It’s night, coming on to 3am, and I’m sat listening to Deloused in the Comatorium. I wouldn’t normally be up at this time, I wouldn’t normally be listening to The Mars Volta, and I certainly wouldn’t normally be telling you this on a theatre blog, but this week I got chatting to director/playwright/musician Titas Halder. As a result, listening to American rock in the early hours while contemplating modern drama simply does feel like the right thing to do.
It’s been a real whirlwind of a week for Halder. The Royal Court Theatre Young Writers’ Programme alumni boasts a tapestried industry history, with various associate roles to his name – yet seems to have exploded into Spring’s calendar as a playwright in the first few months of 2017. I catch him at the end of a long day of rehearsals. His second full length play, Escape the Scaffold, is warming up for a Theatre503 run, but – with Halder directing theatre/music video hybrid Sinners Club at Theatr Clwyd as his debut full length play, Run the Beast Down, closes at the Finborough – today has been Halder’s first opportunity to meet his cast. “It was a treat to parachute in at that point,” Halder tells me, mulling over a day where the cast weren’t the only new element: “What surprised me is that Escape the Scaffold is much funnier than I thought it would be.” Stepping away from the production, and entrusting it to director Hannah Price, a long-standing collaborator, was clearly paying off.
Music is central to Halder’s work, and over the course of our time together we talk as much about albums and films as we do about plays. He namechecks musicians John Frusciante, Childish Gambino and Prince, and filmmakers David Lynch and Guillermo del Toro with as much ease as Harold Pinter, Conor McPherson, debbie tucker green and Jean-Paul Sartre. Halder is honest about how he draws on his teenage heroes to inform his collaged practice today. With his schooldays in mind, he recalls: “There was always this thing that if you were to do a play, it would have to be as cool as a Quentin Tarantino movie. Those things to me are really technicolour. They’re really lurid, really vivid”.
From the start, creative multi-tasker Halder is clear-cut about the divide between his dual roles of director and playwright – a split so stark that, “in a sense I feel like they are two different people”. But while they might be as divided as a Lucy Liu’s character’s very unfortunate victim in Kill Bill, I can’t quite put my finger on where his work as a musician fits in. Halder explains that music bleeds into every stage of his work: it’s the key that unlocks the alternative universe of the play.
Halder recounts how: “I was trying to do the rewrites for Escape the Scaffold and I couldn’t do it, I couldn’t tap into the play.” Fortunately, for a writer who thinks of plays like albums, the solution was clear. A lot can change in two years but an old, stable favourite, Deloused in the Comatorium by The Mars Volta, triggered continuity. “I whacked it on and I had my headphones in, and seriously it was all flooding back, it was a bit like tapping into that [record] suddenly gave me access to that world again.”
Pitchfork compared Deloused in the Comatorium to “all the San Diego hardcore bands at once whipping through Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s “Karn Evil 9” without practice”. Those familiar with the album and its messy clot of inarticulate lyrics will not be surprised to hear that Escape the Scaffold is littered with alcohol abuse, passive aggression, backstabbing, egg-throwing, vandalism and torture. In Halder’s words, it’s like a breakup album – and like in many a complicated breakup, there are three sides to this story. We witness Marcus, Grace and Aaron battling to establish themselves at the centre of the play’s own bizarre universe, “all offering a version of what’s true”.
“I don’t really love plays that have one protagonist”, explains Halder, “If I’ve got one agenda at all, it’s write a good part for an actor.” With this in mind, all three actors in Escape the Scaffold are encouraged to negotiate the counterbalanced significance of their roles, all thinking “maybe it’s my play”.
Meanwhile, while it’s certainly thinner on characters, Run the Beast Down, Halder’s first full length play, is ripe with multiple available interpretations that go beyond its sparse stage directions – so much so that readings seem to leak out of the playwright’s grasp, pushing beyond the basic, “man and bare stage” setup. Halder recalls an early read-through where an actor illuminated an entire alternative interpretation of the play, channelling a murder that hadn’t been considered by Halder – let alone knowingly woven into the script. I try to get Halder to muse over my own interpretations of Run the Beast Down. Was the unravelling City Boy a victim of post financial crash cynicism? Was he, like the fox of his nocturnal obsessions, just a scavenger? Can we put the play’s overarching sense of gloom down to an apocalyptic drive?
“For us, as a generation, there’s a lot up in the air for sure”, says Halder, gently humouring me. “I feel like with Run the Beast Down, it was more to do with the world that exists when you are staring out the window at 3am.” The discomfort of his piece, then, didn’t have its origins in the sensationalist news stands or reams of frantic retweets, but rather from a primal sense of the unknown, as Charlie, the lone protagonist grapples with his sanity amidst the ‘maniacal screams’ of foxes, calling him from outside the window. Add the late night, the dire personal circumstances, the redundancy, the lack of sleep and you have, in Halder’s words, a world that is just “another few cogs twisted”. Halder references the unique, otherworldly nature of these howls, and explains, of the world they generate, “when you’re writing those things, you’re trying to channel something. It’s a bit like a trance, trying to get into whatever that parallel dimension is, and then just sort of channelling that world and those creatures in it.”
Halder’s directing career began with training alongside Price at the Donmar, and has led him to the role of Artistic Associate at Cardiff’s The Other Room. But he doesn’t feel the need to be a backseat director. “I feel like I wouldn’t be objective enough”, Halder admits, explaining why he’s never been tempted to direct his own writing. “If I don’t direct it, maybe they can get something better.” This “something better”, through Price’s lens, is an instant doubling of Halder’s sparse set up, with the introduction of an on-stage DJ, neon fluorescent tubes, and a floating platform.
In handing over ownership to director Hannah Price, Halder welcomed in an additional, albeit equally startling, voice to that of the text, which pushed its night-time madness to new, electric limits. Price “just loved Run the Beast Down and had a vision for it” explains Halder. “What’s really exciting is that it was, I have to say, a different vision to mine.” While neon fluorescent tubes were far from Halder’s mind at the point of writing, Price’s interpretation clashed the primal fear of the beast in the forest with the heady synthetic world of the insomniac. Price’s productions, to Halder, are “very distinctive, and are very much authored by her. It’s her aesthetic.”
Run the Beast Down was not borne out of overt political dissatisfaction, a death wish, a financial crisis, or any of the other fantastical interpretations I had sprung on an unsuspecting Halder. Instead, with a certain purity, the script spun out of an uncanny prominence of this urban scavenger in Halder’s life. A few newspaper stories, a housemate’s anecdote, a piece of vulpine graffiti – these everyday items, combined, ensured that foxes “were just seen to have their presence at the time”. After reading Run the Beast Down I became, like Charlie, haunted – noticing foxes proudly glaring out of billboards, discretely embedded in printed fabrics, curling round the labels of beer bottles – my heightened awareness echoing that of the audience members who reported foxes scratching on the door or window, just days after witnessing the show.
“I loved that idea that people had gone to see the play and in some way it had kind of dripped into their dreams”, chimed Halder, remembering the texts and tweets he’d received in the days immediately following his run at the Finborough. To me, it seems a real accomplishment that the music lover who timed his journeys home from football in order to experience an album unabridged, uninterrupted and unabated has managed, in his plays, to make something that is firmly self contained, yet leaves a mark. “I want the audience not to be going, Oh yeah I’m thinking about these topics. I want them to be in the fucking swamp with the characters. I want them to be in the icy water, trying their best not to drown. Or with Charlie, listening out the window for the foxes.”
It’s night, well past 3am, and Deloused in the Comatorium has long ago croaked its way to a stumbled halt. I go to the window and wait for the maniacal screams to resume.
Escape the Scaffold is on at Theatre503 until April 15th, 2017, before transferring to The Other Room, Cardiff. More information on the Theatre503 website.