“I want it to be instinctive”
Queen Mary Theatre Company’s New Writers’ Festival is being performed on the first weekend of March. To celebrate one of the society’s best festivals, I decided to chat to each of the writers/directors about their pieces. First up is Sophie Davies, whose play Condolences is the first in the festival.
“Condolences is about the theme of care, and it’s partly a commentary on the care system and negative assumptions people make about care workers, such as that because it’s their everyday job the carers don’t really care that much about the people they’re looking after. The play juxtaposes a family’s reaction to an illness within their family with the carer’s response, and presents what I think is a realistic response which I don’t think is spoken about often.”
Sophie began writing the play as part of a second year module called Theatre Writings, which asked students to derive their work from an event. “An event close to home to me is being in hospital and waiting for someone to come out. My grandmother passed away in 2015 and my mother has been in and out of hospital my entire life.” The show aims to explore and show how family relationships are complex and that there are different responses from different family members. “Just because you love the person you’re caring for, doesn’t mean you can’t still feel frustrated about the situation”.
Interestingly, the play’s description notes that Davies’ writing is ‘Caryl Churchill-esque’, and Sophie tells me that she based the structure of her play on Churchill’s 2016 play: Escaped Alone. In which a group of people’s incredibly fast-paced dialogue is interspersed with monologues. “I really liked that dynamic and I play around with punctuation in my monologues – as the play goes on, the punctuation in the monologues disappears. It’s almost like two different narratives are happening at the same time as the siblings in the play don’t pay attention to the carer.” Churchill’s writing is notably confusing when you first begin to watch, but then there is a gradual switch where you suddenly understand what is happening. “My performance does play with that, though as it’s a short play the switch is not as big. But the writing style has been really important in terms of subtle metaphors. There are visual metaphors and underlying metaphors in the structure about the way we communicate. There is a joke that writing like Churchill is lazy due to the characters interrupting each other- if you do not know how to finish a line, you can just stop it mid-sentence!” The television series ‘Derek’ has also been a source of inspiration for Condolences, with some lines of the play being direct quotes from the show. “I got all the cast to watch it to see where I was coming from”.
Sophie’s rehearsal process is perhaps very different to that of other directors who want to rehearse their cast 24/7. Instead, she steers away from continuous rehearsals. “I don’t want it rehearsed to the point it’s exactly the same. Because the script changes so much from blazing argument to softer dialogue I want it to be instinctive. There’s a bit right at the end of the play which is really emotional and every time we run it I get teary. I just worry I get emotional because I’ve written it, so I hope it translates!”
“When I was writing I had a very clear idea what I wanted, and I was told off for putting too many stage directions in. I did take them out and only 80% of the show are my original ideas. The cast bring their own personalities into it which is interesting to direct as though the inspiration has come from real life, the characters don’t represent people from my own life whatsoever but the actors have really taken these characters on”.
Two of the characters are siblings, and due to Sophie being an only-child she was worried that the dialogue she was writing between them wouldn’t realistically represent how siblings speak to each other. “One of my actors, Jennie [Martin], said to me that it was like how she spoke to her sibling, and I thought: ‘well, I must be doing something right!’”
I remember Sophie co-directing a show called Bump for last year’s New Writers’ Festival, which has a very clear aesthetic of yellows and browns- which became a running joke between that cast. I wonder if she has a similar look for Condolences? “Yes, I have a colour scheme! It’s a very budget-friendly way of making things look nice and representing the themes in a visual sense. For Condolences it’s shades of blue, grey, white, and brown. It’s quite clinical though the set itself is bare – just a sofa and two chairs. It’s funny, I hate plays with people sitting down and yet I’ve written one set in a waiting room!? But we’ve worked hard to find ways to make it engaging.”
“I’ve realised quickly that it’s a sad play; I’ve used a lot of feeling technologies to evoke that. I wanted to play off this because it’s a short play and I want it to have a big impact. There’s some music in it, and I’m directing it to make sure it grows and grows to that final moment.”
For my final question, I asked Sophie about any performances that she has seen recently which have inspired or excited her, and she was eager to tell me about a musical called: A Beautiful Black Dog. “It’s a bright, glittery musical about depression and it’s amazing. It was just so good; a brilliant way of exploring a theme in a completely different way. It was quite abstract but still made sense, and has some incredible songs in it. It was just this explosion of energy and glitter, and I’m going to take that forward in my work more so as an artist than as a playwright”. Sophie also mentioned the recent Lyric Hammersmith production of Mark Ravenhill’s: Shopping and Fucking, which was another explosion of energy “in your face without literally being ‘in-yer-face’”.
Condolences is being performed on Friday 3rd March in the Pinter Studio at 6:30pm. The cast includes Peter Fogarty, Rachel Jermy, and Jennie Martin. Tickets can be booked at www.qmtc.co.uk