Writing theatrical fireworks... in 24 hours
Updated: Jun 22, 2021
✨ FREDDIE HUTCHINS
Remember, remember the fifth of November… we certainly will this year, thanks to one of our most memorable private theatre events to date!
With just days to create, write, rehearse and deliver the commission, we turned to one of the most talented (and certainly the most audacious) writers we know to help us deliver the theatrical fireworks required... the inimitable Oliver Rose.
Then we badgered him some more by asking him to tell us about his experiences in a blog post.
Freddie: Tell us a bit about the commission - what exactly was the brief?
Oliver: The conversation went something like:
“Hi Oli. Is now a good time to chat?
“Why yes, yes, it is.”
“You know how you once did a play when you were at Junior School about Guy Fawkes?”
“I did do a play at Junior School about Guy Fawkes. How on earth do you know that?”
“Well, as well as being one of Revels in Hand’s three founding directors, Melanie Fullbrook, I’m also your girlfriend and so I happen to know things like, for instance, that when you were at Junior School you did a play about Guy Fawkes.”
“Oh right. That makes sense.”
“Anyway, since you’re now actually a jobbing writer and playwright, might you be interested in writing us a new play about Guy Fawkes?”
“Oh yes, that sounds interesting.”
“We need it in three days.”
“Thanks so much. Off you trot.”
Exit Oli to write a play.
Freddie: Gosh... sounds intense.
Oliver: After a brief moment of deep internal panic, it was actually a lot of fun. As you can see, the commission was very last minute. It came through on the Friday to be performed on the Tuesday. Mel and I were up North staying with her family, so I banished myself upstairs, rolled up my sleeves and got cracking. The logistics were nicely specific; 20 minutes of action in three separate chunks. It needed to be funny enough to tickle a sophisticated, urbane crowd down from London and it needed to fit into an evening of revelry and fine-dining.
Freddie: Fancy. So what were the starting points for your ideas?
Oliver: Bonfire Night is ultimately a celebration of the demise of the closest thing we have in British History to Ché Guevara; Guy Fawkes. As I mentioned, I’d been in a production at junior school of a play about the gunpowder plot called Fawkes: The Quiet Guy by a chap called Kjartan Poskitt. I remember very little about the play other than it being very funny - and that Guy Fawkes was played by a Guy Fawkes dummy. So, I nicked that idea straight away. I knew that I wanted the tone to be on the lighter side, probably Monty Python-esque. (My dearly departed Grandpa was the cameraman on Python; we used to watch a lot of it when I was younger.)
Freddie: ...and any particular flashes of inspiration along the way? Any major changes / left-turns as you were going along?
Oliver: I worked on a couple of very quick sketches of the beginning to get the tone of the thing right. The first draft was basically The Inbetweeners: Nov 5th Edition. I kind of liked it but it was too vulgar, and it didn’t really fit with the story. With Revels you never know exactly who the audience is going to be so it’s always best to stay on the right side of racy, rather than out-right rude… you don’t want someone choking on their vichyssoise. I had another go at the script, this time remembering that in the same year that the Gunpowder Plot was happening, Shakespeare was writing some of his biggest hits: Macbeth, Hamlet etc. It tickled me to think that these conspirators would all be speaking in fancy Shakespearean language while still bickering and basically being a disorganised rabble (which one set of historians will tell you is exactly what they were.) Once the tone and the language were sorted it all started to take shape pretty quickly.
A big eureka moment came when I realised we needed something overtly theatrical to kick things off, such as an address to the audience. ‘This needs to be like the Chorus in Henry V’ I said to myself (I often talk out loud, when I’m writing.) I began reciting the opening lines of the speech: “O for a muse of fire….WORKS!” I realised that after this first line could then follow a parody of the entire speech. It’s an irreverent opener, but it still plays to an audience’s intellect if they spot the original source. Ultimately, though, what follows in this instance is a very silly play.
Freddie: 'Based on actual events' of course. I remember learning about the Gunpowder Plot at primary school. We were shown a re-enactment video that included the Plotters being tortured in the bowels of the Tower of London. For reals. How much research did you need to do, if any? And did you learn anything surprising?
Oliver: It is based on real events, yes. What’s so interesting about this story, and rather dark, is that it’s about a group of marginalised individuals from a minority religious group who resort to terrorism to try and change things. In many ways we’re all victims of Jacobean propaganda if we view the conspirators as laughable; when we throw the Guy on the bonfire and celebrate the 5th November, it’s all part of that same propaganda machine. I think Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta is the most successful artistic response to the Gunpowder Plot. It re-frames the plotters as freedom fighters against tyranny. But we’re doing something simpler in this piece, laughing at the mundane struggles and petty squabbles of conspirators. In that sense it’s much more indebted to something like Chris Morris’ masterful Four Lions.
Freddie: And just to clarify... how long did it take to write?
Oliver: By the time we had the full go ahead from the client there was only one day of writing time. I started properly writing on Sunday and by bedtime that same evening, quite a late bedtime mind, I was done. Actually, in large part that’s due to Mel, patiently sitting next to me, bouncing ideas with me and then reading sections of the play. I get slightly grumpy when I’m writing because writing, for me, is like purposefully getting lost in a maze. It can be an infuriating process whilst in the midst of it, but then it's incredibly satisfying once the twists and turns have been navigated to completion.
Freddie: Tell us about the read-through. What was it like hearing actors read the words that had been bowling about your head?
Oliver: Delightful. Revels in Hand managed to scramble the A team, and assembled a great group of warm and funny actors. Their instincts are very good so they managed to sell some of the patchier bits of comedy and bumps in the script.
Freddie: Well we think you're a genius. So what's next?
Oliver: Funny you should ask, Freddie. You’re playing the lead in my next play, also for Revels in Hand. It’s a Christmas Farce called Four Calling Birds at the Ivy Club and the Shangri-La Hotel at the top of London’s Shard. The first performances are behind us!
Next on my slate is a little bit of advert writing and then more work on the pair of novels I’m slowly plodding through with. One’s a book for young people and the other is a novel for adults (I keep saying I’m writing an adult novel and people give me funny looks.) Finally, I’m writing a short story inspired by the ghost stories of the Edwardian age.
Tickets for Four Calling Birds at the Ivy Club and the Shangri-La Hotel are now sold out, but more dates are coming in 2020! So keep on eye on our website or follow us on twitter and instagram so more information.