Talking to playwright Colin Teevan about The Kingdom
The Challenge (set by director, Lucy Pitman-Wallace):
‘A version of Oedipus at Colonos, as written by Beckett in Krapp’s Last Tape’
The rule of three
Identity, exile and emigration
Writing a play is like watching theatre. When we go to the theatre, we go with as many levels as the writer goes to the page (or stage) with. We go to the theatre with all of the baggage of our history, our thoughts, our mood, the books we’ve been reading, and the people we’ve been talking to. The same happens when we write; all these influences combine with the life of the writer, and this becomes the heartbeat of the play.
Teevan talked about the influences on The Kingdom:
– The life story of John Murphy who claimed to have walked barefoot from a small Kerry farm to London in the thirties (via the Dublin boat); he then went from working in Heathrow as a runway cleaner to building RAF bases during the war and died a multi millionaire with his name on the side of London’s ubiquitous green vans.
– Exile, and repeated exile – Oedipus was cast out from Corinth then Thebes, in Oedipus at Colonos he is a wanderer, he has no home.
CT: “When I was at school plays were taught as literature, but we translated Greek drama line by line. I learned how to write drama from the Greeks. In any story, I ask ‘what is this the myth of?’ There’s always a classical underpinning.”
– Krapp’s Last Tape – and the question of our identity across a lifetime… Am I the same person I was twenty years ago?
CT: “Beckett’s characters exist in the remnants of an epic world. Greek tragedy is often about man’s relationships with the gods. Like the Greeks, Beckett cuts out the middleman. One addresses an existing god, the other an absent god.”
– An Irish Navvy: The Diary of an Exile: Written in Irish, this book tells the story of a character who refused to speak English in Britain where he spent twenty years digging tunnels.
This soup of material is woven into the veins of The Kingdom alongside Teevan’s experience of his own identity.
CT “Ireland has a certain attitude, once you’ve gone you’ve gone. It’s how the country has dealt with the trauma of emigration over the centuries. It’s like a loss in the family.”
The Kingdom sounds like a personal play, a play that asks a question about identity, particularly an Irish-British, or Irish-London identity. It’s also told through stories, and storytelling tends to be associated with the Irish.
Will it be seen as a very Irish play?
CT: “There is something that is perceived to be Irish theatre. However, this play is produced in Britain by a British company for a British audience. I am wary of being put back into that ‘Irish playwright’ box and hope that having done so many other things this won’t happen. It’s a way of patronising a play, a way of dismissing it ‘we understand that it’s an Irish play’. For instance it might be put in the same category as Conor McPherson’s The Weir, just because it contains Irish men telling stories. It’s interesting how some playwrights in this country are simply known as ‘playwrights’ and others are given particular identities. Labeling is a way of not thinking, of short cutting actually thinking through the work. The categories are meaningless.”
How is the storytelling within the play dramatic rather than… telling?
CT “It’s the interplay of the characters on stage. They are not only speaking, but listening. The subtext of who they are develops towards a realisation. There is a dynamic on stage that is beyond storytelling, that is their relationships with the other and their selves….a dawning…which ultimately leads us to question where we are and what is actually happening. When each character has a stake in the story they are telling, the act of telling the story is dramatic.”
“A principle of storytelling I was aware of is the rule of three. I have three speakers, and each speech has three parts, although the timescales of the stories are very different. Motifs like tossing a coin, and the boots [a character steals the boots from men he kills when he is ambushed on his way to London] appear three times.”
I recently spoke to Teevan about the composition of text, and his experience of working with Harrison Birtwistle on The Bacchai at the National.
What role do musical ideas of composition play in the construction of these stories?
CT: “One reason I often write in verse is to create a tighter frame, a more musical structure. Verse helps to put a rhythm in a piece and to lend stress where you want it, not where actor emotes it. Lucy [Pitman-Wallace] was very good in impressing upon the actors the principles I learned from The Bacchai – that they needed to learn the work as if it were a piece of music. Rather than imposing external thoughts and emotions on the text they first needed to learn the rhythm and the timings. Then they can find their truth within it.”
“In one sense I saw the men as instruments…In this piece we’ve got a strong rhythm through the digging and the effort involved, the breathing. The action establishes a rhythmical framework from the word go. Each character has motifs that are played with – they come together and move away. There is a heartbeat throughout the work, and this is important for the meaning. We establish a rhythm and then play over and under it. We should hear the rhythm even in the silences.”
The level of Borges
CT “So much of British theatre functions on narrative and sociological levels but nothing more.”
Teevan talks about the ‘four levels of meaning in Medieval Literature’: Narrative, Sociological, Metaphorical, Metaphysical.
CT: “On the narrative and sociological levels The Kingdom is about emigration and exile…there’s enough of that in London for it to be a contemporary issue, but on the metaphorical and metaphysical levels it’s about identity and the nature of the self…and the inescapability of history. The literal action of three men digging accrues meaning as it goes on.”
My partner remembers listening to Eugenio Barba speaking at the Odin Theatre. Barba also talked about levels of meaning in theatre: The concrete level, the interpersonal level, and the level of Borges…(Borges used for the benefit of a Latin American audience as a shortcut for metaphor and metaphysics).
Theatre needs to function on all four (or three) levels.
The Kingdom is being presented upstairs at the Soho Theatre
It’s a small space for a new play by an established writer. But perhaps it’s fitting that rather than happening with one of the more obvious collaborators, The Kingdom found a home in the same theatre where Teevan’s great collaborative work The Bee was shown –Theatre in exile, made by exiles
I think we go to the theatre to find out about being human, to question who we are on a metaphorical and metaphysical level as well the concrete (narrative) and interpersonal (sociological) – afterall, we are complex beings. If this is the case then theatregoers and theatremakers have a lot in common. Teevan wrote The Kingdom with the same intentions with which many of us go to the theatre.
The action is simple. It’s just three men, digging. In the beginning this is a concrete action, but as the play goes on, we reach the level of Borges. At least, that’s the idea.
THREE LEGGED THEATRE COMPANY PRESENTS THE KINGDOM
BY COLIN TEEVAN, DIRECTED BY LUCY PITMAN-WALLACE
Wed 24 Oct – Sat 17 Nov, 7.45pm, Sat matinees 4pm: Soho Upstairs
Also recommended: THEBES, LONDON, HOLLYWOOD: WHERE THE THREE ROADS MEET. Writing workshop with Colin Teevan.
Related Articles [Exeunt Magazine]: