There were many things Annie Siddons was brutally honest about in her autobiographical 2016 show How (Not) To Live in Suburbia: anxiety over her two daughters, represented by olive trees; the pain of daily wrestling with loneliness, represented by a man in a flabby plastic walrus mask; how bloody hard it is to write a hit show, represented by a bin overflowing with scrunched-up paper and the words “Write A Hit Show” on her to-do list, black and jagged and never crossed off. The phrase became an in-joke of sorts, because of course a popular success is what Suburbia went on to be. But Suburbia wasn’t a Hit Show the way Siddons’ new show Dennis of Penge has potential to be.
I say this having seen Dennis on its second preview, when the performances were still raw, but Siddons’ writing had the razzle-dazzle verve of a mirror-ball in motion. Like her heart-wrenching 2014 show Raymondo, Dennis is a storytelling piece set to music (composed by Asaf Zohar), but “storytelling” doesn’t fully convey the urgency and succulence of the poetry, the epic glow cast on the denizens of Penge as they roam from a chicken shop to an AA meeting via the office of a targets-driven benefits assessments office. Some of its heightened quality comes from its relationship with Euripedes’ play The Bacchai, although that’s an additional flavour to be savoured if you do know the Greek tragedy, not necessary to enjoyment.
After the show I chatted to Siddons briefly about our kids, Brexit anxiety, and how she’s thinking about taking Dennis to the Edinburgh festival next year. And then cycling home I thought: nope, that wasn’t enough, I want to chat to her some more. So we did, and what follows is a slightly disjointed conversation retrofitted from two Q&As conducted over email.
Maddy Costa: I find the words “poverty porn” stick in my throat a bit: I spend quite a lot of time thinking about what gets that label and what doesn’t, and obviously we have it because theatre is an appallingly middle-class industry and representation of working-class people having a shit time is a lot more prevalent than anything more nuanced about working-class life – but I also wonder whether it betrays a certain squeamishness around certain stories being told or voices being heard? What does it say about snobbery when people on welfare are encountered so little in theatre? Anyway, I’m saying all this because Dennis of Penge feels the absolute opposite – a joyful antidote to poverty porn. And that makes me curious to know what your relationship is with the phrase.
Annie Siddons: I sort of haughtily don’t even want to engage with that question, because it’s so palpably against everything I believe in: I would neither want to make poverty porn nor go and see it. There’s a reason I haven’t made this show at the Soho Theatre, and that’s about which audiences I’m wanting to attract. I’m unrepentantly showbiz, but also I come from humble origins. I want those people to come and see this show. Having said that, addiction knows no class boundaries, and that’s reflected in the show also: it’s important that there are significant middle-class characters in the show. The industry is so snobby though. Loads of press people won’t even come to the Oval or the Albany. So for artists, that’s a problem – you need exposure, you want to be known, but some of the traditional media won’t go to a more working class or community or let’s face it less white venue. That needs shaking up.
I remember when Shameless came out and because it was rambunctious and unapologetic, there was a certain section of people who were at first a bit shocked by it. Working-class people being feckless and getting away with it, instead of rubbing their hands together and bowing and scraping? How shocking. But it’s a much better representation of certain realities than a dour representation of poverty. People in dire straits are still people, they are still funny. AA meetings can be fucking hilarious. I think it’s a legacy of middle-class Victorian people doing good, you know? It’s an outsider perspective. The reality is so much richer – across the board, from the language people use, to their lived experience, their creativity and their humour.
MC: Something else I’m trying to think through is the currency of honesty: the ways in which writers are praised for being honest, whether that praise attaches to fictionalised writing in the same way, and what the affordances are of lived experience. Underneath that is a question around what the relationship is between this currency of honesty and how the writer Yasmin Nair talks about neoliberalism and confession – the political demand that people speak from a place of trauma, and the ways in which that same demand is used to silence people who might protest. This isn’t directed at you/Dennis exactly, more stuff that’s dancing around in my head.
AS: Yeh I think a LOT about this. It’s a necessary question, to avoid, for instance, poverty porn, or hegemonies of making, and it’s exciting that we’re in a time where these things are being challenged – but you know being an artist is a skilled job and if you’re good at your job you can obviously talk about things you don’t have lived experience of. You just need to do it well, and sensitively, and not in a dick way. And also understand that you may need to step aside for some people with more direct lived experience to do that job better at some points. I just really hate reductiveness in argument. But you know empathy and observation and research and being awake as well as woke goes a long way.
MC: One more on lived experience/honesty: I’m curious if you feel (or worry about feeling one day) regret about being so directly autobiographical in Suburbia (this is not a judgement thing: I also put a lot of v direct stuff online and don’t feel regret about anything).
AS: No I loved being autobiographical with Suburbia. It was the right thing to do. Also in terms of showbiz, I really wanted to get up close and personal with an audience. I have no regrets. I think I will continue to mingle the forms tbh, depending on what I’m writing about. I think the post-Dennis show is more like Suburbia in form. But if you think about it, in Suburbia I’m still being really surreal and metaphorical. I mean, hate to break it to you but my kids are not actually olive trees.
MC: Is there a relationship between the characters/stories you tell in Dennis, and the Samaritans training you did connected to Suburbia?
AS: Not much, tbh. This show came out of my own journey into sobriety and my own contact with the fuckery of the welfare system and target culture. It’s all lived experience, baby. In early 2016 I got sober, and then I had the worst depression I have ever had – it was medieval and demonic and pretty terrifying. And at the same time I started writing for a sobriety website, and I noticed that all the articles seemed to have been steeped in positivity – which is understandable, because encouragement is important – but there was something about the partiality of that that riled me. Because getting sober is a huge loss as well as a huge gain, and talking about that loss feels incredibly important, both in science terms – your brain chemistry is literally fried when you first get sober – and also in basic telling the truth terms. In the culture, often a story of addiction stops when someone goes into rehab, and although that decision is important, what happens afterwards is more important.
So I wanted to redress the balance, and also once the medieval depression lifted, I began to be terrified about never again being allowed to get out of my head, of experiencing transcendence/ecstasy. So I started writing articles about looking for Dennis – aka Dionysus – as a sober person. At the same time three very close members of my family were being insulted by PIP [ Personal Independent Payment] assessments. And the absurdity of that system plus its incompetence and its origins in game theory and target culture – with me leaning heavily on Adam Curtis’s The Trap – seemed to be a modern Pentheus [the character in the Bacchai who denies the existence of Dionysus]. But Pentheus as a system rather than a person.
Pentheus in our show is completely in denial about what it is to be human. And that’s what I see in the way people are treated in those assessments. I did research as well, and every single story I’ve put in the show is based on a real story that happened to someone. And then at the same time I was reading as much as possible about addiction, and reflecting on my own descent into it, and a couple of books really pinged out at me, by Gabor Maté and Johann Hari, which are broadly speaking a holistic view of addiction rather than simply a disease model.
MC: I thought I hadn’t seen any of your work before Raymondo, but it turns out I have: there was the version of Rapunzel performed by Kneehigh, which I loved, and a version of The Nutcracker performed at the Unicorn, which I also love. When I think about Raymondo, I remember it as a kind of fairy tale. So I’m interested in how you use fairy tale in your work – but also, and maybe this is slightly different, magic realism. I’m curious what excites you about magic, or what it makes possible, or…?
AS: Interestingly Chris Goode asked me this question when I did his podcast, and I don’t really know how to answer it except I guess it’s an elaborate metaphor, or sometimes an efficient way of using story, or sometimes a way of expressing extremes of feeling or state, or bringing the internal into the external, and that I’m interested in extremes, in the light corner and the dark corner kind of crashing into each other because I think that makes good art.
When you go to the theatre, you want to be steeped in a different world, a different perspective. And theatre has to be more than incisive social commentary. I can watch a documentary, read a book for that. In theatre we can deal with so many different languages – and we can deal with internal and external states at the same time and we can use metaphor and we can make showbusiness and give people a brilliant and perspective shaking night out. I really, unabashedly believe in that. Delight. The unexpected. That’s important.
But this show isn’t magic realism: it’s very simply the story of the Bacchae transferred to Penge and with recovering addicts. To me it just feels like realism, tbh. Naturalism is as far away from realism as I think we can get. Or, like, the well-made play, that is so far away from realism. Believe it or not I’m trying to represent reality. I’m always writing about real stuff and couching it in a magical idiom doesn’t make it any less real: I’d say the opposite. I don’t like to use people that I know in my work in any way that would expose them. That’s a principle. So with Raymondo, and also with this, I have to disguise what and who I want to talk about, and putting it all in a magic realism idiom protects people’s identities.
With this show you can enjoy the verse and the singing and the dancing and the music and the showbiz and the humour and that’s cool but also you could think about target culture and how it is literally fucking our society. I mean, I really, really hate it. Look at the Windrush situation. Look at the education system. Look at the benefits system. It’s a terrible terrible inhumane model. It is destroying us. We need to be raging against it. I love this John Nash quote – John Nash is the father of game theory which is the father of target culture, and late in life he regretted doing this. He said, I realise what I said at some times may have overemphasised rationality. Human beings are much more complicated than the human being as a businessman. Only two groups of people behave rationally at all times. Economists and psychopaths. He’s right.
MC: Can I ask about the relationship between your work pre-kids and post-kids? and whether you think kids changed your work? or just the circumstances of how it’s possible to work?
AS: I wouldn’t be here doing this if I hadn’t had my daughters. I wrote Rapunzel for them, and Rapunzel changed everything just because Emma Rice took a punt on me and decided to make it. My guilt about wanting to take time away from my daughters to write meant that I wrote something that I felt that they needed to see.
Before that I had been very uncertain about how to make work. I had a lot of mental health issues in my 20s, and poverty issues, and family issues, and profound shyness issues, and although I was knocking around making stuff I hadn’t quite found my path. I saw one play before age 16 and that was Annie – The Musical, keeping it narcissistic. Then when I was 16 I saw a student production of Top Girls and it blew my mind. The writing. The possibilities. Then like everyone my age I got heavily into Complicite when they were hitting it in the early 90s. And then working with Kneehigh influenced me hugely. Now it’s a broader palate, very little of which is theatrical. I mean, I’m obsessed with music and TV. Those things influence me a LOAD. But also since Edinburgh 2014 I have been part of this amazing live art queer fam, and that has influenced me a load too. I find that intriguing: had I met all the Duckie people when I was in my 20s and not in my 40s, how that would have changed my life.
Dennis of Penge is at Oval House until 6 October and at the Albany, 9-13 October. More info here