I can’t help it – I get horribly ‘retired middle-class’ at Christmas. I buy the Radio Times, listen to the Archers. I attempt quizzes of the year in newspapers. I invest time and interest in entire episodes of Midsomer Murders. The patina of glossy adverts for stairlifts and cruise – ships holds my gaze. I can’t help it, and I love it.
So I needed some acid to cut through this muzzy, smuggy love in, and it came in the form of Orphans by Dennis Kelly, which was recommended to me to read for a piece of writing that I’m working on. It reminded me of one thing and taught me another; firstly – reading plays for pleasure can be exhilarating. I used to work in the bookshop at the National Theatre – my best ever job in retrospect and one that I only appreciate now, at a sorry distance of nearly twenty years. I used to read plays all the time – it was encouraged for you to be seen reading plays at the counter, on the shop floor, on your breaks. People would ask for recommendations and I could be learned and suave and theatrical (life goals, basically). And I could also swan around backstage and pretend to be in stuff.
Now I don’t want to be in stuff anymore, but reading Orphans reminded me that actually reading a play can be more emotionally powerful than seeing it performed, where there’s always the risk that it can be a bit shit or indulgent or forced. But a well written play plays in my head just as I want it to – and it turns out that I am an incredible director.
No, it’s the play. And this is the thing that reading Orphans made me realise. I think that playwriting has changed more than other written form, in terms of what is permissible and how it is expressed. I couldn’t stop reading Orphans, which I am not going to spoil for you because you should just read it. But, in brief, it’s the story of a brother and sister and her partner and how they deal with something that the brother has done. Wow, vague, cool. But you should read it, because it bites. It really fucking bites. And I think back to the plays that I read, including the classics, and I think about how ‘unreal’ they seem in comparison. They’re polished, but they take a lot of craft from the actor to sound truthful a lot of the time. With Orphans, you feel as if you are experiencing the dilemma with them, the godawful messiness of the situation, which is not to say it is written ‘off the cuff’. Because when you’ve got through it and are lying in a sweaty fever dream, you’ll realise that each character had an arc, had something to say. It takes a really brilliant writer to put it together so subtly and effortlessly, so that you don’t see his hand in the writing of it until after you’re done.
So my booklearning is this: reading Orphans has taught me to spend longer on my structure and planning and less time ‘perfecting’ the words. More at the front end, if you like, as much as it pains me.
And it’s given me a beautiful New Year’s Resolution: Read. More. Plays.