Ahead of our trip to Stratford-upon-Avon for the RSC’s Making Mischief festival, Fraser Grace was kind enough to talk to us about his new play Always Orange, which was commissioned for the festival.
Your play Always Orange started two days ago as part of the new Making Mischief Festival at the RSC – how’s the opening gone?
Good! We’re still using previews, exploring stuff. It’s gone well, and the response has been really good. We’re gearing up for another preview tonight, and then press night tomorrow night.
The festival asked the question ‘What is unsayable in the 21st century?’ and from there you agreed to write a play. How was that for you to have such a stimulus to work from?
Well the two things came together really – I tend to write plays about things which I don’t understand or are a bit hard to face myself. I felt that in the face of some of the horrific things that have happened at the hands of Islamic fundamentalists, particularly to journalists, who also live by words, that I really had to face up to that with a play and take that on, rather than look away. So I started getting out some ideas, and then the prospect of a commission for the festival came up and its premise of saying the unsayable, or facing the unfaceable, sort of flowed together really – so that’s how the play came to be developed for the festival.
The parameters are quite specific: because it’s the festival, the plays have to be seventy minutes long and with a maximum of six performers, although we’ve slightly cheated on that – we’ve got eight, but they are quite specific parameters and the premise of the festival made a lot of sense for the play that was emerging. Then, historical events made it a no brainer really. First there was the Charlie Hebdo attack, and then there was the Belgium attack, and it really made it feel like this is the play that needed to go on now, not in a year.
The process has been really fast by my standards; I normally count on about three years to work it out. But in the case, the commission was confirmed in February, so this is hot work! Then to production, and a really specific remit has added to that process – it is being forged as we speak, the final shape of the piece.
With it being such a relevant piece, and with the events that have been going on even in the past month, has it been a plastic piece, one which when you got into the rehearsal room with it, you’ve been able to change it and affect it as the stories in the news have occurred?
Yeah, it’s made it feel more urgent, and interestingly, the Brexit vote took place part way through the rehearsal – there’s definitely one line in the play which we all know is the Brexit line [laughter]. So, really it has just made the tone… it was talking about those very issues and then there have been so many more examples of that onslaught across Europe and the world, and it just makes it feel all the more urgent and necessary, I think, and it concentrates the mind and you just think ‘right, we’ve really got to pull this together’. I think that’s true of both the new plays that are being commissioned specifically for the festival – there’s my play, Always Orange, and then there’s another play by Somalia Seaton called, Fall of the Kingdom, Rise of the Foot Soldier, and those two plays are both responding to ‘unsayable things in the 21st century,’ and they share the same actors working across both plays, which is really interesting, and a specific challenge for them, to which they are rising rather fantastically well. Both those plays feel very urgent – Somalia’s play is about racism and what modern Britain is… so it’s a terrific thing that both of us are doing it.
You both have separate directors for the plays. Does that mean you were in the rehearsal space a lot yourself, as a writer, to help keep some direction to the play, or did you really hand the piece over?
Yes, I really have been involved a lot in the tradition rehearsal process, if there is such a thing. You might spend the first week sat around the table interrogating the text, as they say, and obviously a writer’s presence there is important to work out what’s going on in the text – often you have to say you don’t know with this play. I’d normally be there for the first week, disappear and then come back towards the end and make some comments on previews or runs of the plays. Working with the director Donnacadh O’Briain, a young Irish director, he has a very interrogative process in rehearsal, so actually I’ve been involved all the way through and we’ve kind of fashioned the show around the text during the rehearsal. So that has been a really interesting process in which I’ve been involved for the duration – the fruits of which are about to be seen!
If I’m right in thinking, it’s your first return to the RSC after your success with Breakfast with Mugabe – what’s it like to be back there?
[Laughter] Yes I was lucky to be there in about 2005, so eleven years ago, when my play Breakfast with Mugabe was on at the Swan Theatre, which was brilliant. So it’s great to be back here, and this show is, for me, a very experimental piece of writing because it’s such a tough subject to take on really. I felt I needed a new, different kind of approach to it, so I was looking for the right place for it… and The Other Place was established in 1974 by a young director called Buzz Goodbody, and it was established as a place to do other things, to try other things, be experimental, and I suppose, slightly edgy. It’s really been brought back to its original thought by Erica Whyman as the place for experiment and a more immediate response perhaps, so we feel that we’re very much in that tradition, such as it is, or certainly that kind of original vision of The Other Place. These plays fit in there really well for those formal reasons, but also in terms of subject and their contemporary edge.
It’s the first time I can remember rehearsing in a rehearsal space bigger than a performance space, which is fantastic. They’re great rehearsal spaces, there’s all sort of things going on. The other week Greg Doran was rehearsing his production of Lear with Antony Sher in on part of the building, and our play was in another part of the building, and an exhibition on upstairs, and people coming in for tea and coffee.
It must be a fantastic atmosphere in there.
Yeah, it’s great! It’s a real creative hub. The costume department is here, so people come in and have a crawl around all that, so it’s very much about process. It’s very much about having access to a process which is normally completely hidden. Normally you judge a play by its finished, ossified text; The Other Place is all about opening that process up a little, so that people can kind of get a grasp of where the text comes from.
As you mentioned earlier, yourself and Somalia are sharing the same cast, so you obviously have a strong link with that play. With all four plays a part of the festival, some being performed almost at the same time, have you enjoyed the experience of being together with three other writers, and four directors, and these casts together? Has it been an enjoyable collaborative process?
Yeah, it’s like a shared endeavour, that’s how I’d put it really. We’re not in each other’s rehearsal room, we’re doing our thing, delivering what we have to deliver, but there is a great sense… Alice’s play debuted here two year ago, I think I’m right in saying, and it’s been brought back prior to London & Edinburgh, so it just comes to the festival for eight performances, and then there is a fourth piece Joanne which has come out of Clean Break. It’s Tanya Moodie, who’s acting as her and that’s coming in for just three performances, but there’s a growing sense of shared endeavour, and I think all those plays are very much… what ties them together is tackling very contemporary problems and issues in a formally inventive way, and that’s great to do with other people [laughter] it’s great to have company on the edge.
Is there anything else you’d like to say about the festival or the play?
I mean the obvious thing to say is that Kingdom & Always Orange are published together – I think they arrived yesterday – published by Oberon. That pays for the life of the plays, and there are various rumours about what might happen to the plays – it would be great if they can get previewed by a wider audience at some point, but we’ll see. We’re right at the beginning with both of these plays.
Image: © Lewis Grace