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Features OpinionQ&A and InterviewsStrangeness + Charm Published 29 March 2016

Interview: Alistair McDowall

Mary Halton talks to Alistair McDowall about upcoming play X at the Royal Court, Pluto, remoteness and Pomona.
Mary Halton

There’s still a little card of the Cthulhu mask from Pomona stuck to my desktop monitor at work. I really liked that piece. I liked how excited everyone was about that piece. It felt like theatre came to me for once – the detritus of popular culture and abandoned spaces and slightly nerdish leanings sort of swept up in a rush. It was dark and fast and slightly weird, and had a jizz soliloquy worth of Chris Brett Bailey.

So when I found out that Alistair McDowall was writing a play about Pluto, my response was pretty much FUCK YES PLEASE.

I study planetary science, and my area of research is moons of the outer solar system, so I’m generally speaking in the business of thinking about liminal spaces. About the very edges of things; what happens there, and why. Pomona and a play I worked on last year about Shackleton’s 1914 Antarctic expedition, called Beyond Endurance, and a dozen other things had been swirling around my head for months, because this feels as though it’s something that art and science are both very much concerned with – pushing at, and understanding, limits. Things that exist at or beyond known borders. Skirting around the edges of the known.

Before we’d fully explored the world, when there were lots of strange gaps on the map with sea monsters drawn in, there was a notion of a far northern, as yet undiscovered land called Thule. Ultima Thule was what lay beyond the border of the known world; marked off as a mystery. Yet we seem, as a bizarrely curious species, obsessed with reaching out to that boundary and pushing beyond it. So for the next few months I thought I’d speak to some artists and scientists doing just that: making art in/about the edges of our experience.

Starting with Alistair.

Full disclosure – we actually had two conversations. One on a Tuesday over lunch, during which Alistair said a range of interesting things about X principally being a work play massively influenced by The Cherry Orchard, quoted Stephen King on horror, and we had a chat about the idea of a new 9th planet in the solar system.

All of which my dictaphone failed to capture.

So the below is a phone call we followed up with on the Friday.

MH: To start with, I know we had a chat on Tuesday about the idea of this 9th planet. Pluto being the edge of the solar system and the limit of popular imagination so – why Pluto? Why right to the edge?

AM: So the play is basically about people being away from home; feeling like home is slipping away from them, gradually. Not just physically – because they’re not there anymore – but mentally, everything about home is going, disappearing. And Pluto was just the furthest possible place in the general imagination that I could think of to make that happen. Another more superficial reason is I’ve always wanted to write a play on Pluto called X, because I thought it was a badass idea, but you can’t actually write a play like that. So that was an idea I had years ago and it sort of floated around for a while, and then I eventually realised that was actually the perfect house for this story I was writing about this woman, Gilda, being away from home. It was the furthest place I could put her.

A view of Pluto NASA/JPL/SRI

Photo: NASA/JPL/SRI

The other thing to say about Pluto is, without being a bit denigrating, it’s just – it’s kind of a bit crap. It’s not a planet anymore. It  got demoted. Its moons are just weird shaped rocks, spinning around it. It’s been a bit more exciting this year because of New Horizons and everything, but it’s always slightly been thought of as just this cold rock, and there seemed to be something quite British about that. There’s this running thing in the play that of course the British crew are on Pluto, whereas the Americans get to do Mars and Titan and Europa. All the cooler, more habitable ones.

I also wanted it to be a work play; a bit like those David Storey plays or those early Richard Bean plays. What does the grind of work feel like if you’re on a planet, if you’re in space, if you have to basically live in a box with the whirr of air conditioning the whole time? It just seemed like the most extreme form of isolation I could find.

And also there seemed to be other layers of meaning in how we all think about Pluto. Probably most people don’t think about Pluto very often, to be honest. It was kind of exciting and also slightly annoying that they kept discovering things about it last year. Every Thursday I’d be waiting for the announcements. I remember – finding ice was a big deal. So I was like right, well, someone [in the play] has to mention that there’s ice at some point, because they talk about the landscape outside and what it’s like. So that’s a really literal example of how current scientific discoveries actually impacted on the play, even though it’s a play that’s not really interested in the science of the situation in the slightest. I really think people would struggle to call it science fiction after seeing it. Once we get the set up of where we are and what the rules are of that space, it’s a character piece really.

MH: Yeah, it’s much more in the vein of a psychological horror.

AM: Absolutely. Just before you start rehearsal you say “Oh, this film was good for me.” Or this music, or this book or this play. The things that I was saying [were helpful to me] – stuff like Conor McPherson’s plays, and films like The ThingDawn of the Dead,Repulsion – you know the Polanski one which is in the apartment? Films that are interested in isolation and plays that were about gathering together in a confined space and sort of wrestling things out with each other. It’s weird in that it’s a space play, but I think actually the form of it, particularly the first half, it’s very old fashioned really. Or at least I think it seems on the surface quite old fashioned at first.

MH: I was interested because obviously the scale of it, the physical scale, is quite small – but in reading it, it feels quite cinematic.

AM: When I look at my work generally – from thing to thing – it seems like I’m trying to find new ways of wrestling with narrative more than anything else. What can I do to story? How can I twist story around? With Pomona it was quite simple really – it was just taking a story, cutting it into bits and reordering it to give it some kind of different meaning. And this does other things which are to do with how you pass time in an enclosed space, with an audience, and what you do with that. But it’s weird in that we’re used to seeing this situation cinematically way more than in any other medium, but I think once the play kicks in, it’s quite kind of aggressively theatrical. If I write a play, I want to make sure that it wouldn’t work in any other medium – I want to paint myself into a corner with it. It’s the only way I’m going to actually exploit the special things about theatre.

MH: I used to work as a stage manager, so anytime I read something I’m looking at it from that angle, and in several places I was thinking “Christ, that’s going to be tricky”.

AM: You’re telling me, man.

MH: I think that’s probably what I meant about it being cinematic. But it’s interesting what you say about the liveness having to be worth it, and it having to be worth the audience’s while to come and sit there and watch it. How consciously did you want to play with the audience’s sense of time?

AM: Any play you write, you are playing with time to some extent. The real game of this was how I could get that sensation that just they’re there for this really inordinate amount of time. I mean it’s not so much the amount of time, it’s the fact that nothing changes. They’re in this room, and the walls aren’t going to change. Talking with Vicky Featherstone about it, we’d talk about stuff like The Shining. In The Shining, the walls of the hotel don’t bend and go crazy; it’s people bouncing off the walls that’s driving them insane. So in the play, the way we’re working on it now is to find a certain level of psychological realism that can hopefully put you in that room with them, as intimately as possible.

The writers that I’d look at… Thornton Wilder’s one of my absolute heroes and I go to him for pretty much anything. But I think for this play more than any, because the way he deals with time in Our Town – and he has this play called The Long Christmas Dinner, and Pullman Car Hiawatha – all these plays that are very much about how we pass through life. I think that’s something that the play’s slightly preoccupied with; if your life becomes being trapped in a box, what does that do to your experience of it, and your experience of yourself and your experience of other people? I mean it’s all starting to sound very miserable and cerebral. There are some jokes in it too!

But the liveness thing… I didn’t go to the theatre really at all growing up. I didn’t live anywhere where that was on offer to me. So when I started going a lot in university, the excitement had not worn off for me, and it still kind of hasn’t. I think that’s quite a precious thing, so I’m always very aware when I go and see a play and I feel like the fourth wall’s just made out of bricks. I don’t need people to start turning and talking to me, but I need something in the bones of the play to be aware that it’s a live experience. That it’s going to be different every night. That there are going to be turns and changes that the actors are going to have to ride. And that’s what’s so exciting. Particularly with a play like this; I mean I’ve no idea how people are going to experience it to be honest. I can’t wait to see it in a room full of people.

MH: Until then, you’re going to be in the rehearsal room for all four weeks?

AM: Yeah, I like to be around the whole time. When it’s a first production you kind of have to be there for at least a big chunk of it because sometimes something sticks out that’s really wrong and you’ve got to fix it. As of yet it’s mostly been little things that we’ve been tweaking. I feel incredibly lucky to have the director and the cast and the team [that we have] – everyone in the room is a real joy.

Ria Zmitrowicz (Mattie), Jessica Raine (Gilda), Vicky Featherstone (Director), Alistair McDowall (Writer), Roy Alexander Weise (Trainee Director). Photo: Manuel Harlan.

Ria Zmitrowicz (Mattie), Jessica Raine (Gilda), Vicky Featherstone (Director), Alistair McDowall (Writer), Roy Alexander Weise (Trainee Director). Photo: Manuel Harlan.

What’s interesting about it with this … with Pomona as well, but I think this is an even bigger leap – I think I’ve gotten less interested in making sure that everything is, on the surface, easy to decode for everyone immediately. I really love that sensation in any medium. If I’m reading, watching, experiencing something and I’m kind of captivated but I have no idea why. So there are definitely points in the play where I’m trusting that you’ll have locked into the characters and the storytelling is trying to work with you on a more emotional level, than on something that’s purely logical.

MH: There’s definitely a sense that we travel through the play with Gilda, and you mention that she was the first character that you came up with?

AM: Yeah… I find it kind of weird and emotional when the cast start sort of clicking into the parts, because it’s sort of like going “Oh yeah, there’s my mates that I’ve been hanging out with the whole time, on my own”, you know? I have this play called Brilliant Adventures with this time machine in it, and I’ve seen that in a couple of different countries. Whenever I go and see it, it’s like “I miss these guys”, because you live with them for so long they become real to you. It’s this awful kind of cringey writer thing to say, I guess, to talk about these fictional constructs like that…

But yeah, I had her the longest I think. She was the starting point. And I’m really lucky to have a cast who are already doing a really exceptional job. So yeah, they’re all kind of special characters to me. It’s an odd process to be incredibly intimate with these people on the page, just when you’re sat in the library. You’re surrounded by other people doing work and I’m just sort of eating M&Ms and trying to keep my head down, and suddenly they’re all wandering around in a room talking at each other. It’s great. It’s never… it has not at any point felt less bizarre to me, you know, the more I’ve done this.

Rudi Darmalingam (Cole) and Jessica Raine (Gilda). Photo: Manuel Harlan.

Rudi Darmalingam (Cole) and Jessica Raine (Gilda). Photo: Manuel Harlan.

MH: Going back to Pluto’s remoteness, do you think there’s a question wrapped up in that of how tied our humanity is to the Earth itself? Who and what we are when we are so removed from it? Which feeds into why you’ve set it on Pluto as opposed to maybe just in Antarctica?

AM: Yeah, when I’m writing, this stuff kind of breaks into two camps really. There’s what I think of as the small things and the big things. If I take care of the story and the characters and if I get that right, then a lot of this other stuff will take care of itself. I think that’s the right way round because then that means there’s a certain level of ambiguity and that people can take away what they want from it.

My favourite, what I would call capital ‘P’ political playwright was Miller, because The Crucible is either a really cutting tale of communal paranoia and the McCarthy trials and what it means to be involved OR it’s just a scary story about some witches and this guy and it’s sad at the end. That’s the most inspirational model for me, I think, in that if I just put all of my energy into making sure the humanity works, then the rest of it should slot into place fairly easily.

I mean you’re right, it does seem preoccupied with “Well, what makes me, me? Is it my experience? Is it the memories I have? Or is it my relationship to other people, or is it my relationship to my environment? Or is it how I dress and act, the constructed identity I’ve built for myself, the kind of more superficial personality?”, and I think the play kind of gradually starts to wonder what happens if that stuff starts to fall away.

Pluto. NASA/JPL/SRI

Photo: NASA/JPL/SRI

MH: We talked a little bit last time about how maybe not a lot of plays are necessarily set in space, but I was wondering as a broader thing do you think there’s an extent to which art and theatre are a little wary of science? You mentioned that there are all these new findings and new facts and you have to be kind of up to date … Do you think there’s a little wariness in approaching topics like that?

AM: I don’t know that there’s a wariness because of worrying that it’s all going to be disproved. I mean, it’s not science but Pomona – they’re building on Pomona now. So the place that play is set on is going to be gone pretty soon. But that’s ok because that play’s not about that physical space – it just uses that as somewhere to kind of prowl around, whereas this play… If they did discover in a couple of weeks that there are a bunch of aliens living there and they can speak English, it will make the play seem a little bit odd, and maybe out of date, but the play’s not really about… Probably the greatest amount of science fiction is in prose; it’s in novels, and short stories. The good stuff, or at least the stuff that I’m keen on, isn’t so much interested in being hard science – it’s interested in taking one speculative idea and seeing what that would mean for how we live or how we identify ourselves. The most basic example I guess is Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? – what does it mean to us if there’s exact copies of us wandering around?

MH: Battlestar Galactica looked at that a lot…

AM: Yeah Battlestar’s a great example of that, because it’s not really that bothered about telling us the exact science of how we built these robots or how we’re staying alive on these ships, it’s just interested in what it means if we’re basically a shipload of refugees. Similarly in theatre, A Number doesn’t spend any time explaining how cloning works. They’ve done it and now what does it mean? I think we’re kind of locked into thinking that there’s a certain amount of iconography that you need in order to make it work, which maybe people are starting to realise isn’t necessarily true.

I’m also kind of worried I’m going to be set up as the sci-fi playwright, but I would be very surprised if I decided to do another space play after this one. I mean I’m really loving working on this and I loved writing it and I’m having a really great time doing it and I’m proud of it, but it’s quite a strong pill.

But I think it’s getting to a point where maybe [staging science fiction plays] doesn’t seem like such a peculiarity. Which would be nice. Anything new is exciting to me. I’ve not seen Pluto on stage before and that’ll be kind of exciting. Just superficially.

MH: Well it’s always exciting for me when my two worlds meet! I think there’s almost a sense that people… you were saying earlier that “Oh well it’s not about science”, which is true, but also I find that both communities are very keen to divide and say well “this is science but we’re using a bit of art to explain it” or “this is theatre but it’s got some science elements”. I feel as though there is this kind of wariness of each other some of the time.

AM: I’m not wary of… There’s a portion of the play, which doesn’t become hugely important, action wise, but there’s an element of mathematics and part of me thought when I was writing it that if I was a scientist I could probably write this a lot better.

But I think what I like… I mean the amount of history I probably learned from Eddie Izzard or someone like that… It’s not necessarily about feeding information. I mean I have the most embarrassingly limited knowledge of science and maths, but even if I did know a bunch I would not be interested in shovelling that in. Partly because just personally that’s not why I go to the theatre.

So I think it’s that there’s something in the writing of the play, that the implication of this idea is exciting, and if my excitement is used as fuel for the action and for the plot and for the characters, then… There’s a possibility that that might be contagious, and that someone might be interested to go and read something else.

MH: I’m always interested to hear people’s perspective on that because obviously I inhabit a world where both things overlap, so…

AM: But I’m guessing, since you work in it as well, surely it would be your least favourite thing to be lectured by someone who probably knows less about it than you do?

MH: Hah, well never underestimate the joy of the nitpick. Having grown up as a science fiction fan… but I think with things like Battlestar Galactica, I know that obviously that’s not how gravity works, and none of the physics makes sense, but I don’t care because you’re telling me a brilliant story…

AM: But that’s not what it’s concerned with, right? It’s just whatever it’s made its primary concern. I buy quite a lot of science fiction novels, because you read the back you think “Ah, this sounds unbelievable!”, then I open it and it’s like “Commander Key sits behind the console of his F20…” and I think oh god you’ve lost me immediately. This kind of dry, featureless writing, and probably the women don’t get much of a look in as well. But when it’s exceptional, when you read a Philip K Dick or an Alfred Bester or Richard Matheson, who I really love…  I’m really a story nerd to be honest. The only reason that I write anything is just because I think of a story and I’m bummed that it doesn’t exist and I have to write it myself. Because I want to experience it.

MH: That’s the key isn’t it, though? To write the things that you want see or to hear?

AM: Yeah, all you can do is write for yourself. I just have to trust that there are going to be enough weirdos like me that might dig it, you know.

We started to finish up then, and had a chat about the nature of press coverage and reviews for a play where you really want the audience to go in knowing as little as possible, but I had to ask a geeky question about the ending of Pomona and wanted to slip in this answer:

AM: What was weird about writing that play was that I knew the mechanics of the plot and who was going where, but I didn’t actually know what was going on underground until quite late on actually. And I was like man, they all seem to know that something very bad is going on, and I wonder what it is. That sounds like such a wanky thing to say, but it was such a mystery to me, and then when I realised – and it does feel like a realisation rather than something you made up. That was a result of just.. That whole play is about consumption, really. A lot of it is that people seem to be frantically consuming or being consumed, so that’s just the logical end point, where everyone’s just being hollowed out for whatever they can sell.

X by Alistair McDowall is on at the Royal Court from the 30th March – 7th May. Tickets are available here.

This is the fifth in a series of columns exploring the art of science and the science of art, and (hopefully) breaking down the idea that they are discrete and unrelated.

Strangeness + Charm is a collaboration between Mary Halton and Grace Harrison; you can contact them on Twitter @maryhalton and @_grace_eliz or by emailing mary@valiantdust.com.

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Mary Halton

Mary is a writer and critic, interested in performance, science and popular culture. By day, she works in radio drama, by night she studies planetary science at Birkbeck, and by dusk and dawn she writes Exeunt's science blog Strangeness + Charm. For Christmas, she would like a timeturner.

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