This is an incredibly self-indulgent post about my favourite books, film, tv and theatre. There is a reason behind this indulgence though. Often I think we make work because we think it will sell, or it will promote our careers. By revisiting my (mainly childhood) inspirations, I’m hoping to spot similarities and patterns. Perhaps by doing so, I’ll learn more about myself and my own work. Perhaps I’ll get ideas for the future.
I was a pretty unhappy kid. Especially at primary school, books were my escape – I would seek out the darkest corners of the playground, hide away, and read. By age eleven I had I made my way through pretty much every book by Enid Blyton, Roald Dahl, Willard Price and the Goscinny/Uderzo Asterix partnership. By age fifteen, most Terry Pratchett books had been added to this list.
There are lots of similarities: each author wrote a long series of books that had adventure, escapism, and unbreakable friendships at their hearts. I loved the stories of runaway kids colonising a secret island, Hal and Roger’s (ethically dubious) missions to collect rare animal species, Roald Dahl and Terry Pratchett’s humungously witty fantasies and the endless feasts of wild boar in Gaul.
When it comes to ‘grown-up’ authors I’m much less well-read – around the age of fifteen reading was replaced with booze, cigarettes and a group of friends who accepted me for the weirdo I was. From the little I have read though, War and Peace is for me the greatest of all novels. I adore its epic sweep, heart-wrenching romance, fascinating characters and constant soul-searching. Other than Tolstly, I also love Hemingway‘s brutal muscularity and Scott Fitzgerald’s floating lyricism. Peter Carey, always quirky and offbeat, is the living novelist whose work I’ve read the most.
Most of my shows are inspired by books – probably because most playwrights seem to shy away from grand vistas of novels or history. Theatre doesn’t have to be full of chamber pieces.
TV / Film
Comedy leads the way for me in TV and film. From my childhood, I retain a huge affection for Dad’s Army, the Carry On movies and the Naked Gun trilogy. I’m not sure how well the latter two have stood the test of time, but Dad’s Army remains an absolute classic. All three delighted in ridiculous characters, absurd situations, and hilariously stupid shenanigans. All three are also jam-packed with big physical-comedy numbers. Perhaps that’s why I loved them so much over wittier products.
There were also two serious films I watched over and over again: Excalibur and Dead Poet’s Society. Excalibur tapped into my love of epic and fantastical adventures. In Dead Poet’s Society I found so many personal resonances – characters desperate for a sympathetic father figure, trapped in stiflingly institutions and exploring sex and sexuality for the first time. My parents took me to see it at the cinema, and I remember bawling my eyes out. “O Captain, my Captain!”. Melodrama at its finest!
As I’ve got older, three film directors stand above any others – David Lynch, Marcel Carne and Wes Anderson. Each treads a fine line between beauty and pretentiousness, but at their best they combine visionary artistry with gripping entertainment. There’s also something fantastical about the work of all three – they all shed naturalistic trappings to create unique and majestic universes. In an increasingly bland cinematic world, their work could never be confused for anybody else’s.
As a kid living in Jersey, I didn’t get to see that much theatre. One company did visit every year though: the mask-company Trestle. Fantastical, funny and deeply entertaining, their physical storytelling captivated my childhood imagination. If it hadn’t been for Trestle I wonder if I’d be making theatre today.
I boarded for my sixth-form and had an amazing drama teacher who took us to see the best in contemporary theatre. Two trips in particular blew my mind: Steven Berkoff’s East at the Theatre Royal Bath and Mark Rylance’s Antony & Cleopatra at The Globe. I’d never seen anything like them before – they exploded with physical energy, incredible storytelling and an unashamedly profane sense of humour. Anarchic, badly-behaved, they completely changed my ideas of what theatre could be.
The next big wave of influences came in Paris, where I had enrolled at the Ecole Philippe Gaullier. Firstly there was Philippe himself – undoubtedly the single biggest influence on my theatre-making process. I guess he was the perfect match for my tastes. Like me, Philippe’s not hugely high-brow, but he does insist on beautiful performances, clear story-telling, and the light of humanity shining strong. He also loves to laugh, but has no fear of the tragic. He taught me to never be boring, to put the audience at the centre of everything, and to never let reverence for the text destroy its live possibilities.
At the same time as studying with Philippe I was being exposed to some of the international demi-gods of theatre: Ariane Mnouchkine, Robert Lepage and Robert Wilson. Their ambition was extraordinary, their sense of spectacle utterly compelling, their visual imaginations unbounded. In comparison, British theatre nearly always feels wimpish and parochial.
Which is probably why it’s so difficult for me to list any huge inspirations beyond my time in Paris. I’ve loved the work of Hoipolloi, the immersive experiences of Punchdrunk and the bravery of my good friend Philip Burgers (aka Dr Brown). Writers like Crimp, Mamet and Simon Stephens continue to enthrall me. I’ve also learnt a huge amount from assisting Irina Brown and Cal McCrystal – generous friends and teachers who have dedicated so much of their time and patience to my artistic growth.
Every now and again I’m blown away by something new, but I have to say it’s getting few and far between. I guess that’s inevitable – in theatre at least, there’s very little I haven’t seen. Increasingly these skin-sweating-heart-racing moments are more likely to come from other art-forms: films like Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty or events like the Burning Man Festival. What’s interesting is that reading through all these favourites, there are clear similarities. I clearly love epic and fantastical story-telling; with a few notable exceptions, overt naturalism doesn’t get a great look in; there’s also a huge love for comedy – especially of the anarchic variety. Interestingly enough, there’s little love for overtly philosophical works. Either I want to be blown away by impassioned stories beautifully told, or I want to watch stupid idiots slipping on banana peels. I wonder if the two can go together?