Your new play, The Shroud, explores loss, myth and memory. Can you tell me how it came about?
The Shroud emerges from my experience of mourning my father’s death six years ago. He was the artistic and intellectual mentor in my life. The process of going through a series of Hindu rituals in India was both intense and performative. I am not a religious person at all, but I’ve always been interested in the stories and myths surrounding spiritual experience. I guess all forms of religious ritual are inherently performative. For the play I am developing, I am thinking about the visceral, bodily experience of grief and mourning.
Although the trigger is my father’s death, I am not interested in the purely confessional, but rather in searching for a personal story that can be grown into a ‘miniature epic’ that tells us something about grief and the relationship between fathers and sons.
The play seems to weave together a number of very strong images. Are these taken from your own memories?
Yes, mostly they are. The title of the play, for instance, comes from a moment of synchronicity that I experienced during my father’s funeral. A priest was reciting chants in Sanskrit, while I was circling his body. I lifted a silvery, green shroud into the air and watched it fall on my father. As I did so, an earlier memory came flashing back to me. I was a child of nine or ten, waiting night after night for my father to come to me to cover me with a blanket. He had a wonderful way of doing it. The blanket would fall slowly over me like a parachute. This memory came back to me as I watched the shroud fall over his dead body. In effect, the first memory reached its completion in the act of ‘shrouding’ my father. I felt time as an almost emotional thing.
This is your third theatre production now, following Kalagora (2010) and London’s Perverted Children (2013). In what ways has making The Shroud been different?
For Kalagora and London’s Perverted Children we started from a script, which we then unpacked in rehearsal. But for this piece, we want to find a language of performance. I have been working closely in collaboration with director Russell Bender and performer Avaes Mohammad – we are interested in using a devising process as a way into form and content. Last year we started telling each other stories, exploring cross-cultural myths, and finding ways of stepping into each other’s memories (as Russell would say), stealing them, claiming them, re-telling them. We have ended up discovering stories and images that have stayed with the piece.
We have also been speaking to people about their own experiences of mourning through a series of discussion events called ‘Talking about Death’. These have been great opportunities to share some early ideas, and draw in other cultural expressions of loss.
As a poet used to working intensely with language, does a more physical, gestural style of performance feel like a departure for you? Can the two modes co-exist?
I’ve been performing on stage since I was thirteen. When I was in the US, I was influenced by Stanislavski and the Method, which emphasises authenticity and lived experience (in a writer’s sense, it goes back to writing about what you know). For Kalagora, I worked with Russell Bender using Mime and Lecoq techniques to unpack the script. For this new piece both Avaes and I are using performance styles that range from naturalism to physical theatre and even spoken word. I’m a big fan of Forced Entertainment’s work and some of their experiments with theatrical storytelling have also informed my approach.
Your previous theatre work has been located very specifically in the urban landscapes of Mumbai, New York and East London. Where does The Shroud take us?
In January 2012 I travelled to Kolkata with the filmmaker Maria Tzika and we shot loads of footage in a district called Kumartuli, which means ‘the potters’ quarter’. It’s an amazing place which has become a key backdrop to The Shroud. Local artists and craftsmen collect silt from the river Ganges, mix it with clay and sculpt idols of gods and goddesses. These idols are used in Hindu rituals and are eventually immersed (or re-immersed) in the Ganges and in rivers around the world. It’s an amazing symbol of the cyclical nature of life. I think this overarching ideas of ritual gives the play a beautiful, meditative atmosphere…
Some of the play is like this, but there are a few surprises in store as well! We experience a drug-fuelled rave in Goa, for instance. We are interested in the tension between spirituality and sensuality, myth and excess.
One of the most exciting parts of developing The Shroud has been going off on wild tangents, researching Sufi mysticism and rock ‘n’ roll, exploring the myths of the Mahabharata (an ancient Sanskrit epic which is eight times the Iliad and Odyssey combined), psychoanalysis and Indian classical music.
You have mentioned the raga as a structural framework for the play – tell me more.
The raga is a highly evolved melodic and modal structure in Indian classical music. We are interested in the interplay between improvisation and structure in the raga and we have used this dynamic as a structuring device for The Shroud. I am not an expert by any of stretch of the imagination, although Avaes has trained as a tabla player. To put it crudely, the rhythmic pattern of a raga goes from very slow to very fast, from invocation to the central ‘revealing’ of the raga’s rhythm to the incredibly fast climax, which then returns to a quiet drone. We hope that something of this sonic patterning comes through in The Shroud.