Ramsden names Anthony Neilson’s Relocated as one of her all-time favourites and there’s an echo of Neilson’s play in some of the (dark, dark) places Hundreds and Thousands ends up going. “We talked quite a lot in rehearsals about real life women and crime, particularly about Maxine Carr and her story. I was interested in why she would cover up something so horrific?” What she would get out of that?” Myra Hindley and her chameleonic qualities were also discussed. “She would change depending on what the person she was with wanted from her.” Ramsden played with the idea that the character of Lorna was just “giving Allan what he wants.”
Breed, for which she was shortlisted for the Critics’ Circle Most Promising Playwright Award, was staged when Ramsden was part of the inaugural 503 Five, a group of emerging playwright supported and nurtured by the theatre. She speaks warmly of the scheme. “It was meant to be a year-long process and it’s actually ended up being closer to eighteen month, two years. It’s great to know that you have production opportunities there,” to be starting an attachment with that knowledge. Prior to that, Ramsden had mostly written for radio. “Breed was my first professional stage experience.” When she revisited her earlier play, “it was with the knowledge from Breed about what would work on stage.”
One of the key things she learned from Breed was about the power of the audience’s imagination (the fights dogs are never seen, their presence was mimed, and this made them all the more terrifying), and the understanding that what happens off-stage is just as important as what happens on-stage. “We have one moment of on-stage violence in Hundreds and Thousands, but otherwise you don’t see anything.”
“You try and write a play that you yourself would want to see and that’s what I’m trying to do. We’ve had a couple of moments in the previews where people have not been able to look and someone said to me afterwards it was a bit like a Paula Rego painting, grotesque and you don’t really want to look at it but you’re compelled by it.”
Are there areas into which she wouldn’t stray? Is there a line? Ramsden thinks there is. “If you make anything too bleak, people will switch off. I think there is a line, a point where you just start to go ‘no.’ I think that’s why at the end of the play I wanted it to become quite farcical, to make it evident that it’s not real.” To this end, in the play’s later scenes, a jarring situation becomes more extreme but also more absurd, more ridiculous. “Last night was our first preview and there was a lot of laughter,” Ramsden says happily and she hopes the production, directed by Lisa Spirling, will emphasise this slanted relationship with reality and play up the farcical elements of the writing. “I like going to the theatre and feeling my heart beat. Plays like [Philip Ridley’s] Mercury Fur I came out of there feeling like I didn’t know what to do with myself, and that’s the kind of emotional reaction I’m hoping to provoke.”
Hundreds and Thousands will be at Soho Theatre from 21st June – 16th July 2011. For tickets and further information, visit the Soho Theatre website.