Prasanna Puwanarajah On ... Directing Declan Greene's 'nuclear' play Moth
Prasanna Puwanarajah is the director of Declan Greene's new play Moth, which premiered at HighTide last month and transfers to the Bush Theatre tonight (30 May 2013). Here, he tells us more about it, and how training as a doctor was the ideal preparation for a career in theatre.
I was very happy with how HighTide went. It's an extraordinary festival - they do five new productions of challenging plays in Suffolk, and they do those plays in challenging spaces. Moth was performed in an old hall, which in normal life is not a theatre, and it's quite a technical show. So, thanks to a terrific production team (who installed more than 400 lights) it went very well; I was happy with how it grew and developed and I'm delighted that Madani Younis and his team have brought the show to the Bush, where we've built another theatre in the attic.
Steven Atkinson (director of HighTide) had it in mind to do a pair of two-handers that would be scenically light and be performed by the same group of actors in rep. Things changed and suddenly I ended up with a whole venue to myself but no script. I had a number of fruitful conversations with playwrights about things they had in their bottom drawer and read loads of new plays. I ended up having a conversation with Tom Lyons at the National Theatre about emerging voices.
Out of that conversation came Moth by Declan Greene; I read it and just thought, 'absolutely yes'. The thing that was so striking was not just the quality of the writing but the uniqueness of the voice. The form kind of goes nuclear about half way in, and I had a panic about how this could be achieved in production. But it was that feeling of panic that made me certain I should tackle it. I'm thinking more and more that it's best to work scared.
Moth is about a boy who has a religious epiphany. He is obsessed with the subculture of Anime and comic books and after a horrific encounter with a particularly toxic bully he enters a strange state of mind where several things collide - fantasy, sin, morality, quest - and guided by a saintly moth in a jar he decides to cleanse the world of its sin. It's a Passion Play, really. There is a Columbine texture within the play to do with his relationship with mediocrity, his growing insight into his status and his deep joy in feeling chosen for a greater purpose; it's breathtakingly layered and complex.
If you like theatre that challenges through form it's exhilarating because it's almost impossible to pin down in terms of its structure, content and time scales; the point of view is always shifting. But it is constantly humane. So, underpinning it all is the journey of his only friend Claryssa, alone and lost and herself searching for clues in her dreams and memories that might tell her why her friend hurt her so badly and then lost his way so completely.
Declan has done these incredible and structurally fearless plays and together with that he has such an instinct for what's actually truthful. I genuinely think a second or third viewing will make you see the full tapestry of how he has put it together. I'm still not entirely sure how he's done it.
I trained as a doctor. I think it helps me to see a play as a set of diagnostic steps that elucidate an event. If I hadn't trained as a doctor I wouldn't be doing this. When I moved to London, I did a few months working and a few months sitting around eating Pot Noodles, seeing plays and trying to write. It's always good to write with uncertainty.
Acting's just a different world in the same orbit. It's blissful to be that focused, just on the headspace and history of that one person. One of the actors in Moth, Stacey Gregg, has never acted before, but she is a writer with incredible instincts in theatre. It's easier to say, "well that person's a director, or actor", but it's all the same sandpaper.
There is something terrifying about writing; there is nothing scarier than sitting in a room with an audience and your play, because it can be totally your fault. It's your insistence that people hear what you're saying, and I'd never really felt that insistence because I'm interested in audiences, not me. I had never felt that there was anything innate in me that needed delivery until I started writing Nightwatchman for the National Theatre Paintframe.
That play surprised me as must as anything I've ever done; I don't have a well evolved sense of my personal heritage; it's rough and unformed and shifting. I was born in the UK and brought up on the south coast, and I never visited Sri Lanka, where my family is from, because of the civil war. Nightwatchman forced me to explore that for the first time in my life.
I do sometimes wonder to what extent it has affected my acting and writing jobs. Undoubtedly in film and TV you are cast based on physical attributes - for example I'm about to play Martin Bashir in the upcoming film about Diana. But the wonderful thing about theatre is that you have much more flexibility to do, and be, whatever you can imagine.
- Prasanna Puwanarajah was speaking to Theo Bosanquet. Moth continues at the Bush Theatre until 8 June 2013.