Interview: Martin Crimp

Written for Ideastap

One of the most acclaimed voices of modern playwriting, Martin Crimp’s work spans cult texts, such as Attempts on her Life, and bold adaptations of Molière. His double bill of plays, Play House/Definitely the Bahamas, marks his directorial debut. Here he talks to Honour Bayes about the importance of writing what excites you…

You have said you don’t see being a writer as a job you chose to take on, but something you have always been. Over the years how have you honed your craft?

Since writing Attempts on her Life in 1997 I’ve become more sensitive to the power of narration in drama, which I abandoned for a while in favour of a more fashionable ping-pong of fragmented dialogue. Going back recently to Definitely the Bahamas, a play I wrote in 1986, I’m struck by the fact that its climax is four pages of continuous storytelling, which remains powerful. So I would say honing my craft means trying to stay open to all forms of writing.

When you sit down to write what is your process?

The important thing for me in this world of endlessly rolling information is to empty my mind of all distractions. I still write by hand and I believe in the importance of the mark on the page. I improvise until I find an image or a tone of voice that feels alive. For example, I’d been improvising some tiny scenes of people offering each other gifts. After some months, one of these scenes, in which a woman gives a man an unexpected present, became the starting point for Play House.

Where should writers look for inspiration?

Inspiration is the mysterious collision of intense lived experience with intense literary experience. Whatever the experience, banal or remarkable, it’s the intensity that counts. Plus, for a playwright, the strange music of the human voice is central.

You have had long associations with the Orange Tree Theatre and Royal Court Theatre. Is it important for new playwrights to form a relationship with a venue?

The support of a theatre is a wonderful thing, but you shouldn’t be afraid to create diverse relationships with theatres and with directors. This will broaden your notion of what a theatrical event can be.

You have adapted a number of classics with a radical flare. What do you need to take into account when approaching someone else’s text?

You need to be clear about the rules of engagement. Is the plan to write a new play on top of an old one? – like Cruel and Tender, which is based on a play by Sophocles – or is it more simply to intervene by modernising the language and cutting? – as I did with The Seagull. In both these cases the conversation with the director – Luc Bondy in one case, Katie Mitchell in the other – was an essential part of establishing the rules.

Do you believe working on translations and adaptations affects a writer’s own craft?

Translating sets the much harder work of imagining your own play into stark relief, because, when you simply translate, the imagining has been done for you. What’s interesting about translating is that it pushes you into areas of language you may habitually avoid; I resist this, but at the same time it excites me.

You recently directed for the first time. How has this experience impacted on you as a playwright?

I wrote the 13 short scenes of Play House in part as a directorial challenge. How do you give each short scene – and they range from punishing accusation to the exuberant physical expression of love – a strong separate identity, but at the same time create a seamless theatrical flow? It never occurred to me I’d be the one having to meet that challenge myself.

As for how it affects writing, I’d say it reinforces what I’ve always known: only write what it excites you to write. Don’t be afraid to create problems. Provided the writing is truthful, the director and actors will find ways of solving them.

Review: Play House & Definitely the Bahamas

Written for Time Out

Play House

This double bill places a new play next to a revival and gives writer Martin Crimp his first outing as director. In the delicious ‘Play House’, Crimp puts a young married couple under the microscope. We zip through adoration, lust, annoyance, babies, confusions and true love. Obi Abili and Lily James are compelling sparring partners. But by revealing itself so eagerly ‘Play House’ loses some of its potency.

By contrast ‘Definitely the Bahamas’ (originally a radio play) is a masterclass in understatement. Here a middle-aged couple square their morals with the behaviour of an unscrupulous child. Crimp’s canny decision to stage it on a radio set inherently places adoring Milly (a thrilling Kate Fahy) and impervious Frank’s stories within a dual reality, calling into question each sunny lie.

The emotional violence threatening to engulf ‘Play House’ simmers away painfully in ‘Definitely the Bahamas’, each betrayal all the more blistering. The effect of both together is electric.

Runs until 21st April 2012.

Review: The Country

Written for What’s On Stage

The CountryThe Country is a taut psychological domestic horror here performed with cutting elegance in Amelia Nicholson’s intelligent production. New country doctor Richard has brought an unconscious woman home, ostensibly under honourable pretences. His wife Corinne remains unconvinced and when the predator like Rebecca awakens dark truths are revealed. All the while Richard’s Lynchian colleague Maurie’s disembodied presence turns this threesome into a four way balancing act of power and control.

Martin Crimp’s hyper naturalistic dialogue could, in a lesser company’s hands, seem portentous but here each repetition and arch silence is delicately delivered with an integrity that makes these pronouncements compelling. Simon Thorp as Richard, the black hole each woman orbits, smoulders nicely doing as much as he can with a purely reactionary character.

But it is the women who are the stars here. Amanda Root whose flashing eyes and occasionally clipped hysteria alone reveal Corinne’s all encompassing desperation and Naomi Wattis as the volatile Rebecca, a rolling hipped wounded animal of a girl, whose lashing out does nothing to hide her vulnerability, give truly commanding performances.

Anna Bliss Scully’s sparse design makes us feel like we are peering in through glass windows at this implosion of safe family values and one gets the distinct impression that we are surgical students being shown how to perform a dissection. We are in a place of acute voyeuristic pain but there seems to also be a sense of instruction in the spaces around each cut. But there are no clean lessons to be learnt at the end of these demonstrations, only the experience of the potent moment to moment conquests and losses that make up our existence.

Runs from 28 September 2010 to 23 October 2010

The Factory’s The Seagull: Improvisation is about doing things and Chekhov is essentially about people doing nothing – it’s a recipe for dire theatre

The Factory is a company that do what could literally be described as Flash-mob Theatre.  A facebook update is released on Friday about shows which are played out that Sunday and the precious 50 tickets or so sell with lighting speed because this is a troupe with a fantastic reputation for mixing it up in playfully irreverent but perceptive productions. Their latest production of The Seagull has been popping up around venues (some theatrical, though mostly not) across London for the last few months and it’s had some cracking reviews and great audience feedback.  So why were I and my friends left so non-plussed?

Having tackled Hamlet with great panache, The Factory’s off-the-cuff style, incorporating multi-playing (3 actors toss to see who plays a character each night) props taken from random audience belongings (at one Hamlet performance, a pineapple became Yorick’s skull) and improvised blocking, completely dampened Chekhov’s rapier social commentary.   The whole thing became diffused and by presenting us with a simplified version of the text it was slightly like a bad family drama, and we’ve all had enough Eastenders to last us a life time.  It is easy to feel this way about Chekhov’s work, just ask teachers who battle against bored teenagers year in year out, and indeed on many levels they are ghastly family dramas about mean spirited and self centred individuals. The brilliance comes in his precise and perceptively drawn characters, each of whom are whittled from life with minute detail.  It is in the moments when you absolutely recognise someone you know, or yourself, in these people on stage that Chekhov really pierces you.

Every word counts to get you through the mundane and skin deep unpleasantness of his characters into the painfully acute psychological studies that they are and to give you these moments of recognition. I’m not saying I’m a purist, Katie Mitchell and Martin Crimps’ key-hole surgery version at the National was a precise and minimalist masterpiece of this play, but then they were making it more specific and not less so; as she says ‘The text that emerged…was considerably shorter, leaner and more angular’.  But The Factory have decided to do a different version each night, which here means that it will always be improvised with the actors using their own words.  What has been created through this lack of structure is a convoluted and diffused production of a text that is full of light and shade, in a show which has become a muddy grey through this company’s constant need to ‘keep the ball afloat’.  This desperate need to maintain the base level of energy at all costs is also to the detriment of any detailed character work from these clearly talented performers.  There are no silences, no moments of real tension or pain, everything is slightly too comfortable because they won’t allow it to get dangerous.

The Factory’s anarchic and unabashed approach is to be applauded and encouraged, and Shakespeare’s writing was developed by them in a perfect marriage of text and performance in typically bawdy style.  However I think that Chekhov’s subtleties may be beyond this form of immediate theatre.  Maybe I’m wrong? But to get anywhere near it, they’re going to need to go right back into the text and dig a lot deeper, not discard it for a million and one improvised words.