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
Dominic Cooke: It’s really to do with creating the right synergy if you like between what happens on stage and what happens out there. And we’re attacking that in two ways. One way is we’re putting a lot of money and time into audience development. We’re trying to expand the types of people who regularly attend this theatre and to make sure, if we do plays from a particular world, that the people in the audience will make a connection with what is on stage. I became very uncomfortable with a particular type of cultural tourism that I experienced in the theatre when relatively comfortably off people came to watch poor people destroying themselves on stage and then go away, at best, feeling sorry for those people. It’s a bit like being in a zoo.

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
Dominic Cooke: It all happened around the same time. Terry Johnson brought The Pain and the Itch to my attention. He’d been in Chicago and knew about the play from Steppenwolf because he’d been working there. I loved the play immediately, irrespective of whatever artistic policy I have, I thought it was great, I thought it was really nailing a particular problem.

On writing the play
Bruce Norris: It was written for a theatre in Philadelphia but once they read the script, they declined to do the play because they found it objectionable. I started writing it a couple of years after September 11th and everyone in New York was very infantile to what was of course a terribly horrible, tragic event. There was no direct correlation between who actually suffered and who seemed to suffer greatly. I have a lot of friends who have families and young children and some of them, not all, behaved in really preposterous ways, as if their lives were suddenly in horrible horrible danger. There was nothing to support this contention, but they believed it very strongly. One friend thought they were going to get anthrax so they went out and bought all the antibiotics they could find and they taped their windows shut. It was sort of appalling to see. The majority of people behaved really honourably and respectably. But some people thought, whatever will protect my family is what I have to do. And they used this, and the government did too, as a pretext for taking all sorts of outrageous positions about their vulnerability. So I guess the play was written in the context. And it was coming up on an election in the US so I was in a bad mood.

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
Bruce Norris: I’m a writer-actor. I write parts the way I think an actor would want to perform them. I improvise them in my own home. I don’t really push the literary point of view. I don’t want to make the language in some way rarefied or more beautiful. I’m interested in what characters would or wouldn’t do. I don’t want to say their objective – because that sounds like a cliché – but I’m an actor so I think in those terms.

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
Amanda Boxer: I love my character (Carol, mother of Clay and Cash). This is what happens when you get old and crumbly. People disappear. I get offered so many seats now on the Tube, it’s disgusting. But I do take advantage of it.

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
Dominic Cooke: There are things about the play that are very specific to America and about America’s relationship with the rest of the world. But there’s another part that is about that particular class and the gap between their beliefs and how they actually live. And I think those things are really common to reasonably comfortably off, liberal-minded people across the West. We were all quite mindful of that, that the audience would want to go, oh that’s America, it’s nothing to do with us. We’re trying to stop the audience from doing that and instead make connections where possible with these characters.

On grappling with the American accent
Matthew Macfadyen: Accents are your enemy for awhile. They make you feel stressed and under confident. Most of us grew up watching American films and TV, but it’s a very hard accent because it’s about state of mind as well. It’s psychologically fascinating. Our British tendency is to be very apologetic, with Americans (adopts accent) everything is said and there’s no apology at all. But once you’ve got it technically, it’s a great release and then it becomes your friend.

On theatregoing habits
Bruce Norris: Theatregoers are pretty masochistic. I mean, they’re going to the theatre! That’s not as enjoyable as most other things they could be doing. You could be at a movie, you could be bowling, you could be doing all sorts of other things and instead you came here, obviously that’s some self-flagellating impulse that you have.

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