Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Dark Dramaturgy: Philip Meeks @ Edfringe 2015

Harrogate Theatre in association with Reform Theatre presents the deliciously sinister new play by Fringe First Award-winner Philip Meeks
By Philip Meeks
Directed by Keith Hukin
Fringe First Award-winner, River City and Emmerdale writer Philip Meeks (Kiss Me Honey, Honey, Edinburgh Fringe and Scottish tour) is set to the return to Edinburgh this August with the deliciously sinister new play Edith in the Dark which looks at the darker side of the much-loved celebrated children’s author Edith Nesbit.
Edith Nesbit retreats to her attic writing room to escape her husband’s annual Christmas party. Planning to seduce an uninvited guest, she ends up reading her extraordinary Tales of Terror to the young man, and her housekeeper. But all is not what it seems…

Featuring monstrous tales of lost love and bitter revenge, Nesbit’s spine-tingling ghost stories come to life in this thrilling new drama by acclaimed playwright Philip Meeks.

Think E. Nesbit and no doubt The Railway Children or Five Children And It immediately spring to mind. Yet, despite her renown as an author of children’s stories, Edith Nesbit was also a mistress of Victorian Gothic horror, penning chilling stories of the paranormal with a genteel elegance that underlies their flesh-creeping nature. First published in magazines in the 1880s, then collated in 1893 anthology Grim Tales, they have since, for the most, been forgotten…until now.

Playwright Philip Meeks weaves Nesbit’s own life drama alongside her resolutely domestic terror shorts, imbuing her refined words with a little of her own inner darkness and humour. Meeks recently bagged a Fringe First Award for his play Kiss Me Honey, Honey and was responsible for some of Emmerdale’s most heart-thumping moments.

The Fringe
What inspired this production: did you begin with an idea or a script or an object?
Philip Meeks: I guess it was the central character E Nesbit. I was commissioned by Harrogate Theatre to adapt some ghost stories for a Christmas production. I chose E Nesbit because discovering she wrote horror stories as well as her fabled children's novels astounded me. Also there's been a huge hit production of The Railway Children which started in York, so it felt that Yorkshire audiences had a connection to her work already.

It was only when I found out about her rather sad and unusual life that I made her one of the characters in the play. And her story sort of took over. Its as much about her as telling her ghost stories

Why bring your work to Edinburgh?
It can be a fantastic launch pad for new work. This time however the play has been tried and tested - It's being published to coincide with the Edinburgh run so I'm seeing it as a launching pad for the book. I'm also thrilled its at a new venue run in part by the brilliant Sell A Door theatre. I think some of the bigger venues are becoming so big and offering so many shows its impossible to find an audience. If the Fringe is to survive venues need to start thinking quality not quantity when they programme.

What can the audience expect to see and feel - or even think - of your production?
I can't say what people with think but they'll see a very smart looking piece of theatre directed magnificently by Keith Hukin. I want them to feel on edge I a good way. They'll hopefully laugh one minute and then be frightened the next. I really feel that horror and humour should walk hand in hand.

The Dramaturgy Questions

Do you have a particular process of making that you could describe - where it begins, how you develop it, and whether there is any collaboration in the process?
At some point there will always be collaboration. It doesn't necessarily need to be at the very start. Writing needs to be a partnership as often when you write the early drafts are a terrible mess. Things you write make sense to you because they're your creation. But you always need help to bring clarity to the story. The key collaborator in the director....actors come into play further down the line. 

 I would never direct a first production of one of my plays because you'd only be telling half the story. To be honest I also like to stay away from rehearsals. I often find it boring and the more I listen to what I've written the less confident I become about it. That's why I need directors I can trust to get on with it.

So plays can begin with a commission or a partnership between yourself and a director. Collaboration can start the whole thing in motion. For example when I worked with Stella Duffy on Murder Margaret and Me she helped clarify what I was intending to do. She gave me the way forward when it came to the writing.

Sometimes however it is you who starts writing alone. I'm writing a new play at the moment and there's no director attached. I've been mulling this particular idea over for 5 years or so....sometimes the process is slow. I hope when the play gets off the ground - there's a strong chance it will - the collaboration process will begin.

What do you feel the role of the audience is, in terms of making the meaning of your work?
An audience behaves like a flock. They share an experience and tune into each others feelings often. You know by listening to them when something isn't working. Laughter is important. But silence also. Silence shows engagement. 

 I had an awful experience after the first night of a tour of a dreadful play I had written when a woman stood up at the end and declared "well that was shit". She got more applause from the audience than the play had received. I also agreed with her wholeheartedly....interesting that in this case the director was atrocious and the production ghastly. He took a new play and threw it at the stage....didn't have the ability to work with me to make it better.....and therefore I never really saw the full extent of what was wrong with it.

Dates: 7-30 August (Previews: 5-6 August)
Time: 4.25pm          
Location: Venue 166, Momentum Playhouse @St Stephens
Running time: 1Hr 20mins                                       
Tickets: 0131 5162880 
Preview prices: 4-5 August £8                              
Festival prices: 7-30 August £9.50 (Concessions £8.50) – except Saturday and Sundays £11.50 (Concessions £9.50)
No performance: Tuesday 18 August                                                    
Production details
Written by Philip Meeks
Director – Keith Hukin, Sound Design by Gerrard Fletcher,
Set Design by Alex Swarbrick

Cast: Blue Merrick (Edith Nesbitt), Scott Ellis(Guasto) and Rebcca Mahon (Biddy Thricefold)

Philip Meeks said “I'm delighted to be back in Edinburgh this year for my fourth consecutive season.  It’s especially great to be working with the brilliant Harrogate Theatre and at a brand new venue.  I'm especially proud of this production and I love the fact that it’s arriving in Edinburgh having been tried and tested to great acclaim.  It’s always scary trying out new work at the Fringe.  It will be a great joy to arrive with a show we love and know has already thrilled audiences elsewhere."

ABOUT EDITH IN THE DARK (by writer Philip Meeks)
Long before her stories for children became celebrated and made her famous, Edith Nesbit wrote twee, sentimental verses for her own Christmas cards when she and her husband Hubert Bland were more or less penniless. This led to her life-long loathing of the festive season. During this period she also wrote ghost stories. But these aren’t the polite genteel efforts you may read by Mrs Gaskell or Edith Wharton. They are visceral and closer to hard-core horror fiction than anything else. Innocence is destroyed and men are obsessed with unearthing dead wives. There’s demonic possession, vampire plants, zombies and even dabblings in the world of science fiction - HG Wells seems to have been a thorn in Edith’s side so maybe she wanted to prove something to him!
Her reason for writing so horrifically stems from a terrible childhood memory. She visited a church in Bordeaux where she saw a collection of grisly mummified corpses. Determined that her own children wouldn’t suffer anything as terrible she chose to purge the memory from her soul through her writing.

Originally this play was going to be a series of Edith’s stories told as an anthology. I love the old Amicus horror films where Peter Cushing gets on a train with four strangers and tells them all they’re going to die, and we see their stories. They’re schlocky and almost camp and brought to life with bizarre props and puppets, which keep them family friendly and fun.

But Edith’s own life is so dark she took over. I knew I had to include her and her story in the play. She lived through poverty and hardship, brought up her husband’s mistresses’ children as her own (indeed, one mistress lived under their roof) and lost her son tragically during a simple operation to remove his tonsils. I couldn’t help feel that, however much she might have tried to purge the darkness, she couldn’t really escape it.

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