Chewing the fat with Simon David Eden

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Simon David Eden

Simon David Eden can do it all. One of those rare talents who can write a play, design the set and then direct the show. With his most recent play, Albatross 3rd and Main, Eden was able to transport a richly observed slice of Americana to Brighton and then London with dusty authenticity in tact. We managed to grab         some time with this man of many talents to discuss the play and what inspires his work.

What inspired you to write Albatross 3rd and Main?

I have close friends in Vermont so I’ve spent a great deal of time there over the years. It was during one trip that I happened upon an article in a local newspaper about a guy who had been arrested for selling a fan made of eagle feathers. That piqued my interest and I learned about the federal legislation relating to the ‘Eagle Feather Law’ and how that impacts on the Native American population today.

The seed for the story was sown right there. That was a couple of years back.

The play is set in Massachusetts and takes place entirely within a small general store, what interested you about this setting?

During those trips to Vermont, seems like whenever we stopped off for coffee, it’d be in a General Store, and what struck me is how timeless those places are. A treasure trove for the senses. You can smell the diesel oil, machine tools, wood smoke, cedar cladding and coffee beans and see the lives of the generations who have worked there, shopped there, or just dropped by to chew the fat.

The play has quite a stylised almost cinematic feel to it – did you take any inspiration from the world of film when crafting the story?

Cinema has always had a huge influence on me. To some degree it was my escape from the gritty reality of life on the rundown council estate where I grew up. But ironically the movies that really shook my world early on were those that held up a mirror to the kind of life and people I knew, even though I lived on the other side of the Atlantic. Films like Angels With Dirty Faces and On the Waterfront.

I’m still deeply moved by those films, and learned a great deal about the development of character, story structure and subtext from watching them again and again before I even knew what direction my life would take.

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Charlie Allen, Andrew St Clair-James and Hamish Clark in The Albatross 3rd and Main. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Could you talk us through the three central characters and what motivates them throughout the play?

Each of the characters represents a different face of the ‘average’ American citizen for whom the American dream in the 21st century is nothing but a fantasy.

I’ll resist being too prescriptive about exactly who they are and what their motives are, as that’s for others who study the play to decide; but suffice to say I always begin a play with two questions about each character:

What does he/she want? What’s to stop them from getting it?

The character of Spider could be seen as the villain of the piece, but would you say that this is a fair assessment?

I think Spider is a much more complex character than he at first seems. He spouts casual bigotry, but if asked wouldn’t consider himself a bigot. He desperately wants to fit in, but is the eternal outsider. I believe the official definition of a sociopath is something along the lines of: he/she typically has a conscience, but it’s not strong enough to curb bad or unlawful behaviour.

In terms of the narrative of ‘Albatross’ though, the bigger villain of the piece for me is the ‘system’ all the guys are battling against, and the federal legislation that disenfranchises hundreds of ‘un-approved’ Native American tribes.

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Charlie Allen, Andrew St Clair-James and Hamish Clark in The Albatross 3rd and Main. Photo: Tristram Kenton

The play raises questions about the cost of life and the morality of exploiting that value for personal gain. What drew you to this theme?

Injustice of one form or another, and the exploitation of the weak and disenfranchised, and the natural resources of our beautiful planet (and all flora and fauna we share it with) has long been fuel for the fire of my writing.

There are numerous indicators in the play all of which feed into a broader comment about how a Capitalist society which values profits over everything else, has to be, in my opinion, morally bankrupt. As Lullaby says at the end of the first act: ‘to want more than you need, that’s a sure sign of poor mental health’

What challenges would a company face when looking to stage the play in the future?

In terms of the stage play itself; I think the biggest challenge lies in casting the role of Gene. The opening telephone call (almost a monologue) requires nuance, comic timing and intensity.

It’s also true to say that given the nature of the dialogue, there is a tone and rhythm required to make it really sing. The sections of banter should see the characters clipping the end of one another’s lines.

Finally, my advice for a general approach to the play: Mine the funny. Play the comedy. The drama and the darker forces unleashed in Act Two will be all the better for it.

Can you describe Albatross 3rd and Main in 10 words or less?

Can I be cheeky and quote our notice in The Stage to answer this?

★★★★ ‘richly authentic, blackly comic, teasingly enigmatic, a damn good story’

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Find out more, purchase the play and apply for a performance license here

Ruffling Some Feathers with Pheasant Plucker’s Lily Bevan

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We met up with Lily Bevan (fresh from her success with BBC Radio Four comedy Talking to Strangers with Sally Philips) to talk falconry, Tudors and fairy tale endings as we publish her new play Pheasant Plucker, a ribtickling comedy written with women in mind.

Wild funny women, much like Bevan herself.


Can you tell us a bit about Pheasant Plucker?

It started as a one-woman show that I performed at the Edinburgh festival in 2015. It is the story of Harriet a Falconer, whom we meet when her falcon called Jester flies off and leaves her in the lurch. She gets very frustrated and decides that if he can fly off and go away so can she. And then she has the journey of a lifetime; she goes off and meets 9 different characters and when I performed it I played all nine. So it’s a play but it is made up of ten character monologues, that can also be performed separately for things like auditions or performed as a whole.

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What drew you towards the idea of a falconer?

It is about as far away from being in a pretty dress and a bonnet as you can get, I am always looking for opportunities to play something a bit unique, something with people who do exciting jobs, people who have a quirk or a passion you know, people who are a bit eccentric. I really feel like we need more roles like that for women, so I thought a falconer is a great character and I wanted to write about an unusual friendship story – so why not write about the friendship between a woman and her falcon?

“It is about as far away from being in a pretty dress and a bonnet as you can get”

It’s an arresting title – Pheasant Plucker! Where did that come from?

Well actually that’s from one of my favourite parts of the play! Yes Harriet finds out that her great, great, great, great, grandmother was a Tudor pheasant plucker from the west country. But I have a bit of an obsession with the Tudors so I just love all things Tudor.

Interesting. If you were a Tudor, do you think you’d be into pheasant plucking?

Well, when I see myself in that time I can see myself as a cook. Making ornate foods in Henry’s palace and those massive pies! You know when something rings bells with you? That is how I feel when I see Tudor cooking shows on the television because it is really complicated and kind of gross and fascinating. Tudor cooking is kind of like Monty Python-esque in its strangeness – which I absolutely love!

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This search for her ancestors is part of Harriet’s wider self-improvement journey. What led you to this narrative?

I was struck by how bombarded we all are by the sense that you can buy happiness with classes and stuff. And you know in the end she ends up back in her field wp3-yogamat-candlesith her falcon, and yes she learnt some stuff along the way, but it turns out that actually she was were she wanted to be all along.

I think that that’s good because you can’t really buy happiness or massive self-awareness; it just sort of comes when it comes doesn’t it?

“We get fed that romantic fairy tale narrative so often that I wanted to do something different because that isn’t always the end of a story, or the main part of a journey”

That is quite an atypical way to end a story. Why not go for the big Hollywood ending?

There is so much weight on a romantic ending. We get fed that romantic fairy tale narrative so often that I wanted to do something different because that isn’t always the end of a story, or the main part of a journey. So you could say that the love story is between her and her bird!p25-harrietjester

Oh and the bird is great. I really like the bird’s character. I played him smoking a fag and wearing a feathery gilet and he was my absolute favourite character to play.

Do you feel it’s a good time for women in comedy to do something a little different or strange?

I think that everywhere women are pushing the boundaries of what they want to play, what they want to write and being as creative as possible. Historically there aren’t as many roles that reach into the corners of human existence for women. So now everybody has realised that there is this gap we can now create them. There are so many different characters that I like to play and in Pheasant Plucker I have created 10 really different characters with different energies – from a yoga teacher and a spoilt posh girl to a French nutritionist – and I have tried to make them these interesting multidimensional characters that I would like to play.

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Pheasant Plucker can be performed as a solo show or as an ensemble piece – what do you see as the challenges and the opportunities for both of those types of staging?

Performing it as a one person show there is a challenge of how to change character every seven minutes, do you do it with costume, do you change bits of lighting, do you do it with a bit of music? Also it’s a marathon because there is so much to get your teeth into. All thosefun creative challenges are the obstacles that you’ll be faced with.

Performing it with a wider cast would enable every person to play one character, which would offer the opportunity to show some real variation between the roles and unique performance styles. However the challenge here would be keeping the sense of them all being in the same world and still being in the same play and not letting it become too fractured.

What advice would you give to people who are looking to stage Pheasant Plucker?

Just think about what’s really different about each character whether it is accent work or physicality. I personally worked with a movement director and it was really helpful to identify different characters.

And then another thing is making sure that you have really established what Harriet is like – because she is the through line she comes back in between the other characters and she is always really different to who you have just met.

Describe Pheasant Plucker in 5 words

Plucky, adventurous, unique, creative… and wild, definitely wild.

i-birds-redrawn_version-3Pheasant Plucker is now available to perform

All illustrations featured in this article are by the incredible Eleanor Brough. These and many more beautiful pieces can be seen throughout the Pheasant Plucker book

What connects pizza to time travel? We sit down with Arvind Ethan David to find out…

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Arvind Ethan David, playwright, comic book author and television producer currently working on an adaptation of Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency for BBC America

Arvind Ethan David is the co-writer behind the only stage adaptation of Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency to be approved and supported by Douglas Adams himself. Now based in LA Ethan David is a producer on the upcoming BBC America production of Dirk Gently and writes the Dirk Gently Comic series. We sat down with Arvind to talk all things Dirk and find out what makes the stage version of this classic novel so exciting.


What was your first experience of Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency?

When I was 16 years old, I was in my school library looking for something not boring to read, and I found a copy of the original Douglas Adams novel. I started reading it and my brain exploded. Electric monks, time travel, pizza and a magic, vampiric detective! What teenage boy wouldn’t feel the same?

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The cover art for Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency written by Arvind Ethan David and James Goss

What inspired you to write Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency as a play?

Inspired is probably too fancy a world. I was 16 years old and it was my turn to direct the school play. I had just read and loved the book, and I didn’t know a lot of plays and most of them seemed dusty and fusty and old (I was an idiot). So with the cheerful arrogance of a teenager, I marched up to the teacher in charge and proclaimed my intention to adapt the novel into a play (with my schoolmate and friend, James Goss), and direct it, and (of course) play Dirk myself.

The journey didn’t end there; we staged the play again a couple years later at University when we were 18 years old and to our delight and amazement, Douglas Adams came to see and (then) two aspiring writer-producers had their careers jumpstarted.

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Elijah Wood and Samuel Barnett in the upcoming BBC America adaptation of Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency 

Are there any elements of the story that you feel are more easily conveyed through the medium of theatre?

Dirk Gently himself: he’s a character made for the stage. Larger than life, charismatic, absurd, full of magic tricks and inexplicable powers, given to monologue and breaking the fourth wall – he’s an actor’s dream and an audience’s roller coaster ride.

What is it about the work of Douglas Adams that you think still resonates with so many different people?

Everything. His genius shines brighter with the passage of time, because you see how ahead of his time he was, in his style, in his influence, in his impact on popular culture and in the many, many ideas in technology and culture that he was so prescient about: the internet, conservation, story-telling. He manages to be both profound and funny at the same time. Throwing a million ideas and a million jokes a minute at you: it’s like it’s raining knives and custard pies at the same time.

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Arvind Ethan David and the cast of Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency celebrating Towel Day, a holiday celebrating the life and work of Douglas Adams, in May 2016

Dirk Gently describes himself as a ‘holistic detective’ – what sort of detective do you think you would make and why?

A holistic detective is the only kind of detective I could ever be. Like Dirk, I have little practical knowledge, limited physical courage and only middling powers of deduction.

Speaking of which Dirk’s holistic approach is based on the fundamental belief that everything is interconnected – would you say that in any way you share these views?

Profoundly. My entire life has been an illustration of Dirk’s holistic principals.

I can trace every professional relationship in my life – and many personal one’s too – to writing this play and meeting Douglas Adams when I was a teenager. Now almost 25 years later, I’m still telling the story of this madcap detective and his inexplicable methods which proves at least in my particular case, the fundamental interconnection of all things is very real indeed.

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Arvind Ethan David and the cast and crew of Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency at the San Diego Comic Convention

You have worked closely with the character of Dirk Gently for some time, but if you had to describe him in no more than 100 words to a complete stranger to the work what would you say?

There’s a great British literary and dramatic tradition of detectives. Dirk doesn’t belong to it – except of course, he does, sort of. On a good day.

Dirk is psychic (except he’s not); he’s a vampire (or possibly half vampire, on his mother’s side), he’s got super powers, except he doesn’t understand them and they don’t help him very much. He’s both an unbelievable genius and an incredible moron. He’s foolish and comedic, but also wise and heroic. He’s a tragic figure, very lonely and in search of a friend and an adventure to justify his otherwise bizarre and inexplicable existence.

What would the staging requirements be for groups that are looking to perform Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency?

There’s a version of the show that just needs an empty space and lots of imagination. There’s another that needs a filmmaking/animation team and a Jazz Orchestra. And all spots in between. Honestly, the only limitation is the imagination of your company (and your audience).

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Dirk Gently’s Holistic Dective Agency comic book

What do you see as the main challenges for people who would want to stage Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency?

Persuading their teachers/theatres/producers/financiers that they aren’t mental, and that it makes total sense to stage a play that includes: time travel, at least two, possibly three, alternative universes, a horse, a ghost, a large musical number and a space ship

What do you view as being the key themes for people to explore within the play?

The interconnectedness of all things; or why it’s important to never give up on your teenage dreams.

And finally and rather importantly – Dirk is a massive fan of pizza in the series; what is your favourite pizza topping?

Fried Oysters & Spinach. Don’t mock it till you try it.

 

Follow Arvind on Twitter @ArvD and @DirkGentlyBBCA for behind the scenes photos and show updates for the upcoming television adaptation starring Samuel Barnett and Elijah Wood.

Find Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency to purchase or perform

What does it mean to be a modern woman? We unravel the threads of society with Fabric playwright Abi Zakarian

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Abi Zakarian 

Abi Zakarian is an exciting new playwright with previous works such as This Is Not An Exit produced for the RSC for The Other Place with transfer to the Royal Court and Swifter, Higher, Stronger produced at The Roundhouse. Abi has previously been a writer in attachment at Soho Theatre and and is currently a member of the RSC’s writers group. Fabric is Abi’s seventh play and has been toured across the UK with the Tremors theatre group finishing its run at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2016 on the 29th August.

Fabric has already been picked as a top show to see at the Fringe by the Guardian and has won a Fringe First and The Stage Edinburgh award. We were lucky enough to sit down with Abi and talk to her in more detail about her play fabric and and find out why it has got everybody talking.

What inspired you to write Fabric?

Well this play started a bit differently as it was as commissioned for a theatre company called Tremors. Tom O’Brian the director and Nancy Sullivan, who is the actress playing Leah, were looking for a one-woman show and then they couldn’t find anything, so they decided to commission a piece. I think that through the course of talking to various people my name came up so Tom arranged a meeting with me.

Tom relayed to me an idea as to what it was going to be about, relating to a woman in his family that was very specific and I said that I was much more interested in exploring the wider themes of inequality and gender issues. He then went away to think about it and came back with Nancy so that the three of us could talk through ideas. What excited us all was the idea of doing a show about a woman who represents all of the tiny almost unseen inequalities that happen everyday to women. We then decided to get together in a room for a week and workshop these ideas so that we could explore those issues.

So it wasn’t so much that I was inspired to write Fabric alone, but rather that I met the right team at the right time and it transpired that all of us wanted to write something about what it means to be a woman today.

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Cover art for Fabric

Was collaboration an important part of the process?

Yeah it was. Even though I went away and wrote it and created the character of Leah, it was very much informed by that week in the workshop. It was also great to spend time with Nancy actually, to observe her and have a chance to see the actor’s physicality when creating the character – something that you really don’t often get a chance to do.

This shared interest of everyday inequalities; was it something that had previously interested you?

Yes and I am a feminist. But it’s not a big deal it’s just who I am.

I am always interested in writing about women. It’s just that there are so many stories yet to tell. Also there is this huge inequality out there that starts the minute you’re born female – that is the minute that these expectations are put upon you.

Leah is someone who doesn’t even know to question it because that’s ‘just how it is’ and she goes through life and grabs it with both hands. It is only later that she starts to see that perhaps that this isn’t the way that it has to be and there is a possibility of choice in her life.

Could you explain more about the character of Leah?

I wanted to write a character who isn’t just a nice middle-class women who has been to university and is familiar with her feminist ideology. She comes from a world that isn’t interested in the academic appraisals of the inequality and injustices of life. Leah is every woman, we all know Leah. I want everyone who comes to see it to feel like they too are a little bit of her.

She is deliciously uncomplicated but she is not an idiot. She is a smart woman who has got a career and she is doing what she wants and doing all of the things that you are supposed to do as a modern woman. But at the same time she still thinks that she wants to whole idealised dream – you’ll meet someone, you’ll fall in love, you’ll settle down, you’ll have kids, you’ll have a nice house, you’ll have lovely holidays – until suddenly it’s not quite what she wants but she hasn’t got the right tools to dissemble that, so she is just going through it.

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Nancy Sullivan in Fabric, photo: Pamela Raith

Fabric confronts issues such as sexual assault and witness credibility head-on. Why do you think that using theatre, as a medium to discuss difficult subject matter is so effective?

I think it is because you – and I mean people are obviously free to walk out – but you have got a captive audience and there is something about being in the room with the actor. If you are watching a film or a TV show then there’s a barrier, you can just go make a cup of tea, or walk away, but being in the room with the actor you cannot have that remove; you have to be with them.

And obviously within the most difficult scene in the play you can’t play it with any kind of realism or overt brutality. I didn’t want that because it is actually just about Leah telling you, just this 10 minute point in which she just tells you what happened to her, and it is awful and you cannot escape from it. You are confronting the audience with it and they are looking at this person. In theatre it is that visceral connection – you are literally sharing the same air as the performer so there isn’t that remove you are with them completely.

It’s not like you want to portray something like sexual assault, but at the same time we have to confront this. We can’t talk around it forever, this is happening and it is not a monster just attacking you in a dark alley nine times out of ten in is somebody that you know. It is happening every day. So it is sort of quite an angry play in a way it wants to shake people.

It’s that word no – how has it become so devalued? How can people be so confused as to what such a tiny little word means?

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Nancy Sullivan, Abi Zakarian and Tom O’Brien

You use fabric as a running analogy and motif throughout the play – what inspired this?

It came from the phrase fabric of society and I love the idea – it is just so perfect. The fabric of society and yet if you pull one string of it then literally the whole thing collapses. So on a smaller scale it’s Leah pulling her own thread, she finds the thread and pulls it and is just left with cotton but whilst it’s apart she can do something with it. Build something with the thread.

And its like maybe we can do this to society? Maybe it does take that big kind of pulling of the threads to unravel it? Maybe constantly patching it up isn’t going to give us the fix we need.

What do you think that challenges would be for playing Leah especially as the character was crafted so collaboratively?

I think that it is very universal – you could have the nice university educated girl playing her and it would be interesting to see that. And ages wise I think that you could play it across different ages and that would be very interesting as well. I am open to every type of interpretation. It will be fascinating to see different takes on her character.

If you had to some up the play Fabric in 20 words or less how would you do that?

Leah is a women who is taken apart by the very things that define her.

Fabric is on at the Underbelly Cowgate Edinburgh until 29th August – buy tickets here

Buy the play and enquire about performance rights here 

 

Can Love be an Act of Violence? – An Interview with John Fitzpatrick

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John Fitzpatrick, the young playwright responsible for the critically acclaimed play This Much (or An Act of Violence Towards the Institution of Marriage) which is currently showing at London’s Soho Theatre as part of its Pride celebrations. The show will run until 2 July

This Much tells the story of Gar as he struggles through the decisions he has made in his life; his long-term relationship with Anthony and an exciting introduction to a young man called Albert who likes to play games. It is a play about how we define ourselves; through objects, clothes, traditions and other people.  

We caught up with John Fitzpatrick to talk about his new play and delve deeper into what critics have called ‘innovate and brave’ and find out a little bit more about one of London’s most exciting new playwrights.

What inspired you to write This Much?

I was in the writers’ programme at the Royal Court and we had a deadline to write a play and I was really at a loss as to what to write. Then I realised that I had never written a personal diary before so I thought I would write a retrospective diary. So I started this endless Sisyphean task of writing down everything I could remember from my life and I did that for ages and I would bring it in to the writers group and share it with everybody else and they would be like ‘this is too personal – this can’t be a play. This is weird dude.’

At the same time I had just finished a relationship and I was interested in finding some meaning in that, finding some wider meaning in relationships – like what should you expect from someone and is there a difference between what you need and what you want? Then I thought about this thing I’d heard of earlier, an attack that happened in a gay bar years ago. Not a homophobic attack but an attack between people in an established relationship where a man stabbed his own boyfriend and I thought what would you have to do to someone who loved you to make them act like that? So I started knitting together my memoirs using the stories of these sorts of relationships for the scenes. Eventually a lot of things sort of fell away because they were unnecessary – like any violence really – and then the memoirs sort of fell away and left the play behind.

“This is too personal – this can’t be a play.”

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This Much exposes the fragility of the idealism that we feel towards the institution of marriage and exposes some of its inherent falsities. How accurately does this reflect your own feelings towards marriage?

I don’t know really because there is still that 13-year-old poet in me who wants a very tasteful grandiose commitment ceremony in the south of France or something. It’s definitely there!

I think that part of the appeal of marriage for gay people and myself really is the idea that you can have one glorious day where you would stand up in front of everyone who you were afraid of rejecting you your whole life and feel like you belong and have them see that you belong. Like sort of being crowned princess at the end of Shrek! This idea that you could have a one day fix all for all of the structural inequalities that you’ve faced from growing up gay. And I think that it could be very easy for people to use a marriage ceremony for that, to try to use it as ‘fix all’ because it is a very shiny event. And it is a shiny event; but it wont fix the structural inequality in our society; which is there and the only thing that is going to fix that is people working against it every day.

“Hopefully with my play I am sort of deflating those penises and showing them to be normal body parts.”

What impact do you think the legal right to marry has had on the gay community?

The only thing as far as I am concerned that makes a difference is that it is a civil rights issue. You had one section of society that didn’t have access to something that the rest did and that was the law directly discriminating against a section of society. It was a legal status that somebody had access to and some people didn’t. But I don’t think that marriage is actually that important – or rather any more important to the gay community than it is to the straight. I don’t think that the gay community is any different to the straight community really. I am idealistic about an equal world and can see how similar we all are.

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Will Alexander as Albert and Lewis Hart as Gar in This Much at Soho Theatre

Throughout the play there is a notable amount of nudity that is presented in a way this isn’t sexual or voyeuristic but is both exposing and humorous. What was the intention behind this?

I think it is symbolic of when you really fall for someone and you have to say for the first time that you like them and you’ve literally got nothing to hide. That’s to me how it feels to fall in love with someone is to feel that exposed, because it is scary, but it is also quite freeing an empowering. That’s the first reason for where that comes from but I also wanted to sort of deconstruct masculinity as well. I have hated as an actor being thought of as masculine, or told to be masculine because I hate the baggage that goes with that. Grayson Perry has spoken about how all the buildings in the city are like giant penises and, well hopefully with my play, I am sort of deflating those penises and showing them to just be normal body parts. Demystifying the cock; which was the first title.

“Game playing is so interesting to us and so much a part of our real relationships”

At the start of your play one of the characters is encouraged to shoplift from a corner shop, have you ever shoplifted anything and if so what was it?

Yes. In school there was a whole trend of everyone shoplifting and it was like a dare – you weren’t cool unless you shoplifted. So yeah…I stole a packet of Tic Tacs. The strange thing is the I didn’t even like Tic Tacs, I don’t know why I stole them. It wasn’t even for the thrill of it. It was just like if I don’t do this I am going to be outcast! I just wanted to be cool.

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Lewis Hart as Gar and Simon Carroll-Jones as Anthony in This Much at Soho Theatre

How much did you draw from people in your own life or personal experience to create the characters in This Much?

There’s definitely some real life in it. I feel like if you are writing for a while you have to really like the characters that you are writing, so it helps for them to be based on someone you know and like, but they’ll only ever be like 30% of that person. Like the Albert character, the thing about him being exciting, came from a flirtation that I had with someone and it was the best flirtation ever because we never spoke a sincere word to each other. It was all just like roleplaying and games, literally someone who was just great at playing games and I feel that that is where the real life truth and the theatricality come together in this play, because game playing is so interesting to us and so much part of our real relationships.

“There is something rotten in there; that both of them know about but neither wants to say out loud”

For groups that may look to performing This Much in the future – what do you see as the main challenges of the piece?

The main challenge is to get the subtext of the piece and to identify the game playing. So with Gar and Anthony the subtext is that there is an underlying sort of turmoil or disconnect that both of them go towards but can never quite reach and as much as they love each other’s company there is something rotten in there that both of them know about but neither wants to say out loud. If you can get that dynamic working between them it makes the play work really well. The Albert and Gar stuff is easier to do but it is also the start of the relationship, where things are like a poker game – ‘what are you going to show me and what am I going to show you?’. If you can get to the heart of the Anthony/Gar relationship that makes the play work and it gives you the journey of the play. But this has only been the first production so it’s a learning curve and I am excited to see if someone does a different production of it or makes it in a different way. I am excited to see what comes through as the real bones of the piece; you know?

Click here to license This Much (or An Act of Violence Towards the Institution of Marriage) and to find out more. 

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Peter Shaffer: The perfectionist in all of us

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Peter Shaffer in November 1976

Rehearsing a play is making the word flesh. Publishing a play is reversing the process.

Peter Shaffer

Last Thursday Broadway dimmed its lights in memory of British born revered playwright Peter Shaffer. As the darkness descended upon a city that Shaffer had come to love; a moment of quiet reflection was afforded a man who often felt uncomfortable with his status as a cultural icon and giant of the stage.

In the final 23 years of Peter Shaffer’s life, no new pieces of his work were staged and it is perhaps his known discomfort with the final product and his need for constant revision and editing that limited his output in later life. It is this difficulty and struggle that resonates with so many of us who find ourselves frustrated between our vision and our reality. He embodies the perfectionist in all of us that can’t send a text to a loved one without a concentrated proof read; demonstrating that art is not always born as the finished article but refined and reworked like a sculptor chipping away at stone in an effort to uncover the desired image beneath.

“I write many versions of each scene and then tear them up. Or I take a couple of things from the scene and then tear it up. The whole process is a very slow one. Being a playwright is one of the hardest things I think a writer or an artist can be. It’s an endlessly demanding faith; one is never satisfied with anything — ever.”

Peter Shaffer

Shaffer demonstrated that despite the dissatisfaction of the creator; that art can be viewed as great by the many that consume it. Often the essence of what makes something really brilliant is the manner with which people respond to it over time. It can be easy to forget when something becomes such a ubiquitous part of cultural landscape that its creator might find that experience overwhelming but it is something that we can all relate to; the idea of your creation taking on a new or different life. It is the fear that your work won’t stand up to scrutiny; a love-hate relationship with your calling or passion.

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The original 1965 National Theatre Cast of Black Comedy

It is the uncertainty and sense of fear at one’s own worth that resonates with so many of us and helped Shaffer to create some of his most well-known creations. The famous character of Salieri – drawn from history, but very much Shaffer’s own distinct creation –in Amadeus embodying that feeling of frustrated talent; hard work pitted against a natural ease that others so often appear to posses when observed from the outside.

But for so many people across the UK their experience with Shaffer’s work can dig deeper than a voyeuristic experience of the outsider peering in, as the challenge of interpreting great works within amateur groups – who often were drawn to Shaffer due to large cast sizes and recognisable loved titles – is a visceral and personal challenge.  Through rehearsal each group finds it’s own perfectionism; each performer strives to revise and improve their performance. In a manner, people become both the characters that Shaffer wrote and some part of the man himself.

Below are two examples from amateur groups who have both recently performed two of Shaffer’s biggest titles; Amadeus and Equus:

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The Grange Playhouse players performing Amadeus

I had the privilege of playing Mozart in Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus with a fine cast of amateurs at the Grange Playhouse in Walsall in 2011 as part of their 60th anniversary season. It was my first experience reading Shaffer although I was both familiar with and fond of his screenplay for Milos Forman’s Oscar winning adaptation of the play for the big screen. It sounds almost cliché to say it, but the thing that resonates with me most after working on the play was the layers of depth to Shaffer’s writing. On its surface it’s an excellently crafted narrative of a lifelong professional rivalry. But intricately woven into the dialogue a much deeper argument between Salieri and God emerges and it is here that the real heart and emotional depth of the play resides. Coupled with the childish comedy of Mozart and the strain that is seen in the relationships that develop over the course of the play the writing is a revealing exposition of the human condition. It remains, along with Equus which I have since become familiar with the best of modern British playwriting and I shall treasure the memories I have made in performing Shaffer’s works until I am old enough to tread the boards again as Salieri. –

Adam Worton The Grange Players, Walsall 

 

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Putney Arts Centre’s performance of Equus

“Personally speaking it was the most demanding role I’ve ever played – both in terms of subject matter (piecing together the boy’s motives for blinding the horses and Dysart’s own sense of failing) and never being off stage for the whole performance.

I was honoured to have been cast in such a controversial play but knew it was going to be tough going, so much so that I began learning my lines even before I was actually cast (a total of 963 I believe!)”

                                       Michael Rossi, Putney Arts Theatre, Wandsworth

There are countless similar examples of the transformative effects of performing Shaffer’s work; the challenges that face actors as they step into so richly drawn characters with a recognisable dialogue density and the thrill of being able to perform such careful and considered character studies. People take on his plays with an sense of adventure and excited apprehension, and they will continue to take up the challenge just as surely as people will climb mountains or push themselves through marathons.

As the lights dimmed on Broadway last week the end of one act of Shaffer’s work closed with it. But after the curtain falls, it rises once more as lights go up around the country on the incredible body of work that has been left to us all – the most exquisite of gifts. His sense of reinvention and revision will continue to live and grow within the productions that span the globe as everyone involved will seek the same need for perfection, beginning the slow process again – art continuing to grow out of the work left behind.

I think plays, like books, are endemic. They grow out of the soil of the writer and the place he’s writing about. I think, you just can’t move them about, you know.

Peter Shaffer

Was Florence Foster Jenkins the world’s worst singer or a Glorious performer? An interview with Peter Quilter

peter quilter

Peter Quilter’s plays have been presented in major theatres in 38 countries around the world. He has had a it show on Broadway which received 3 Tony Nominations, three successful plays in London’s West End and has been nominated twice for the Olivier Award. We caught up with Peter to discuss his play Glorious! and to delve into the endless appeal of Florence Foster Jenkins, the worlds most beloved terrible singer.


What initially interested you in the story of Florence Foster Jenkins and what led to the creation of your play Glorious?

Florence was a terrible, terrible singer. I had heard one of her hilarious original recordings and went into the shop of the English National Opera to see if I could find out more about her. When I mentioned her name, everyone in the shop turned around and smiled. I knew at that very moment that there was something special here. It is a great story of triumph over adversity and it’s one of those amazing tales that make people instantly laugh at the absurdity of all. But even more interesting is the fact that she was such a happy woman. She defied all her critics and soldiered on to pursue her dreams. So while very funny, it is also a very touching and uplifting story. And those elements are wonderful material for a play.

Glorious is at times quite a raucous comedy, but it still retains a heart-warming level of compassion for it’s primary lead. How were you able to tell Florence’s story retaining the inherent comedy but not falling into a mocking or cruel tone?

I wanted the audience to begin by mocking her, but to gradually fall in love with her. I use the character of Cosme (her pianist) to guide the audience on this journey. He feels the same way as we do. Initially finding her lack of ability rather ludicrous. But during the play he comes to admire her tenacity and determination and her positive spirit. So as we relate to Cosme, we find ourselves also falling for this wonderful, eccentric woman. By the time she sings her big aria at the end of the show (the Queen of the Night aria from the Magic Flute) the audiences are cheering and applauding and some are even crying.

glorious

The Real Florence Foster Jenkins

You have previously written about towering divas such as Judy Garland – did you find any similarities between those musical stars whom we remember with such reverence and Florence Foster Jenkins who is perhaps remembered less so?

I’m fascinated by the backstage stories of these performers, whether legendary Hollywood stars or floundering amateurs. What they all have in common is the desperate need to perform, as though their lives depended on it. But you have to approach each subject on their own terms. My play “End of the Rainbow” is essentially a serious drama, whereas “Glorious!” is a heart-warming comedy. The way the characters handle the fame and the demands of performing is what defines them. For some it is a pathway to joy and celebration, for others it is a demon that they battle with.

Could you elaborate on the characters that you have depicted in the play and what the cast requirements would be for a company who might be interested in staging it?

There is sometimes an assumption that the actress playing Florence has to be a singer. This is not the case. The play has indeed been performed by opera singers, but also very successfully by women who have never sung before. Some approach the songs musically and others approach it from a purely comic perspective. There are various ways to sing a song badly. So if you have a very funny actress in the company, don’t be deterred if she can’t sing. She’ll find a way to make this work. Florence has been played by a huge variety of actresses, aged between 40 and 80. So the age is flexible too, but if you cast her younger, get yourself a good wig!

The character of Cosme also has some flexibility. He can be aged anywhere from 20 to 60. In the show, he plays the piano, but the vast majority of companies have him only pretending to do this (using a dummy piano) with the piano music pre-recorded. The other characters are St Clair (Florence’s colourful boyfriend), Dorothy (her eccentric friend), Mrs Verrinder-Gedge (her mortal enemy) and Maria (her Mexican maid). For Maria, you don’t need to find an actress who speaks Spanish. It can be learned phonetically and doesn’t need to be accurate as nobody understands what she’s saying anyway!

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A programme for Florence Foster Jenkins’ sell-out performance at Carnegie Hall

How could people approach the staging of Glorious?

It’s one of those plays that can be staged simply or extravagantly. There are several sets, but they can be depicted minimally. Or, if you like to be more ambitious, you could build big blockbusting sets. It’s up to you. The show has played in grand 2000 seat opera houses and also 50 seat pub theatres. So just scale the show to whatever suits you.

Glorious! has been performed around the world. Where exactly has it been performed and how many people have seen it?

The show has now been seen in theatres by two million people. It has also been broadcast “live” on foreign television where it was watched by several million more. The cities where it has played include Sydney, Manila, Moscow, Johannesburg, Madrid, Rome, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Bucharest, Bratislava, Warsaw, Tallinn, Helsinki, Rio de Janeiro, Caracas, Toronto, Los Angeles, Chicago and New York.

Plus of course it had a run in London’s West End in 2005/2006 starring Maureen Lipman who was, well, glorious as Florence Foster Jenkins. It played 6 months at the Duchess Theatre and was nominated for the Olivier Award as Best New Comedy. You are doubtless already aware of the new Meryl Streep movie about Florence which has created a whole new wave of interest in the play. So I think “Glorious!” will be singing its heart out for a good while yet.

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Meryl Streep in the film Florence Foster Jenkins directed by Stephen Frears

Glorious! Is available to be performed and can be found at the Samuel French website here

Peter Quilter’s webpage for Glorious!

 

The very theatrical assassination of Abraham Lincoln

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There’s a famous one-liner, said to have been uttered to Mrs Lincoln after the events in Ford’s Theatre on 14th April 1865 – 150 years ago today.

Apart from that, Mrs Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?

It’s a cruel joke, but it does chime with the sometimes overlooked fact that Lincoln’s assassination didn’t just happen to take place in a theatre – theatre, in fact, was ingrained in the very essence of the event. With this in mind, here are 4 theatrical facts you might not know about Lincoln’s assassination.

1. The play Lincoln was watching was rather lighter than you might expect

In my head, I’d always imagined that the play being performed on the night of the assassination must – befitting its place in history – be something weighty, classical, important. Nothing could be further from the truth. The play was called Our American Cousin, an 1858 comedy by English playwright Tom Taylor – published by none other than Samuel French (you can read it for free here). It’s a likeable but throwaway fish-out-of-water story about a gauche American called upon to save the fortunes of his English aristocratic relatives. It was recently given a rare revival at London’s Finborough Theatre to mark the anniversary of Lincoln’s death.

Though seen today as little more than a historical footnote, it was wildly popular in its time. One contemporary critic (in a fit of hyperbole uncommon in modern counterparts) said it was “certainly the funniest thing in the world”. The main comic foil of the piece – Lord Dundreary – was so popular that he briefly gave the English language two new words – ‘Dundrearyisms’ for his characteristic mangled aphorisms, and ‘Dundrearies’ for his outlandish sideburns.

A finer pair of Dundrearies never was seen on the stage

A finer pair of Dundrearies never was seen on the stage

The play was such a surefire winner that Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth, was able to time his entry into the President’s box so that it would be covered by the hilarity provoked by a line that always got the biggest laugh…

“Don’t know the manners of good society, eh? Well, I guess I know enough to turn you inside out, old gal — you sockdologizing old man-trap.”

2. Booth wasn’t quite the deranged loner you might think he was

Far from being a man on the edge of society, John Wilkes Booth was in fact one of its darlings. He was part of a noted acting dynasty, and was by the time of the assassination a well known celebrity, revered both for his good looks and his performances. He eventually overcame the early stage fright, which in his first performance caused this unfortunate entrance…

“Madame, I am Petruchio Pandolfo…. Madame, I am Pondolfio Pet—Pedolfio Pat—Pantuchio Ped—dammit! Who am I?”

His favourite part – ominously – was said to be Shakespeare’s Brutus.

It’s even said that Lincoln himself was a fan of Booth. The Lincolns were regular theatregoers, and had previously seen Booth on stage in another performance at Ford’s Theatre, during which, onlookers said, Booth seemed to break out of character and aim one particularly vehement line directly at the President. Lincoln invited Booth to visit him in the interval, but Booth ignored the request.

Booth’s status as an actor meant he could put himself in the right place at the right time to carry out his plot against Lincoln. He was well known at Ford’s Theatre, even having his post delivered there. It was while collecting his mail that he heard from staff that the President was to attend the theatre that evening, and he was also able to gain access to the presidential box to drill a spyhole.

Having done the terrible deed, Booth leapt from the presidential box, according to some accounts declaring theatrically “Sic semper tyrannis” (“Thus always to tyrants”) – an echo of the words said to have been uttered by Brutus at Caesar’s assassination.

3. The leading lady was a star in more ways than one

Laura Keene

Laura Keene

Laura Keene was playing the leading role in Our American Cousin the night Lincoln was shot. It is said that she cradled the dying President’s head in her lap.

The blood-stained cuff worn by Keene on the night of the assassination

The blood-stained cuff said to have been worn by Keene on the night of the assassination

 

Though Keene would come to be forever associated with her role in this piece of history, she was remarkable for other reasons too. At a time when it was so unacceptable for women to even appear on the stage that she was forced to change her name, Keene became not only a successful actress, but also a director, America’s first female theatre manager and a prototype for the mega-producers of today. Even successful productions at this time rarely ran for more than a dozen performances, but Keene produced shows in America and London that ran for over 250.

4. Booth destroyed one theatrical legacy, and preserved another

In a remarkable turn of events, following the tragedy at Ford’s Theatre, the US Congress ruled that it could never again be used as a place of public entertainment. It was taken over by the War Department, during which time 22 employees were killed and 68 injured when part of the building collapsed. Thankfully, Congress’s ruling has now been reversed, and the newly renovated theatre is once again open for regular performances.

Ford's Theatre today

Ford’s Theatre today

Peculiarly though, another part of Booth’s theatrical legacy is seen by thousands of people every day – even if they don’t know it. In a corner of New York’s Central Park, just south of the Promenade, stands a statue of Shakespeare.

The Shakespeare statue in Central Park

The Shakespeare statue in Central Park

The funds to erect this statue were raised through a gala performance of Julius Caesar in 1864 – starring none other than John Wilkes Booth… as Mark Antony.

John Wilkes Booth (left) as Mark Antony

John Wilkes Booth (left) as Mark Antony

Sometimes the line between irony and history is very fine indeed.

Acting and autism – the challenges and rewards

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, which has done much to raise the profile of aspergers and autism in theatre

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, which has done much to raise the profile of aspergers and autism in theatre

To celebrate World Autism Awareness Day today, we talk to Stephanie Dawson, a member of the Samuel French licensing team. She was diagnosed with Aspergers when she was 7, and has been acting since she was 18

How would you describe autism?

Autism is a lifelong developmental disability that affects how a person will communicate and relate to other people. It also affects the sense that they have of the world around them.

I have Aspergers – a mild form of autism which affects me, but not as much as full-blown autism might. It takes me a bit longer to understand things people say sometimes. I might not get a joke. If someone’s really upset about something, I might laugh at it.

Autism affects some of the things that we think of as being fundamental to acting. What specifically are the challenges for an autistic person when it comes to acting?

It’s trying to get out of your sense of something, and get into another person. It’s hard to empathise with another character, and imagine how they’re feeling, when you’ve got all these feelings trapped inside that you’ve got no way of expressing. But acting is a great way of expressing those feelings without having to talk to someone. And getting the feelings of another character is really hard, but because you’re pretending to be someone else you can think – “I don’t have to be an autistic person. I can be anyone. I can step out of myself for a moment and be someone else”. And that’s a great feeling!

What do you do to overcome the challenges of becoming another character?

When I do it I create my own story – a background story for this character so I can get into the character, and start from that.

But I think there are advantages to it too. Because it’s a challenge I can bring something different to a character – because I have all these feelings trapped inside, you can think “What if this person’s feeling that as well”, and get some of that across through the character.

Do you ever encounter any prejudices, or people thinking you won’t be able to act?

When I first started with my drama group, I was very open about the fact I had this condition. Some of the older members thought “she couldn’t do this play”, and they didn’t listen. But I kept trying, and suggested doing the play Death in High Heels – which they did, and I got cast in it, in my first major character. She had loads of lines to learn, and I had to do a posh accent, and learn all the etiquette – it was amazing. I really enjoyed that – standing on stage doing a big soliloquy with all these people in front of you – but you learn to think “they’re not there”.

I think doing the acting has helped the people I act with to understand more about the condition – that we’re not just socially awkward, we’re fully functioning members of society, we can do anything anyone else can.

What does acting do for you?

When I’m on stage, I’m a different person. I’m more confident, and I think “I can do this!”. Last year I won an award in a one act play competition, the first I’ve ever won. It was a massive step, and it really boosted my confidence. It made me think – anyone with any disability, it doesn’t matter what it is, they can do it.

When I was at school I used to hide under tables. When I started doing drama at 18 I was really shy. Now when I go to drama they can’t stop me talking!

And it’s not just drama – it helps me with my confidence and self-esteem in my everyday life.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time is perhaps the most famous portrayal of autism on stage. What did you think of it?

It definitely represents what it’s like to have autism, and in a very positive way. I thought Luke Treadaway was amazing, and there was a lot that I recognised. It made me cry sometimes because I thought “My parents used to do that to me!” and “I did that!”. A lot of it happened to me as a kid, but I’ve learned to get over it.

It avoided the Hollywood cliche of people with autism always being really good at maths! I can’t do maths at all. But I’m really good at remembering things – authors, who their agents are – I can just reel it off like a book. I love English, and anything to do with books.

Is there any support out there for people with autism who want to act?

Yes, there are some amazing groups for people with any disability – not just autism – to help give them the confidence they need to try it. I love…

Angelshed http://www.angelshedtheatre.org.uk/
BlueApple Theatre http://www.blueappletheatre.hampshire.org.uk/about-us.html
Embrace Arts at the RA Centre http://www.le.ac.uk/ad/racentre/about/index.html
Mind the Gap http://www.mind-the-gap.org.uk/about/
Orpheus http://www.orpheus.org.uk/

The National Autistic Society also has a helpline which you can call on 0808 800 4104, and talk to them about anything.


If you’re interested in exploring the issue of autism in theatre, we recommend Lee Hall’s play Spoonface Steinberg and Annie Baker’s Body Awareness.

Why Shakespeare’s brain is better than yours

Shakespeare

Have you ever wondered what makes Shakespeare’s plays so timeless, so compelling – so unforgettable? Turns out science might have the answer.

Take Othello for example. It’s your classic love pentagon.

Watching Othello:

The audience believes that…
Iago wants…
Othello to believe that…
Desdemona loves Cassio…
Who loves her right back.

Evolutionary psychologist Professor Robin Dunbar calls the process by which we as human beings understand the hidden motivations and thoughts of others ‘intentionality’. This example from Othello is fifth level intentionality – that is, five layers of social understanding. The ability to think in this way is one of the main things that separate us from the apes. Human beings function in societies that are far larger and more complex than other primates (though not as large as you might think – ‘Dunbar’s number’ posits that you can only sustain 150 meaningful relationships in your life, a figure that has remained constant even in the age of Facebook).

This is possible because we have developed abnormally large brains with the considerable computing power needed to sustain social networks. If you’ve ever wondered why human babies are so utterly useless compared to the get-up-and-go offspring of other animals, it’s because we’re all essentially born 12 months premature. We’ve evolved such gigantic heads (really nothing more than pretty brain cases) that human babies have to be evacuated unfinished at 9 months, otherwise they’d be stuck forever. The rest of a baby’s development has to be finished off outside the womb. So this explains why my 6 month old nephew is such a tough crowd.

Another consequence of this is that we are capable of fifth order intentionality, whereas monkeys only manage first order (“they know that they know” to quote Dunbar) and some apes possess second order intentionality (“they know that someone else knows something”). Where this becomes crucial for the development of human culture is that it’s necessary to have at least third order intentionality to tell even simple narratives (where the teller communicates to the audience that someone else did something), and four levels are required to elevate this to the level of literature (‘‘the writer wants the reader to believe that character A thinks that character B intends to do something’’).

Dunbar argues that literature is at its most fascinating when it operates on the level of fifth order intentionality – as in the example from Othello. But here’s the catch. In order for Shakespeare to be able to write stories on the fifth level, he, as the weaver of this tangled web, had to be operating on the sixth level of intentionality – ie “I want the audience to believe that Iago wants Othello to believe that Desdemona loves Cassio, who loves her right back”. The ability to do this makes Shakespeare unusual. Less than 20% of people are able to operate on this level, and this, says Dunbar, is one of the reasons why anyone can appreciate a great story, but it takes a brain like Shakespeare’s to write one.

Though rationalising Shakespeare’s storytelling gift like this might seem to some to diminish it, to me it only adds to its lustre. Though Shakespeare (and other great writers like him) were not, of course, aware of these theories, his innate understanding of what it is to be human meant that his writing intuitively reflected these principles. Further research showed that Shakespeare limited his dramatic setups to stay below the limit of intentionality that most people can comfortably grasp, to the extent that if a couple of offstage characters are being discussed, Shakespeare drops the amount of characters onstage to preserve fifth level intentionality. Other scientists have noted that Shakespeare’s plays have an average of 28 characters – the same size as the intimate inner circles human beings tend to form.

There’s one final evolutionary insight that culture vultures might find sobering. In primate societies, the key method of social bonding is grooming. It’s why monkeys can so often be found picking at each other’s fur. This serves no practical purpose, but it does release endorphins in the brain and help monkeys feel close to one another. Turns out the same works for humans, with MRI scanners showing endorphins flooding into the brain when we’re stroked lightly. The problem is, with our larger social groups, if we bonded in this way we’d have to spend nearly half of our day stroking each other. Pleasant as this sounds, it wouldn’t leave much time for building pyramids or conquering the world or writing theatre blogs, or any of the other things that make us as human beings such advanced creatures. In fact, we spend only around 20% of our day on social bonding, and Dunbar thinks it’s culture that bridges this gap. As a shortcut to social bonding, we’ve created religion, we make art and music and dance in unison, and most crucially we laugh together. Our artists conjure rich social experiences that glue our complex societies together.

So next time you see some Shakespeare and are tempted to feel a little smug over the fancy fifth level intentionality you’re operating on, remember that, in evolutionary terms at least, you’re just picking fleas out of the other monkeys’ fur…