BookLearning: Orphans by Dennis Kelly

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.

More questions than answers

This blog title today sounds like it is deep, really deep, but do not be afeared, dear reader.  I have promised to write a blog every day for thirty days, although I am not entirely sure why.  The well is already running dry and I’m on day 4.  I think my brain is abnormally small and exceptionally underperforming.


So this blog is not a Deepak Chopra style path to higher enlightenment, it’s inspired by A Question of Sport, in particular the round where you see little snippets of a famous sports personality doing something mundane (it was normally driving a car).  So you’ll see their lips, their eyes, a hand but never the full person.  The team (Bill Beaumont et al – I have no idea (or interest in) who is on it now) would then try and work it out who it was.  Did that look like Ray Reardon’s eyebrow?  Or could it have been Princess Anne’s upper lip?  Anyhoo, the song ‘There are more questions than answers’ used to play in the background and I often find myself humming it at inopportune moments, such as during a driving lesson (perhaps I think I am being filmed for the snippet round?) or while my students are sitting a controlled assessment.  


The point is that the snippet round was either incredibly easy or incredibly difficult depending on whether the sports personality had any defining features or not.  Red hair and it was probably Gordon Strachan, for example but if they just had a chin and eyes that looked like eyes – then it was normally a toss up between a racing driver or a cricketer; as they seemed to have the most uniformly bland faces in the 80s.


Bu then my current fascination with A Question of Sport, and the snippet round in particular, is clearly based on something more philosophically rooted about how I perceive people (obviously).  I dissemble and deceive all the time: I think most people who have met me would think I was an exceptionally cheerful person with lots of energy.  This is based on the snippets they see.  What they don’t realise is that I’m actually a miserable old shrew who spends most of her free time lying down, willing the world to ‘do one’.  And even though I am aware of the gap between what they perceive and how I am, I routinely base my judgements of people on the miniscule amount of time I may spend with them.  So someone will be assigned to ‘never talk to again ‘pile, because of an offhand remark or a facial tic which may or may not have appeared just after one of my incredible jokes.  Granted, if you’re not going to assume things about a person from what they present to you, then what are you going to use?  In brief, I don;t know, but I think the answer is for me to at least bear in mind that the snippets presented do not make the whole person and if I can remember the nights I have spent with my fist in my mouth after misjudging a situation and looking like a prick, I’m sure everyone else can too.  Do I sense a New Year’s Resolution coming on?  Regretfully, yes.  I hadn’t started this point with a view to setting my self anymore life targets, but sod it, in for a penny in for a pound.  This year I will not put so much emphasis on face value and first impressions.


However I will try and base more philosophical and soul searching blog posts on game shows from the 80s and 90s.  Next up: Learn to love yourself: the Bullseye doctrine.