It was at the Everyword new writing in Liverpool last summer on one of the few hot days that I found myself sitting in the café with playwright Stephen Sharkey. We had each written a play for a mixed programme of 6 new pieces commissioned by the Liverpool Everyman on the theme, in the Capital City year of Culture, of “Europe”. Stephen’s play was set in the 1980s inspired by an experience he had in his twenties when he was seriously unwell and wanted to travel to the continent. My piece travelled back nearly two centuries to Mary (she who went on to write Frankenstein) Godwin’s elopement with Percy Shelley to Calais just after the Napoleonic wars. One of the other plays had as its central character a Liverpool trannie on a night wander through Merseyside. The director was sweating his shirt off in the studio rehearsing this diverse range of pieces in a blistering three days to make some kind of coherent evening’s entertainment. It was certainly an eclectic evening and there was a hell of a lot, much of it alive and engaging and some half-baked, to take in.
When Stephen suggested that I write a twenty minute play for The Miniaturists event he curates regularly at the Arcola Theatre in Dalston, I was tempted whilst also asking myself why this is worth doing. For one Sunday every three or four months The Miniaturists take over the main performance space. The programme is presented on the set of whatever play is in current production. The audience gets five or six pieces by writers of all levels of experience. The small companies are writer-led and director and actors take part for free. Most rehearsals take place in people’s homes. The actors tend to wear their own clothes. The atmosphere is relaxed and open. People come to see what’s up and have a drink afterwards. Those agendas of getting noticed and networking are floating about, as always with theatre events, but there’s a stronger sense of artists playing with ideas. What attracts me is the opportunity to work fast with people I like as we egg each other on to follow our creative instincts. It’s also an opportunity for the writer to call the shots which is rare in theatre. Get back to performance in the raw and production emerges much more closely from the process of writing. Writers can so easily become dependant on theatres and producers for the realisation of plays. This set up demands that the writer makes of it what they envision. It can be ordinary or different, any form or subject matter or no subject at all. You choose and see it through.
As for the short play form, I see Beckett as a true master, creating crystal moments of poetry in action in his shorter pieces of 10 to 20 minutes, no story, no literal meaning. Copying Bekett is not an option. His work proclaims so clearly that this form demands that you be utterly authentic and write as only you can write. The challenge is to avoid being too slight and to be careful of being too mundane. The key is to find a moment and capture it like snagging a butterfly in a net, letting the audience watch it flap for a short time and then let it go, or die. The heart of many a creative process is trusting to the random. I follow my gut and feet.
And so I found myself at the National Gallery. With notebook open and pen at the ready I settled to gawp at the Titian painting ‘Diana and Actaeon”. It portrays the youthful hunter Actaeon coming upon goddess Diana naked and bathing after the hunt in a grove with her nymphs. He gazes at her. She tries to conceal herself and her returned gaze, the awesome power of the Divine upon his mortal presumption, promises devastation. In one moment this picture speaks a massive story and profound feeling. I was moved to take my cue from visual art for the short play. And then I overheard a conversation nearby. “You see that nymph.” A man was pointing to the nymph nearest Actaeon in the first painting. “There is a theory that this is Venus. See the pearl earrings and mirror, these often represent her in art of this period.” So why was Venus sneaking into Diana’s grove? Causing trouble? Inspiring love? A week later I was back at the Gallery and found myself sitting next to a couple holding hands upon the bench before the Velazquez masterpiece,“The Rokeby Venus”. Its original name is “The Toilet of Venus”. An artist friend had joined me and she gawped too at the reclining, youthful, naked form of the luscious Venus with her deliciously ripe bottom, back turned to the viewer and facing her mirror. “Do you think that this is pornographic or erotic?” asked my friend. The softness of the features of the goddess, her easy sensuality suggested the latter. I sat and wrote without stopping in my notebook and let Venus pour forth. I asked her to tell me what is her moment? The devastation of the gaze of Diana also haunted me. Desire as delicious and dangerous. I came up with “Toilet of Venus”, a short play about the call of the goddess to a married woman on the verge of an affair with a married man. The woman tries to resist. Venus inspires her to follow her heart. But what is her heart really saying? It’s a moment between two people when they may or may not take a step that alters the course of their lives.