Friday, May 10, 2013

Fat Priests

So I had this small play on earlier in the week. Very small. Closed performance, script-in-hand, you know the thing. It was done as the culmination of a writing programme at the Birmingham Rep that saw fifteen of us writers working toward this week's performances. Now, it wasn't a competition but we didn't collaborate either: these were fifteen separate short plays and you know every one of us secretly feared our one would be the worst and secretly hoped that our one would be the best.

For all that I talk to you ceaselessly about my work, I'm usually actually very modest about it – if for 'modest' you read 'has no clue whether it's any good or not so had best keep quiet'.

But not this time.

This time I'm telling you the truth. My play, Fat Priests, was excellent.

Easily in the top fifteen.

The truth that I do know and that I am rushing to say to you is that Fat Priests was new. I mean that literally, it was written for this event – though I so clearly remember in the 1990s telling a friend named Peter Guttridge that I had this great title and not one clue what to do with it – but it's new in more senses than that.

I was very aware of this Birmingham Rep programme, Write Away, because my wife Angela Gallagher got on it last year. That was so exciting: every Monday for ten weeks I'd wave her off and really just spend the evening waiting for her to come back to tell me all about it. She would come home elated and it was wonderful. And she wrote a final piece called Fun-Packed Flat Pack – about a woman living in Ikea – that was marvellous. Really flew high on its performance night and she was being back-slapped about it for the rest of the run. And then when I got on this year's one, it was delicious just how many times her play was mentioned. Usually it would be in a sentence that would suddenly take a left turn and become "- and of course that's William's wife Angela". So she wasn't being mentioned because I was there, but because I was there, I was gobbling up every mention.

And, I'll admit this, I was also thinking I can't let her down and do a rubbish piece for myself. She's got a reputation here, she's got form.

I got really worked up about that. And, stupid William, I also did the journalist thing: I looked up everybody else on the programme before it started. You just don't walk into a room cold if you can help it. It's not as if I was going to interview anybody, but we all have big social media footprints these days, for the five seconds it takes to see what someone's done, I will spend those five seconds. The trouble is, this bunch was a bit startling. Poets, playwrights, performers, professionals: not everyone had written before but every one made me wonder how I'd managed to get in.

So I'm walking into that first session with the memory of Angela's great group in my mind and the image of this year's great group in my face. They were all instantly terrific, I mean all of them. I really liked these people and – flash forward to today – I'm going to miss the Monday night nattering.

But - flash right back to then, you, come on, we're not done yet – I was thoroughly scared I would not be able to write something new. It had to be new. They'd never know if it came from my teetering pile of old ideas or old scripts. But I would. This had to be new: by the end of ten weeks, I had to have written a new short play.

We met on that first Monday night and I wrote my play on that first Tuesday morning.

Well, actually, I wrote a play. It was a short piece called Entrenched and it was fairly typical me: a nice enough idea, good enough characters, good dialogue – I do write good dialogue, that's about the only thing I will say and I say it because dialogue is so important to me in drama – but, you know, meh. It wasn't bad, wasn't good, it didn't matter.

But it was written. And that got me over the scare at the start of the programme: even if it wasn't good, that play was done and could be handed in if necessary.

Somewhere along the ten weeks, though, I think I had the things I care most about in drama be pulled out, examined, scrubbed up and, mostly, put back. And somewhere along the ten weeks, I wrote Fat Priests.

I should really tell you about it but I'm hesitant. I want you to see it. I've no idea whether you'll ever even be able to, there is no plan to stage it publicly. And short plays are fine for events like this but they're not so hot for yer ackshual going-to-the-theatre evenings. I think that on the night Fat Priests came in around 20 minutes: in my mind I can easily expand it to 21. I don't know how to make it longer.

But one of the reasons for that is a good 'un: it works at 20 minutes. It's tight and though you could drop in a line or two, though you could take out a line or three, you'd have to do some serious restitching of the whole piece to make that change work. Everything leads to everything else, that kind of thing. I like that. Especially if you can't tell it's the case until you try poking about under the hood.

I'm surprised that I managed to cover an issue, a subject that matters very much to me – I was going to say, I was typing the words that I'm surprised I managed to do this in such a tight, short length but actually I'm just surprised to say I did it at all. I'd like to be surprised to say that I managed it successfully, but that's too far: I don't know.

Except I do know that at the end of rehearsals, I explained to my cast and my director that I have no faith in my writing yet I felt what the four of us had created that afternoon was special.

Fat Priests was directed by Polly Tisdall and it starred Rochi Rampal and Laurence Saunders. Very powerful actors. Rochi brought more venom and just a greater mess of conflicts inside her character than I think I wrote. Even on the first read through, Laurence delivered a huge line and froze the room in the silence that followed. In that silence, I could hear a ticking clock. Hadn't noticed it before, not even when we had happened to be silent. But it was like he made the silence more silent.

There was a lot I didn't think I'd written. Polly saw a parallel between my setting and the deeper themes of the piece and – I warned her I would do this – I am now telling you that this was all my idea, it was a piece of brilliance and it was all me. Not her. Me. And it's my name on the script, QED.

I've never watched an actor work to get into a character before. Watched them discuss it and debate it, reaching for what makes a character be that character. They'd get to a realisation about it and, inside, I'd be going "Yes!" It was thrilling to see them get a subtext or an undertow that I'd worked to provide yet also worked to keep as a hidden subtext. But then they kept on going further and finding more and I'm thinking, jaysis, they must be right. My script must be fantastic. Got to be.

Drama is collaboration, that's one of the myriad things I love about it. But one of the things about collaboration is that while, yes, you have to work with other people and not be all precious about your writing, you also have to step up to their level. And this was the Birmingham Rep. It's in its centenary year, it's been a part of my life as an audience member, it's been the subject of my ambition, it has a gigantic and impressive history – it was the first theatre in the world to stage Shakespeare in modern dress – and did I mention that this was the Birmingham Rep? I look back at the other shorts and plays I've done and, fun as most were, this was like when I got that first Doctor Who contract: it was real.

You can't go back from real. I'm conscious that on the one hand I am making the Alps out of a snowball here and on the other that I'm pratting about like anything. Don't mention to anyone I've said all this, would you? I can tell you because you've got that kind of face. And as small as this is, as little as Fat Priests is, it was very big to me.

Fat Priests was first performed at the Birmingham Rep's offices on Wednesday 8 May, 2013. Oh! It was the very first one staged of all the fifteen this year so for twenty minutes, it was the best!

I've only just thought of that. Fantastic.

What I thought at the time was that I can relax now, I can just enjoy all fourteen of the rest. And, my lights, it's fascinating to see where all these writers went. Writing is always a peek into someone's soul and a glimpse of their worldview, even if they don't realise it, certainly even if they deny it. Though clearly that's not the case with my writing. No. Noooooo.

Listen, the Rep is moving back into its main offices and so I don't think there'll be another Write Away group before next year. But keep an eye on the Birmingham Rep website and apply for it when you can. Just remember to invite me to your play or I won't be able to get in.

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