The Q&A was held in the theatre auditorium following the 90-minute performance of Stenham’s multi award-winning debut play which started life in a sell-out run at the Royal Court’s 80-seat Jerwood Theatre Upstairs last April and transferred to the West End last month (See 1st Night Photos, 12 May 2008). Written when she was just 19, That Face won Stenham the Evening Standard and Critics’ Circle Awards for Most Promising Playwright and the TMA Award for Best Play. She’s now working on a screenplay of That Face as well as a second stage play.
In the portrayal of an affluent family in freefall – billed as a “comic exploration of children who become parents to their parents” – the drugged and boozed-up Martha is fixated on her teenage son Henry and oblivious to the boarding school terror tactics exerted by her teenage daughter Mia.
Matt Smith and Hannah Murray (best known from TV’s Skins) play Henry and Mia, with Catherine Steadman as Mia’s best friend Izzy and Rebecca Eve as boarding school torture victim Alice. Smith and Steadman reprise their performances from the original Royal Court run, Murray (making her stage debut) and Eve joined the company for the West End transfer. That Face’s limited season continues at the Duke of York’s until 5 July 2008.
Last night’s discussion was chaired by Whatsonstage.com editorial director Terri Paddock. For more photos and feedback, visit our Outings Blog and for details of upcoming events, click here. Edited highlights from the Q&A follow …
On writing the play
Polly Stenham: I went to the theatre a lot when I was really young, lots of the Fringe actually, not to big kind of icing cake theatres like this. I also worked in a theatre when I was 18, I used to get the coffees here at the Duke of York’s actually. I always just really enjoyed it. I always preferred it to cinema. It was a big factor in my life …
There was nothing really particular that made me write this play. I think my life has certainly inspired me, it would be wrong to say I wrote it in a complete dark room, but this didn’t happen to me. This is fiction. A guy from the Priory came in for our first round of rehearsals and sat us down. He hadn’t read the play. We gave him a bit of blurb about the characters and roughly the situation they are in at the beginning of the play, and then this guy proceeded to tell us exactly what would happen next, even though he hadn’t read it. It made me think afterwards that there are these kinds of archetypes that are in this world. I’m sure that in this audience there are people with similar problems to Martha, perhaps not as pronounced or flamboyant as Martha, but I would imagine several of you know people with serious drinking disorders, they are out there … The play came more from watching than from listening to myself if that makes sense. I didn’t have a message in mind when I wrote it. It takes a bit of distance to realise what you really meant. To me, the play is about taking responsibility for yourself and about mental illness, which I think is something that’s glossed over, masked as addiction and not really talked about too often.
On the play’s astounding success
Jeremy Herrin: We thought it was a good play, but I’ve done loads of plays I think are good. There’s something that happens with a play when you put an audience in front of it that is always unexpected and exciting. That is the beauty of the medium - you don’t really know what you’ve got until the first preview. We did the first preview at the Royal Court and there was just some transaction between what Polly had written and the audience. It was a real event rather than a show. It felt like it was saying something that people needed to hear said in a public space. It just felt more weighty and a bit more interesting than most plays. It was really joyous to rehearse too. The chemistry in the company, between me and Polly and the actors, was really special and that is rare. But when it hit the audience something just happened. It felt special, and as the run went on, it felt as though there was this hunger to go and see it which was great.
Stenham: I’m really pleased that I have written most of my second play already as I think, if the transfer and all this happened and I was staring at an empty page, I would be really freaked out. Luckily, between the show last year and now, I worked quite hard and I’ve got a new play almost ready. I think you’ve got to work in a vacuum really, a creative vacuum. If you compare what you do to what you’ve done before, it’s going to affect the work in a bad way, so that is what I’ve tried to do.
On changes made for the West End transfer
Catherine Steadman: To bring That Face to the Duke of York’s was a big adjustment because it was a completely different space. Previously it was in the round and if you were in the audience you would be a couple of metres away from another member of the audience so it was much more intense. Here at the Duke of York’s, it seems strangely that we need to be more microscopic. You can see we’ve put this thing on the stage, and it is there to be judged, whereas before it was almost like the audience were in it with us.
Matt Smith: I think what was difficult for me with the rehearsal was the inherited choices that we had made in our previous rehearsals and letting go of them and discovering things innocently with a sort of lack of judgement. That was the tricky thing. And then obviously the different space presents new problems. As an actor, you have a load of different things to consider, but a lot of that was translating it spatially.
Herrin: We’ve got this great designer, Mike Britton, whose work I really appreciate. He designed it for the Royal Court as well and he’s great at keeping that minimalistic approach. He was convinced that would work. I wanted to stay with that approach, but when we moved, it did take quite a bit of recalibrating in order to let the audience in a bit. These proscenium arch stages can be quite imposing - there can be a big distance between the audience and the actors. You think, with a studio production in-the-round for 88 people, the choices that would make the difference would be much more microscopic than in a large theatre, but actually I found that it’s the other way round. What you don’t have to worry about in a studio is where the audience is looking all the time because they can look at anything. Working in-the-round is great, I really love it and there’s loads of stuff you don’t have to think about. whereas with large a proscenium arch, you have to be very detailed about what you tell the audience to look at. That has a number of benefits in the sense that you can get laughs here much more precisely, you can time the rhythm of the storytelling much more precisely because you can offer the information exactly when and where you want it.
On joining the cast in the West End
Hannah Murray: It was a bit of a weird thing. I was quite aware not only of being the only person that hadn’t done this play before but also the only person who hadn’t done any plays ever. I didn’t feel at all excluded or separate so that was really nice. It was just a bit odd when they would talk about doing it before and I didn’t have a basis for that. It’s weird when I remember that this play has a separate life that I have nothing to do with because I always feel like this is the only way it could be as it is the only way that I know. I never saw it at the Royal Court so to me this is what it is … It’s a really exciting challenge (doing theatre). The hardest thing was the physical and vocal stuff because a lot of the time on screen you don’t have to worry about anything below your neck really and you can do tiny, tiny little things and it shows up. I had to do a lot of work on projecting my voice and using the space in a bigger way. It’s been really good to work in a different medium. It’s been an amazing learning experience.
Rebecca Eve: It’s been a great learning curve for me as well, everyone has been so lovely and welcoming. It’s been great to get to know everyone … I’m the understudy for Mia and Izzy so it’s been fun learning both of those parts. I would love the chance to play one of the parts, but I don’t think you can go in to being an understudy wanting someone to get sick. It’s not a healthy mindset. I’m not even a year out of drama school yet so for me it’s just been amazing to work with such great people and just to build up my experience. Kate Lonergan has been working with us and we’re going to get to do our own run so I still get my chance to do it.
On Polly’s age
Stenham: My age has probably actually helped to be honest. I think theatre is quite open to young writers.
Herrin: I think people like it. Certainly one of the strategies the producers adopted in terms of marketing the show is that there is this great story of this young woman who wrote this great play. We venerate youth in our society. If someone is young and has written a play, and there’s someone in their thirties who has written something of a similar quality, the young writer’s is the more celebrated story for some reason.
Smith: When I first read the script in February 2007, I was sitting at home reading it thinking it was really good. I came in for the reading and Polly turned up - I thought she must be playing Izzy. And then she told me she was the writer. I was amazed! I assumed it was written by a 40-year-old because it was so accomplished. The more you work with it, the more you like it. When we come off stage, we always say it really supports you as an actor. All the rhythm and all the grammar, they are all really precise which is remarkable.
On Izzy’s backstory & uncomfortable viewing
Steadman: I think Izzy is a whole other play waiting to be written. You can read between the lines of what Polly has written … (The uncomfortable material) takes a lot out of you performing it, but if it didn’t take as much out of us, it wouldn’t take as much out of the audience. People expect us to go through something. Hopefully the more we play into it, the more they’ll get out of it.
On predictions for the characters’ lives after the play
Smith: Henry’s fucked, isn’t he?
Murray: Mia and Hugh concentrate on their own survival in a way that Henry doesn’t which is why he’s tied up in looking after his mother and is so badly affected by her behaviour. I think Mia and Izzy could go on to escape from this situation, although I remember we talked about what might happen and it was Mia looking after Henry in this horrible cycle. But I think she’s the only one who has a chance to get away from it. I don’t think she’d ever be okay. She doesn’t have either of her parents there for her. I don’t think you can come from that and then find that everything’s fine.
- by Melissa Rynn and Kate Jackson