Palestine, and the creative output that came from it. This one person play, performed by Hare himself (but not a lecture), is about the people he met, the places he visited and its impact on his own beliefs.
The subject itself is of course fascinating, whether that Hare’s own observations of what he saw, or the opinions on the conflict of those he met. The benefit of a personal account is that we are let into the intricacies and the specifics. What’s particularly interesting is the impact and physical realities of borders. Hare likens the difference between the Palestine and the Gaza is like going from a Beverly Hills-style suburban community to Bangladesh. He also recounts running across a stretch of tarmac and being hurtled into a car, being exchanged from one British Council envoy to another, as like being in a John Le Carré movie.
But what interests me more is the form of the play. This isn’t a dramatization like J.T. Rogers’ Oslo, about the 1993 Oslo Peace Accord. This is simply Hare, as himself, laid bare, relaying his experiences and exploring the effects of that. The flaws, or what might be seen as problematic, in a drama are not non-existent here, but they are acknowledged. There is reported speech in Via Dolorosa (she said this, he said that), and so I question how much of that is fact because it’s not all verbatim, but it is made clear right from the start that this is all Hare’s experience only.
With The Author and Via Dolorosa, then, there is an added interesting effect of them being (partly) performed by the author. Unlike David Haig in his Pressure or Oliver Cotton in his Daytona, these are plays which feature the author as a character. But whereas Tim the character in The Author is separate from Crouch the playwright, this is Hare. But then again, how much do we trust that? Maybe it is a fictional version. I don’t think that’s the case, but it is interesting. Also interesting is the weight of authority (and fame) that Hare has and if that has a wider effect; the play was performed at the Duke of York’s when the Royal Court was temporarily based there followed by a run on Broadway. The Brit Abroad…
Published by Faber
Dry Powder (2016), by Sarah Burgess
‘Free enterprise is fair.
It asks nothing of you but that you show up and join the competition’
Sarah Burgess’ amusing black comedy is disappointingly pedestrian venture into the sky-high world of Wall Street business. As a satirical skewering of the eternally-timely topic of private investment capitalism, Dry Powder is highly entertaining, yet not as intellectually and morally enlightening as it could be. Private equity firm owner, Rick, has just thrown a lavish engagement party despite being attacked in the national press for a slew of redundancies at a budget supermarket chain. Keen to rebuild his reputation, Rick enlists business partner, Seth, to strike a deal with a Californian luggage company, intending to use the venture to promote growth in the American jobs market. Yet third business partner Jenny’s conflicting MO (to make as much money as humanly possible, no matter the consequence) sees her fighting to get production relocated to Bangladesh with the help of an internationally reviled Chinese investor.
The plot is, if not original, a bankable (excuse the pun!) set-up for a battle of wits/clash of personalities type comedy. Well-paced scenes consist of rapid-fire put-downs, one-upmanship rallies, flippancy, and cynical tirades of self-defence. Burgess’ dialogue is entertaining and contains none of the ‘dryness’ alluded to in the title and the associated trappings of business jargon (‘dry powder’ is the term for a company’s available liquid (cash) assets). Furthermore, as a fan of comedies such as The Office and The Thick of It, I’m a sucker for the ‘bickering colleagues’ sitcom format, so the bile-soaked patter between arch rivals Seth and Jenny indulged my taste for the acerbic.
Where I feel the play is let down slightly is in the utter lack of empathy we have with the characters. Jenny is a one-note stone cold bitch, blinded to anything that does not affect her own personal gain. Rick is a two-faced wimp, neurotic and indecisively hanging onto the coattails of his underling partners. And while Seth on the surface appears to be the most humane of the three leads, championing national economic growth and workers’ rights, his argument falls foul to paradox and the nature of his business and personal circumstances. This laceration of the champagne socialist lifestyle is perhaps where Burgess most succeeds in gaining socio-thematic tract.
While Dry Powder is perhaps intended as a satirical expose of inconsistencies in capital conservatism versus socialist liberalism, I found that I didn’t learn anything new. My beliefs weren’t challenged, Wall Street stereotypes are perpetuated, and the overall message is pretty grim – Money will always win. Nevertheless, burgess’ play is a diverting read, and I did relish her deliciously snarky barbed dialogue.
Published by Nick Hern Books