The revolution up on Roe Street, at the Royal Court, was a breath of fresh air for Liverpool theatre. Now? As ‘Brick Up…’ starts its nth run and the laughs become thinner than Tina Malone, it’s all becoming a little tired.
If we’re honest, the artistic rot set in a while ago, when the provincial writing lost all of its charm, quickly becoming parochial nonsense (‘Pharaoh ‘cross The Mersey’ anyone?) before you could declare #Scouse or #Wool. Luckily, there is something else stirring in the blood of the theatrical veins of Merseyside today.
The Page To Stage Festival Of New Theatre is just one of those heartbeats and next month they bring a play to town that has already been shortlisted for The Bread and Roses Playwriting Competition. Written by Brian Coyle (‘The Reckoning’) and directed by Emma Bird (Brighton Fringe Festival), ‘Welcome To Paradise Road’ has been described as “Orwellian” everywhere it’s been produced. What does that mean, though?
It’s a phrase we see, hear and read every day and one that is in danger of losing its power. It’s a question we put to the brains behind the play – starring Sarah Maher (‘The Mancunian Candidate’), newcomer Emily Heyworth and folk-singing local firebrand, Alun Parry – as we sat them down, shone a light in their eyes and asked them to declare their allegiance to the party… or something like that.
We read the phrase ‘Orwellian’ daily. What picture does it paint in your mind’s eye when you see it?
Emma Bird, director: It’s quite a frightening picture. When I hear the phrase Orwellian, I picture an over-reaching State, with everything we do being monitored or listened in to. Recent events, such as Edward Snowdon, testify to the fact we’re not too far away from that… and look how the Government in America has hunted him down!
Brian Coyle, writer: I can’t really add to that, except to say that I agree, it’s in the here and now: in the trivia of everyday life – being recorded hundreds of times a day on CCTV, your mobile phone potentially being tapped, your web history being stored and available to the State… the list goes on.
It’s safe to say you’re both fans of George Orwell’s ‘1984’, then?
Emma: I read it a long time ago, but it’s really stayed with me. I think it was the first time in literature that I understood how terrifying a surveillance State could be… I was also rooting for the revolt!
Brian: I too read it years ago, as a teenager, and it has always stayed with me. Keen-eyed watchers of the play will notice a few indirect references to the novel.
The central character, Jane, has some big decisions to make in the play. Who is she?
Brian: Jane is the ‘everywoman’. The other two characters use the power they have to control other people. Jane’s feisty, though, and when her partner disappears she’s not just going to take it. The story of the play is how she learns to use information as power, but in the process she loses her integrity.
Just three characters… sounds like a dream (and a challenge!) to direct, Emma?
Emma: When I first read the script, I knew it was a good ‘un. The dialogue was taut, minimal – even Pinter-esque – and just the way I like it: tense and fraught. I was also impressed with the fact that the two main parts were for women. How rare and delightful that is…
Was Harold Pinter an influence, then, Brian?
Brian: In Pinter’s play, ‘Party Time’, he imagines the UK as a Police State where all the niceties of civilised British life are there – but they hide what is really going on. So, yes, he certainly is. I’m very influenced by his sparse way with dialogue and I’m similarly interested in what is not being said, more than what is being said.
Emma: I have always enjoyed subtext and silences in plays and when I direct I try to build that into the work that I do. Pinter is the closest I can think of as inspiration for that.
The play has been described as “a cautionary tale”. What do you hope audiences will take away with them?
Emma: First and foremost, I hope they enjoy it! But, I also hope that those who aren’t already, become active in resisting the State and big corporations’ erosion of our personal freedoms. I love to wonder if audiences reflect upon their own behaviour if they were living in the world of the play, too. What would they do themselves if they were in that situation… be part of the State apparatus or resist?
We’ll leave the last word to the writer, Brian. Did you have ‘a message’ in mind for audiences to leave the theatre with?
Brian: My main message is that the control exercised by the State eventually comes down to individuals having control and power over other individuals. How do people use this power: benignly, ruthlessly or somewhere in between? I’m not sure you can tell until it happens, but the lesson from history – and from around the world today – is that we’re a species that doesn’t have a very good record.
‘Welcome To Paradise Road’
April 4th-16th 2016, various venues
Pic by Lorraine Ramage