Interview with fiji land playwright Nick Gill

In which we catch up with Nick Gill, the writer of our next production, fiji land… 

In a warzone somewhere in the world, there is a place called fiji land, where three soldiers are responsible for some very unusual charges. As the play progresses, the soldiers become increasingly extreme in their interactions with those they are guarding. What inspired you to write this play? 

At the time, revelations about Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay were coming out, as well as all the seemingly-surreal torture methods (like being assaulted with an incredibly-loud theme to Barney the Dinosaur) that have since turned up in films and TV shows all over the place. It seemed an interesting idea to up the surrealism and paranoia to include imprisoning non-sentient beings, and to see the effects that paranoia would have on their captors.  Amnesty International happened to be running the ‘Save the Human’ competition at the same time, and having a deadline meant that I had to finish it, rather than let it languish in a drawer with all the other half-begun ideas.

The title comes from a statement made in 2007 by Ali Shalal, an Abu Ghraib detainee, accusing his British captors of torture; “fiji land” was a moniker used by the soldiers to denote a particular part of the prison compound. To what extent do you see fiji land as a play specifically about the abuses that occurred in Abu Ghraib, or do you see it as a more general exploration of the human desire for violent control over others?

 

The second, absolutely.  I think to try to talk about the specific horrors of what happened, and happens, in these facilities would be to trivialise them – the exact opposite of what I intended.

In both Britain and the US, comparatively few service personnel – relative to the number of allegations made – have been brought to account for their roles in the human rights violations of prisoners during the Iraq invasion. Do you feel that the question of how these abuses were allowed to occur has been adequately addressed by governments present and past?

Ach.  I’m not a historian, but I think I’m right in saying that the Nuremberg trials set the legal precedent that ‘I was just following orders’ isn’t a legitimate defence.  Having said that, of course, various governments have played fast and loose with legal definitions, with the result that a lot of these activities weren’t technically illegal, so it’s very hard for someone like me, without specific professional knowledge, to say what should have been done.  Personally, I would say that a great deal of what happened is immoral, and absolutely shouldn’t have happened, but that’s a different question.  

 

An Army joke runs that half of those who join are born psychopaths, and the other half are made psychopaths by joining. The characters in the play behave in increasingly unhinged ways. To what extent do you think that it is possible to maintain a sense of your own humanity when operating in a context where violence is the norm?

I hope I never have to find out.  ‘Psychologist’ is another one of those things on the big list of ‘Things I’m Not’, but people are very good at adapting to new circumstances.  Once you’ve done something a few times, no matter how horrific it is, your brain comes to accept it as something that happens from now on; people can become accustomed to violence with great ease.  To me, the real surprise is how just how shocked the world seems to be when atrocities committed by soldiers are revealed: as a society, we’ve spent a lot of time and money making people who are good at killing other people, so that we don’t have to.  Can it really be that surprising that these people end up with a different sense of what’s acceptable behaviour?  

Your work often deals with worlds that are collapsing; Sand was a bleak exploration of nuclear catastrophe, while the protagonists of mirror teeth and fiji land are powerless to stop their lives imploding. What interests you about writing about people, and societies, on the brink of annihilation?

There are two things that people always say about feelings of imminent apocalypse.  Firstly, they say that ‘Every generation feels like it’s living at the end of the world’, and then they say ‘but I really do think that our generation is different’.   Which isn’t really answering the question, is it?  I suppose the pedestrian answer is that no-one’s going to bother to watch a play about a world where everything’s fine.  

 

Experimentation with words and form is a hallmark of your work, exemplified in Sand, which portrayed the disintegration of its characters – and the world – through the disintegration of language. How do you see this kind of experimentation fitting in with the thematic content of your work?

re: experimentation.  BS Johnson always said that he didn’t like the title of ‘experimental’ writer: the experimentation happens long before a book’s printed and someone gets to read it.  The books themselves are the results of experiments that the reader never gets to see.  But I try to find a form that suits what I’m trying to write, and that gives a bunch of actors and a director something to work with: if your audience could just sit down and read your script, and get as much out of it as watching a production, then what’s the point in putting it on in the first place?  

Which writers/practitioners have you found most influential?

I’m wary of saying too much, as then it becomes obvious who I’ve ripped off.  Ah, it’ll come out eventually anyway. A quick list is Caryl Churchill, Martin Crimp, Mac Wellman, Len Jenkin, Samuel Beckett, Georges Perec, BS Johnson, Wallace Shawn; I’m sure I don’t need to explain why.  

 

fiji land runs at the Burton Taylor Studio, Oxford, from 8 – 11 January 2013. 

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Round-up of the FREEFALL reviews

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****, The Good Review, http://thegoodreview.co.uk/2013/07/freefall-new-wimbledon-studio/

‘With similar themes of loss and repression running through [both plays] and both unravelling the past, these two plays sit well together despite each being very distinctive.’

‘There is a perfectly handled sense of reality as these characters are pulled between a lost brotherly affection and the event which has kept them apart. Moments of heartbreak are intermixed with humour keeping us on the edge of reconciliation. ‘

‘There are strong performances throughout both plays where the characters are being pulled apart whilst desperately trying to keep it together.’

****, Everything Theatre

Superb new writing, nuanced and heartrending performances from the entire cast.’

A perfect pairing of two plays exploring the themes of memory, grief and loss. Painful and wonderful to watch.’

‘Prestwich’s script is skilful in the way it teases us with titbits of information, slowly revealing the secrets of the past.’

‘Amnesia is a familiar plot device from many a soap opera, but never portrayed so heartbreakingly as it is here.’

‘I cannot remember the last time I felt so moved at the theatre. This double bill tugged at my heartstrings and made me want to hold my loved ones.’

Bargain Theatre, http://bargaintheatreland.com/freefall-new-wimbledon-studio-london/

‘I was gripped; not only by anticipation but by the sheer sense of realism encapsulating the entire production.’

“Kate allows the complex dialogue to roll off her tongue swiftly and easily, a stream of conscious so fast-paced that at times you can’t keep up with her. Far from a criticism, this skill really captures our minds, our hearts go out to her as we understand her confusion.

A thought-provoking two hours which reminds us that we all perhaps have a tendency to ‘freefall’ when life gets tough.”

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Photos from the LACUNA rehearsal room

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Kate (Joanne Ferguson)

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David (Alastair Kirton)

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Mirrors and antimacassars: Freefall’s first design meeting

The Freefall team has spent the past week peering into elderly ladies’ bedrooms. Not as criminal as it sounds: yesterday, we had our first design meeting for this double bill of new plays, on at the New Wimbledon Studio from 10 – 13 July.

For The Bear, The Owl and The Angel, much enthusing was done over chintzes, hair-oil stained antimacassars, carpets with nausea-inducing patterns and net curtains with more layers than a Pinter play.

The day’s most over-used phrase, ‘I love that [insert unsightly home furnishing, circa 1980]. I mean. I don’t love it. I actually hate it. But in the context of the play… I LOVE IT!

Meanwhile, our most triumphant discovery, after twenty minutes poring over a picture of an elderly lady’s front room: ‘There are three bouquets of flowers on that windowsill. I didn’t even notice because there are just so many florals everywhere!’

Our visual stimuli for the second play of the double bill were more abstract: we looked at colour palettes, photos of half-glimpsed reflections in mirrors, contrasts of light and shade. This haunting image we found particularly spoke to the mood and palette of the piece. 

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A – slightly/very circuitous – internet search also pulled up a fascinating sequence of photos of 1930s American psychiatric hospitals, which seemed all to be characterised by hard benches in never-ending corridors and a pervasive atmosphere of neglect and misery. 

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Next week holds in store a trip to the space and the hopefully directly proportional brewing of cups of tea to ground-breaking design ideas. 

 

 

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Interview with Freefall playwright Becky Prestwich

We chat to playwright Becky Prestwich, writer of one half of our forthcoming double bill  Freefall, about children’s moral responsibility, nature versus nurture, and the haunting power of the past. No big ideas, then… 

Your play The Bear, The Owl and The Angel deals with the reunion of two brothers, Robbie and Steven, who share a dark childhood secret. What was the inspiration for the play? 

I was working in a Sure Start and went to a training session on how the stories children tell reveal their fears and anxieties. I was interested in exploring an adult character who used stories in the same way, so I decided to write a play which began with a bedtime story. The fictionalised version of Steven and Robbie’s story was the first thing I wrote – I found the ‘truth’ from there.  I also liked the idea of this quite macho, successful, show-off man who is unable to articulate the most significant event of his life except through a children’s story.
 
Your play The Boy in the Photograph also looks at the relationship between parents and children and the ways in which family history comes back to haunt us. What interests you about this theme?
 
Alongside writing, I work with children and young people and as a result, I am really interested in how our lives are shaped by our early experiences – in both good and bad and ways. I’m really interested in how a society looks after its children – but I’m generally better at writing about characters than theories and ideas. So, how those ideas about nature versus nurture and our responsibility to our children manifest themselves in my writing seems to be in a preoccupation with plays about family.
 
What are you working on currently?
 
I’m currently working my first radio play – an afternoon drama which will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 this spring. It’s another family play – it tells the story of three generations of Jewish mothers cooking together and is very much inspired by my own experiences as a new(ish) mum.
 
 

Which writers are you particularly influenced by and why?

 
Influences are difficult…. I read a lot, and watch a lot of drama, both on stage and on screen – and I think it all sinks in somewhere. The writers I like and admire include Bryony Lavery, Alan Bennett, Chloe Moss, Jack Thorne, Abi Morgan, Chekhov, Tennessee Williams, Simon Stephens, Conor McPherson and Martin McDonagh – all in different ways and for different reasons.
 
The play centres around a childhood tragedy: both brothers’ lives are defined by one long-ago afternoon and one rash action with dreadful consequences. We’re encouraged to think about the issue of children’s moral responsibility and the extent to which children can be held legally accountable for their behaviour. Do you think this is an area that society struggles with generally?
 
I think society struggles with ideas to do with justice – and whether people who have done wrong should be punished or redeemed. I also think society struggles with how our children should be seen; children are often painted as either pure, innocent angels or feral demons. So, when these two things come together I think all kinds of difficult – and interesting – questions come up.
 
If these interviews have piqued your interest, you can book tickets for the double bill here: http://www.atgtickets.com/venues/new-wimbledon-studio/
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Interview with Freefall playwright Matthew Bulgo

With only a few months to go before our production of Freefall: A Double Bill, we decided it was time to catch up with the writers and dig deeper into the world of the plays. Matthew Bulgo talks us through the genesis of his piece, Lacuna, via jamais vu and jammed bookshelves.

We love Lacuna‘s delicate, heartfelt exploration of the way in which grief can shake the foundations of a person’s existence. The play’s central character, Kate, wakes up in hospital one day, with no memory of how she got there, nor of who she’s left behind. What prompted you to write the play?

A number of things inspired me to write Lacuna. I’ve always been fascinated about how the human mind works and in particular memory. I read a newspaper article about ten years ago about a woman suffering from ‘jamais vu’ (which is one of the lesser-known siblings of ‘deja vu’) – she’d been in quite a traumatic accident with her daughter and following the incident she didn’t recognise her daughter at all…in fact denied ever having a daughter. It was almost as if her brain was protecting itself from thinking about the accident but cutting any ties to anything or anyone connected to it. It’s a real psychological rarity. That was a sort of starting point – the idea that each and every human being responds to stress or grief or trauma in an entirely unique way, psychologically. I kept the article, and even though I’d never written anything before at the time, I sort of knew I wanted to use the story as a starting point for writing a play.

Both the play’s characters, David and Kate, are searching for something: memories that have vanished; love that has been lost. How did you hit upon the title, Lacuna, and what does it mean?

I can’t entirely remember the moment when I hit upon it as the title for the play. I’ve never been too good with dictionary definitions but I would say it’s a gap or a missing piece to a story. 

One of the lovely things about this richly poetic play is the way in which its characters take us on a journey out of the real world and into the mysterious landscape of the mind. Is the boundary between naturalism and unreality one that you are particularly interested in exploring more generally in your work?

I think I was very interested in exploring that territory at the time that I was writing it. Lacuna is one of the first things I ever wrote and I think I was still trying to work out what my voice was. I think most of my work tends to end up somewhere in the ballpark of ‘poetic realism’. But I don’t really like labelling things…so let’s just call it ‘writing’!

What are you working on currently?

I have a few pieces that are bubbling away at the moment. Right now, I’m working away at a short piece for Dirty Protest Theatre. I’m also working on a full-length piece about how we never quite shake off our childhood fears – it’s sort of an odd love story about a guy who’s afraid of everything, in a very childlike way, and a girl who’s become very cynical and jaded. I suppose they end up teaching each other a lot about ‘how to live’.

Which writers are you particularly influenced by and why?

Ooo, too many to mention. Pinter, Osborne, Albee, Wesker, Lorca. More recently, Adam Rapp, James Graham, DC Moore, Will Eno. And in terms of fiction, Raymond Carver, B. S. Johnson, J. D. Salinger, Graham Greene.

To illustrate his point, Matthew sent us a picture of his – very well-stocked – bookshelf…

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Lacuna was developed at Sherman Cymru; do you see the workshop process as an important part of the development of a new script and why?

I think it’s important for a writer to hear their work and to see it realised, whether that be in a production or a reading or a workshop or whatever. I think the learning process only really started for me when I was given those sorts of opportunities.

Check back soon for an interview with Freefall‘s other playwright, Becky Prestwich, and in the meantime you can watch the trailer (see our last post) to find out more about the show.

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Trailer for Freefall at the New Wimbledon Studiio

The Bear, The Owl and The Angel by Becky Prestwich

Lacuna by Matthew Bulgo

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