“I Thought I Wrote A Stink” – Alistair McDowall on Global Hit Pomona and New Play The Glow | Theater

AListair McDowall’s new play, The Glow, transports audiences to the 1860s when Ms. Lyall, a spiritualist medium, visits an asylum in search of an assistant. There, she finds a strange, nameless, speechless woman and brings her home, only to find that the woman herself has powers.

The premise is not entirely unknown, but McDowall is as interested in English myth and Arthurian legend as he is in the supernatural: how the past stays with us in the present and how we fictionalize history to make sense of ourselves. themselves. McDowall set out to write a fairy tale “that had real consequences”, taking something that seems to lie in the realm of the fantastic and rooting it in the real world “for there to be a cost and a burden. emotional ”.

The Glow is meant to catch people off guard, he explains on Zoom from Manchester, where he is sitting surrounded by boxes, after moving the day before. Presenting an audience with something that sounds familiar and then unraveling it is something McDowall is good at: his plays have a way of playing with your expectations. This can make them difficult to write without revealing too much. X, from 2016, is a good example: it relies on a research base on Pluto which has lost contact with Earth. The clocks are starting to move back. There is a bug in the weather. But it is, at bottom, a play about loss.

“I tend to write fairly conceptual works”… The Glow.
“I tend to write fairly conceptual works”… The Glow. Photography: Johan Persson

Time has played a key role in many of McDowall’s works. “Failure to consider time as an appropriate element in the writing of the play,” he says, “would be to fail to consider the structure of the characters or the scene. Nonetheless, like JB Priestley, he has several works that could best be described as “time pieces” and Brilliant Adventures from 2011 even contains a real time machine.

Most recently, All of It, a 45-minute rattle through the life of a woman, was performed by Kate O’Flynn at the Royal Court in London last year. It was directed – like X and The Glow – by Vicky Featherstone. “I tend to write pretty conceptual works,” he says. “There’s always a risk that someone will focus on the concept and do something flashy. But Featherstone, he says, is very ingrained. Despite X’s out-of-world location, she understood that “the story was actually pretty straightforward.”

Growing up in Great Broughton, North Yorkshire, McDowall’s interest in acting was sparked, in part, by a drama teacher. At school he read a lot and started stealing books “which I have since republished out of guilt.” He finds the decline of theater in schools overwhelming, not only because it means that potential writers or actors will not have their eyes open like his, but also because theater can “temporarily erode any divisions that may exist.” ‘accumulate at school. ”.

Interested in cinema to begin with, he could not afford a camera, but found that he could pressure his friends to participate in his plays, many of which were “variations of”. The Breakfast Club ”. By that he means a large number of people sitting in a room talking. “That’s what I thought a room was.” But then he got into Beckett and Sarah Kane, Laurie Anderson and Sam Shepard, and began to see the potential of theater. “I’m a theater nerd,” he laughs.

Partly dystopian thriller, part Lovecraftian horror… Pomona.
Partly dystopian thriller, part Lovecraftian horror… Pomona. Photograph: Tristram Kenton / The Guardian

Originally commissioned by the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, before performing at London’s Orange Tree Theater, her 2014 play Pomona – a mix of dystopian thriller and Lovecraftian horror – sounds like the antithesis of a Breakfast Club room. After a wobbly first glimpse, he remembers thinking, “Oh my God, I wrote a real stinker. It’s a dark room, nightmarish in places, but it has become a cult hit, moved to the temporary Shed space of the National Theater. It is his most performed play to date and has been performed all over the world, which still seems to surprise him.

Reading an early version of The Glow is reminiscent of everything from Caryl Churchill’s The Skriker to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Critics often comment on McDowall’s skillful way of using genre tropes, but he’s surprised the theater doesn’t do it more often. After all, he says, “a research base on Pluto is just as bogus as a living room in Victorian London.”

McDowall is energized by the idea that people can once again come together in an auditorium. This is why, he says, the theater will always be his home: there is a magic here that cannot be found elsewhere. “You can put people in a room with actors and you can go anywhere.”

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