Where and when: White Bear Theatre, 16th-18th October
What it’s all about… Good Gracious, Good Friday takes place in Belfast, Northern Ireland on the night of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement referendum result, as four (mostly hungover) twenty-somethings come together to use the historic occasion as an excuse to drink all over again. Although they claim they have no interest in the “boring news on the telly” as the evening draws on – their true feelings for their country, and each other, will be revealed. This is a nostalgic look back at a huge turning point in Northern Ireland’s history, with Game Boys and Tamagotchis thrown in for good measure!
You’ll like it if… you’re interested in The Good Friday Agreement which has been mentioned so much whenever Brexit is on the news. It’s been the main sticking point in the current negotiations, particularly when it comes to the matter of the Irish Border. Our play explores why the 1998 Good Friday Agreement was such a monumental event in Northern Irish, and U.K. history and what it meant to a younger generation who strived for peace – a generation who were knee deep in a late 90s cultural explosion of Britney Spears, Titanic and Supermarket Sweep – so yeah, they had all that to deal with too…….
You should see it because… the Good Friday Agreement has never been more prevalent than it was over 20 years ago. The very essence of Brexit brings into disrepute the good work so many British/Irish/American politicians set out to do, which was to bring peace to the island of Ireland. Just yesterday (14th October 2019) a Northern Irish citizen named Emma De Souza was told she could not claim her Irish citizenship – something The Good Friday Agreement set out to make possible in our time, and further beyond. Our play sets out to show how important The Good Friday Agreement was to Northern Ireland in 1998, and how it remains just as vital to the country, The Republic of Ireland and The U.K. today.
If you’ve ever watched a production of Macbeth and thought the protagonist seemed like a bit of a muppet, then Stage Splinters’ irreverent new adaptation of the famous tragedy is the show for you. Leaving Shakespeare’s verse well and truly at the door, this musical adaptation performed by puppets playfully pokes fun at both the play and its characters, with the murderous monarch taking the brunt of the humour.
Following an unsettling encounter with three flirtatious witches called Agnes, Breanna and Madison, Macbeth heads home to his wife, who promptly bullies her spineless spouse into murdering the nice old king. Several fumbling attempts later, Duncan’s finally dispatched, and the Macbeths turn their attention to the loyal Banquo and an unexpectedly repellent Macduff – which would all be fine if their intended victims didn’t keep escaping. Elliot Moore and Eloise Jones make a hilarious double act as the enthusiastic but incompetent killers, with performances so expressive and engaging that it’s easy to find yourself watching them rather than the (albeit expertly handled) puppets.
The discarding of the majority of Shakespeare’s original text allows writers Chuma Emembolu and Ruth Nicolas to tell the well-known story from a fresh perspective. John, Rose and Conleth are servants in Macbeth’s household, who witness, discuss and occasionally participate in their bosses’ bloody goings on. At the same time, they put the Macbeths’ problems well and truly into perspective by sharing their own harrowing life stories: John has a bit of a drinking problem and only narrowly escapes having Duncan’s murder pinned on him as a result; Rose was sold into servitude by her father; and Conleth is a former soldier with a traumatic past.
The result of all this is a curious mix: a laugh out loud comedy (the Duncan murder scene is particularly fun, as is Macbeth’s death) punctuated by some really dark moments, which are not only not at all funny but also have a tendency to happen very suddenly, and then be over with just as quickly, leaving the audience feeling slightly off balance. Both Bryony Reynolds (Rose) and Red Picasso (Conleth) give excellent performances in unexpectedly complex roles, and it’s frustrating that having worked hard to establish them as major characters, the show doesn’t then tell us how their stories end.
Having said that, Macbeth the Musical is still a very funny, very silly evening of tongue-in-cheek comedy, which you don’t have to be a Shakespeare scholar to appreciate (though if you are one, you’ll undoubtedly enjoy the countless in-jokes levelled at the source text and its gaping plot holes). The cast are impeccable, the songs are witty and enjoyable, and the puppets are great. Who knew murder could be this much fun?
Following a two-night run at the White Bear’s recent New Writing festival, My Mate Monster – a.k.a. Ryan Whittle and Chris McCurry – return to the theatre next week with an encore of their debut show, What Happens Next Will __ Your __. A darkly humorous two-hander inspired by the rising (and apparently, enduring) trend of shaming strangers on the internet, the play proved a hit last month with audiences – and Theatre Things quite liked it too.
Before the show’s welcome return to the White Bear, we chatted to Ryan and Chris to find out more about the show’s journey so far, their plans for the future, and exactly what a monster’s got to do with anything…
Can you tell us briefly what the show is about?
It’s about two strangers, Alex and Darren, who become trapped on the roof of an apartment building. Darren is an incessant chatterer and when he lets slip a few pretty crazy and offensive views, Alex begins to expose him by live tweeting his torturous experience. As the responses roll in and outrage grows, things escalate from there.
We told a guy once it’s basically “Planes, Trains and Automobiles meets Black Mirror”, and he went “Brilliant. I like both of those things.” So, yeah. In a nutshell it’s that. On a roof.
Where did the inspiration come from?
We were approaching our final assessments at Royal Welsh College and basically had to write a play. Chris picked up a Jon Ronson book called So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed at the airport on the way back to Cardiff. It was fascinating with tons and tons of stories about people who’d had their lives completely ruined by being shamed online. So we knew we wanted to do something about that!
Then Ryan found a news story about a guy who was tweeting horrible things about a woman he was on a flight with and it transpired that she followed him. That gave us a great structure right there (minus the airplane… would have been a bit tricky that), so we just went into a room and messed about until it was done!
What do you hope audiences will take away from seeing it?
Basically we want them to have a great time… and then feel really horrible and guilty and then just to be a bit shocked and go “Oh dear” and feel a bit sick.
Apart from that… just to see themselves in the characters. We both work in bars and regularly come into contact with people a lot like Darren, who don’t seem to realise you don’t have time for a chat and they just plough on. London can be an incredibly lonely place at times. It’s something we all have felt here and these two guys definitely are very similar in that way. It’s very easy just to see people as moving obstacles and massive pains in the arse rather than understand them.
If all that doesn’t register and they just go “That silly guy was funny” then that’s absolutely 100% fine too.
What’s been the show’s journey so far?
We wrote it in 2015 and performed it at RWCMD. We basically did the whole thing blank page to stage in 4/5 weeks and had the most amazing time doing it. It was honestly one of the best experiences we’ve both had on stage and it was received really well.
After college we both got parts in different things and never really had a chance to re-stage it. We were worried that social media shaming would become less of a cultural thing than it was but thankfully people just kept on annihilating each on the internet!
At the start of this year we both had a bit of time to revisit it and just set a target for getting it on by the end of the summer. Then the White Bear advertised their New Writing Festival, we fired the script off and got in! It’s been so nice revisiting it and that people enjoyed it so much they’ve invited us back.
How long have the two of you known each other, and how did My Mate Monster come about?
About 4 years. We were both training together and decided to work on a final assessment as a pair and that’s what led to the show. When we started getting serious about grabbing opportunities to get the show on elsewhere we decided to form our own company.
As for the name… there was a guy of about 20 who lived round the corner from Chris when he was 7-8 who was 6’10 with a shaved head and his mates (in the nicest way possible) called him ‘Monster.’ Somehow that huge man found his way into the play as an unseen acquaintance of Darren’s. It’s a favourite line of ours so, yeah, ‘My Mate Monster’. Legally, we probably owe him money or something now.
What are your plans for the show and the company in the future?
We’ve been in touch with different festivals and venues. Basically we just want to get the show out there and seen by as many people as possible.
We’ve got an idea for another show that we’ll start working on when we’ve had a wee break after this. It’d be great to do a double bill feature, What Happens Next… then an interval and then a second completely different hour long play featuring the two of us as totally different characters.
Surely the dream is just to sit and talk to your mate about silly experiences you’ve had or things you’re interested in or that are bothering you and then go and make them into something. How good is that?
Gather round, kids, it’s time for a history lesson… Once upon a time, if you were out and about and you witnessed behaviour that was annoying, weird or socially unacceptable, the only thing to do was make a mental note and then have a bit of a rant about it to your family, friends and colleagues when you arrived at your destination. But those days are gone; now we have the wonderful world of social media, and with it the ability to instantly and publicly shame anyone we judge not to be living up to our own expected standards of behaviour. And sometimes, that harmless tweet or jokey Facebook post captures the public’s imagination and takes on a life of its own – but at what point does calling people out for what we deem bad behaviour stop being just a bit of fun?
In Chris McCurry and Ryan Whittle’s What Happens Next Will __ Your __, freelance journalist Alex (Whittle) finds himself trapped on a roof with Darren (McCurry), an overly chatty security guard with some highly questionable views on a number of issues. Frustrated and incredulous, Alex does what – let’s be honest – a lot of us would consider doing, and starts live tweeting their conversation to his substantial online following, who respond instantly and with great enthusiasm. And what happens next… well, you get the idea.
What begins as a funny story of an awkward encounter quickly ventures into some uncomfortable territory, as the replies to Alex’s tweets begin to flash up on the TV screen in the corner of the stage. First there’s delight, then outrage, and finally blind hatred and even death threats directed at a stranger none of them have ever met. Even after Alex starts actually listening to what Darren’s really trying to say and stops firing off sarcastic tweets, it’s too late; he’s already started something he can’t stop. Not only that, he’s beginning to realise that the people who follow him so voraciously may not actually be all that different from those he exposes – and that he might not be such a great guy himself, either.
Like any good clickbait video on the internet, you can guess at least part of where the story’s headed – and yet it’s impossible to look away as the inevitable car crash moment approaches. This, when it arrives, is set up so well that somehow it still manages to feel like a shock twist, and the impact is painfully, cringingly horrific to watch. Chris McCurry and Ryan Whittle are an excellent double act, nailing the comedy in the script with such expert precision that it takes a while to realise that our sympathy has begun to shift from one character to the other, or that for the first half of the play we’ve been guilty of making the exact same snap judgments as Alex. Not a second of the 50-minute play is wasted; even the awkward silences between the two men are loaded with meaning, and in many ways we learn more about who each of them really is from what they don’t say than from their actual conversation.
What Happens Next Will __ Your __ is an excellent piece of new writing and a strong debut production from My Mate Monster. Relatable and entertaining, it also challenges the audience to examine our own behaviour online and its potential consequences. More than that, though, it reminds us to be kind – both on and off the internet – and take a moment before passing judgment on people we’ve never met. In a world that feels increasingly hostile, that’s a reminder we can’t hear often enough.
James Martin Charlton is an award-winning playwright whose previous work includes the critically acclaimed Fat Souls, I Really Must Be Getting Off and Coward. This week sees the premiere of his new play, Reformation, which runs at the White Bear Theatre until 13th July. The play was inspired by the life and work of the Renaissance artist Lucas Cranach and tells the story of Eva, a young woman caught up in a world of powerful men. Directed by Janice Dunn, the production – staged in contemporary dress – strikes a topical note, with clear connections between Eva’s story and the #metoo movement.
As Reformation approached its opening night, we spoke to James about the importance of telling untold stories, getting to know Cranach, and just how much really has changed over the last 500 years…
Can you sum up briefly what Reformation is all about?
Reformation is the story of a young woman from a poor background who becomes involved with a celebrity artist and his son. The son falls in love with her and the artist uses her as a life model. When the powerful man who commissioned the artist sees a sketch of the model, he not only wants the painting – he wants the girl. It’s about what a person might be faced with doing in order to survive.
Where did the idea for this story come from?
An exhibition in Berlin of works that Lucas Cranach and other Renaissance artists did for the Berlin royals. I became fascinated by the portraits by Cranach of Joachim the Elector and his brother, and also by Cranach’s self-portrait. Looking at Cranach’s moral scenes, I was struck by how much flesh was on display. These were paintings which ostensibly counselled the viewer against being led astray by desire. At the same time they provoke desire. And I noticed a small, anonymous sketch of the Berlin of the time, with a gallows on the outskirts. Powerful men, desire, the consequences of upsetting the powerful were all there. I began to tell myself a story which put all of this together…
Why was this a story you wanted to tell, and why is now the right time to tell it?
I tend to write about people whose stories don’t usually get told. People on the side-lines. People who are neglected. People the media ignores. We hear a lot in the history books about the movers and shakers, artists and rulers, but what of the people around them? Each of their lives were important, and each life has profound depths. Luckily, we’re living in a time when such people are beginning to tell their stories and be heard. Obscure individuals are telling us how they brushed up against the wealthy, the powerful, the influential, and how that encounter then shaped their subsequent lives.
What would you like audiences at the White Bear to take away from seeing the play?
I hope that they’ll feel entertained, thrilled, moved, a little disturbed perhaps. I do not write plays with messages in them. I want each individual in the audience to encounter the story and think about what it might mean to them. I believe that stories should be democratic, and so I give the audience the choice of how to respond, what to think about what they have seen.
#metoo has been a frequent theme in theatre over the last couple of years. What is it that makes Reformation unique as a contribution to this ongoing conversation?
I conceived of the play sometime before #metoo hit the headlines. I choose stories which can be applied to any time and place. It is important for us to remember that our problems have been bothering humanity forever. The play, uniquely I think, connects #metoo to the Reformation. There seems to me to be some ongoing process of reformation which is happening with human beings, where we challenge power structures which become too rigid, bring their failings to light. Yet history tells us that new power structures emerge, which themselves become rigid. Have we really reformed?
How much of the play is based on historical fact – and does that significantly change your approach or process as a writer?
The powerful, famous characters are based on real people. Lucas Cranach and his son, the Elector Joachim and his Bishop brother Albert all existed. The peasants in the play are invented. Their encounters with the powerful are speculations. If I am writing a historical piece, I try to soak myself in the period as much as possible. I consume volumes of books, paintings, music, anything that helps. Then I treat all of this as the material for the play. No play is entirely a fiction, it’s all based in something one has encountered, either in one’s own life or in finding out about somebody else’s life. I take found material in and use it rather in the way the unconscious mind uses stuff when we’re dreaming. Any play of mine is a dream based on the real, with its own rules and roads.
Finally, as a successful writer, what would be your top tip to aspiring playwrights or those just starting out?
Find out as much as you can about everything you can. Keep up with what is happening in the world but don’t just look at contemporary stuff. Read myths, folktales, history. See and hear as much as you can, in any medium you can. But never lose sight of your own perspective. You’re a unique individual, and will have encountered things in a way in which only you individually could have. Try to talk to the individuals in your audience from that place which is known only to you.
Director: Janice Dunn
Cast:Jason Wing, Ram Gupta, Alice De-Warrenne, Imogen Smith, Adam Sabatti, Simeon Willis and Matt Ian Kelly