GETTING TO KNOW: DESMOND MANDERSON

In his salad days, Desmond Manderson was a playwright and a musician, before turning to academic life. His books explore questions of law and justice through music, literature, philosophy, and art. In Australia he is a frequent commentator in newspapers and on the radio. The Centre for Law, Arts and the Humanities, which he directs, is not just committed to writing about the arts, but to supporting creative work. This has led to collaborations with a variety of cultural institutions including the Street Theatre; and thus a return, after a long detour, to his first loves.

The Street talks to Desmond about creative development for a new theatre work.

THE DAY THEY GOT EL TICHO, YOUR WORK WRITTEN WITH LUIS GÓMEZ ROMERO HAS BEEN IN CREATIVE DEVELOPMENT AT THE STREET. TELL US ABOUT THE GENESIS OF THE IDEA.

Luis and I have been thinking for a long time about the problem of justice in the modern world.  The real life story of the capture of El Chapo provided us with a fantastic canvas.  After the drug lord escaped from the FBI, he would have gotten away except he was pulled over – in the middle of the night – by two highway cops, no less.  They took him to a seedy highway motel in the middle of nowhere and were told to sit tight. 

Sit tight! What did they talk about—two lowly cops and the most wanted man in the world — alone in a room, while they waited for the army to arrive – or the cartel to get there first?  What did he offer them? What did he threaten them?  And why, in a place like that, with law so corrupted and life so violent, did these two nobodies stay put? Why did law – or justice – matter?

No-one has ever thought about it from their point of view. Obviously our play is fiction.  We are not at all trying to represent the real characters in this real drama.  But the scene and the set up are based in fact. They do not know if they’ll live or die.  What did they talk about? Who will survive? It’s the perfect setting for a play; or perhaps a fairy tale.

HOW HAVE YOU WORKED IN COLLABORATION WITH LUIS?

Luis and I are very close friends with a strong shared interest in ideas about law and justice in this fractured world; and very different views about how to deal with the crisis of the 21st century.  This collaboration has allowed us to work out our views and our differences creatively. Luis has an extraordinary knowledge of politics and history, both in Mexico and around the world, which are at the heart of this work.  But he is also a fantastic storyteller with a bottomless well of stories and anecdotes that capture vivid aspects of the world he grew up in.  My strengths are perhaps in turning those stories into characters and into dialogue that is compelling – and often, I hope, very funny.  We haven’t written a speech or a lecture. It’s a play: a very black comedy with a powerful story, a lot of humour, and thrilling non-stop tension.

WHAT HAVE YOU DISCOVERED IN WRITING A WORK TO BE PERFORMED?

I have written a lot in my life.  But this is by far the hardest thing I have ever attempted.  The challenge is to find ways of bringing the characters and the ideas to life on stage. The challenge is also to think not so much about ideas but about people, action, and images.  Theatre is an incredibly physical and visual medium. Our characters aren’t meant to tell us what they think or talk to us about their lives: they are meant to embody them in the events that we as the audience are going through with them, right there, up on the stage. This connection and this immediacy is what makes theatre compelling.  But to write in that way is daunting.  Some days it feels like the challenge I was born to meet. Some days it feels an impossible task.  It’s been a roller coaster ride – fun, exciting, and occasionally you throw up.

TALK US THROUGH THE PROCESS FOR YOU OF WORKING WITH A DIRECTOR, DRAMATURG AND PERFORMERS.

I have found working with the theatre humbling and inspiring. It has been a steep learning curve for Luis and I, unlike anything we’ve experienced before. And slow too; the process of script development has taken us over two years – so far! Once you see something being acted on stage, you can immediately see if it works or doesn’t work, rings true or sounds false. In a workshop context, actors bring such a deep understanding about people, and about bodies and how they move. They are able to change your perception or your ideas about a line or a scene in an instant.  That’s happened many times in the course of this process.  The director and dramaturg we’ve been working with, Caroline and Peter, are world-class professionals in their field. It’s been a real privilege. They have a rigorous capacity to analyse the work, and to challenge everybody – actors, writers, the lot – to ask more of themselves. That is actually rather terrifying.  But the work benefits so much from being pushed in this way.

TELL US ABOUT THE CHARACTERS IN THE PLAY?

Our play has three characters. El Ticho is a drug lord or, in his own words, ‘just a humble businessman with a knack for success and no tolerance for failure.’ Romulo is a highway cop from a very poor background, struggling to make his way in a world that seems to conspire against him.  He is insolent and funny, and these two tendencies tend to get him into trouble. Angela is his boss, a stickler for the rules, a woman from a powerful family who has fallen far and doesn’t understand how it could have come to this.  Romulo and Angela, in their own ways, are bewildered by the world and trying to make sense of it. El Ticho – nothing bewilders him. He’s a man who’s used to being in control. And there they all are together, in a locked room, with all hell about to break loose.  They all have their demons. They all have choices to make. Time is running out. Tick tock.

WHAT ARE YOUR GUIDING PRINCIPLES FOR WRITING A NEW WORK FOR THEATRE?

Show don’t tell. Make it funny. Make it real. Make it fast-paced and disciplined. Waste no time. Make the audience care. It’s not TV. It’s not film.  The risk of failure seems to me higher, but so are the rewards if you can pull it off. ‘It’s a risky business,’ as El Ticho says, ‘but then again, all businesses are risky.’

WHAT’S INSPIRING YOU CREATIVELY AT THE MOMENT?

Luis and I have been looking closely at the work of the new wave of Mexican directors—Roma, The Shape of Water, Pan’s Labyrinth—and contemporary Mexican fiction, too—Roberto Bolaño’s remarkable novel 2666 and the short stories of Yuri Herrera.  This sense of magical realism, that evokes a place that is mythical, fabulous, unfamiliar yet universal, has really influenced our ideas for the world of the play. I suppose we are also inspired by the world we live in, and the terrible pressures and tensions we are all watching play out around us. This, too, is a kind of universal predicament. Perhaps we are all living inside a fairy tale.   

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