‘Everything in this show is absolutely true’, David Byrne tells me in the auditorium of the New Diorama, where he is Artistic Director. Surrounded by the towering life-sized puppets of another current production, cut off from the buzz of the foyer and the afternoon sun, we’re sitting in the raked seating to discuss Kubrick³.
That’s ‘Kubrick Cubed’ (‘although I will accept ‘Kubrick Three’ or just ‘Kubrick’), a new show in development by Byrne with his resident company PIT. Kubrick, which credits Byrne as writer and director, will debut at the Pleasance this summer as part of the Edinburgh Fringe. As the man behind the play, the company, and the theatre itself, Byrne’s excitement for the project, as well as almost every topic that we race through in a spirited half hour, is more than evident. He speaks with unrelenting energy, occasionally self-deprecating humour and always at rapid speed, occasionally breaking apologetically to say something like, ‘sorry, I’m just talking at you, aren’t I?’ I’m happy to hang on for the ride, as I find out his upcoming physical comedy, based on the extraordinary life of a London conman, is an intriguingly eccentric piece that is ultimately about ‘trying to get to what is true’, enticing its audience with the ‘disarming’ lies of a talented storyteller.
‘It’s about a guy called Alan Conway,’ Byrne explains, ‘who was a serial conman throughout his life. He did a whole host of incredible things and was put in a jail for fraud at a very young age’. Born Eddie Jablowsky, Conway changed his name ‘ironically first of all to Alan Con, then to Alan Conway, and was thrown out of various European countries, pretended all sorts of things, and later on in his life developed an alcohol problem. In his Alcoholics Anonymous group, he would tell these long stories about how he fled the holocaust and how his family had escaped Germany to come here. I mean,’ Byrne pauses incredulously and laughs, ‘he was born after the war in this country… it’s just, just wonderful.’ Conway, a travel agent from Whitechapel, is best known for ‘impersonating the film director Stanley Kubrick for number of years, despite looking nothing like Stanley Kubrick, being English and being a very frail older man at this point.’
It’s this most impressive deception that forms the chief focus of the play, which is set ‘in Conway’s flat just after his death, and is about the rest of his family trying to work out exactly what happened’. The Kubrick ruse was notoriously effective, not only in the sheer numbers of people that it managed to dupe, but in the breadth and often farcical ambitiousness of what Conway achieved. ‘He used his Stanley Kubrick name to sleep with lots of young men, pretending he was going to give them parts in his films, as well as lots of designers and composers.’ So far, so predictable. He also, however, ‘did interviews with journalists as Stanley Kubrick, despite knowing nothing about Stanley Kubrick’s films (and got every single detail wrong)’, ‘bought a gay club in Soho as Stanley Kubrick’ and best of all, ‘promised to bankroll an all-Nigerian production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf in the West End.’
I won’t summarise the rest of what I learn about Conway from Byrne’s enthused account (‘sorry, I’m waffling’) since it doubtless forms the basis of much of the comedy, but suffice to sayour duplicitous (anti?)hero succeeded in blagging his way through several years of stranger-than-fiction scrapes, eventually dying ‘just before Stanley Kubrick, leading to a line in the play where he says “I literally beat him to death.’” Nice. ‘Yes, I’m quite proud of that one’. As for its relation to historical fact, Byrne says, ‘The glorious thing is that his life was so ridiculous, and a lot of the things he did so unbelievable, that we haven’t really had to stray from the truth at all.’ In fact, ‘every time we think we’ve gone too far or we’ve invented something we find out that Alan Conway went further and did even better.’
The narrative is based on ‘talks with Anthony Frewin, who was Stanley Kubrick’s personal assistant, and obviously a lot of research into Conway’ himself. It is, however, difficult to ascertain precisely what actually took place and what is a product of Conway being ‘a very talented liar’. When he separated from his wife, for example, he ‘told some people that she’d died, some that she’d gone missing, some that she’d moved abroad, and people that she’d left him for another woman. So there isn’t really a ‘truth’ to it – its about his perception of things’.
Byrne hopes that in dramatising this ‘glorious mix of jaw-dropping, bare-faced lying through to absolutely “I-cant-believe-he-got-away with-that” stuff’, the audience themselves will be taken in by Conway. ‘The wonderful thing about conmen,’ he muses, ‘is that they have a great capacity to deceive. When you hear about it afterwards you always think, “well how would you have ever believed it?”’ During the development of the production, ‘we were thinking about the various examples of con men that we all know or experienced, and everyone says, “Why would you do that,Why would you sign over your house, or go into their offices?”, but actually these people are incredibly cunning, and I really think our main focus is to fool the audience – I want them to become the next people that Alan Conway dupes’.
It’s clear that Conway has seduced Byrne as a writer and theatre-maker; ‘he’s absolutely one of my favourite voices that I’ve ever written’. But how did he come across this obscure figure, and what makes the story ripe for the stage? ‘I saw a documentary about Alan Conway a few years ago, which acted as a sort of invisible fish-hook that made me think “oh, there’s a piece of theatre,”’ Byrne reflects. Conway’s life of disguise and deception, he suggests, is inherently theatrical, and indeed the conman himself always described it as such: ‘he says that he “went onstage” and “played his role”. And then when he talks about the young men that he’s slept with finding out that he isn’t actually Stanley Kubrick: “when the mask’s revealed, there’s horror…”’
But for all its potential darkness (‘he was arrested and they decided that he was probably clinically insane’), Byrne maintains that the Conway story just doesn’t work as a ‘straight’ play. ‘We played about an awful lot. We played around with doing something very serious and mimicking, but the things that he did were so amusing, so fun and unbelievable that audiences [in early scratch performances] really did want to laugh and enjoy it.’ The play features ‘one main Alan Conway and then three simultaneous Alan Conways who fight and argue and play all the characters in his life’. It is, stylistically, a piece of physical theatre – but don’t let that put you off. ‘It’s a really inventive, fun 50 minutes. It’s irreverent, and I think people just enjoy something thats very theatrical that doesn’t take itself too seriously, because sometimes with physical theatre and the sorts of techniques that we’re using, it can be a little po-faced, but this isn’t at all. Hopefully there’ll be something in there that everyone in Edinburgh can enjoy.’
So finally, why bother with Edinburgh at all? As a writer and director, Byrne hardly needs the exposure. Whilst still a student, he won the Writers Guild award for his first Edinburgh play, A Stroke of Genius. He’s since been up as a member of the panel for the Writer’s Guild, a reviewer and more recently, of course, a programmer for the New Diorama; as he puts it, ‘I’ve had every possible coloured lanyard now that you can possibly have’. On heading to the Fringe with a show once more, Byrne gives two reasons: ‘the first is that here at the New Diorama we support a lot of young, emerging companies. We advise them on all sorts of things, and festivals are a huge part of that, so we thought we’d experience it again for ourselves.’ The other is that ‘it shows our authority – that we don’t need our own theatre to produce our own work, so it will hopefully mean that the producing arm has a stronger case for taking further work outside of our walls, to gain further support and a higher profile.’
He hopes that this, in turn, will benefit the companies supported by the New Diorama, since through ‘making relationships with festivals and regional theatres our network grows.’ As ever, Byrne will also have his programmer’s eye out this August, and talks at length about the companies he’ll be watching, as well as the six associated companies showcasing their own work.
Like Conway, then, Byrne will be juggling several identities on the Fringe this year: playwright, director, programmer, networker, advisor. As he says, though, ‘There’s nothing quite like going up with a show,’ not least in terms of the intensity of the experience: ‘sometimes you feel like, oh dear lord… it’s like being in a nightmare for a month, and at other times it’s absolutely full of elation and excitement and you feel like its going really well. It’s all-encompassing’.
Kubrick³ will be at the Pleasance Courtyard from 31st July – 26th August 2013.