Playwright Neil Bebber tells Amelia Forsbrook how lessons learnt from soap operas could help theatres clean up their act.
If you want to have a frank conversation about the state of theatre, you could do worse than join playwright Neil Bebber for a natter. We’re sitting at a cafe in Cardiff, just a few weeks after celebrated Welsh fringe theatre outfit Dirty Protest flung Bebber’s monologue, Breathe, against the walls of a sold out Almeida Theatre. Days later, the company broke down the walls altogether, packing a punch at Latitude, exposing their up-tempo season to muddy festival-goers at one of the weekend’s outdoor venues. With new works on the horizon, it seems the right kind of time to grab the worldly yet optimistic writer for a moment of reflection.
We talk first about Breathe, Bebber’s textual holdall throughout Dirty Protest’s emphatically portable Plays in a Bag season. Typically for a company committed to showcasing some of the most on-trend acting, writing and directing talent to come out of Wales, this programme of short plays is designed to spring up without the hassle of an elaborate get-in. The run saw actor Ceri Murphy take on Bebber’s monologue – a dark and deceptively singular piece, that follows a speaker as he inflates two blow-up dolls on stage, pushing out all three characters to the point that, in Bebber’s words, “you start believing in this man’s imaginary world”.
Dirty Protest’s nomadic spirit seems an apt companion to the playwright’s style, complementing his natural eagerness to bring spoken word to the foreground of any production. Since winning ScriptSlam (Sherman Cymru’s contest for new writing) back in 2009 with his piece Seven People, Bebber has sought out opportunities to write play scripts that hone in on social interactions and the human experience. Although it was originally penned as a short film, it soon became clear that Seven People was cut out for the stage. “It was quite solitary. It was more about the words than it was about anything else. It was about what these people were saying.” With such a focus, it comes as no surprise to hear the playwright praising the Edinburgh Fringe, and the inevitable streamlining of content that occurs at the festival throughout August. Indeed, the Fringe is an inspirational breeding ground for new drama, “because it doesn’t become about the cost of the production, it becomes about great writing, great acting, great direction – the really simple things to get you completely invested in that world.”
And once we’ve opened up this brave new world, what happens next? I ask Bebber if he tries to air any particular themes in his writing, and we begin to talk about the writing of others: “There’s a certain worthiness to writing a play with a global message or with a political message. The minute you’re aware a play has a global theme, you know each one of those characters is driving towards the author’s idea of that theme. I find it very difficult to invest in the characters”. Bebber is more subtle when he communicates his own ideas: “I would prefer to write a story about two people on a desert island, but if you then look at the play from afar it might be about a big country and a smaller country which used to depend on the big country, and it would become an allegory for a global situation. But it starts off about people.”
With feet planted firmly on the ground, Bebber shatters the myth of the delicate writer and relies on genuine, honest feedback. “I think it’s really difficult to get what you’d like from a script in hand performance. What you tend to find is that people will either come with a stock response and say It was really good I really liked it, or they will just go home. There’s this sense that the playwright is this weird, revered sensitive creature who would struggle to hear anything negative.” I lower my voice to a comforting whisper and enquire whether this is true. “No”, Bebber responds in good humour. “I welcome it and if somebody comes to see my work and thinks it’s shit then that’s great, as long as they tell me why – and that’s the whole point of putting your work out there … nobody wants to be surrounded by sycophants, with everyone patting each other on the back”.
Throughout the development of his work, Bebber has sought to pierce the bubble that can often surround his craft. In a creative writing career that has so far spanned four and a half years, the writer has embraced projects across various media, and currently has a film (The Longest Day of the Year) and TV drama (The Last Thing) in development. Channelling his inspiration from mass culture, Bebber is not a man to see a play, deliver a stock response and leave. “Go and see anything,” he urges. While it may not have the strongest reputation for cutting-edge producing, at Cardiff’s New Theatre “there are people in the audience that know the words, that know the songs, that know the punchlines to the jokes, that evidently have been there three or four times before and seen it over and over again”. Bebber witnessed a similar contagious spirit at Cardiff University’s student union during Act One Drama Club’s new writing night. “It was absolutely rammed and the audience was amazing and people were drunk and having fun and were clapping and enjoying the theatre”. Comparing theatre’s reception here to that at a more traditional night of drama is “like the difference between going to a polo match or a football match. They are both sport, but the audiences appreciate the sport in completely different ways.”
For those not quite ready to join in on rowdy and controversial theatre chants, Bebber turns to soap operas to interrogate how the performing arts can break down barriers and make the most of their underused spaces to engage greater audiences. “I think that there needs to be a way of reinvigorating theatres and producing things for different audiences.” Four nights a week, as dusty theatres struggle to fill their auditoriums, a huge chunk of the population settles down for yet another dose of EastEnders. Here, there’s a narrative energy that, Bebber asserts, needs to be transferred to the stage. “There’s an element of Greek tragedy and Shakespearean tragedy about these storylines” muses Bebber. “There’s death, there’s sex, there’s murder and there’s comedy. You could just get a completely different audience in and get people to watch a soap on a stage and that might be transitory, but whether that will ever happen I don’t know”.
Whether we’re talking about the camaraderie of the football stadium, the heady energy of the students’ union, the smutty jokes that leak from a commercial farce or the captivating nature of The Mitchells’ latest love triangle, pretension-free inspiration is at the very centre of Bebber’s style. When it comes to the buzz that reverberates around the different venues he visits, “it seems crazy that these things happen in isolation. There should be this beautiful, rich cross-contamination”. But this is not the same as merely following trends: “I didn’t want to get to the point where I start trying things according to the trends. You could have a better chance of getting something done, but what you have becomes product as opposed to being art. I still write what I want to write.”
When we decided to include Breathe as Neil Bebber’s submission to Bare Fiction Magazine, we made a move to let the outsider in.
Breathe is a play fuelled by anxiety, of mis-fired hope and of failure. With as much equilibrium as inhalation, this play is oxidised by its own dialogues and oppositions. Just as air moves in and out, this is a work that is simultaneously about acceptance and rejection. Look at the lengths our speaker goes to pick up those kicked to society’s fringes, those condemned to the bin bags of civilisation – and look how he is ultimately repaid.
I wasn’t fast enough to get tickets to Dirty Protest’s sold out Plays in a Bag season at London’s Almeida Theatre, where this monologue was premiered, so I initially encountered Breathe a few days after I’d interviewed Bebber about his work. Now, as I read it again, I fully appreciate how casually the short wears its own messages.
As you would expect in an interaction centred around blow up dolls, and, indeed, from a play by this writer, Breathe can be rather filthy in places; but if you wipe away the bodily fluids that coat its surface, it’s a worldly and telling piece, that toys with the audience’s judgement. As metaphor and madness collide, there’s a taunting irony at play here: we may watch the dolls deflate, but it is the unhinged speaker who leaves most punctured by events.
Armchair Philosophy by Amelia Forsbrook first appeared in Issue 1 of Bare Fiction Magazine, December 2013.