“They call that the ‘elephant hole’,” Katie Bonna, in tour guide mode, points out across the cavernous and eerily bare auditorium at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane at a large opening at the back of the stage. It was built, she explains, as a doorway for live elephants during the lavish pantomimes of the nineteenth century, when they were regularly trooped down the street from the nearby Royal Opera House. Bonna works at the venue, hence the brief history lesson, and her affection for the building, its age and its past, is evident as we pick our way across the circle.
The theatre is currently being redressed in preparation for Sam Mendes’ production of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, for an influx of oompa loompas, and there is buckboard and plastic sheeting everywhere; the immense dust-furred chandeliers have been lowered to the floor for cleaning and the walls have been picked clean of pictures. And somewhere among all this disarray, in the slightly incongruous setting of the Novello Room, with its plush blue carpets and its walls laden with posters of the composer’s works, Bonna and Richard Marsh are rehearsing their two-hander, Dirty Great Love Story, a boozy and awkward yet genuinely uplifting poetic duologue about a one night stand that turns into something more long-lasting, a messy bedsheet tangle of the fuzzily romantic and the recognisably real.
In the show, which they both co-wrote and star in, Richard Marsh and Katie Bonna play characters called Richard Marsh and Katie Bonna, who tell the audience a story about a love that repeatedly goes wrong, taking numerous wrong turnings and getting liberally flecked with vomit along the way.
Marsh has form as a performance poet, taking his solo show, Skittles (which is now being adapted for Radio 4 as Love and Sweets) to Edinburgh in 2011, while Bonna trained as an actor – she was nominated for Best Actress in The Stage‘s Edinburgh acting awards for DGLS - but also performs on the poetry circuit. During the interview, much as in their play they bounce ideas off one another, handing the conversational baton back and forth, as we discuss the subtle – or not so subtle – differences between creating a poetic persona and playing a role and between a ‘rom-com’ and a play that just happens to be about a romance.
Katie takes the baton first…
We met at Bang Said the Gun, where we were both doing the Golden Gun – which I won by the way – and we realised at the end of that night that we both lived near one another and we had lot in common in what we wrote about and how we wrote; we were both playwrights as well and we thought it might be interesting to write something together.
We’ve tried to make a feature of the nature of writing as a duo. In that often if you see something which is written by a team of writers or a pair of writers, like on Peep Show, they will often try and write with one voice, so you don’t know who wrote which line. What we try to do is make a feature of the male and female point of view.
Skittles was about one person’s view of a relationship and really deliberately the Richard in that show gets things wrong and he misperceives things, whereas here both Richard and Katie get things wrong - and because we have this device of talking to the audience in between the dialogue scenes between the two of us, what often happens is they will say something to the audience which they do not display in their behaviour towards one another. Richard in particular does nothing but fuck up and create awkwardness and make jokes that go wrong and never tells Katie what he’s feeling.
We were really interested in presenting two sides to one situation, of two people being in exactly the same situation and reading it really, really differently. That’s something we’re really keen on exploring and that’s something we went back and added to later drafts
Has the piece changed at all since they performed it in Edinburgh last summer?
Well, I’ve had to learn some aerial skills…
It’s constantly changing. The first scene of the play was based on a poem we wrote, about a big, long, staggeringly drunken night in which the characters first get together, a ten minute thing which we performed at poetry clubs and which went down well and people seemed to like it, but we weren’t sure if they would like it in a theatrical context. On poetry nights the piece held an element of surprise, it stood out, but we weren’t sure if this would be the case in a theatre.
We gradually built on [that first poem]. We needed to work out a way for the characters to meet again and we wanted to look at how their friends’ lives impacted on theirs, at what it’s like when everyone you know is getting married and having kids and you’ve got seven weddings to go to…
A lot of the work we did on the play involved coming up with problems, because the thing about a rom-com is you need for there to be something which is stopping them from getting together, but you’ve got to make that thing strong and believable. We’ve thrown away so many ideas that haven’t quite worked, that haven’t been emotionally plausible.
The word rom-com has only been used about it since Edinburgh. But I always thought of it as a romantic drama, because the term rom-com has all these bad connotations, as being something very contrived. Obviously it’s easier to keep your characters apart if you’re Jane Austen and there are all these social codes, but in the modern world it’s much harder to find reasons to keep two people apart. The reasons we’ve ended up choosing are ones of bad timing, of other relationships getting in the way.
When I was flyering the show I would say it was a romantic comedy, but would always preface it by saying it’s a very awkward, very British romantic comedy. A very human one.
As well as the dialogue between the characters, between the ‘Richard’ and ‘Katie’ of the play, the other key dialogue is between the poetic and dramatic forms.
I think of this as a play that has poetry in it. With Skittles I felt that was poems that had been made into a play. Here we have dialogue going on, which makes it feel different from just one person talking.
I’m an actor, that’s my background. Luke Wright said about my work that: whatever you’re doing, you’re acting because that’s your default position. I think we’ve approached this piece, performance-wise, like two actors in a play. Pia [Furtado] is a really detailed, specific director, and that helps a lot.
I think of the term ‘persona’ as being connected with performing poetry, but what this feels like, to me, is playing a character, even though those characters are called Richard Marsh and Katie Bonna, which was a very deliberate choice
The Richard in Skittles is a character who looks like me and shares some qualities with me, even though some of things he says and does are made up. When I walk on stage people think certain things about me based on the way I look: I wear glasses, I’m quite clean-cut, and you can play with that as a performer: if I say certain things it will have a different impact than if someone who looks more street than me says the same thing. Every poet, every stand up, every performer, plays on those assumptions.
I’ve definitely taken that elements of that character from Skittles, the guy who can’t really say what he feels to the girl he likes, but can speak to the audience. Katie is a phenomenally good actor, while I’m very new to it, but I’m definitely acting in this, certainly now we’ve had a proper rehearsal period, and I probably will act more in stuff I do in the future. There are poems in Skittles which I perform at poetry nights and that’s different – you have a microphone in your hands, you’re addressing the audience – this is more theatrical.
And as an actor performing your own material, how did that feel? Was it a different experience to performing someone else’s words?
The really exciting thing as an actor is when you make emotional discoveries about something you’ve written that you didn’t even know were there. It’s really useful to come back to a piece with a director and find these layers in it, which perhaps you weren’t even conscious of when you put them down on the page.
Dirty Great Love Story will be at Bristol Old Vic from 5th-9th March, Soho Theatre from 12th-30th March and in New York in June as part of the Brits Off-Broadway festival. Richard and Katie will be hosting a workshop at Soho Theatre, Dirty Great Dramatic Poetry, on 27 March 2013.