This Will End Badly opens tomorrow night at Southwark Playhouse. A critically-acclaimed play written by Rob Hayes, which enjoyed a sell-out run in Edinburgh, it now transfers to London for four weeks and is in support of CALM.
We caught up with Director, Clive Judd, and starring actor, Ben Whybrow…
CALM: What drew you to This Will End Badly?
Clive: I’ve known and admired Rob for a long time, and we have always talked about working together, so when he approached me with the early draft of TWEB, the wheels were already oiled from that point of view.
But in terms of the play itself, I guess I was drawn in the first instance to the image of a man standing in a field with a girl he doesn’t know and the hypnotic power of this chance encounter. It felt like a unifying image not only for the character in question but for the entire play and I was keen to work out why, specifically, the image held such importance for me. After reading the play a few times, I felt that Rob was burrowing deeply into what constitutes the modern male in a universal sense, and the ties that bind us all together.
Whilst the play is carried by three very separate characters, it is possible to imagine all of the facets that afflict and affect the characters of TWEB, as well as the violence they are capable of enacting upon both themselves and others, existing within the same person, and that idea terrified me. I think it’s important to be able to confront ideas and characters that challenge both yourself and the audience and I knew that this play would do both of those things.
And, finally, I had literally no idea how to stage the thing – how to work with an actor to move between the three voices, the physical staging, the set, beyond some fairly rudimentary thoughts. And that step into the unknown is becoming increasingly exciting for me. Trying to find the physical form for a play, or finding the correct structure to support an actor’s work and creativity, that is what really drives my work at the minute. So with all that in mind, I knew I had to do the play.
Ben: I’d wanted to work with Clive Judd for a while and this was when it worked out. I saw Captain Amazing by Ali McDowall, with an astonishing solo performance by Mark Weinman, which Clive directed and it just floored me, then he did a bold, clear adaptation of Romeo and Juliet at the Watermill and I got to meet him shortly after. I’ve found that most of my good collaborations have come from slowly building relationships where the trust becomes implicit because there’s a mutual respect. I got to know Clive a little, bonding over our masochistic support of Aston Villa. He came to see a couple of shows I worked on at the Unicorn and then one night in a bar he said “I’ve got a play I’d like you to read for”. That play turned out to be This Will End Badly. So Clive was the first thing that drew me.
Secondly, and most importantly, the script was astonishing, I read it on a bus travelling home to Bristol and it was the most unexpected, exciting piece of new writing I’ve been asked to audition for. Rob had taken a scalpel to the contradictory psyche and ego of modern, heterosexual masculinity in Britain and presented this multifaceted tirade of a play about three disparate men connected by the same unseen woman. It was contemporary, furious, unsettling, brutally honest, sad and very funny, with massive scope for the performer. I’m a fan of prose poetry and the play had a poetic quality, full of wonderful, off kilter imagery. I’d seen a previous play of Rob’s a few years before, The Butcher of Distinction, and was aware of this pool of artists – writers, directors and actors – coming out of Manchester University; they were making really challenging, exciting work and I’d hoped to be able to collaborate with them at some point. It was a daunting behemoth of a piece but despite quite a lot of self-doubt I really wanted to get the job.
Third, I remember seeing Will Eno’s Thom Pain (based on nothing) at the Pleasance Courtyard, Edinburgh Fringe in 2004 when I was at University and James Urbaniak’s solo performance just blew my mind, I was really inspired to pursue working in theatre after that. So, personally, it was a pretty special opportunity to go back to Pleasance Courtyard a decade later in a world premiere of a monologue.
CALM: Were you surprised by how the characters developed over time?
Clive: That recognition, which I talked about before, that all the knots and grooves that govern the lives of these troubled characters, actually, and the potential for them to exist within us all, was what really surprised me. Our capacity to fold, mentally, under the various pressures of the modern world is concerning, and of course, the relationships between men and women; an endlessly surprising landscape if you take the time to consider and analyse in any depth.
In performance, I was surprised by how moved people were. Not at all because the play is unmoving to read, but because the power of Ben’s almost schizophrenic delivery later on in the play, with the three voices converging in a homogenous symbol of masculinity, is really quite something to behold and can really only be achieved when an actor breathes a physical life into the writer’s words. And, I’m less surprised by this, as Rob is a comic craftsman of the highest order, but the play is often very funny and that can catch you off guard, especially after a few days in rehearsal wrestling with a man’s inability to move his bowels…
Ben: I’m not sure anything was a huge surprise to me, rather a constant process of close reading discovering fine details.
We had two weeks of rehearsal before the Edinburgh run, but I’d had the script for about 7 weeks prior to that. I did a large amount of preparation during this time. First and foremost, I wanted to have learned it before rehearsals. I’d never done a solo play before and the most daunting aspect at the beginning of the process was the sheer size of it; I think they’d done a workshop on the play where the reading took 90 mins and it needed to run at 60 minutes for Edinburgh. Rob hadn’t done much cutting initially, so it came down to how much clarity was possible speaking it pretty trippingly. I’m quite a slow line learner so it was a painstaking process of combing over the play again and again, but during this process a sense of the characters was constantly developing.
Rob deliberately wrote a play for one actor but with three characters, labelled Meat Cute, Misery Guts and This Pain. Straight away that’s an interesting choice, because he could have written it for 3 actors and given them names. So the form opens up a scope for interpretation. I think this form is connected to the subject matter. The performance is kind of a schizophrenic experience for both me and the audience; my hope is that you start watching a play about these characters grappling with their own predicaments and at a certain point there’s a dual thing going on where you’re watching their stories but also conscious of me as the performer grappling with my own physical and mental endurance.
These three characters are all connected by one woman. Clive was adamant I needed to be clear about who she was and her relationships with the men in the play. By working out the character timeline for her, we could start piecing together the jigsaw and map of the play for the men, this threw up some surprising and nice details for me to play with particularly in the potential back stories between Misery Guts and This Pain. I was surprised how brilliantly constructed Rob’s language is; the detail in syntax is very fine and that really helps to rapidly shift focus from comedy to tragedy.
CALM: How do you turn subject matter that people really don’t want to talk about into a sell out production?
Clive: I actually think that in rehearsal, your job is to rehearse the humans, not so much the themes. It’s obviously important to discuss what a play is about in forensic depth, but it is the actor and the play’s characters who are the vehicle for a play’s ideas, and she or he can only translate them to an audience after obtaining a fairly colourful understanding of the human they are portraying; how they think or how they respond to various emotional or physical stimuli.
So, I’m really interested in how a character is wired, and if we can come to some fairly sound reasoning in regards to this, and an effective and theatrical way to deliver the play, then the subject matter takes care of itself. Everybody has been in a theatre where they’ve been bludgeoned with “ideas” and I’ve always found that largely unsatisfying. I have no idea how you sell-out a show really but if a play’s ideas are mediated by characters that we recognise, or probe at the dark corners of our existence, or make us laugh even, then I think we stand a chance of connecting with people and maybe contributing to more people attending a piece of theatre that explores difficult subjects.
Ben: In my experience of the work, Clive and I weren’t thinking about it commercially. I felt like we were thinking about how to make the strongest work we could at that time.
Theatre has always taken the big human issues and told challenging stories, in that sense I don’t think it’s about subject matter people don’t want to talk about, rather subjects that are tricky to talk about. That’s why we have writers and playwrights and theatre makers because they are good at articulating difficult ideas and subject matter. A great example of this is how 2015 was full of productions and reinventions of Greek Tragedies. So I think it’s the same goal as always for theatre makers; tell a story interestingly, with strong writing, imagery and performance. Be informed, be intelligent, pursue the artistic drives and instincts of the team, play, and then, hopefully, people will want to see what you’ve made, and be a part of the conversation.
Head to the Southwark Playhouse website for This Will End Badly tickets and enter the code ‘Miseryguts’ at the checkout for a £2 concession. Attend one of the post-show discussion evenings on 18th and 20th Jan – click here for details.
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