I made a decision a few months ago that I would aim to spend the majority of my theatregoing time seeing new plays. Over the last year I found myself becoming less and less interested in going to the theatre and realised it was due to the lack of interesting options. Most of what I saw out there were revivals and safe (ish) bets. I have found that if you are not actively looking for new work, perusing websites, signing up to every theatre email list imaginable, it’s not easy to know when something new is on. Recently a comedy act called Red Bastard started following me on Twitter, which was surprising as I’m not really drawn to the comedy world. I tried to figure out why he was following me and remembered the word Soho on his profile description. I thought he must be performing at Soho Theatre and went to the Soho website to try and figure out who this person was. Once on the site I saw Microcosm. What initially drew me to it was Philip McGinley, an acquaintance, then I read the description and thought it sounded interesting, so I booked.
Out of curiosity, I looked into who was producing it and tried to keep up with what was being said about it online. There’s always something exciting about seeing something brand new, from a writer you are not familiar with. When going to the theatre I always hope to see a story that will either entertain, provide insight or perspective, challenge or move me. Any of these will do, any combination is even better. I always go in with no preconceived notions, how could there be any? You know nothing but what is stated on the marketing copy and the image they choose to represent the production. I have alot of respect for the producers outside of the main new work centres who take a chance. I like to believe it’s a passion they have for the play or the writer and I’ve known this to be the rule rather than the exception. I know they always hope to make a little money out of it but most are lucky if they just break even. It’s financially risky to produce new works for the stage.
Resource, or lack of, is a huge contributor to why there aren’t more new works being presented. In London, there are two main players in the new writing game that automatically spring to mind – The Royal Court and Bush Theatre and to an extent I think we can add the National and Hampstead Theatres. Of course, there are numerous small theatres out there who present new work on a regular basis but I wonder if they are held in as high regard as those I mentioned (I think Theatre503 comes out as highest of these). When a theatre devoted to new writing is held in high regard this is usually due to trust and track record. But it’s not only their choices that make them what they are but also their resources. When attending performances at these theatres one can assume that by the time the play has made it in front of a paying audience that a great deal of time and money has gone into it’s development. One can be assured that the end product is of the highest quality possible.
Microcosm, at Soho Theatre Upstairs, doesn’t fall into any of these categories. It is, by all accounts, what happens quite often, a play with the greatest intention that requires more resources. Here’s how the whole resource thing works. One, two, possibly three independent producers, on their own, champion a new piece of writing. It is their sole responsibility to ensure they raise enough funds to cover all costs associated with putting it on stage, and those costs get stretched beyond belief. There are the actors fees, the lighting designer fee, set designer fee, director fee, writer fee, costumes, rehearsal space (which will mean additional payouts to actors), stage management fee, publicity and marketing cost for implementation and the fees to those who do it, you get the picture. Finally there’s the cost for the space on which to perform it.
Soho Theatre’s remit was new writing once. That was many years ago. The focus now seems to be mainly cabaret and comedy. From Microcosm’s flyer, I noticed Soho Theatre wasn’t listed as a producer so I am assuming that the space has been rented by the producers. There are numerous ways a producers work with venues such as Soho Theatre. It could be as a co-production where the theatre has a financial investment in the work be it through purely financial means or a like-for-like exchange such as the use of a room at no additional cost, or a discount on rental fees etc. Another option is that the producers just use the space as an independent entity in which also means the producers would be responsible for all costs. As this production is presented under the Soho Theatre banner, I assume the theatre has found the piece worthy of association, which also gives the production access to Soho’s audience (a great help when you have no audiences of your own to access).
Why do I bring all this up? To hopefully allow those reading this a little insight into what it costs to put on new work. I started going through all this in my head after seeing Microcosm on the evening before their press night. It was only their second performance with the press night being their third and for me it showed. There was something about the performance that felt as if it hadn’t been given the time needed in rehearsal or in previews to really come together, for the actors to gel and any issue with the storytelling or dialogue to be worked on.
The story of Microcosm is a simple one, Alex, who has just moved into a new flat with his partner Claire , begrudgely forms a relationship with an eccentric neighbour Philip and as a result of an incident involving a local youth, becomes increasingly paranoid about retaliation and his obsession starts to alienate him from everyone including himself. Here is the marketing copy: “Alex has a flat. His home. He’s building a life with Clare. Nothing can derail his happiness, not even their Tom Cruise obsessed neighbour, who is always coming round. He just wishes those kids would stop hanging round outside his house. But they’re kids, with nothing to do. They’re not dangerous, right?“. This is familiar territory we’ve seen in films, plays and probably more often on the news which makes either a new insight into the situation or a keen observation of paranoia and retribution all the more important, but unfortunately, this time no new ground is explored. I will even go as far as saying it doesn’t go as far as others have gone.
Over the plays ninety or so minutes, various topics pop up but never go any further never explored as if there was a fear of committing to a point of view. The big question is what is in danger of being lost? If it’s property (i.e. the new flat or the car) then there hasn’t been enough invested in the meaning or the preciousness of the flat. If it’s physical harm, then there isn’t a sense of anyone other than Alex being in danger. What about his wife? How much does he want to protect her? If it’s Alex’s own mental state then why is this particular situation, at this particular time, enough to drive him to paranoia? Nothing other than the incidentals are revealed. It could be the author was interested in purely looking at how obsession and paranoia affects people, however if this was the case it didn’t go far enough.
Everyone was fine – Philip McGinley as Alex keeps everything on track as each threat ups the ante, John Lightbody as Philip captures the neighbour’s eccentric behaviour well and Jenny Rainsford as Clare does her best with a very limited amount to work with. What I did struggle with was the Derek Bond’s direction. One of the challenges of this piece is that it all takes place within one flat and much of Alex’s increasing paranoia is a result of what happens outside the window. There is a clever use of plexiglass walls (set by James Perkins) behind which hooded figures menacingly appear to enhance the threat. However, having characters often looking out of a window could mean they are often performing with their backs to the audience as is the case here.
All in all I felt the production needed more time to explore what it was about and more time for the actors and director to utilise the text to bring the audience into their world. But don’t let that put you off. If it sounds even remotely interesting for whatever reason, give it a go and make up your own mind.I discussed the play directly after seeing it for about twenty minutes with a friend. It was interesting that although we were both in agreement that it didn’t work as well as we hoped, one of us got more out of it than the other.
As with all art, success or failure is purely subjective. I do feel however that with more resource, more time and more support from theatregoers, more producers would be willing to take more financial risks. Like Microcosm, we’re not there yet. How do we get there? I’ve been thinking about that.
7 – 25 May 2014