The breakfasts at the Traverse’s Breakfast Plays have changed. There are fewer options this year, and they’re less generously portioned. Quite regularly they run out of things. Both black pudding and (more curiously) veggie haggis, for example, are served as little disks (exactly two little disks per roll) and taste more-or-less the same as each other. Which is to say, very peppery.
The Traverse’s underground chambers are not unlike a mine, and over the four days of its Breakfast Plays programme, I came to see its reduced breakfast offer as a bit of a canary – a warning for what lay below.
To put it more bluntly, the quality of the commissions has overall (with some small caveats and exceptions) fallen noticeably from previous years. Whilst disappointing, this raises some interesting questions about the role of novice writers and the ways they interact with writing programmes and established (establishment?) producers. And rather than offer a detailed excavation of the four emerging writers’ scripts themselves in this review (I see no interest in using this platform to give a lengthy negative critique of relative newcomers), I am going to try to use a few examples only sparingly to unbury some of these wider, institutional questions.
Formerly, the Traverse has commissioned both early- and mid- career writers in this series rather than exclusively staging debuts. Indeed, some Breakfast writers, such as Rob Drummond in 2016, have even had their finished work in full productions at the Traverse concurrently with the series. The writer didn’t have to be new, only the writing and the idea. Last year, the programmers shifted this balance, and showed three brand new writers, each paired with an established mentor who also wrote in response to the brief, creating an impressively consistent programme of six new pieces, balanced nicely between the new and not-so-new.
Now it’s shifted further and this year’s title ‘The Future Is […]’ has been given to four “emerging” writers, as we are told each morning by a member of the Traverse team. I take “emerging” to mean ‘new’ and ‘not fully arrived yet’, with implications of ‘there’s more to come’. But I wonder if it’s a sticky metaphor to live by, and might provide a window into some of the problems with this year’s series. ‘Emerging’ subtly claims that new playwrights just sort of slowly appear. We just have to look at them long enough as they shift into focus. It implies an inevitability that partially absolves the programme’s systems from actively participating in making the writers better. Accordingly, each writer has been given the sufficient space to try something out, but not always sufficient intervention to do so completely successfully.
At the same time each morning, we are briefed on how important it is for young writers to try out ideas in real-life spaces. Through several years’ patient work, the Traverse has earned a good audience for this in its Breakfast series and I imagine the script-in-hand staging of their work will be seminal for these new writes. However, the kind of problems found in these productions are not primarily ones of tone, pacing, emphasis or nuance – or other things that might reveal themselves more starkly in performance than on the page. The problems (in the three less successful scripts) are largely textual and should have been picked up before the work was staged.
One example of this kind of ‘textual’ problem is the recurrence of implausible scenarios, such as an undercover journalist twice forgetting to maintain his alibi when infiltrating a cult, or family members losing contact completely because one of them gets a new job.
Another kind is wildly inconsistent characterisation: a child is old enough to gallivant across town to the library and play in the park unsupervised, but too young to have ever even heard that meat comes from animals; a character has the practical acumen and knowledge to break an animal’s neck in a single movement, but so little nous that she disposes of the animal’s body in her kitchen bin.
Trying to play it casual during unnatural exposition is another one:
Character 1: I know it’s been a while since your mum’s been around.
Character 2: How do you know my mum’s not around?
Character 1: People talk.
One script doesn’t discernibly fit the ‘Future’ brief at all. I won’t go on.
With some improvements (small or big, depending on the script), ‘The Future Is […]’ could have been the Breakfast Plays’ most interesting run. ‘What will the future be?’ is an important question. And these four female writers are important people to answer it. My feeling is that they’ve largely needed more guidance to really locate the centre of their ideas and to give them adequate voice – but the topics covered are interesting responses in themselves. More than one writer examines her desperation about environmental collapse and anxieties over work and automation. More than once, in fact, all of these themes overlap in the same piece, showing astute understanding of how such problems interact.
Evidently, then, there is some potential in the Traverse’s laudable step to commission entirely new writers. This potential shines through in two of the scripts: we see a little of it in Kolbrún Björt Sigfúsdóttir’s ‘Kit-Kat’ and a lot in Eve Nicol’s ‘First Woman’.
In the former, two children, Rosa and Anne (Ashleigh More and Titana Muthui) go on hunger strike to protest the planet-destroying activities of their parents’ generation. Overwhelmed by her daughter’s demands, Rosa’s mum (Rebecca Elise) delivers a monologue set in a supermarket, in which we can almost feel the plastic wrappers cloying on the surrounding shelves. The central ethical dilemma of the play is compelling too: it’s hard to say what we would do in the same situation.
The season’s stand-out is ‘First Woman’ by Eve Nicol, who’s the most experienced of the four playwrights by some distance (she’s also written If You’re Feeling Sinister, which is running at Summerhall during the fringe). Immediately, Nicol’s script creates a convincing world. By using incidental details to build the bigger picture, they feel part of the fabric of things, and the things themselves more richly textured. For example, that a routine mission to ‘Moon’ will involve government-auctioned shuttles hints indirectly at the shifting geopolitics that shape the characters’ material realities. Her sentences are good too: the play’s protagonist, the first woman on the moon (played by Peyvand Sadeghian), describes seeing its “sherbert surface… in the reflected glow of the Sun’s reflected glow.”
At the heart of ‘First Woman’ is a thesis about alienation and beauty, a powerful and unsettling prediction about how commodification will change the symbolism and psychogeography of the moon and other extraterrestrial terrain. It’s all here: great characterisation, (heartbreakingly) convincing relationships, and an astute (but lightly worn) understanding of the play’s literary antecedents, especially collapsing the moon’s traditional use as a symbol of femininity into the literal, sometimes mundane landscape on which to set a play about women’s work.
Of course, nobody expects a play’s early draft to achieve what Nicol’s does. Audiences who go to script-in-hand performances aren’t looking for completeness or perfection, but they are looking for something. In a rough-and-ready reading, a play can be rough, but must also, to at least some extent, actually be ready.
Earlier, I highlighted a dead metaphor, “emerging”, used by the programmers in the Breakfast Plays’ daily introduction. ‘Dead’, in linguistic terms, because it’s the sort of metaphor that passes by without many people noticing it’s a metaphor anymore. But dead metaphors aren’t inert, just so deeply enmeshed that they’ve merged with the concepts they once sought to describe. Another one they use every day is this: we are told that the plays are a “mainstay” of the Traverse’s Fringe programme. I take it that the programmers use this word to signal the series’ longevity, permanence and high esteem. But its literal meaning is equally apt. On a ship, the ‘mainstay’ is the beam on which the rest of the rigging relies. The mainstay is integral, but essentially functional: infrastructure rather than architecture. So too, I fear, is the role of the Breakfast Plays in the Traverse’s 2019 programme: part of the infrastructure of on-the-job training. Of outreach. HR.
Do we want to look at infrastructure? Well, sometimes yes, and sometimes no. We come to rehearsed readings because we want to get closer to the writing process itself, and in that sense we like hearing a script’s internal workings. But it’s the words and ideas we want to be close to, not solely the writer themselves. The Traverse has given these writers a stage, a cast, a director and an audience when, in most cases, they first needed a bit of red pen and another set of notes.
More than anything, audiences at the Breakfast Plays get up early not as some charitable act, but because we want something to fill up our conversations until lunchtime, to spur some thinking, open discussion. We’re here because we want something to chew on, other than peppery bread.
Breakfast Plays were on at Traverse Theatre until Sunday 25th August as part of the 2019 Edinburgh fringe. More info here.