Now we have announced that the piece of new writing to be featured in our A Journey with Jonson project is Brean Hammond’s Ben and Steenie, our Artistic Director shares what attracts her to a play.
A play – be it brand new, a work in progress, or a classic – is something I approach a bit like friendship: immediately, something either clicks, or it doesn’t. By “clicks” I mean that something calls my attention right from the beginning and makes me say either “oh, we’re going to get along fine” or “you know, maybe not.” Nine out of ten times, a “maybe not” just can’t be forced into a comfortable relationship. A play that does click, though, becomes incredibly hard to get out of my head.
I’m sure there is a lot of theory about how to write a play that grabs people, how to create a “hook” that catches people from the beginning. I can – and will – explain some of the things that tend to make me engage with a play. But very often, what catches the eye is something emotional, and often quite random. Brean Hammond’s Ben and Steenie, part of our A Journey with Jonson project, is a great example of the strange ways this can develop. What first caught me about the play was its location. Bottesford village is, by chance, a place where my ancestors lived in the Middle Ages. It’s purely coincidental, and completely not germane to the play, but it was a personal connection, and while it certainly didn’t guarantee I’d love the play, it was a starting point.
As I went on to really read it and think about the play seriously as a possible production for HIDden, I found that it ticked a lot of my personal boxes as far as what makes me like a play. Unless a play is extremely conceptually driven, I put a lot of stock in characters – their development, the way they are shown to the audience, their consistency and contradictions. I don’t have to “like” all of them – most of us know how intriguing a well-drawn villain can be – but I do have to find them compelling, multi-faceted, nuanced, but consistent within themselves. With some plays I might particularly like the voice that a writer has given then, with others it might be little quirks that make the people of the play seem especially real; whatever it is, having characters I think an audience will be willing to follow for an hour or two is critical. Ben and Steenie has some very interesting fictional characters, but it also includes the intrigue of creating “real” ones, like Ben Jonson, about whom the history books tell us some things but always without the fundamentals of who they were as a person. Some of the answers are supplied in the play script, others will be developed in the rehearsal room by the actors portraying them.
A play that is telling a story (as opposed to a character study or concept piece) needs to have an overall arc that makes sense, is coherent, and has ebbs and flows that give the audience a forward trajectory but also room to process what’s going on. It needs to be consistent within its own stylistic vocabulary. For example, not all plays need to have all threads tied up neatly at the end; in some cases it’s actually more satisfying not to know all the answers, but in other styles of writing and drama, it’s incredibly frustrating if plot threads are just dropped. (My favourite example of “incomplete completion” is Gone with the Wind, where the story is satisfyingly finished by not knowing what happened to three of the protagonists, because the ending is completely in character to them and to everything else that the story is about.) Without giving away the ending, I will mention that Ben and Steenie has a bit of that aspect to it: it’s very tightly put together, but the ending leaves open questions for the audience to think about, and given some of its thematic elements, that choice makes complete sense.
I spend a fair bit of time thinking about how a play is put together, not just because it’s critical to whether or not the whole thing works, but because how it does so often say something about what approach one will be needed to staging it. For Ben and Steenie, which has a pretty traditional structure, the emotional engine of the story is in certain relationships between characters; it would be easy to rely solely on the plot, which is definitely interesting but leans more heavily on the head than the heart in many places. It’s the stuff between the lines – how the characters feel about, and interact with, one another – that brings the two aspects together.
It’s a play with different possible levels of engagement, which is something I tend to like; I’ve never been a big fan of “it’s just for fun”, “fluffy” pieces of theatre. While you can certainly take the play for exactly what it is on the surface, there’s a lot more it gives you to think about, for those who choose look. In this sense, and in its historicity, it’s a very intelligent play.
And of course, that historicity is key for HIDden. Ben and Steenie is a perfect example of the issues we keep discussing and debating: the fine line between fact and fiction, between artistic license and truth, between history and drama – and not just in its own existence, but within the play itself. The research and detail that has gone into the script is incredible. One of the things I really liked when the script arrived on my desk was that it came with a detailed breakdown of what elements had been fictionalised and what chronology had been altered; this, plus a brief list of inspirational source material, told me that it had been written with extraordinary care for the “truth” of the past, and that its variations from absolute fact were written for deliberate purposes, not just to “make it more interesting” or because somebody couldn’t be bothered to do their homework. There are, in fact, parts of Ben and Steenie that you might think are made up, but are documented. One of these examples is a ‘Lunatic’ woman who dips in and out of Jonson’s path as he travels. It might be a bit of a cliché to have the village madwoman as a character, except that in this case she was recorded as an actual person he encountered along his walk to Scotland, and this lets her be used with historical honesty and in a way that helps further the story.
The more I read a play that I like, such as Ben and Steenie, the more I see it in my mind, on a stage, fully realised, and then it hits a point where I can’t get it out of my head. It has nothing to do with a silly little thing like being set somewhere familiar; it has become a complete entity, intimately familiar and comfortable and something I’ve come to know well and love. I have been falling in love with this play for quite a while and I really can’t tell you how excited I am to finally be getting it onto its feet. I can’t wait to be able give it to some actors and to see what we can make of it as a team.