Reputations: Martin Crimp (1/2)
13th May 2005
REPUTATIONS: MARTIN CRIMP (1/2)
Lindsay Posner, Dan Rebellato, Auriol Smith and Anne Tipton begin their comprehensive survey of Crimp’s formidable dramatic output. Aleks Sierz hosts. Recorded live.
As an actor playing it, it’s extremely demanding – Martin’s work – there’s a rhythm you cannot ignore.
REPUTATIONS: MARTIN CRIMP
Lindsay Posner, Dan Rebellato, Auriol Smith and Anne Tipton survey Crimp’s formidable dramatic output. Aleks Sierz hosts.
Recorded: 13 May 2005. © theatreVOICE.
Good afternoon, my name is Aleks Sierz – I’m a freelance theatre critic and author of In-Yer-Face Theatre – and I’d like to welcome you all to this TheatreVoice event, which is being held here in London’s Theatre Museum.
This week, in our series on Reputations, we’ll be looking at the work of Martin Crimp, a playwright whose handful of innovative dramas, including The Treatment, Attempts on Her Life and The Country, have secured his reputation as one of the finest and most exciting playwrights of his generation, both in Britain and on the Continent of Europe. And I really think it’s no exaggeration to say that his masterpiece, Attempts on Her Life, has a good claim to be considered one of the very best British plays of the past 25 years.
Born in 1956, Crimp began his career at the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond, a venue which enabled him to develop his unique voice by staging his first six plays, which include the often-revived Dealing with Clair, as well as more obscure early work such as Living Remains and Four Attempted Acts.
In 1990, Crimp had his play, No Sees the Video, produced at the Royal Court, and that theatre subsequently staged most of his new work. He has also made something of a parallel career as a translator of French plays, creating a memorably high-octane version of Moliere’s The Misanthrope and introducing English audiences to new versions of The Chairs, The Maids and, indeed, the British premiere of Roberto Zucco.
To examine the work of Martin Crimp, and to discuss the reasons for his enviable reputation in new writing circles both here and abroad, I’m delighted to introduce our panel for today:
Lindsay Posner, the director. Lindsay was artistic director of the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs between 1989-92, and his many directing credits include Death and the Maiden, which won two Olivier awards, plus a host of West End revivals, especially of the work of Harold Pinter and David Mamet. His production of The Birthday Party is currently running at the Duchess theatre, and he directed three of Martin Crimp’s plays in 1990s.
Dan Rebellato is a senior lecturer in drama at Royal Holloway, and author of 1956 and All That. He’s also a playwright, whose recent plays include Here’s What I Did with My Body One Day and Chekhov in Hell, and an associate editor of Contemporary Theatre Review. He is currently writing a book on British drama and globalisation.
Auriol Smith is an actor and director at the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond. She recently starred there in Alan Franks’s Previous Convictions – and she will be directing The Women of Lockerbie at the same venue in August. Auriol was in the cast of Martin Crimp’s first three Orange Tree plays in the early 1980s.
Finally, Anne Tipton is assistant director at the Bristol Old Vic, under The Channel Four Theatre Director’s Scheme, and she’s currently working on The Importance of Being Earnest. Later this year, she’ll be directing the first professional revival of Sarah Kane’s second play, Phaedra’s Love. Last year, she won the James Menzies-Kitchin award for Martin Crimp’s Attempts on Her Life.
Aleks Sierz: I’d like to start by asking each of you in turn to say a few words about how you see Martin Crimp’s career and his position on the British Theatre scene. Dan would you mind kicking off with that?
Dan Rebellato: I think Martin Crimp sits very squarely in a tradition of the kind of playwrights that you direct, Lindsay, the kind of playwrights like Beckett and Pinter, and specifically Mamet would fit in this tradition. Playwrights that very reflexively examine language, so the language of the plays is part of the object of the plays, and is the kind of thing that they talk about. A very English tradition and I suppose I’d put Martin Crimp in that camp.
Lindsay Posner: Yeah I’d agree, that’s why I’m attracted to those writers. Martin has clearly been influenced by rhythm, especially by Mamet and Pinter, with interruptions and the way that he uses pauses. The only thing I’d say in terms of which he’s gone further and perhaps is the reason why he’s connected with a kind of zeitgeist in certain European countries, is that he is postmodern in the way that Mamet and Pinter are not. What I mean by that is that Mamet and Pinter write with a kind of visceral core of feeling. I don’t think the tone of Martin Crimp’s plays do that. I think they are in some ways clinical, self-referential as you work through them, deliberately, as a theatrical device. They are often not emotionally engaging in the way that Mamet and Pinter is, I don’t think, they work in a different way, in a way that’s strong in its own right. It’s a bit like watching characters through a glass jar, so the satire is often quite cruel and merciless and I think that’s why he’s hit a chord in Europe.
Auriol Smith: Well, I agree with all of what has been said. The thing that first struck me about the first play I read, and I read it actually long before it became a play, was its musicality. I think it makes the same demands on an actor as playing a very fine piece of music, and there’s a precision about it that, I agree, is slightly removed, and as an actor playing it is extremely demanding. The precision, with the rhythms that are there – you cannot ignore or you destroy it.
Anne Tipton: I agree, I think that’s what drew me to his work, was the musicality of the language, in the way that many British playwrights do that are brilliant. Also I think that it’s his obsession with form, and the formal innovation that I think is partly do with why it’s not as emotionally engaging, as you say. My interest is with his story telling and how you can break down our tradition of story telling and remove a protagonist or turn a story on its head and I think that’s why it appeals to a European market, because I think they are more used to that than we are in Britain.
Sierz: I suppose a logical place to start, in our survey of his career is at the Orange Tree. Auriol, could you just tell us a bit about how you became familiar with Martin Crimp’s work?
Smith: The first time I encountered Martin’s writing was as a result of the writing workshops that we were having at the Orange Tree, which were being run by Anthony Clark, who now runs the Hampstead, and the tradition was that the playwrights would meet – I don’t know what went on in their meetings – but at the end of a few weeks, something had been produced, and the idea was that then professional actors would read what had been written. Sometimes it was only a page, sometimes less, sometimes more. Martin’s was about two and a half pages, and it was given to me to read, a female monologue. I found it extremely engaging, I couldn’t put it down, and it does get under your skin, and this encouraged Martin to write the rest of the monologue, which ended up being 20-odd pages long. So that was the first time I encountered him. And that was Living Remains. Which is basically about a woman whose husband is on life support and he’s only able to move his finger, which is very Martin Crimp I think. He’s only able to move his finger and press a bell: if he presses it once it means yes, and if he presses it twice it means no. The woman, to cut it very short, has come to get him to condone her relationship with another man. The struggle for power: there is an enormous power in the man’s hands and she has enormous power because he cannot move, and she titillates him, she flirts with him, she provokes him, she does all sorts of things. He has the power of withdrawing all together – which he does ultimately.
Sierz: So it’s also about control and cruelty – themes that come up in his work again and again. Does that sound familiar to the rest of you?
Posner: Certainly the case with No One Sees the Video and The Treatment, both of which I directed. In The Treatment, there are various discussions about the value of art and at what point does the artist become exploitative, or the people who think they are creating art or the people who are looking after the artist become exploitative and how intrusive that becomes. Also the way in which both the psychological, the psychology of the victim, and the language used, both by victim and oppressor, if you like in the way in which its presented.
Smith: That of course is there in another of his early plays, the third one, which is A Variety of Death-Defying Acts – I don’t know whether you’ve ever read it, it’s not published. In which you have a circus, and the man who is controlling the circus, a Mr Petley. It really explores a bit of what you’re talking about, which is how far you can push cruelty for the purposes of pleasure, and at the end of the play you discover that the whole play has been the circus. But in fact during that some really quite clinical, oppressive and tortuous things have taken place, which the audience have laughed at, and it’s that juxtaposition of pleasure and cruelty, that goes right through his early work, and probably developed into what comes later.
Posner: I think he has, and would acknowledge, an influence from Mamet, in terms of language as weapon and power. In particular, I did Oleanna recently, and it reminded me how Martin has been influenced by Mamet. I don’t know if you know Oleanna, but there’s a young woman who is oppressed by a lecturer through the first part of the play, and he doesn’t quite realise how intimidating his use of language is to the extent that she is metaphorically, and not literally, being penetrated by him, it’s quite a gruelling journey. Martin hasn’t quite done that, but you can see that he has actually taken it on board artistically.
Smith: Yes, and his second play which was originally called Four Attempted Acts, it was then done on the radio as Three Attempted Acts, as it was very interwoven and the last one wasn’t possible on radio, so it became three on the radio. He pursues that whole area of control and cruelty really juxtaposed very closely to both a sexual pleasure and an emotional pleasure, and at moments I think the audience are really quite alarmed at their own reaction.
Sierz: The second in the four plays was a dentist, and you couldn’t see anything, it was behind a screen, and the audience weren’t sure whether they were gasps of pleasure, as in sex, or pain, as in dentistry. I think he keeps up the ambiguity for a good few minutes as the play continues. But also at the Orange Tree, where I think he achieves his mature voice, was Dealing with Clair. I wonder, Dan, if you could talk a bit about it?
Rebellato: Dealing with Clair, following on from what you were just saying, because like a lot of his titles it carries that ambiguity. On one level the play is about buying a house, I suppose fairly simply there’s a couple trying to sell their house and a slightly mysterious stranger who’s buying it. So on one level Dealing with Clair is about dealing with the estate agent Clair, but on the other hand we discover (sort of discover as it’s very ambiguous) but Dealing with Clair is also about murdering her. So there’s that ambiguity there that you also get in The Treatment, which on the one hand is a treatment of a movie script, but on the other hand is about the very abusive treatment of a particular character. It’s in Attempts on Her Life, again which has a similar ambiguity; again it’s the double thing in Cruel and Tender. Dealing with Clair I think is an extraordinary play, and it is absolutely the one in which he discovers that mature voice. Because I mean that it is, on one level, a small-cast play set in a very recognisable interior, but it is also very much about the city and about urban experience. It’s not based on, but it’s loosely inspired by the disappearance of Suzie Lamplugh, who in her appointment book was supposed to see a Mr Kipper and she was never seen again. There was a flare up of the story about a year ago and they still haven’t found her body and nobody knows what happened to her. What you get is a series of rather banal conversations, but this extraordinarily – partly through the rhythms, and certain clashing ironies in the dialogue – this very insistent tone of suppressed violence and hatred between the characters. There’s an extraordinary moment, where I think the mysterious stranger is talking to the couple about another couple, the Harraps, and she has a crumbly spine. There is this moment of pause, and I think the stage direction is something like ‘and then they let themselves go with hearty laughter’. And it’s that laughter that comes out of embarrassment and uncertainty, and they become complicit with each other. But it’s that perfect ambiguity he always has, of laughter and cruelty.
Sierz: It’s worth underlining in this particular play, the morality of it, because the couple who are selling their house want to behave ‘honourably’, and yet they are quite prepared to gazump a couple from another part of the country, where the wife is basically disabled. In a way, the play is an attempt to write a play in which none of the characters are agreeable. They’re all a little bit unpleasant and yet you follow it with this immense interest. Is that right?
Rebellato: Absolutely, and I agree with you and what Lindsay was saying before about the coolness of the writing, but I don’t think that makes them unemotional. I think the experience for the audience in a way is that you feel quite intense feeling, like fear and disgust and hatred, and things like that. Because in a sense I think what he does is he shows you characters who have such an astonishing lack of moral rooted-ness – for example – that dizzying effect of experiencing that moral vertigo produces quite a strong feeling, I think, in the audience, particularly in a play like Dealing with Clair or The Treatment.
Sierz: You’re talking about the writing. I think Clair, who’s not a heroic figure that David Hare might write, she’s not an idealised woman at all. She’s really an office jobs-worth, who doesn’t particularly care about her job; she does it efficiently enough but, you know, when James the cash buyer starts making these suggestive comments, half of her doesn’t even hear it. She’s ignoring this old bloke whose being charming and only gradually is she seduced by him. But the writing is so interesting because it’s full of humour, we haven’t really mentioned this, and at the beginning she’s talking on the phone to her mother and she’s saying ‘Look mum, I could just make a killing and vanish’ and by the end she has vanished and has probably been killed. This was a play that you’d read wasn’t it, Lindsay, before you put on No One Sees the Video.
Posner: Yeah and I think on the basis of that we commissioned what became No One Sees the Video.
Sierz: How did he strike you when you read Dealing with Clair, Martin the writer that is?
Posner: Well, it’s interesting what you’re saying about the fact that his plays arouse these emotions of fear, sometimes titillation, and sometimes horror. What struck me as curious, and refreshing in some ways, was that your sympathies are not engaged. I think Martin is one of the few playwrights who can provide an audience with an engaging, entertaining and sometimes a challenging evening, without you feeling sympathy for a protagonist or a number of characters and I think that’s quite unusual really.
Sierz: For example, in Dealing with Clair, at first your sympathies are drawn towards James, because he’s urbane and quite in control, and then suddenly you realise – quite early on – that he’s a bit creepy, and I think it was Tom Courtenay who played him in the original – do remember his performance?
Smith: Oh yes, very much. Well Tom very easily found that creepy element that you’re talking about, but he also had what Lindsay was talking about, which is a certain detachment from the person he was, I can’t explain other than that, which fitted the play, I thought, extremely well. The interesting anecdote about that play is that when the play happened, actually the Lamplugh event had only just happened, and they live in Sheen near Richmond. Everybody assumed that we’d commissioned the play because of the disappearance, which was absolutely untrue, and I think if you speak to Martin about it, he would say that it was a large amount of coincidence. But it had a particular frisson when it was first done in Richmond, because of the proximity of this family and what had happened.
Sierz: And No One Sees the Video, can you tell us a bit about that as it was you who directed the first production?
Posner: Again it’s about exploitation and marketing, Martin actually working in marketing for while and this was based on, he claims this was true, that people were being videoed and taped while being subjected to market research questions. He’d picked on that, used that experience, to extend that into a play about intrusiveness. Again the modernity and the coolness of it struck me, and I remember making sure, when I came to design the production, we made sure that it felt like the world he created. Although it was some way realistic, suited the abstract. As do his later plays suit more abstract modernist design, because that is what you get in the language really.
Sierz: Well your design Anne for Attempts on Her Life was quite abstract, is that right? Could you talk about that maybe?
Tipton: Yeah, absolutely. I think what’s great about Crimp’s later plays, is you’re right, they are set in unreal time and unruly world, you don’t quite know where you are as an audience member. In Attempts on Her Life, that’s extremely weird, because not only do you not know where you are, but you don’t know who the people are because the protagonist has been removed and it just seems to be an awful lot of people talking about her. So our set actually came out of a lot of different mediums that are explored in the play. We came up with one theory, which was the actors are kind of a vessel that were literally randomly filtering moments from Anne’s life. But not only her life, from the video of her life, and the book of her life and the film of her life, the news report of her life. So we tried to objectify theatre by having a pros arch, a black sleek pros arch, with a screen at the back that represented to us film. But with a playing area in front of both of those screens so that the actors could just connect with the audience, and it was all very clean and stark. I think that his plays do absolutely suit the modernity and minimum sets like that.
Sierz: You alluded to language use, Lindsay. With No One Sees the Video one of the important things about it is that it shows how if you get a new job, I think the character Liz in that play gets a new job as a market researcher, having previously been subjected to this kind of intrusive questioning herself. She discovers her power as somebody who can do the job. So the victim turns into the victimiser – that’s I think, a theme in his work. I think he said that once you grasp the language of a job you’re halfway there, and I think that’s true, in theatre as much as in journalism, or in the academy, does anyone have any thoughts on that?
Rebellato: One thing I did want to say about No One Sees the Video is, and he told me this (although I always suspect sometimes he might lie), but he did say that when he worked in market research one of his jobs was transcribing those market research interviews, and I do think that’s a real key into how he writes. That sort of image of stopping and rewinding a tape, because they had to be, with the hesitations and everything, transcribed absolutely perfectly. Firstly you get a very tense sense of how someone actually speaks, with all the hesitations and self-interruptions, grammatical lapses. But also in that process, just as often if you repeat a word to yourself it becomes a slightly abstract, musical, poetic thing, and I think you get that strange mixture in Crimp’s work. That extraordinarily faithful hyper-realistic dialogue, that also seems strange and other-worldly and poetic, at one and the same time, I just think that comes out of the experience of No One Sees the Video.
Posner: I suspect that it might be worth saying in terms of his process as a writer, it’s interesting given that we brought up Pinter and Mamet.. You get the feeling that it’s instinctive and that they don’t know how there going to turn out. With Martin you feel very much that his plays have been carefully conceived, and that they work just as much through the intellect as much as through instinct. That he’s written them like a jigsaw puzzle, where he’s taken bits out, put them back in again and referred across the jigsaw puzzle to another piece, during the play. So that there’s very much that kind of cerebral working through it, in a way that you don’t find with the other two writers.
Sierz: He uses also some very characteristic devices I think. A stage direction especially for the early plays is ‘faint laugh’, when two or three people both agree that something is funny; it might not be, and there’s a kind of irony there. Faint laugh; it’s not a belly laugh, but it’s a kind of complicit communication that actually the words might not even deserve so there is always something happening in terms of the subtext. The other thing is these expressions in brackets. When characters in a Martin Crimp play say ‘obviously’ it means it usually isn’t obvious at all, but one is trying to convince the other that it’s obvious and therefore get them on their side. So there’s that constant power play and that is something that’s similar in Pinter as well.
Posner: Mamet uses parenthesis for when characters have asides to themselves, in the same way.
Sierz: Okay, let’s move on to The Treatment.
Posner: I suppose what’s really been achieved with The Treatment, and what I found really stimulating about it – again it was a commission at the Royal Court – was that he really creates his own world and agenda, although on the surface it’s about New York, and about moral values within American culture. It’s a bit like Kafka’s book America, I don’t mean in form, but in the sense that I don’t think Martin had been to America when he had written this play, so he wasn’t writing from direct experience. But it didn’t matter because he was creating his own world, and had certain things to say and used New York as a way of saying it. In the way that some classical British renaissance writers use Venice, or somewhere in Spain, to express something. Again it’s postmodern, very much that, you get plays within plays, references to other works of art while you’re watching, with various levels of irony running through the play. There’s a scene between Anne and Simon, when they’re talking in Central Park and Simon is experiencing possessive jealousy for her, because she’s left him and he’s worrying about his man Andrew, who she’s mentioned. At the same time you’ve got the play Othello going on and you hear the dialogue over that, when they’re talking.
Sierz: There’s also that marvellous moment when Clifford the writer say he wants to introduce a ‘Shakespearean element’. And that’s when after the writer has watched Andrew making love, or just possessing Anne, and she decides to get her revenge for his voyeurism and her and her husband get together and put his eyes out. So there is this kind of King Lear aspect that arrives and in the last scene there’s that blind taxi driver driving the blinded writer, with this kind of huge flurry of script as the papers from his play spread all over the city.
Posner: If that sounds horrible, it is in one sense, but it all operates within the context of irony, including the blind taxi driver; it’s an ironical comment on the notion of the blind seer and what’s happened to the moral bankruptcy in the city. But at the same time it’s entertaining and it’s ironic, and in that sense it still remains essentially cool, I’d say.
Sierz: Anything else about The Treatment, you’ve seen it haven’t you Dan?
Rebellato: I saw it at the Royal Court. I think it’s interesting in itself, in terms of Martin Crimp’s career, in a sense him going about as far in one direction as he can. I mean in Attempts on Her Life, which is the play that clearly emerges out of the experience of writing The Treatment. I think he said it started as a footnote to The Treatment and it ended up being in a certain way more important than the play it was footnoting.
Sierz: In The Treatment he has this character Anne, whose life is basically stolen and completely disfigured, in the film that they are making of her, and how does that then relate to Attempts on Her Life, when you have this figure of Anne who nobody can quite get a grip on.
Rebellato: Well The Treatment actually multiplies Anne’s story, so when it begins with that we are to imagine Anne’s had a certain set of experiences and tries to sell her life story to movie producers. But in the process of that, the life story is then changed and eventually she’s entirely supplanted. There’s that awful moment, where the actor actually says to the person it’s based on: ‘This is not my idea of Anne’, so she’s ultimately completely displaced from her own story and it’s almost the kind of stress of that moment that leads to the 17 scenarios of Attempts on Her Life. One of the very early scenarios in that play, I think it’s called A Tragedy of Love and Ideology, where one way of reading what’s going on is that two movie producers are trying to thrash out a treatment of a character called Anne. Which is very similar in some ways to the first scene of The Treatment, which again is wonderfully alienating of the audience. When you go and see The Treatment, in the first scene they appear to be talking about a horrific experience but it’s very unclear, whether it’s fictional or real, and he does that a lot in Attempts on Her Life. It’s the use of the present tense which in English when you say: ‘This happens and then this happens and then I go in to the bar’, you could be telling a fictional story or you could be recounting something that actually happened to you, and be reliving it.
Posner: And you’re not sure if it’s a therapy session at first.
Sierz: Attempts on Her Life is a notoriously difficult text, the lines are not assigned to any characters, and there’s no specification of how many characters, just these 17 scenarios. Could you say something Anne about how you went about making sense of it theatrically?
Tipton: Well, I felt quite liberated doing this play. I spoke to Martin Crimp about it and he said, ‘Look, Anne’s a device, a theatrical device and that’s it, and I wrote this play so it could be interpreted by yourself and by lots of other people. I wrote it so that I could let go of it.’ Which made me feel really free, to not feel confined by what the play is about. I think it’s quite interesting that we’re all quite obsessed nowadays with what a play is about and what I like about Attempts on Her Life is that it has the ability to be about the experience that you have and to be about what each individual audience member can take it for. You can interpret it in one way and the person sat next to you can interpret it in an entirely different way. I’m really interested in that and I think that that carried through into my production whole heartedly.
Sierz: Just a practical question: how did you cast it? How many people did you choose?
Tipton: The only indication that you get from Martin Crimp is that these people should reflect the world beyond the world of the stage. So I went for a variety of ages and backgrounds – cultural backgrounds – and ultimately had the freedom to just pick people I thought were great and choose how many people I should have. I mean there are certain specifics: there’s a scene called Mum and Dad, and it is the mum and dad, so I wanted to cast the mum and dad. Then also there is a young girl who does the porno scene, so you have to cast the young girl and ultimately you do find about five characters in that play that you can’t actually do the play without, and then you add a few more.
Sierz: I remember I heard an anecdote that in the first production Tim Albery directed at the Royal Court, the only problem was finding the older man, as they rang a few agents and the agents said, ‘Is that the lead role?’ With this play Martin Crimp was delighted whenever the actors didn’t ask that question, having read the text, because it meant they’d understood it.
Tipton: There’s always the difficulty of it. I remember when we cast a lady and her agent called me and said, ‘Okay, she’s going on holiday and would really like to familiarise herself with the text – can you tell her which bits she’ll be doing please?’ And I said, ‘Well I can tell you two scenes she’ll definitely be doing, but I can’t tell you anything else, because we need to find that out.’ That’s another great thing about that play is that you do need to get into a room with your actors and work it out while you’re there.
Sierz: Did you work it out, with the actors?
Tipton: Pretty much. I mean I had a very strong sense of how I was going to break down the language and assign which pieces of text, and Martin had given me a few specifics about which scenes were monologues. I mean the dash, you have to adhere to the dash – if there’s no dash you can’t give the line to anybody else. So we did mainly.
Sierz: That last scene, did you have the full cast ensemble?
Tipton: The whole company did the final, the Previously Frozen scene, because I was quite stuck in that scene, if I’m honest. I wanted to do something with video, and I got quite excited about running exactly the same scene, one on video, one on the stage, and seeing what lines happen to change. I spoke to Martin about it and he said, ‘No, it’s the end’, and that he’d seen a wonderful production that had all these girls in wigs and they all took their wigs off at the end, because they became real again. So I approached it with much more of a conversational aspect.
Sierz: In the original I remember they even sent out for takeaway and they had it as a meal. The actors came on in their own clothes, and they were much more relaxed by then. They’d done the show by that point and this came over to the audience, who realised it was completely different in terms of feeling, because they weren’t acting. They were because they were saying lines, but they were acting as if they weren’t acting. There’s a famous little bit, I think the critic in the show says something about the pointlessness of finding a point, and that was picked up by some critics, saying Martin Crimp the postmodernist. Do you think that’s accurate Dan?
Rebellato: I think that scene, Untitled (100 words), was obviously seized on by the critics as they like to seize on meanings. But in some ways that scene is just as satirical as a lot of the other things in there, and that scene is a satire of those mind-numbing late review type conversations. In that sense there are people who appear to be critics in that that’s who you think the voice there is actually satirising, and I wonder if this was a specific reference to the way Sarah Kane had been responded too? The characters who say, ‘I think it would have been much better to give this person psychiatric help’; I think Jack Tinker said that about Sarah Kane for Blasted. But that speech about ‘the point of this play is that there has never been a point’ seems like a manifesto for what the play is about, but I wonder whether he’s a much more evasive writer than that really.
Tipton: It’s playful, he’s playful ultimately. He’s playing with all these different constructs and even if there is a point, he will then suggest that there isn’t, and question why there isn’t.
Sierz: One of the really fascinating things is that on the one hand it’s an incredibly modern piece of theatre, in that he has blown the form apart and experimented with this immense flair. At the same time, it’s quite traditional in that each of the scenarios tells a little story, it’s a sort of series of little narratives going on simultaneously. I mean is that what you felt about it?
Tipton: Yes, yes, they are story, but they’re kind of left and not tied up at the end, which is important as the play isn’t tied up. You go through it hoping that all the people in all the scenarios will all go to a dinner party together, or you’ll find that they are all linked in some way other than Anne. I think they are all little stories but I think I was much more interested in seeing it as a whole, as a study in an absent character.
Rebellato: I think also the opening stage directions are very interesting: ‘This is a composition for a company of actors, whose composition should reflect the world outside the theatre’, which I always think is a joke, because what can that possibly mean? Is it a joke about naturalism?
Tipton: And there’s the other stage direction, which is ‘Let each scenario in words – dialogue – unfold against a distinct world, a design which best exposes its irony’ which he took out.
Rebellato: Yes, that’s not in my copy.
Tipton: … which is great because, what does it mean? I very specifically asked him about that and he kind of just had a little titter and then took it out, as he wondered whether it was a bit restrictive for a director.
Rebellato: But what he’s put into this one is that you can cut the first of the 17 scenarios, which is the series of answerphone messages, and what’s interesting is the implication that you can’t cut anything else. Because this is a play which appears to be so random and fragmentary, you know you can just do anything at all, and it’s important to remember that you can’t change the order and you can’t cut anything out. There is actually a design that runs across them, which is why I suppose I sometimes have problems with the idea that this is postmodern, in the sense that it means absolutely anything to anybody. Because what’s interesting is the name Anne, or variants of, impel the audience to try and put these fragments together. It’s not possible to do it, finally because one of the Annes is a car. She could possibly be a porno star, and a terrorist and a few of the others, but she can’t be a car as well. But what he seems to be working with is the audience’s desire to put the fragments together so there’s a kind of productive tension going on there I think, in the experience of an audience.
Tipton: He’s breaking that on purpose, and I think that is the exact challenge to the audience: he’s saying, ‘This is what you usually get in theatre and usually this is what would happen and I’m not going to give it to you.’
Smith: That’s something that was there very early in his work, because in the first three plays, the same names recur, a Mr Le Brun, and a Mrs Cook and a Mr Cook and a Mr Petley in two of the plays. In a sense, it is open because as an audience you think to yourself, ‘Oh is that’s the same one?’, and it sets your mind rolling. But he doesn’t give you an answer as such. But that is very creative in terms of what it does to the audience.
Sierz: We’re almost reaching the end of our time, so I just wanted to ask a couple of questions about his work in general. At one point he famously said, ‘I’m a satirist, not a moralist.’ In what way could we talk about the politics of his work?
Rebellato: It’s an interesting distinction, as I suppose you’d take moralist to mean pronouncing a series of moral judgements. The satire is most clear it something like Dealing with Clair or The Treatment, in that you get a number of clearly recognisable contemporary attitudes. But that strange obsessive focus on language that he produces, is an almost alienating sudden recognition of the horror of the things that we have come ordinarily to say. As you said at the beginning, Dealing with Clair is all about this couple who want to do the right thing, to be honourable, and it’s sort of how under that veneer of rather pious good intention, actually that horrific treatment of other people can happen.
Sierz: And at the end, they feel guilty about what’s happened to Clair, but ‘life must go on’. It’s like that terrible cliche.
Rebellato: And isn’t there a very faint implication, suggestion that they might be, because they are in the garden at that point, and there’s a very faint suggestion that she might be buried under there?
Sierz: Talking of satire, Lindsay, obviously he also wrote The Misanthrope, which is a translation, as much as a complete and radical updating of Moliere’s play and he satirises what in that. Tell us a bit about that?
Posner: Well we conceived it together actually. I wanted to do Moliere’s The Misanthrope, but I wanted to do a challenging contemporary version of it. I sat down with Martin and said, ‘Are you interested?, and we sat down and talked about a contemporary equivalent that might work for the play. We hit upon the world of Hollywood, the media and agency world, as an equivalent of salon life full of hypocrites and morally bankrupt people. The play appealed to Martin as it was about satirising a particular world, a particular set, and at the same time having someone on the margins who rails against it, but who in the end is also undermined himself. I think that Martin probably took that a bit further. It’s interesting that he calls himself a satirist not a moralist in the sense that obviously The Misanthrope is a deeply moral play, as written by Moliere. I think Martin changed that slightly in that you get a sense of moral relativism in Martin’s plays, and in the end everybody is undermined. I can’t speak for all of his plays, as I haven’t read all of them, but in the ones I’ve read all the characters are undermined to an extent and I suppose the bottom line is that he’s slightly misanthropic himself.
Sierz: Faint laugh. I suppose we should also finally consider one thing we haven’t talked about, which is images of women. It seems to me that throughout all of his work, there’s a concern with violence towards women, images of women – in what way could we call him a feminist playwright?
Tipton: He gives a voice doesn’t he? He gives a very, very enjoyable voice to his female characters and he allows them to join in with the power struggle. I mean, in The Country, I know we haven’t discussed that, but particularly the females in that, he re-addresses the femme fatale role. He also addresses the place of the woman in the home, the typical housewife, and ultimately she gains power and so he gives women a brilliant voice. Whether that’s being a feminist or not, I’m not sure.
Posner: He also in the character of Anne in The Treatment, although in some ways she’s the heroine, she’s also the victim who is horrendously abused, but has a sort of other-worldly strength, which is a virtue. But she’s also bloody annoying as a character and he’s deliberately made her really irritating. So he doesn’t let you like her, you’re not let off the hook, in that sense.
Tipton: He allows them to be three-dimensional; he allows his women to be real and quite often we do see females as being two-dimensional, so maybe on that level he is a feminist.
Rebellato: That kind of ambivalence you’re talking about is absolutely characteristic of him, because I do think that part of that very intense intellectual activity that he goes through in writing is also about really, really carefully making himself unplaceable in his plays. Because I think when you watch them part of that really visceral modern vertigo is thinking I don’t know what Martin Crimp thinks about this, he could be just as cruel as the characters.
Sierz: Yes, I think that’s very true. On behalf on TheatreVoice and the Theatre Museum, let me thank you all very much.