When All Else Fails, Write: My Path to Staging The Nation

Hello all – hope you are enjoying this unseasonable but not at all unreasonable warm weather we are having-it’s almost enough to make one completely contented. But then Theresa May enters, signing something terrible. Then promptly Brexited. As the previous blog posts have explained, despite the fine weather there is now a shadow over England that has nothing to do with Island weather or coast lines. So what is there to do? Dissent of course – protest, sign petitions, start groups, and, in my case, don’t get even – get writing.

Much like everyone else with a desire to live in a happy, prosperous, diverse and ultimately enriching society – I voted remain on June 23rd – and marched for 6 miles to Parliament Square on July 2nd along with unprecedented numbers of supporters – I remember it was a day of sun, funny chants and ice cream – but it felt we were just about holding back the floodgates of disbelief and depression about what the future held. It seemed inconceivable to me that not only had we cut off our noses to spite our faces, we’d done away with the head altogether. It made me fearful, upset and lost to think of the future. Of course, we’ve had times of national complacency before and will do so again, but this felt different – I suspected the ripples of this monumentally destructive result will not easily be stopped. So then, imagine my surprise when I saw, hot off the result, one twitter post offering a place and chance to directly confront the issues and problems the result had thrown up – before many other organisations or groups where even murmuring about it- Staging the Nation had got there first.

I’d been to many readings in my time – but these had been sitting down, some proscenium arch auditorium, in the day time affair, where a lot of imagination is required – which is fine and all that – but not here. Venturing down to Elephant and Castle and to one of my new favourite places in London, for a coffee, or a cake, or some yoga or to take a book out from their onsite library- the artworks, I watched Tonje, the director, work magic where frankly, there easily couldn’t have been. Boasting such a large cast with no set or costume and limited space is a tough order- and yet I was transported. The play in question was Paul Thompson’s scarily timely – it was written in the year before the first EU referendum of 1975: By Common Consent – and it was all my favourite things at once: Nineteen Eighty Four, with a dash of Brecht, a smidgen of Margaret Atwood – it was all there, all the problems of now, made dystopian – the result of current action that affect the future so profoundly. Thanks to the excellent script, direction and acting, I left the space determined to get something down on paper as soon as possible, brimming with ideas.

Now here I must make a confession – I’d never attempted an adaptation before – in any form. There’s no snobbery there – I love productions that reimagine Shakespeare, or Chekov or, as I’ve seen and enjoyed most recently Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s The Turn Of the Screw at The Almeida crafted from the Henry James short story. But for me, I had always worked from scratch – crafting plots, character descriptions, just so – as my mother always says, typical – she finds the hard stuff easy and the easy stuff hard. And it’s true: with adaptation it’s all there – character, plot, an ending even – but I guess I always felt scared to do the material injustice, turn it into something rubbish. This project however, made me amazingly confident and keen to make it my own using Thompson’s salient and personally important political points he makes in By Common Consent my way, whilst respecting the original. This task, far from daunting, was a challenge I relished.

As I sat watching the play – I noticed the groups of boys often together in Thompson’s scenes. The separation of gender in patriarchal society is not a rare thing, indeed, it’s recognisably happening now. But the cogs in my mind automatically turned to think of what their modern equivalent was. And then I hit on it – the stock market. Young men (boys really) straight out of secondary school working for nothing at Merrill Lynch in suits from Saville Row – drinking, not sleeping, learning the bad behaviour of their superiors in all things from bonuses, to inappropriate behaviour, to simply converting to capitalism. Once I had my core characters that I had chosen to represent the futuristic and hellish future recognisable to our own – I had the thought to mess up the status quo somewhat – and I added a dissenter.

I love a rebel. I always have – so I knew I’d have one of the boys desert the cause – leave the front line – and face the ire of what I understand to be potent male pressure in adolescent groups. But more than that – I wanted to make this story not just one man’s struggle – I wanted to put my anti-hero in a group of people of different genders and races that puts his rebellion to shame – those that sacrifice a lot: comfort, stability, safety in order to have no contamination of this society. To hammer that point home, I brought forth a subtext and made this motley rebellious crew hunted, quite literally by the city elite – a conceit, I hope is in equal ways satirical and half-believable. And once I had my themes of establishment, entitlement, masculinity, femininity and dissent – it’s like I couldn’t stop – sexism, racism, banks, money, governments, history – any issue I could think of was thrown into my adaptation, Vote Revolt – a massive stew of different, voices, cultures and issues, a sad final bow to what my England used to be.

Ultimately, I am proud of my contribution to this excellent project – and so grateful to be involved with it. With Staging The Nation, I’m saying things I doubt I’d be allowed to say anywhere else, let alone as welcomed and encouraged as I have been with this fantastic team. Their confidence, faith, awareness, and urgency is for me what the arts has always, been about, reflecting society and holding it to account. How could I resist? When someone brings their A- game you have to match it – and I know for a fact Staging The Nation brought out the absolute best in me. The point is, this referendum and its consequences can’t become the new norm – we need to stay on the front line, and question it – to me that’s what this project is so brilliant. I can’t wait to see where this journey takes me. And of course, I stay fighting.

Thanks,

Jess x

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Curious to see an extract from Jessica’s Vote Revolt on stage? Read here for some exciting news! If you want to know more about Jessica, follow her personal blog or tweet her 🙂

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