Monday 23 January 2012

Sleepyhead, an interview with Nathaniel Moncrieff

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 Nabakovthere’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.

Sunday 15 January 2012

Possession – A.S. Byatt (1990)

A.S. Byatt won the 1990 Booker Prize (now called the Man Booker Prize), for Possession. Apparently Byatt is considered to be a critics darling, but is less popular with readers. Byatt, who was born in 1936, is certainly an old school literate writer, with academic credentials and numerous awards to her name. Having read Possession I can certainly understand the dichotomy between readers and critics. The book is a dense interplay of history, poetry, romantic suffering and redemption. There’s also a mystery that drives the plot till the very end. For the average reader it’s not a page-turner by any means, but it is creativity in excelsis.

Possession is one of those classic multi-layered novels that tests the reader’s resolve but can also be extremely rewarding to those with patience. Possession is essentially a detective story, with two academics seeking to solve the mystery of Victorian poet - Randolph Henry Ash and his involvement with a less renowned female poet - Christabel LaMotte. Roland Michell, an academic in waiting, discovers several early drafts of letters from Ash to a mysterious recipient in the pages of a book Ash had owned that had been sitting undisturbed in a library in London. Roland links up with academic Maud Bailey, an uptight but beautiful expert on the writings of LaMotte, who is also a far removed relative of LaMotte. They combine their talents to discover what really went on between the two (fictional) Victorian poets. They have to be secretive, as the likes of fellow academics Mortimer Cropper and James Blackadder lurk in the background, vying to possess any writings or objects related to Ash.

The novel is set partly in the 1980’s and partly in the mid 1800’s. Byatt weaves the two eras in and out of the erudite narrative. Byatt is an accomplished writer and the beauty of some of her descriptions of the English countryside is astonishing. The plot acts as a loving pastiche of detective and romance novels. It’s also a gentle satire on academia and the monomania displayed by literary experts bent on knowing everything about their subjects. Never has literature seemed so important and life changing.

The academic characters are charming, eccentric, frustrating and entirely flawed. The arcane world of academia is explored via the feminist struggle to have works by female authors recognized and taught in universities. LaMotte herself is a literary feminist icon, having lived as a lesbian whilst writing poetry that displayed a unique female perspective. Maud Bailey both benefits and suffers from this political struggle. Afraid to have her long hair out, she bundles it up tight lest she be criticized by radical feminists for pandering to male perceptions of what women should be like. Beatrice Nest, a female academic who has been shunted aside to specialize in Ellen Ash’s journal writing, is a dowdy spinster afraid of intimacy because of her enormous breasts (I’m not making this up). These characters are not caricatures; instead they are fully realized and entirely engaging.

The Victorian era is rendered beautifully via numerous letters between Ash and LaMotte, which help reveal their mystery little by little throughout the novel. There are also journal entries and long poems by both poets. These poems and letters, written by Byatt herself, pose the biggest challenge to the reader. They are long, arcane and frustrating to read. The highlight of the Victorian parts of the novel comes when Byatt provides a chapter of direct interaction between Ash and LaMotte on a trip they take to the coast. Despite the obfuscation of their letters and poems, in the flesh they are engaging characters and you can’t help but get caught up in their romance and the romance of the times.

Possession is a curious book, at once inviting and brilliant with its lush descriptions and fully realized characters; it also frustrates and sometimes causes outright boredom. The pace of the narrative is slowed by the poems and labyrinth-like digressions that slowly reveal new aspects to the mystery at hand. In an interview I read with Byatt she refers to the concept of ‘narrative greed’. Narrative greed is the readers’ insistence and expectation that secrets are to be revealed quickly, without digressions and complications. Byatt does her best here to counter that desire, in fact she extinguishes it completely. The ending is rewarding, if you can make it, and plays with the notion of happy endings in romances without resorting to outright cliché.

There’s no doubt that Possession is a significant achievement and that Byatt is a talented writer. Possession is also one of those books that will appeal to a certain kind of reader, one who is up to the challenges of the narrative – there will be many others who will give up in frustration. I really struggled with this book and due to the demands of the book club I was trying to read it too fast. Although one weekend over a few glasses of wine I realized that it’s actually a work of genius. I also wondered why I wasn’t enjoying it. The problem was, I decided, is that it just didn’t make me care enough about the mystery and about the various romances within the book. As to why, perhaps it is a matter of taste? Some readers, if they were working from my rating system, would give this book a sublime rating, whilst others would give it a mediocre rating or somewhere in-between. As I’m writing this I’m still uncertain just how I’ll rate it.

Before I get to that there’s something else I’ve realized about Possession. It’s written by a sometime academic and it is also partly a satire on academia. It displays a highly literate style and is full of the kind of techniques beloved by academics. So if Possession were taught at universities (and I’m sure that it is), academics would therefore be analyzing a narrative about academics that are analyzing narratives. I wonder if any of them would recognize themselves in this book? They’d be too busy analyzing wouldn’t they?

Sunday 8 January 2012

Mirrorshades: The Cyberpunk Anthology – Bruce Sterling, editor (1986)

I came to cyberpunk quite late, not reading my first book of this science fiction sub-genre till the early 1990’s. It was, fortuitously, Neuromancer (1984) by the granddaddy of cyberpunk, William Gibson. It was an interesting time to start reading cyberpunk because surreally its themes were actually beginning to manifest in society. Unlike most science fiction, which tends to set its narratives in the far future or in deep space, cyberpunk focuses on the near future and tends to extrapolate dystopian outcomes based on emergent technologies. Amongst its typical themes are AIs, cyborgs, computer hacking and direct interaction between humans and cyberspace, the ubiquitous access to networked digital information (sounds familiar?) and increasing corporate control over society, along with severely weakened governments.

Of course the above description is limited, but you get the idea. Cyberpunk emerged in the early eighties and established itself as a highly influential movement. Mirrorshades was published in 1986 and was an intended showcase for cutting edge cyberpunk. Reading it 25 years on I am ambivalent, bordering on disappointed, towards some of the stories and very impressed by others, a reaction that is typical when it comes to most short story collections.

The collection begins with William Gibson’s first professionally published story - The Gernsback Continuum (1981), an elegant satire of utopian fantasies. The protagonist suffers from unwanted visions of a shiny perfect future as conceptualized by writers in the first half of the twentieth century. Enjoyable, but hardly essential, unless you are a Gibson completest. In contrast the next story - Snake Eyes (1986) by Tom Maddox, places the reader into the dystopian world of a future high-tech military industrial nightmare as seen through the eyes of a heavily cybenetically implanted fighter pilot. Discarded by the military he must fight for his sanity whilst also suffering from the probing mind of a nebulous AI. Unfortunately this story now suffers from over familiarity and ultimately failed to move me.

Despite the fact that some stories have dated there are highlights which shrug off the jaded focus of 25 years hence. Rudy Rucker’s story - Tales of Houdini (1983) provides a psychedelically rollicking good time with a fast paced snapshot of the adventures of Houdini from an alternate universe. It’s entertaining and hilarious and made me want to begin reading Rucker’s The Ware Tetralogy (2010) that’s sitting on my shelf as soon as possible.

Solstice (1985) by James Patrick Kelly is perhaps the most complex and thought provoking story in this collection. Cage, a drug artist, famous for his invention of all manner of neurologically inspiring substances, is trying to deal adequately with his bizarre relationship with his cloned daughter. It’s a psychological puzzle, with clues laid out in interludes detailing the history of theories about the origins and uses of Stonehenge. It’s as strange as it sounds and thoroughly mind-bending.

The two most impressive stories come late in the collection. Freezone (1985) by John Shirley features an anachronistic rock ‘n’ roller clad in the leather jacket once worn by John Cale whilst he was in The Velvet Underground. Disillusioned by his flakey band mates he befriends a group of wanted assassins. This story provides a fully realized world that manages to push past its short story boundaries. Stones Lives (1985) by Paul Di Filippo is perhaps the most brilliant story in the collection. The streamlined and intriguing tale of a blind slum dweller given eye implants and a mission to observe is perhaps the most cyberpunk moment here. Stone Lives concludes brilliantly and made me wish that it had been made into a movie just so I could see it all unfold.

Although Mirrorshades is uneven in quality it is an interesting collection, particularly with the benefit of hindsight, but anyone wanting to investigate cyberpunk should read William Gibson’s Neuromancer and other novels like Idoru (1996). He’s certainly not the only great cyberpunk writer; Bruce Stirling, John Shirley and Neale Stephenson (all amongst the original group in the early eighties) also fit that description. However Gibson’s novels are the most succinct representations of cyberpunk.

Whilst Mirrorshades wasn’t the wild ride I wanted it to be, it caused me to investigate what happened to some of the ‘lesser’ names that outshine the bigger names in the collection. Paul Di Filippo took some time to have his first novel published, with Ciphers: A Post-Shannon Rock 'N' Roll Mystery in 1997. Di Filippo has had a steady stream of novels published since and has the lure of an obscure writer just ready for more recognition. James Patrick Kelly has been quite successful, winning the Hugo Award twice in the 1990’s for his novels Think Like a Dinosaur (1995) and for 1016 to 1 (1999). If they offer the same obtuse stylings as Solstice then they are sure to be entertaining.

The writer that most interests me here is Rudy Rucker (great name). He seems to be a renaissance man - a computer scientist, philosopher and novelist. I’ve encountered him before when I read Year Million: Science at the Far Edge of Knowledge – edited by Damien Broderick (2008). In a book full of wild and fascinating ideas about what humanity will be like in a million years, Rudy Rucker’s essay stood out as being particularly out there. Rucker riffs on nano-machines interfacing with human consciousness, telepathy and the very earth itself becoming a giant computer and he made it all sound plausible, believe me! As a cyberpunk and transrealist writer I think that he’s the one to read if you like your science fiction books to be intense and bursting with ideas. The Ware Tetralogy seems to fit that description – four novels in one with the first dating back to the early eighties, predating Mirrorshades by four years.