New Writing Part One: Eigengrau (Bush Theatre 13/3/10) 2 April 2010

This past month has been heavily populated by new things for me. A new play at the Bush Theatre, two evenings of new writing and with the first of the two, the first time I had been to Theatre503. Add to that my finding out that I will be starting a new job in May (Marketing for Arcola Theatre - which now marks a self imposed embargo on Arcola blogs) and it all adds up to a pretty momentous month. My original intention was to discuss each of the three new theatre works individually but in my mind they always seemed to come together as three parts of one conversation so that's how I have decided to approach it this time around.

Back at the end of January, beginning of February I attended Improbable Theatre's Devoted & Disgruntled weekend where, using Open Space Technology, participants set the agenda. If you had a topic you wanted to discuss then you made it, titled it and scheduled it into one of the predetermined time slots. It was your responsibility to act as moderator of your 'session' and take notes as a record of the discussion.

One session I attended has a direct correlation to these new works and the thoughts I've had surrounding them. There was a woman who has been presenting her work at scratch performances for years and felt she was has fallen into a scratch circle. Can you scratch too much? I had never been a part of a scratch evening as a participant or viewer so I thought it would be interesting to hear if it was something I should pursue for my own work and if so maybe I would find out some of the pitfalls to avoid. The one thing that stood out for me was the question - when is your play or work finished and ready for a real production? This one went back and forth quite a few times until one of the participants - an Improbable regular - finally said - when you say it's ready.

That seems an obvious answer but it wasn't something that many had considered - partly because we are all used to having the 'powers that be' tell us when something is finished or possibly we as artists sometimes don't have enough faith in what we produce. Either way it was something to chew on.

Keeping all that in mind, I approached this month of new writing with the thought that all of the artists involved (as well as the powers that be) feel that, unless otherwise noted, the work on show is the finished deal.

Here is Part One.

Production 1: Eigengrau by Penelope Skinner at The Bush Theatre, Directed by Polly Findlay

Following on the heels of the stonking The Whisky Taster , to my tastes, Eigengrau had alot to live up to and on many levels if fell way short. I tend to have a thing about booking the final preview performance before a press night, the reasons being that for larger productions I can take advantage of a preview ticket price and ensure I'm getting the press night quality of performance. Also, I like to see things earlier on so not to be swayed or influenced by word of mouth and reviews. Unfortunately in this day and age, the press performances tend to be a bit fluid so I found myself surrounded by reviewers, the only ones I recognised were Mark Shenton and Lyn Gardner. Oh well.

For those who don't know, Eigengrau tells the story of two men and two women whose lives are intertwined. There's Cassie (Alison O'Donnell) a radical feminist and her flaky flatmate she found through Gumtree, Rose (Sinead Matthews - Our Class and The Women of Troy at the National, The Wild Duck at the Donmar and The Birthday Party in the West End), and on the male side there's Rose's city boy almost one night stand Mark (Geoffrey Streatfeild - Pains of Youth, The History Boys and The Bacchai - all National Theatre, Journey's End in the West End and Henry VI 1, 2, 3, Richard III, Henry IV 1, 2 and Henry V - all RSC) and his slacker flatmate Tim Muffin (John Cummins - A Stab in the Dark at the Kings Head, Edward II at BAC and The Beaver Coat at the Finborough).

Once all the characters and situations have been established, you can see how they will be interacting a mile off. City boy Mark has had a brief fling with Rose and runs into her flatmate Cassie the next morning in the flat. Cassie challenges Mark with her feminist views. Rose who has become obsessed with Mark, goes to his flat and meets Mark's flatmate Tim Muffin who in urn takes a shining to her. Mark starts fancying Cassie and it all gets a bit brit-comesque.

Going one step further each of the characters has a 'thing'. Cassie, as mentioned, is a feminist and is actively involved in the movement. Tim Muffin's grandmother has recently died and he keeps her ashes in a teddy bear shaped urn. Cassie is a flake and early on seems to be the eternal optimist but is revealed to be a bit psychotic in her single visioned pursuit of Mark, against all odds and signs to the contrary. And then there's Mark, the city boy. That's it. He's a city boy with all the trappings that one would expect - a bit laddish, a bit middle class with a dark side of liking to dominate sexually. No surprises there.

There's not much else to say about the actual storyline other than things happen and you can't really figure out why because they're never explored or brought up again. After a night of domination sex Cassie never speaks of feminism again. We learn that Rose has a history of not paying bills but is that a reason for her excessive behaviour? She refuses to see reason in regards to her pursuit of Mark, justifying every action in her favour, she debases herself by giving Mark the longest onstage blowjob ever (complete with the spitting out of sperm) to help secure their relationship, then goes onstage at a karaoke club and sings a complete song off key which concludes with self mutilation, only to bounce back at the end to her almost original self. And there's Tim Muffin, the only character with two names, (most likely for the humour factor) who we find out at the end has been devastated by the death of his grandmother. How that gives reason for his pursuit of Rose and his general slackerishness is beyond me.

Basically nothing seemed to add up. Yes, there were some wonderful comic touches and lines which the audience ate up but when you got to the end you just weren't sure what you just saw and why you saw it. At the end, two things came to mind - either the characters were poorly written or the director (Polly Findlay - Thyestes at Arcola, Romeo and Juliet at BAC) or the actors didn't assist enough in the creation of the characters.

Kind of sidestepping for a moment - I was working at a theatre in Los Angels during their pre Broadway run of August Wilson's Seven Guitars. At that point it was still a work in progress and I was fortunate enough to be able to sit in on a discussion between the actors a group of young people for one of the theatre's outreach programmes. They told the eager listeners about all the cuts that had been made throughout the production.

The actors performed the previous version of the script for quite a while but it became evident that the play was running too long and many of the scenes were dragging down the pace. As a result, there were some major cuts - mostly involving character backstory. Some of the kids wondered if the cuts made the actors work more difficult. The reply was that it made their work easier because although they didn't perform those scenes anymore the information that they imparted became part of their performances, they informed how the characters acted and reacted within the scenes. It was something I hadn't considered before and has since stayed with me. (Unfortunately to the extent that I have issue with seeing replacement casts for long running productions). Having that much information is a luxury and that the majority of actors (and directors) have to get that sort of information on their own. It may be difficult at times to figure out but I think it's a necessity to gaining well fleshed out characters.

With Eigengrau I would say the lack of fully fleshed out characters are a result of the writer, the actors and/or the director not realising that something was missing. The writer introduced many elements that were either dropped without explanation or not explored beyond one or two lines. There is the possibility that the actors had worked on their characters stories but unfortunately this work never appeared in their performances (with the exception of Sinead Matthews who gave a wonderfully heartfelt performance which in fact revealed the flaws of the text). If they had worked on their back stories then I would say it was the director who failed to realise that the physics of cause and effect were not in play here.

Physically, the space itself was just a small traverse with audience on both sides. With the exception of a fast food stand where Tim Muffin briefly works, four chairs were used in various configurations to determine settings with a shelf on one wall for the teddy bear urn to indicate when they were in Mark's flat. The scene changes were a little clumsy and there were times when I had to think a little too much about where the characters were supposed to be. It mostly wasn't as obvious as it should have been.

Afterwards, I thought about Eigengrau, not for the good reasons that stimulating theatre can do but wondering what determines a finished play? Does it read better than it plays? Who could have read it and not seen all the missing pieces? Have I missed something? Am I crazy? I don't know. The audience I saw it with laughed up a storm, I didn't find it funny. A little humorous but too obvious for my tastes. Most of the reviews were glowing but I did read one that had the same questions about not following through with storylines. It is almost a deja vu situation. It reminds me a little about a certain play I blogged twice that was pipped to the post of a major award. It's almost like the title of the play exclaims - eigengrau: the colour seen by the eye in perfect darkness. Like the character of Rose it may seem the world only wants to see the good. I can excuse alot but I love theatre too much to wear rose tinted spectacles.

Stay tuned for the continuation of the new writing discussion with London Playwrights Collective and Box of Tricks' Word:Play 3 at Theatre503.