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 fifteen plays, each twenty 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 twenty-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 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.”
Beyond the writing itself, the various productions took audiences on a number of twists and turns. The way things worked out, the venues in which the plays were presented got more and more unconventional as the run of the cycle progressed. “That just happened,” observes Ravenhill. The first two weeks saw plays performed at the National Theatre’s Lyttelton and Cottesloe auditoria, as well as at the Royal Court. In the final two weeks, things were stirred up a bit, with a site-specific double bill from the Gate and two installments done promenade-style at the Village Underground in Shoreditch.
It was Royal Court artistic director Dominic Cooke who persuaded Ravenhill that spreading the works out across London would be advantageous, and the second and third weeks of the cycle saw four plays in performance at Cooke’s home turf. With a star turn from Lesley Manville in The Mother and an ensemble of theatre vets in the flawed Birth of a Nation, which perhaps too curtly dealt with a group of arts therapists in an unnamed ravaged city, the Royal Court’s first set of installments at the Court bookended performances of the mainstage production, debbie tucker green’s random, allowing ambitious theatergoers — if they dared — to see three productions of varying lengths in the span of one evening.
Those who attended the Gate Theatre performances, next in line in the cycle, were treated to a brief walking tour of Notting Hill led by a white-winged angel, punctuated by two site-specific performances, the first (Women in Love) a quiet piece about a cancer patient and his wife set in a hospital room and performed in a private garden and the second (Armageddon) about two Christians experiencing the full force of temptation and loss in a small hotel room.
Ravenhill seems to have mixed feelings about the site-specific productions, which, for me, resulted in the single best and single worst production of the cycle as a whole. “I think twenty minutes is a good length for people to stand and move,” Ravenhill says, adding that “I’m not sure that the particular piece about the hospital room (Women in Love), which is quite gentle, whether being in the garden, such a public space, really helped it.” I’m tempted to agree.
The site-specific hotel-set piece, Armageddon, is the only play performed with American accents. When asked if he was tempted to include an expressly anti-American or anti-Bush play, he retorts that the ” ‘George Bush is goofy’ kind of play” didn’t interest him. Instead, we meet Honor and Emma, two Middle American evangelical Christians who are sensitively flayed out for an audience’s up close and personal observation and assessment, the play performed in an actual Notting Hill hotel room. “It’s just such a shame that so few people could see it,” Ravenhill laments. “You kind of wanted to have a couple of cameras in there and relay it to a bigger theatre or something.”
The final batch of plays was done at the Village Underground, a magnificently restored Victorian warehouse that added an extraordinary element to the plays performed there. A dynamic use of space — with audience members following the cast to new corners of the building for each new play — made up for the fact that these installments included an inordinate number of chorus-based plays where rhetoric took precedence over the truth of emotions. It was fitting that the cycle ended, at least for me — maybe not for others who chose a different order for their Shoot/Get Treasure/Repeat experiences — with Twilight of the Gods, another of the most personal plays in the cycle. Oppressor Jane interrogates oppressed Susan, withholding coffee and breakfast for fear of the reaction of the starving to food. It’s a microcosm for the tetchiness and ethnocentricity seen all the time in Western foreign policy, and it’s in plays like this one — where the broadest ideas are wrapped up in the most intimate interactions, not in big group scenes — that Ravenhill really shines, proving that dilution is sometimes the best solution.
Now that the plays are over — all sixteen of them, for better of worse — Ravenhill thinks they’ll have an international life. Throughout the cycle, specific people and places are left unnamed, allowing the plays a quality of applicability that should allow the plays to withstand the transposition of time and national borders. “I’ve talked to people from Istanbul,” Ravenhill says, “and they felt that they were very pertinent to them, because their society is split between Western influences and Islamic influences, and they live with the continual war – the Turkish and Armenian war.”
He suggests that, in subsequent productions, a marathon element might be employed in order to give audiences a greater sense of the cycle’s epic scope. “I have quite mixed feelings about the fact that it was so scattered,” he says, “I think quite a lot of people feel now that they’ve seen them like that they’d like them to come together and be done as a sort of epic thing, like a marathon.”
Ravenhill has certainly come a long way in the eleven years time it’s taken him to get from Shopping and Fucking to Shoot/Get Treasure/Repeat. In regards to the In-Yer-Face school into which he was siphoned — along with the late Sarah Kane, amongst others — early in his career, he denies any formal sense of a group at the time and replies, elusively, “I think it was kind of in the air everywhere.” But he’s never been out to shock. “With each play,” he says, “you hope to surprise yourself and explore new stuff, and you’re trying to listen to what’s happening in the world and trying to put that in your play, and obviously the world doesn’t stand still, so it constantly evolves.”
The passion and fervor behind Shopping and Fucking, partly fueled by his HIV+ status, carries through to now, he says, but it’s certainly not been a static influence in his writing. “The sense that if you were HIV+ in the early nineties, you had a relatively short time to live, and then there was new medication and you got a much longer time to live, probably a normal lifespan to live, that’s a big turnaround in your mind. You kind of accept you’re going to have a short life and then suddenly to learn you’re going to have a long life is quite a big experience to go through, so it makes you think about life and death. It makes you think about them a lot, which I guess is good for writing. It’s been a huge experience, but actually, really it’s been a positive experience in a way, because you learn a lot very quickly.”