Pain's Author, Director & Cast Swap Beliefs at Q&ADate: 27 June 2007
A hundred Whatsonstage.com theatregoers were treated to a post-show Q&A session at the Royal Court last night, gaining insights into the UK premiere of New Yorker Bruce Norris’ The Pain and the Itch and the policy plans of Dominic Cooke, who chose the play for his directorial debut since taking over as artistic director of the theatre earlier this year.
At last night’s sell-out Outing, Cooke and Norris joined Whatsonstage.com’s Terri Paddock and actors Matthew Macfadyen, Andrea Riseborough, Peter Sullivan, Amanda Boxer and Abdi Gouhad to share their thoughts, creative experiences and “belief systems”.
A cosy family Thanksgiving dinner for six. Someone - or something - is leaving bite marks in the avocados. Clay and Kelly's daughter Kayla has an itch, Clay’s mother Carol can't remember who played Gandhi, and Clay’s brother Cash has brought his outspoken Eastern European girlfriend Kalina.
The Pain and the Itch premiered at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater in 2005 before a run Off-Broadway. In London, it opened to strong reviews last Thursday 21 June 2007 at the Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Downstairs, where it has now extended its limited season by two weeks to 4 August.
Edited highlights from last night’s Whatsonstage.com discussion follow …
On the new artistic vision for the Royal Court
The other thing I thought would be good would be to reflect back to the audience some of the complexities of who they are – and I include myself in that. Whatever you do, the reality is that the core audience in the theatre, particularly in this theatre, is liberal-minded people who have the money to go to the theatre, who are therefore relatively comfortably off. This isn’t a new thing for us. Max Stafford-Clark did this with Wallace Shawn’s plays in the Eighties. It isn’t a revolutionary idea, but it seems to me important to put work on stage that is going to connect with particular problems that the audience are facing. So there is a meeting point.
The idea that it’s a “shift from working class to middle class” is painting a simplified version of what I was talking about. I think the range that we’re putting on will show that. It’s not just “let’s put on Alan Ayckbourn plays”, it’s more complicated than that.
On why this play was chosen for the Court programme
On writing the play
I didn’t want to make it a political play in the sense that it was responding to a specific event (September 11th). The problems the play is sort of about are more endemic to the world of privilege, the world that we all live in. The events of September 11th were just the context. It’s set in present day US.
On how Norris’ experience as an actor affects his writing
Matthew Macfadyen: On a very basic level, when you read it as an actor, it makes perfect sense to you. It’s written in such a way that you want to say it. Some scripts that you come across you imagine that the writer hasn’t actually said this because it’s so unwieldy. Bruce has a fantastic ear for dialogue.
On liking/disliking their characters
Matthew Macfadyen: I kind of like Clay. He’s an idiot sometimes. I think they’re all doing their best in the given situation, like we all do. As an actor, if you veer towards judging your character, it’s not terribly useful. The writing is good, so they’re all multi-faceted - otherwise they become stereotypes rather than archetypes.
Peter Sullivan: In the week and a half before we opened, it was just panic time for me - it’s when I don’t get any sleep and I think, I’ve got no characterisation, what am I supposed? – and I looked up the word “cynic”. I wanted something I could just hook onto and I thought what Cash is is a cynic. I looked up what it is and where it actually comes from. And then I thought, no, that’s too much of a position for Cash. It’s the whole idea of having a position that he has a problem is. He has that whole speech about belief systems. There used to be these posters all over London by this guerrilla artist. They said: “belief is a poor substitute for thought” and I think that’s what Cash thinks.
On whether the US setting lets UK audiences off the hook
On grappling with the American accent
On theatregoing habits
Andrea Riseborough: There’s this really funny episode of The Simpsons – to make a great cultural reference now – in which Homer says “I’ve had more fun at a play”. That’s how people see theatre, as this horribly boring experience. It’s a common misperception.
Bruce Norris: In the US, we have this weird expectation that theatre is going to be some kind of demonstration of right behaviour. I find that absurd - if you don’t know the right way to behave and you’re coming to the theatre, why should I tell you? That’s kind of pathetic. When I write a play, that’s not what I want to do.
- by Terri Paddock