‘Hannah’s pushing the boundaries of her own individuality,’ Chris Thorpe tells me, ‘she has an awareness of a world beyond herself that she’s desperate to reach out for and experience.’ Hannah is the eponymous eleven-year-old protagonist of Thorpe’s new riff on Dr Faustus. Thorpe’s play, written in verse for young people (‘and hopefully adults as well’) recasts Marlowe’s Renaissance man as a curious schoolgirl with a pet lizard called Dave, and opens this week at the Unicorn Theatre.
The Faustian pact is a trope that often crops up, with today’s media phrasebook using it to describe almost everything: The banking crisis, the pursuit of fame, the coalition government. Why set Marlowe’s enigmatic deal-with-the-devil tragedy in a child’s bedroom? ‘There’s so much in it that speaks to the questions you ask yourself at that age,’ says Thorpe, ‘the great universal questions that you ask on the cusp of adulthood, when you’re becoming aware of your own human agency: What if everyone else in the world disappeared and I could just do what I liked? Are other people real? How far should I go to get what I want? Or, if I choose to act in a way that I know to be harmful, what is the structure that is going to punish me?’
This last question highlights the gulf between Marlowe’s Christian world and the broadly godless culture in which Thorpe’s audience are growing up. By rejigging the play’s religious framework, he hopes to universalise the Faust conundrum; divine judgement is ostensibly out of the picture for Hannah but, Thorpe insists, ‘this isn’t an atheist manifesto’. Instead, he leaves the business of organised religion for his audience to puzzle over, focusing on ‘the idea that we are responsible for our own goodness or badness, irrespective of whether theres some kind of ghostly police force overseeing our behaviour – that actually, in the absence of any evidence for that, we are responsible.’ In Marlowe’s play, Faustus dismisses hell as ‘a frame of mind’. For Hannah and her generation, this may be literally true – but that doesn’t make dealing with your good and bad angels any less serious.
Hannah’s mum is a scientist, and the play’s resource pack plots a timeline of technological advances alongside a chronology of political events, attacks and invasions up to the present day. Is the play anxious about the relationship between technology and power? ‘There’s an element which is concerned about the over-reliance on technology to solve our problems,’ says Thorpe. This is linked with secularism; ‘we’ve replaced, to some extent, prayer and magic with a faith that someone somewhere is doing something which will be revealed to us and will solve the problems of the world, and that something is usually to do with a technological fix,’ Thorpe continues. Hannah also considers ‘conflict on a global scale, and how a magic wand to end that is not necessarily the best solution.’
These are big ideas for young people’s theatre, and Thorpe admits ‘I don’t think I’d know how to patronise that audience. I didn’t really see theatre at that age, and I think I would have found this a challenge – but hopefully a really worthwhile one.’ There’s some comic relief, since the play’s structural echo of Doctor Faustus alternates humour and tragedy, darkness and light – ‘there are moments of joy and discovery.’
On top of the play’s political and philosophical inquiries, Thorpe is also asking his audience to take a leap into dramatic forms they may not have experienced; after a Robin Hood prequel in 2011, this is his second play written in verse. ‘Even though the metre of the verse is simple and an effective driver of the language’, he says, ‘there’s an inherent complexity because it asks you as an audience to do some work, and to attune your mind and your ear in a different way.’
Even in prose, Thorpe’s work tends to have a fairly poetic imagination, and while his role in Hannah is clearcut playwright, he’s often devisor, performer and all-round live artist. When we speak on the phone, he’s just come back from a Greek tour of Third Angel’s What I Heard About the World, a three-hander showing and telling narratives from across the globe with music, visual magic and Thorpe drinking a pint of brine. He’ll also shortly be reviving his latest collaboration with Hannah Jane Walker, I Wish I Was Lonely, at the Battersea Arts Centre. The piece shares Hannah’s ambiguous relationship with technology, turning our smart-phone obsession at once into a celebration of interconnectivity and a devastating critique of atomised screen-gazing. ‘It brings richness to a piece of art when its a team effort,’ says Thorpe. ‘Everything I write, I write to be worked on by a bunch of people. If I ever felt like i was writing cast-iron instructions, I’d be doing something wrong.’
While Hannah may be a conventional play, Thorpe hopes the live experience of a theatrical event will resonate with his young audience. ‘Mainly I hope they go away thinking that the theatre is a valid place for them to want to go back to again and again, because it asks questions that no other medium can. And feeling like something has happened in there that’s just for them, that couldn’t have happened if they – that specific group of individuals – weren’t there’.
Hannah is at the Unicorn Theatre from 8th February – 9th March 2014.