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No Sacred Cows  
Toby Young
Saturday 26th April 2003

Under the Whaleback / Scenes From the Big Picture / A Reckoning / Three Sisters / Ancestral Voices

The Spectator - 26th April 2003

In the past year or so I've been struggling to master various forms of dramatic writing. I've been hired by three different film companies to adapt books for the screen and I've been actively involved in adapting my own book for the stage, the results of which will be reviewed by Lloyd Evans next week. Rather predictably, I've taken several courses by Hollywood screenwriting gurus, including the famous Robert McKee, and this has influenced my reaction to the plays I've seen in the course of doing this job. I often become rather irritated when a play flagrantly disregards the rudimentary principles of dramatic writing as set out by these gurus, and yet the corollary doesn't always apply. Sometimes, I'm equally unimpressed by plays that follow the rules.

Take Under the Whaleback, for instance. One of the golden rules that's been drummed into me again and again is that a dramatic story must begin with an "inciting incident"--a key event that sets the narrative in motion--and that this incident must occur within the first 10 minutes. Now Under the Whaleback, a new play set in Hull about three generations of fishermen, has an "inciting incident" but it doesn't occur until midway through the third act when the protagonist, Darrel, is confronted by the son of a former shipmate who holds him responsible for his father's death. Still, Under the Whaleback isn't a complete disaster. The writer, Richard Bean, has created a marvellous character in the form of Cassidy, a wild, free-spirited drunk who dominates the entire play, even though Bean kills him off at the end of the first act. Needless to say, this is another textbook error.

Scenes From the Big Picture, a new play set in Northern Ireland by Owen McCafferty, displays a similar disregard for the rulebook. It's an ensemble piece with lots of different characters and multiple storylines, yet rather than follow the conventional rules when it comes to this sort of story, rules exemplified by films like Gosford Park and Magnolia in which the various narrative threads eventually come together, McCafferty has opted for a soap opera structure in which the storylines never really converge. This is suited to an open-ended TV series like EastEnders, but not to a stand-alone drama like this. (We want closure, damnit!) The result is a sprawling, two-and-a-half-hour mess, yet it achieves its aim of showing you how every layer of society in the province has been poisoned by "the troubles". Paradoxically, Scenes From the Big Picture is meticulously well designed, even though McCafferty ignores the basic principles of story telling.

A Reckoning, by contrast, is a textbook example of "good" dramatic writing. It's a two-hander in which a troubled, 27-year-old girl confronts her father, accusing him of "emotional abuse". She dredges up half-forgotten memories that seem to suggest he may be guilty of other, more serious forms of abuse and, this being a play set in America, they end up facing each other in court. From the gurus point of view. A Reckoning has everything going for it--an "inciting incident", an "arc" for each of the characters, a "turning point" at the end of each act--yet it's strangely unsatisfying. With it's conventional, Hollywood structure and afternoon talk-show subject-matter--False Memory Syndrome--it feels like a movie-of-the-week circa 1995. Jonathan Pryce and Flora Montgomery do their best to inject a note of ambiguity into the proceedings, but we're never really in any doubt as to who's guilty and who's innocent.

The Three Sisters, too, exemplifies the principles of "good" story telling as set out by people like Robert McKee, but unlike A Reckoning it's an out-and-out masterpiece. This is an excellent new translation by Christopher Hampton, superbly directed by Michael Blakemore, and it's easily the best thing on the West End stage at the moment. What makes Chekhov's characters so extraordinarily vivid is the sense you have of their inner lives, revealed more by what they don't say than what they do. There's a quote from Stanislavsky in the Penguin edition of Chekhov's plays that sums it up: "His plays are full of action, not in their external but in their inner development. In the very inactivity of his characters a complex inner activity is concealed." Of course, it helps if you have an actress of Kristin Scott Thomas's calibre in the cast. Somehow, she manages to convey more in a single moment, in which she remains absolutely motionless, than most actresses do over the course of an entire play.

This is a problem faced by the authors of one-handers like Ancestral Voices. How can you include those dramatic moments in which a character does nothing when there's only one character on stage? Ancestral Voices is an adaptation of the diaries of James Lees-Milne by Hugh Montgomery-Massingberd and if ever a play was tailor-made for Spectator readers this is it. Lees-Milne is, by turns, snobbish, nostalgic, rueful, splenetic, mischievous and stoical, each mood perfectly captured by Moray Watson. But is there any meaningful subtext? Unfortunately, Lees-Milne is too self-aware to leave the audience any room to discover anything about him for themselves; he's a sphinx without a riddle. The very best storytellers communicate as much by what they leave out as what they include and, as anyone who ever crossed Lees-Milne's path will know, he left absolutely nothing out.

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