Anna Girvan is a director who loves the strange and the unique. She's never done Shakespeare (except to adapt it for child-friendly productions), and has instead always picked up more surrealist projects. It should come as no surprise that at university, she wrote her dissertation on Samuel Beckett. Grace Knight met her for a coffee in Brooks Bar to talk ambiguous theatre, subverting the comic tradition, and finding your inner clown.
A lot of people come to Edinburgh with shows just for the sake of taking something up. I never wanted to do that. I really wanted to go with a show that I thought had a future
Girvan's current show, A Little Nonsense, is a Beckett-esque play that uses clowning, monologue and poetry. What exactly it's about is down to interpretation, but it's a playful, occasionally disturbing, and always extremely well executed piece of theatre.
We kicked off by discussing the ambiguity in the play.
“My opinion on what it is has changed quite a lot over the years. When I first read it, I thought it was two sides of the same person, and they were battling between being able to play and being able to take things seriously.”
Girvan continued that the more she worked on it, the more she decided that it's actually about a relationship in which one person has depression.
“You have those people who are there to try and pick you up and pull you out of it, and having been on both sides of that I really saw it as a relationship where you stick by them because they're not always like this. There are these moments where we've had joy, and fun, and play, and we'll hang around until they come back. And we're gonna wait. I'm gonna wait, I'm gonna wait because they'll be there.
“So I think I see it as someone maybe going through a depressive phase and having someone else trying to pick them up, and help them, and wait for them.”
I commented that Girvan has now been working on the production for two years, touring around a wide range of venues, with a host of different actors. I asked her why the play has fascinated her for so long.
“I think because the writing really excited me. From day one I thought that Olly [Hoare – the writer] had done a tremendous job on his first ever play. We did it in Bristol for a week's run and it got a great response, but I just didn't feel like it was complete. There were always tweaks and changes and different drafts; it just felt like it had a life. A lot of times when I do plays we'll do a two week run and it's kind of done, but this project felt like it needed more time and work.
“Also, when I started working on it I didn't really have much experience of working in clown, and the more that I worked on it, [the more I found] the medium of clown really interesting. I always loved that kind of melancholic Buster Keaton kind of clown, but never really understood the science behind it. The more I've delved into that, the more I've wanted to incorporate that into the piece. With clown, you're not playing a character, you're playing an extended part of yourself, and there's something quite thrilling about it in performance.
“The people we've spoken to all had different interpretations of this play. [One] guy came and saw it in Exeter, and he said, 'Yeah, at first I really thought, it's this fading double act, or whatever, but then I realised it's not. It's about the Internet. So the clown is the Internet. And the man is just trying to get on with work and he can't, and he keeps trying to get on with it and he can't. He wants to play, and eventually he does, and it's great, and he does all this stuff, but then he's got to get back to work.'
“It kind of works, and if that's what he gets out of it then that's grand. He found it incredibly funny and was reading all these things into it, whereas other people really read the tortured homosexual relationship between [the two characters]. I just love the ambiguity in it, and that nothing ever gets particularly answered. You can go away questioning and wanting to see it again to maybe pin down some other bits. So I suppose every time I've worked on it I've found something else.”
I asked her how she found directing a play that has long sections of unscripted devising in it.
“Fortunately, Andy [Kelly, who plays the clown] has a lot of experience in improvisation. Being able just to pick up a game and keep playing for hours, and develop it, [until] you forget what the original game was, is essential. It's funny because it's something that comes very naturally. It's something we do in playgrounds, it's something we've been doing for years, and I think as you grow older it just sort of fizzles out and you stop playing games, but when you start doing it again it comes back very naturally.”
I enquired whether the show had changed a lot over the time she had been working on it.
“It's been really different run to run. The clowns are really different. You can't direct that really, [that's the kind of clown they are] and you can't try to force anything else upon them. Sometimes, with playing with clown, the first initial reaction when you put a nose on is that you think you've got to be funny. It's getting people just to sit, and be, and not think about the nose and not think about doing anything. And that's hilarious, just watching someone sit, sometimes. So [it's about] stripping back what they think their clown is, and getting to the root of it.
I mentioned the scene, right at the start of the play, in which the straight man threatens the clown with a custard pie, but then never actually throws it. Instead, the clown eats the pie with every sign of enjoyment. I asked Girvan about subverting the clowning tradition.
“I think the idea of custard pies and bananas and squeaky horns are all things that we associate with a clown, and are also the things people sometimes don't really like about clowns, because they just think, oh, it's the same old gags. [To clowns], those jokes are kind of insulting. If you try to talk to a clown, a proper clown, and say, 'Lets do custard pie gags, and banana gags', they'll be like, 'Oh, it's so passe'. And there's something really lovely about watching an audience react and be like, 'Oh, here it comes! We know what's coming,” and then cutting it short and saying, “No, you're not having that.” You feel like you're being cut out of something. But then it's also putting a new spin on it. Actually having the [clown] sitting and eating a custard pie, it's just ridiculous. That's actually even funnier.
“I think just going for the smack of a custard pie in the face is like, 'Oh, sad', and then we move on, but if you keep on playing the game between the two of them, that's something much more interesting. Like the play in a play: the clown's aware of the fact that there's an audience here and that this is all play, so everything's exposed.
I asked Girvan what she wants to do with the show next.
“What we'd really like is to be able to tour it around in studio theatres across the country. A lot of people come to Edinburgh with shows just for the sake of taking something up. I never wanted to do that. I really wanted to go with a show that I thought had a future and that people could see, and book, and say, 'This has a life beyond the Fringe.' It could have a life in different festivals - in clown festivals, but also literary ones. Olly's writing is so strong and I want someone to see him and say, 'What are you writing next?' Because he deserves that.
“One of the most difficult things that I think we found about the show at the beginning was how you sell it.”
I can see what she meant. The show is a clown show, but it's less than fifty per cent clowning. It's a piece of drama, but it's very surreal, and it's very funny but not quite in the ways you might expect. Girvan commented that it would be a good show to see if you don't like clowns. I asked her if she had reached a definition.
“It's a clown drama. A dark comedy, I suppose.”