I go to a lot of playwrighting showcases and they’re invariably all about the words in a script. Often the words are very good, and have been written in a sensible order and the result is a pretty satisfying play. But it is rare to find a playwright who is properly interested in what goes on beyond the words in his or her play, and is keen to interrogate the loopholes, shocks and jolts that only theatre offers. This lack of curiosity in the very theatreness of theatre sometimes makes me want to scream.
First Drafts at The Yard is a different story. Here is a theatre that, under the guidance of AD Jay Miller, is absolutely committed to finding playwrights who are interested in much more than just words. Here is a theatre committed to finding playwrights who care instinctively about: silence, the audience, playfulness, risk, movement, the body, awkwardness, pain and surprise. Many of the plays I watched during the First Drafts festival possess these qualities and, crucially, feel honest and authentic too. This is theatre as personal discovery rather than disguise.
I remember very few words from the First Draft plays. Here is what I remember instead: dancing blob heads and stones deposited like shit (The Cove); multiplying cacti spreading into the audience and a girl who could not stop burping (Human Suit); extraordinary energy and trust and hope (Company Three’s The Act); a game of catch played out with a larder’s worth of tinned food (You); a director talking to her audience (Cunt); falling in love as the sheets fly (Girl Meets Boy) and my face scrawled onto a massive watermelon (Christopher Brett Bailey in Roulette Player).
Some of these shows feel far more developed and complete than others. Laura Burns’s Cove is brave in its willingness to embrace silence. During the first (rather long) ten minutes, two actresses clutch each other and shuffle along the floor, depositing a trail of stones along the floor as the sound of water trickles overhead. My notes start out curious (‘Is she seaweed? The river?) but eventually ring with frustration (‘Blob heads singing – are they serious?!’) There’s a stillness to this play that feels promising but this company hasn’t yet discovered how to bring the audience with them.
Other scripts feel like the start of things. In Joe Harbot’s You, a woman (Ria Zmitrowicz, a talented comic) sits on stage as a man in the audience (Joshua Miles) blitzes her with abuse. Eventually the woman breaks free and begins to take control, exercising like crazy and screaming out her goals. Harbot’s play feels a little straight and narrow – there aren’t enough shady side streets to get lost in – but it’s an intriguing piece of writing, which keeps wriggling away from the audience and refuses to let us settle.
Katherine Manners’ play, Cunt, is more a reading than an early performance and feels uneven: hot and alive in some scenes and cold and limp in others. But what is great about this play – which is about sex and feminism and the often uninvited male gaze – is how many different ‘flavours’ of conversation the playwright is willing to have with the audience, either through a standup comedy skit, a blast of spoken word or a more closed scene between a woman and her doctor. At one point one of the actresses accidentally slips into a Scottish accent, admits her mistake and the audiences sparks into life. It is so often the mistakes that allow a fledgling piece of theatre to quite suddenly come alive – and here is a festival that positively encourages these illuminating errors.
Girl Meets Boy is the only fully formed piece of theatre I watch during First Drafts, and is an adaptation of Ali Smith’s novel. At first it feels a little flat, as if the words in the script remain stubbornly stuck to the original novel. It is only when gaps begin to appear between the words spoken and the activity on stage that Girl Meets Boy transforms into a piece of theatre. A woman sits at her desk and brainstorms ideas for work, but is distracted by the recent revelation that her sister is a lesbian. As this woman tries to work, her thoughts muscle in on her work and are projected on the back wall: ‘My sister is gay, gay, gay, gay, gay.’ The way that words can wriggle out of our control, betray us or reveal us: this is what theatre is about and is at the heart of this thoughtful production.
The greatest heat comes off two very different shows: Company Three’s The Act and Ilinca Radulian’s Roulette Player, performed by Christopher Brett Bailey. Roulette has a long way to go but, despite its flaws, it still lit up the audience. We arrive to find watermelons on our seat. Later, a few select audience members will smash those watermelons to smithereens and we will get to know them surprisingly well, merely through the joy or doubt we spot in their eyes. Christopher Brett Bailey will take us on a journey in which luck and life play carry out gruesome dance with each other and we will watch, part fascinated and part repulsed. Roulette feels slightly closed and limited at the moment – but it made me feel weird things. I found myself shouting out loud and giggling and wriggling in my seat in a way that felt unstoppable, unsettling and exciting.
The Act still dances about my head with crystal clarity. This is a show about sex and teenagers, performed by a young cast, Company Three, who have been working together for many years. There is a rare openness about The Act: by the end of the show it feels like I have crouched down next to these teenagers, searched for their pulse and felt it beat. Here is a company that has learned how to listen to each other without judgment or fear, and who are not afraid to give themselves over completely to the theatre. We eavesdrop on their funny and honest conversations about sex. We watch them them sing and dance, run away and towards each other. The performances feel like the most natural extension of these young actors – as if they have turned themselves inside out just for us. It is a revelation and an honour to watch them perform.
First Drafts was on at the Yard Theatre. For more of their programme click here.