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Sitting in the Lyttelton Cafe at the National Theatre, playwright Mark Ravenhill seems like a new man. “This is actually a really nice stage,” he tells me, “because I just get to relax and read books, and think about what I’m going to write.”
Ravenhill has just come down from the seventeen-day high of Shoot/Get Treasure/Repeat, an epic cycle consisting of fifteen of his plays – sixteen if you count a radio play on BBC Three – that infiltrated four corners of London at the National Theatre, the Royal Court, the Gate Theatre, and the Village Underground, a renovated Victorian warehouse in Shoreditch.
The 15 plays, each 20 minutes long, began in Edinburgh last summer under the collective heading Ravenhill for Breakfast, and each deals in some way with the west’s interaction with the so-called war on terror. The plays take a variety of forms. “Some of them have more conventional playwriting,” he tells me, “There’s a monologue, there’s a chorus of women, there’s a chorus of men. I just wanted to keep on trying different kinds of technical devices.” In fact, he had an even more unconventional idea he ultimately had to scrap: “If we’d had the resources in Edinburgh, I would have had one as a musical or an opera.”
The genesis of the cycle is an extraordinary one. Following an epileptic seizure earlier in 2007, Ravenhill found himself in a coma in the intensive treatment unit of his local hospital. It was possible he could have suffered brain damage, but he regained consciousness, able to shrug off the photographic reminders of his life that had been placed by his bedside by loved ones. Soon after he discovered via a phone call that he had signed on to write a new play for each day of the Edinburgh festival — with no memory of ever having done so. Setting for himself the goal of writing two plays per week, he finished them all in about three months, workshopping the first batch of five at the National Theatre’s studio on the Cut before staged readings at Edinburgh.
The theme of war came easily to Ravenhill. “You really have ask yourself what’s the biggest theme of our age,” he says, “and that clash of civilizations, war on terror, war in Iraq, just seems to be the biggest thing to write about.”
He appropriated the titles for each play from titles that caught his eye in the bookstore, and, in the case of Love (But I Won’t Do That), from a classic Meatloaf song. The heading for the cycle, Shoot/Get Treasure/Repeat, comes from an article he found in the newspaper about video game companies. Worried their games had become too complex, they summed up the essence of video games in a mere four words, which Ravenhill appropriates in a not-so-subtle attack on Western imperialism.
The 20-minute time limit for each play was mostly set out of practical concerns. Staged in the mornings at the Edinburgh festival, it seemed a reasonable amount of time for which to expect someone to get out of bed but a short enough time to allow audience members a break before other morning performances. Coffee and breakfast rolls were served to ticket holders in Edinburgh in order to justify the name the cycle was originally given: Ravenhill for Breakfast. Ravenhill found the twenty-minute time limit to be agreeable. “Around fifteen minutes you can do something quite neat and clean,” he says, “but actually the extra five minutes always pushed you out of the comfort zone of the piece.”
When the plays are at their strongest, they’re scorching indictments of western complacency. What image do we present, Ravenhill seems to ask, when our major concerns are coffee in the morning, garden centers during the day, plenty of sleep at night, and a heaping helping of freedom and democracy, two buzzwords that recur throughout the cycle along with a number of others.
Ravenhill uses this method of recurring leitmotifs – not just freedom and democracy, but also angels with broken wings, headless soldiers, heaven and hell, and even swingball – in order to encourage a dialogue between the plays for those who take the time to experience a number of them. This device of repetition transforms what could have been a fragmented series of sketches into an epic. “As you see the plays over a number of days and weeks,” he says, “it just triggers memories of other plays and asks you to make links between them. So the word ‘swingball’ is just a silly word, but hopefully it asks you to start to think, ‘Oh if this play is connected to that play…’ Hopefully it brings back feelings from the previous plays.”
But it’s not merely in the pursuit of a connective trick that Ravenhill has appropriated this repetition; he’s also got something to say about the way our civilization uses words. “I think there’s a danger with words like ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy,’ ” Ravenhill says, “that should carry a lot of meaning and should be very important words. They’re just repeated again and again and again, and they become cheapened and they lose their meaning. The more times you say those words, the cheaper they become.”
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