A few nights ago I caught up with Perth playwright – Nathaniel Moncrieff (pictured above), for a chat about his play Sleepyhead. Nathaniel is an emerging playwright who has already experienced significant success. Nathaniel won the Di Cranston Award for Sleepyhead in 2009 and in 2010 it was short listed for the Griffin Award. Sleepyhead was performed to rave reviews in Melbourne in 2011:
“A masterpiece” – Liam Pieper, Rabbit Hole Urban Music
“An evocative, first-class dramatic experience” – Cheryl Threadgold, Melbourne Observer
“Intense, but worth every minute of it. Highly recommended!” – Alan O’Riordan, Theatre Alive
When did you start writing creatively?
I think I’ve always been writing. My father was a writer and he was always encouraging me to write and in my teens I wrote a lot of prose. I wrote a novel when I was 17 or 18 – which was awful but it got me going.
I wrote short stories and I won a short story competition when I was about 20, a national one (The Katharine Susannah Prichard National Short Story Competition), and then I studied film, which got me into film writing, which then eventually evolved into playwrighting.
So what kind of a writer was your father?
My father wrote for the theatre. He also wrote poetry and prose and in the last decade or two he’s written non-fiction. Yeah, so I owe the inclination to write to my father.
Why plays? What attracted you to this genre?
I loved theatre and I loved certain playwrights. Certainly when I was writing for film a number of playwrights influenced my style and my style was very theatrical, but at the same time I had an interest to move into theatre.
At that stage I didn’t know anyone in the theatre. Apart from being in a few plays at high school I didn’t really have any links to the theatre world, but after I graduated from uni my cousin, who acted in a number of my short films, founded his own theatre company and asked me to write a play for him, and I did – it wasn’t very good, but it got me into writing plays.
After that I got into writing another play called Motel Rooms and I knew that it was, if not good, that it was at least something different for me, something interesting and I’d found a new style. So I sent it off to the Australian Theatre for Young People, because they were giving professional feedback and they liked the play so much that they asked me to join the Fresh Ink Program for young writers. They flew me over to Sydney a few times to participate in workshops and paired me with a mentor, who was Sam Strong from Belvoir at the time, but now he’s with the Griffin Theatre. He helped me develop Motel Rooms but eventually it was a play that couldn’t be salvaged and I got sidetracked by this play, the first draft of which I’d written within a week. That play was Sleepyhead.
What inspired this play?
I’d found a certain style with Motel Rooms. The style of that play had a slight gothic edge to it, it had a real Sam Shepherd quality to it and it was very low key, which was something different from my previous works that were a bit over the top and unrestrained. Sleepyhead was an extension of that, but at the same time it was a much more personal piece as it was written during a dark time personally and it was quite a cathartic play to write, because a lot of those feelings came out in the play.
It came about because of an old idea I had, a screenplay idea I had in about 1997. I had been reading a lot of Southern Gothic female authors, like Carson McCullers, Flannery O’Connor and Barbara Gowdy. Barbara Gowdy is a Canadian author but she writes in a Southern Gothic vein. That was the gestation of it, but the central idea stuck with me so when I returned to it, because of where I was personally during that period, it became a lot darker, a lot funnier but at the same time quite bleak.
Initially, as I was writing it for a film I abandoned it, because I only had the first act and I wasn’t sure where to go from there.
What is the major theme of this play?
The central theme of the play is loneliness. Which was sort of what I was feeling at the time. I recall writing the play in a very small room that I was staying in at the time and even subsequent drafts of the play were written in a bush retreat – the Arthur Boyd Artist’s Retreat in rural NSW. A beautiful location, very atmospheric and very haunting. So that was very important to the writing of the piece and it sort of assisted the really isolated atmosphere of the play.
I think all my plays tend to be set in very isolated locations and usually this is reflected in the characters. The characters are usually somewhat grotesque and very much outsiders.
What challenges did you face whilst preparing this play for the audience?
Well, with this play I was very lucky, the Fresh Ink Program gave me lots of opportunities to work with people like Sam Strong and Fraser Caufield and also the other writers involved in the program. There was a lot of feedback, which was a great help since it was only really my second attempted play. Technically it was my third play, as I had written a play before Motel Rooms and I had written a few shorter works that had been performed. But in the end it was the first play that was completed, that I was happy with, that I would show people. With that play I was lucky because there was a lot of help there for an inexperienced writer.
Once the feedback I had received gave me enough confidence to get the play out there, I sent it off to the Fellowship of Australian Writers – just on a whim. It was a couple of days before the entries closed for their National Literary Awards. A few months later (in 2009) I got the letter saying I had won the Di Cranston award and that’s when I realised the play’s done – I can put this play to bed now. Not to say that I did, because working with Yvonne Virsik, who directed the Melbourne production, and Garreth Bradshaw, who’s directing the Perth production, I’ve gone back to it and hearing the play aloud has helped me to hear the imperfections within the work and so I’ve been able to hone it in the months since.
So has there been a difference with the directors? Did they each bring their own thing to the play?
There is and I think it’s interesting in terms of seeing a male director and a female director approach the play because there’s a lot of darkness in the play, but it’s up to the director to decide what they want to bring out – whether they want to focus on the violent undercurrent or focus on the more hopeful aspects of the play. So I think Yvonne’s production, which I thought was brilliant, was a very subtle and sensitive adaptation of the work and I couldn’t have been happier with it.
Garreth has a different approach and I think it will be a very interesting approach all the same - he’s found more uncompromising aspects in the work. I think it will be more masculine and there will be more violence, antagonism and more of the uncomfortable themes being brought to the surface. I think the final product will be very different to the Melbourne production, but Garreth has a really strong vision for the piece and I think it will be every bit as striking and effective.
So you’re happy with this production?
Yeah, I’m very happy. The Melbourne production was great, because when I went in to see it performed I went in blind – I hadn’t attended any of the rehearsals. I had conversed with the director from afar but when I saw it I didn’t know what to expect and I couldn’t have been more pleased.
With the Perth production I’ve attended the majority of the rehearsals. I’ve been more involved from the get-go, including the publicity, so I think it’s been really good because I’ve been able to hear the work performed and help the actors with their questions in relation to the ambiguities of the work and also help them with certain stylistic aspects of the script. It’s been a learning process as well. Up until May last year when Sleepyhead was performed I was writing primarily in a void. When I would write, it would be entirely how I would hear the dialogue, how I would perform the dialogue, so it was unbelievably beneficial to hear the work performed aloud to know what works, what doesn’t work, what is too much and what isn’t enough. It's also been wonderful having a close friend of mine, Sam Farringdon, working as producer. He's very protective of the work and what more can a writer ask for?
Who are your favourite playwrights and how have they influenced you?
From a purely stylistic perspective I love the work of David Mamet, his rhythms are so specific – if you read his plays they’re almost like music. I also very much admire Harold Pinter. What I love about his work is a lot of the time it’s not about what’s on the page, but about what isn’t on the page.
I am also fond of Neil Labute, Samuel Beckett and Martin Crimp. John Hopkins is a particularly underrated British playwright. He wrote a fabulous play called This Story of Yours, which was adapted into a great Sean Connery movie called The Offence. Jules Feiffer is also another one, he wrote a few plays and screenplays that are really good.
In terms of Sleepyhead I’d say more than anything it was prose authors, such as the Southern Gothic novelists. Flannery O’Connor has always been one of my favourite writers and her influence on Sleepyhead was considerable.
Who are your favourite writers?
Richard Brautigan, J. G. Ballard, Martin Amis, Newton Thornburg, Raymond Carver, Robert Coover, Franz Kafka and Vladimir Nabakov - there’s too many; I could go on all night!
Do you have any advice for would-be playwrights?
My advice would be to get the work out there, particularly to enter it in awards and competitions. To get people wanting to perform your work I think is the most important thing. I think you can’t give any better advice than to just get it read.
It’s terrifying and it may backfire, you may get an entirely negative response, but from what I’ve found if somebody hates your play it doesn’t mean it’s a bad work. The last play I wrote, the first person I showed didn’t like it at all, tore it to pieces and I was disheartened. I had to go away and really think about how do I take on all this criticism, do I start completely from scratch or do I trust my own instincts and decide what I think is good and make a compromise between what I think and what this other person thought? So I did that, I went away and I worked on it and that play is getting performed in Melbourne in late February. That play is called Tinkertown.
What does the future hold?
That’s the play (Tinkertown) that I’ve spent more or less the last year writing. Again, I wrote a few plays between the time of Sleepyhead, which was written in 2009 and this play, which I began writing in late 2010. Again, like Sleepyhead, it was written during another time of sadness and turmoil. I see this as a companion piece to Sleepyhead. In terms of genre it’s more a tragic comedy than the gothic/thriller/horror of Sleepyhead, but stylistically and thematically I see a lot in common with the two. So that play has been picked up by MKA who did Sleepyhead as well and they are doing it in conjunction with Theatreworks in late February, so I am looking forward to that.
I have also been honing another play which I wrote before Tinkertown and that play is probably best defined as Victorian Gothic, probably more in the vein of the Henry James novella - Turn of the Screw, with a bit of Oscar Wilde and Kafka thrown in for good measure. That work stylistically was a lot more undisciplined and unhinged and so needed a lot more honing and toning down, but it’s nearing completion, so hopefully in a couple of months I’ll have that ready to send to people.
Do you think you’ll ever write novels?
I’d like to return to writing prose. The primary failing of my prose writing was being too young and too eager to prove myself as a writer and so my prose was very undisciplined - it was very impenetrable and overtly poetic. I’d like to return to it and as you get older you realise that often simpler is better. When time permits I would like to return to prose.
Lastly - how much do you love books? Would you ever buy a Kindle?
I don’t think I will ever buy a Kindle and I’m sure people argue for their convenience and whatnot, but nothing can replicate the look of a book, the smell of a book, the glory of having books piled and stacked. I own hundreds upon hundreds of books and I know the majority I will never have the time to read in my lifetime, but it doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy owning them.
Please look at the Sleepyhead promo here
There is also a promo for Nathaniel’s new play - Tinkertown, which is being premiered by MKA at Theatreworks in Melbourne next month.
Sleepyhead is showing at The Blue Room between Monday February 6 and Friday February 10. The play is directed by Garreth Bradshaw and produced by Sam Farringdon. The performers include: Amy Murray, Louise Cocks, Alex Jones, Adam Shuttleworth, Kirsty Marillier and Desiree Crossing.
Show time is at 9pm The Blue Room Theatre - 53 James St, Perth Cultural Centre, Northbridge
Bookings via The Blue Room can be found here
Tickets via Fringeworld are also available here
There is also a Facebook event page
Thanks go out to Elizabeth for helping to transcribe the interview.