A Bit of Tabloid at the Heart
Chris Hannan talks to Heather Neill about writing The God of Soho for Shakespeare's Globe. This article was first published in the Globe's quarterly magazine Around The Globe, Spring 2011.
Heather Neill. Where's the play set?
Chris Hannan. It opens in heaven, in a scene with the gods. Then heaven falls and the gods abandon it and these three characters - Mr and Mrs God and their daughter - get mixed up in the lives of some homeless people in Soho. They find an iconic 1950s Hermes-Kelly bag abandoned on the Soho streets which contains a dark secret and - in Dickensian fashion - provides a plot link between the homeless scene of Soho and the celebrity one.
Heather Neill. Which is where the central character Natty and her boyfriend come in...
Chris Hannan. ...the kind of celebrity couple who fight each other in the front pages of the tabloids and whose existence as celebrities depends upon publicity.
HN. Most of the play has a contemporary setting...Soho and millionaire Essex. Would you describe it as a satire?
CH. No. I don't feel in any way superior to my celebrity couple or any of the characters. The tabloid couple are an extreme version of us. They fetishize sex and fame and brands and success - and so do we - even Guardian readers and intellectuals and those of us who like to think we're above all that. We live in a world of internet porn and "dogging" and Wayne Rooney and iPhones.
HN. Would you describe the play as a satire on celebrity?
CH. No. I'm not even sure the play is ABOUT celebrity.
HN. I wondered if it's about what we worship.
CH. About what we worship and do we even know.
HN This all sounds very serious, but there is a lot of comedy in the script too and there are surprises. Dominic Dromgoole, the Globe’s artistic director, refers to your “detached vivacity” in his book, The Full Room.
CH That’s a fair description. I have a bad habit of laughing in the wrong places! It's partly because I overflow with enjoyment of life, but I do tend to be looking in from the outside sometimes. I'm not always on the same page as other people.
HN This business of being an outsider...you once said you wished as a child that you were Jewish?
CH When I was young I used to think my life was so mundane and colourless and middle-of-the-road that it would cripple my chances of ever becoming a writer! I would read Isaac Bashevis Singer and wish I was Jewish. Now looking back I see that being a Catholic in the West of Scotland in the 1960s was pretty exotic. It was a ghetto - I didn’t meet a Protestant until I was 14 - and we lived in a world of miraculous medals and votive candles, incense and processions and a belief in purgatory. It was basically a pre-Elizabethan world.
HN What about now? Would you say your philosophy of life differs from current fashionable thinking?
CH I don't know, maybe I've gone from pre-Elizabethan to post-postmodern or something. The postmodern vibe is to be ironic about everything, all negative and cynical. Postmodern intellectuals give the impression that goodness and love are fictions, don't they? Like, they should only be discussed in inverted commas - "goodness" and "love". And there's a glib sort of "life is random and meaningless and art should reflect that" thing that goes on. Whereas I kind of think goodness and love should be at the heart of our intellectual exploration - and the art we make.
HN We don’t want to give away too much, but has this idea affected your writing of the play’s ending?
CH You asked me if this was a satire. I guess I see it more as an unlikely love story. The central character is a celeb who can only enjoy sex if it involves pain. She's a bit complicated. And she shares a huge part of her genetic make-up with the hammer-head shark. And she's got this boyfriend and it's like, can they live happy ever after?
HN Your characters speak a mixture of street language and poetry. Or perhaps you see no distinction?
CH That’s right: this is theatre; it's all just language. Mark Rylance said that actors in the Globe need to light themselves with their voices. I need to help them do that by giving them some expressive language.
HN What was your reaction when you were invited to write for this unique - some say challenging - building?
CH I felt that as a space it needs big characters, naked emotions, and a story which is - not necessarily epic - but public. You know? I think that's why I went for something that's got a bit of tabloid at its heart.
HN Are you planning to include a traditional jig?
CH No. But song and dance, yes. That works a treat here. It's a very... performative space. I'm not sure EXACTLY what I mean by that - but for instance Brecht would be fab on that stage.
HN Your characters very occasionally address the audience directly. How would you sum up the relationship between characters and audience in a Globe play?
CH The audience are so “there”, so present, they need to be “in” on events, to know as much if not more than the people onstage. It’s a strategy Shakespeare uses all the time - to build suspense. Like when Duncan enters Macbeth's castle there's tragic suspense, because we know better than Duncan what's liable to happen to him inside - in the scene before we have been told what's planned for him, just as in Twelfth Night we watch Malvolio being set up and can relish the comedy fate in store for him. The one thing you can’t be here - well, I think so anyway - is Pinteresque, mysterious, exclusive. The audience need to care about the people they are watching. They need to be let in.
HN Do you see this as a place for experiment?
Chris Hannan. Kathryn Hunter's production of Pericles showed it was a space for total theatre, for physical as well as verbal acrobatics - so in that sense it's a very contemporary space. But that's not answering your question.... I would say yes, it's a place for experiment - Che Walker's The Frontline was like nothing I've ever seen before. The thing is that the Globe is a unique space and a unique space will bring into being unique new plays. It's bound to.