Last week, West Camel from Culture Compass popped in to PP HQ to interview our Playwright-in-Residence Alexandra Wood about her latest play THE EMPTY QUARTER, which closed at Hampstead Theatre Downstairs on Saturday.
Here’s what Alex had to say…
It seems you have a great deal of knowledge about the expat community in Dubai, but you’ve never been there. How did you manage that authenticity?
When you’re writing plays you’re creating worlds. And that’s what Dubai seems to be – an act of Sheikh Mohammad’s imagination, which became real. I found that fascinating. I did lots of research. There’s copious publicity – the way they sell the lifestyle is fascinating. Online forums were interesting – expats giving each other advice. And then there was stuff about the other side of Dubai. Particularly important in terms of the development of the play was an article in The Independent by Johann Hari called The Dark Side of Dubai. He set up the various types of people there – the expat, the Emiratis, the Pakistani workers, the slave-labourers, gay Dubai, Philippinos working in fast-food joints. I was particularly attracted to one story about an expat caught out by the situation who found herself living in her car. That was the seed of Holly’s story in The Empty Quarter.
Gemma, the older, seasoned ex-pat in The Empty Quarter, seems to ‘stand up’ during the play.
In earlier drafts it had been Holly’s story, which is still what the play is at the beginning. But then a surprising shift occurs. It took me by surprise during the rewriting process – I found myself becoming more interested in Gemma’s story. It was when Hampstead said they were going to put The Empty Quarter on that her character became more integral. I think something in your head shifts when a theatre says ‘we’re going to produce this’. It’s all hypothetical up until then. When you know a real actor is going to play the part, you feel you need to make it as rich and complex as possible. I think that spurred me on to pursue Gemma’s journey a bit more. But I also think I had a sense that parts for women around 50 aren’t that many and if you’re going to write one you have a responsibility to give that actor a meaty role.
As a young woman, you’re obviously not familiar with being middle-aged – which is similar to writing about Dubai when you’ve not been there. And you’ve also written about China. What attracts you to writing about ‘the other’?
I’ve always been attracted to stories set elsewhere. There’s a sort of freedom in it. But I am interested in what’s going on here. I understand that I’m British. I’m a product of Britain, the characters I’m writing are affected by Britishness. And the plays are for a British audience. But I think it’s useful to have that bit of distance. I’m trying to explore what makes us tick through this ‘other’ prism.
What are the particular challenges of writing about ‘the other’ in theatre – bringing Dubai or China to the stage?
I’d initially conceived The Empty Quarter as a film. I wanted to write about Dubai because it’s such an amazing place visually and I thought it would be amazing to have panoramic shots of all those skyscrapers and cranes. Setting a tiny human story against that backdrop could be really striking. But when I reconceived it as a stage play I turned that on its head, and set it in three apartments that all look exactly same. I reduced it to this tiny place that could be anywhere. But the outside then comes in through the way the environment affects how the characters act. Dubai is represented by the characters’ behaviour.
How did you manage this with Wild Swans? – It’s such broad sweep of a novel.
That was a very collaborative production. The sense of scale was achieved through the design. So at the start you’ve got an old Chinese market; and by the end you’ve got modern China – lots of video design, everyone’s image of contemporary Beijing. All in the space of an hour and a half. But again you’re seeing China through behaviour. In Maoist China, especially, the way people behaved – the paranoia, the intrigue and the betrayal – was a result of Mao’s policies.
If you were to give someone the Wild Swans book and ask ‘is this is a three-to four hour epic by Steven Spielberg, or a small play at the Young Vic?’ They’d say the Spielberg, wouldn’t they?
I think you can do both. But the way you tell the story would be different. The Spielberg could chart history from Imperial China to the present day. Whereas in the play we focus on the parents’ relationship, which for us was the heart of it – the difficulties and conflicts of having loyalty to a party and a leader and loyalty to your wife and your family. It felt very human.
Is it this human aspect that makes you write for theatre rather than other media?
What theatre does brilliantly is the human. Because ultimately you’ve got human beings sitting in front of or around another human being, so you can’t help but think about you relationship with other people. You don’t have that so much in a film. There’s something finished and safe about cinema – nothing’s going to go wrong. Whereas in theatre there’s danger and that element of possibility. As an audience you can directly affect what’s happening on stage. The way you laugh, the way you respond, is going to affect those actors.
What theatre’s also great for is creating that space around what’s said and what’s done. It allows ambiguity and provides room for interpretation. As an audience I love having to work hard to understand what’s going on, and knowing I might have a different interpretation to someone else. And in my writing I love that flexibility – throwing up questions and not necessarily answering them all. Theatre gives me the space to play with certainty.
What do you think about the growth in immersive theatre, such as You Me Bum Bum Train and Punchdrunk?
Punchdrunk’s Faust production in Wapping was one of the most exhilarating theatre experiences of my life. I was overawed by the scale of the project and felt true emotions. I felt actual fear on one of the levels. I was completely alone in a massive warehouse. I didn’t know what could happen to me. That was thrilling, but I wouldn’t want it as my only theatre experience. I think more traditional plays when you have people sitting looking one way at some actors performing, will continue. I think there’s room for everything.
Ultimately they both respond to the basic thing that theatre can offer – human interaction. Whether you’re in an audience of 50 or of one, you’re still having that connection with a performer, which can challenge you and provoke you and engage you. That’s what theatre is about.
Read the full interview on culturecompass.co.uk.
Photo: Robert Day/Hampstead Theatre