Vision’s new Stage Editor, Daniel Underwood, is very excited. For the past couple of days he has been bouncing around the place in anticipation of a new production by the University’s department for Theatre, Film and Television (TFTV). Every time he has come back from the Black Box Theatre he has been spilling over with enthusiasm and praise. So when TFTV announce the upcoming performance of Bryony Lavery’s Nothing Compares to You there are high expectations. The play, written in 1995, centres around the lives of six people, struggling to continue their own existence whilst forced to confront the beautiful mess of death. In this struggle the fundamental themes of love, mortality, and the “human need to be needed” are explored. These are themes which, despite the play’s nearly twenty year absence from the professional stage, are still relevant today.
TFTV were eager to let Vision in on the project and one afternoon amidst busy rehearsals I spoke to the play’s Director, Holly Morgan.
Tarah Farrer: What are your initial thoughts about the play?
Holly Morgan: It’s a very unusual play. It explores human nature with lots of different stories. Every character brings something to the heart of the play.
TF: What’s the background of the play?
HM: It’s set in 1999 even though it was written in 1995. So it was written in the past for a moment in the future which is in our past […] It explores how a person’s social mask can be stripped when something in their life changes, which was important at the time due to the social implications of the turn of the millennium. […] There are stage directions that literally say ‘in nowhere’… We want to encourage the audience to imagine.
TF: Why hasn’t it been performed for 20 years?
HM: To be totally honest, I don’t know. Nothing Compares to You was written for the Birmingham Repertory in 1995, and it’s almost impossible to find anything about that production. We know less about Lavery than Caryl Churchill or April de Angelis, for example, and this is probably why brilliant plays like Nothing Compares are overlooked. When asked about her bizarre stage directions, Lavery replied “I do interfere if there is a space, and if I think that something should happen. I suggest things when the bits of my mind haven’t completed the thought. I think I do it to scare the director.” This too is probably another reason why people have avoided this play in the past – it’s terrifying. One minute we’re in an old ladies living room and the next under the sea and then ‘A dreadful, large, black hole appears which they both (Mary and Lily) regard with horror.’ – I mean really she did a great job at scaring me.
TF: Do you think the themes and message of the play are relevant today?
HM: Of course! The play is so human and I think Lavery captures our struggle beautifully – you see it in the way characters slowly drop their ‘social masks’ and let the audience in. Though the play touches on fears that we might find inaccessible, its fundamental preoccupation is the awareness of our mortality – so that hasn’t changed! One of my favourite things about this process has been the exploration of how much has happened since 1995/1999. Think back to what you can remember from that time; I still remember dial up, big mobile phones with aerials, The Spice Girls, to name a few. Moving from the 90’s to the millennium was terrifying at the time and it’s that fear of the unknown that is inherent in the play.
TF: It sounds quite obscure, why did TFTV choose it?
HM: Again I’m not really sure. It was the department that picked this play and April de Angelis’ Playhouse Creatures. They are two plays seemingly worlds apart and yet they fit awkwardly but quite beautifully together. We didn’t get a choice but having studied feminist texts earlier on in our degree it made sense for us to make this move for our Modern Production. Our year also has the difficulty of having around 50 girls and only 5 boys, so we needed a play that was tailored to our resources.
TF: Were there any difficulties in directing the play, you mentioned stage directions?
HM: Where do I start… Yes, stage directions are a huge thing – Lavery’s first line of stage directions reads: ‘“This is a place of great beauty and detritus. There are perches and vantage points, possibly trapezes…cramped sad rooms…roadways and locations in various parts of Great Britain”. There are no breathing points for the actors, the extremes of feeling and levels of intoxication are completely draining and hard to maintain. I think really picking apart Lavery’s text helped us all a lot. Every time I read it, even now when I can almost quote the entire thing, I learn something new. The number of questions each rehearsal throws up is hugely challenging but exciting, it’s always dynamic and manic! I am also terrified of actors smoking onstage; I always think it looks awful and awkward, so we’ll be rehearsing this now we’re only a couple of weeks away!
TF: With week nine approaching fast, what kind of message are you most hoping to put across?
HM: “We want to communicate the idea that humans have this inane desire to want to be connected to people. We want people to think and question and feel things – whether these things are good or bad doesn’t matter”
TF: Why should we come and see it?
HM: It’s real, it’s the 1990s, we have a ‘death hole’, and it’s fun. The play explores the way our lives are all connected. The characters are ripped from their comfortable ‘normal’ lives and have to deal with the consequences. It’s a reminder to us that death is really just another part of life, and that’s okay. It’s a series of monologues, passion and parties in which the audience will be both welcomed in and shut out.
In a brief pause from rehearsal Yoshi Colwell (playing Mary) gave us as few of her thoughts.
TF: What do you think about your character?
YC: She’s interesting. She could be seen as unlikeable, but I just think she’s just flawed and human. Personally, I like her.
TF: Are you nervous for the performances?
YC: I’m feeling good nervous – everyone’s enthusiastic about it. It’s beautiful and poignant and I think everyone can relate to it […] With the sound and the lighting it will be a very sensory and fluid experience. I’m really looking forward to it.
The feeling of “good nervous” is perhaps indicative of a quiet optimism as TFTV continues to go from strength to strength. And as I leave the rehearsals I’m struck by one of the quotes which the cast have been using as a lens to view the play:
“A lot goes through your mind when you’re dying. What they say about life flashing before your eyes is true. And you panic just a little, wishing for one more chance at all the beautiful moments you didn’t appreciate, or for one more day with the person you didn’t love quite enough.” – The Colour of Heaven, Julianne Maclean.
I admit it’s quite a sobering thought on which to end but, as far as an entry point is concerned, this sentiment is not a bad place to start. TFTV certainly doesn’t shy away from the gritty stuff. Last year, during Simon Stephen’s Motortown, a young woman was doused in petrol, shot and surreptitiously put in a body bag. It is images like this which reverberate around the mind for days after the performance and contribute to the identity of TFTV. These are ideas with a raw impact. Time will tell whether Nothing Compares to You’ adds to this canon.