Charming, terrifying gem among shorts

Directions – Short Plays with Shetland Roots. Published by Playback Editions, £4.

Play texts have always been a specialised niche in the publishing industry. Plays reach a wide audience through performance rather than through being read and yet unless texts are published how can a play have a life beyond a limited performance run? Publication is essential to offer the opportunity of further performances and to increase accessibility to a wide range of play scripts for those interested in writing for the theatre. It is therefore a pleasure to see this new publication from Playback Editions featuring six short plays written by Shetland authors for the 2010 Wordplay Festival. Running through all the pieces is a common thread – the threat of systems or situations overwhelming individuality and humanity. This is fertile ground for drama but is an area of such scope that it can be very difficult to fit into a 10-minute format. There is no time for a measured unveiling of the situation or for careful character develop­ment.

These pieces all have to “hit the ground running” and move swiftly to the chosen climax. Inevitably the results are mixed with some of the pieces needing to be expanded into much longer pieces. Chief among these are The Loser by Jeff Merrifield and Planet Republic by Genevieve White. In the former (based on a true story) a humble bank clerk steals £3 million to fund a gambling habit made worse by criminal associates who exploit his naivety. There is a rich story here which despite well crafted language cannot be fully explored by a short courtroom style inquisition interspersed with narrated back-story.

In the second piece a Utopian ideal is revealed as an Orwellian nightmare with the passive endorse­ment of a weak populace. The dialogue is excellent in its brutal sparseness and a sense of individual impotence when facing corporate systems is evident. But the rich dramatic potential can only be hinted at rather than fully explored in such a small time span.

More successful in terms of form matching content is The Waiter by Clint Watt. The scenario is familiar. A man wakes up and, to his horror, discovers he is dead. This is a storyline that has been covered many times before. However this piece does not attempt to explore the depth of the character or the psychology of human mortality. Sensibly, it opts for a superficial presentation of the situation where some witty dialogue and simplicity of form make for a neat little playlet.

Similarly, Watching by Debbie Nicolson is happy in its own skin. This is probably best described as an extended sketch satirising the world of work in a (local authority) office where policies, practices and union agreements have created such a level of demarcation and dup­lication that all flair and passion have been destroyed. There are some genuine points made in the piece about the increasingly regulated workplace and attitudes towards it, but there is no sense of trying to create a piece of hard hitting drama. It is gentle and amusing, if ultimately rather inconsequential.

There is a massive potential in exploring the way that social networking sites can promote false, superficial friendship at the expense of true, considered communication with fellow human beings. This is hinted at in What are you doing now? by Kevin Briggs. However, this is probably the least successful piece in the book. This is a play that hasn’t quite made up its mind what it is. It could have been a funny sketch delivered in the form of a pure monologue or it could have been a more serious piece studying a breakdown in communication between husband and wife or a man and his friends. In the event it falls between two stools, with a fragmented monologue broken by the voices of the online, boastful friends and the silence of the wife upstairs. Entertaining at times, it is a frustrating piece that needs a greater clarity of purpose.

The final piece in the book is a little gem. Something is afoot, somewhere … by Jane McKay is a piece of scary, abstract nonsense that seems to inhabit its own unique world. It is difficult to say what this tiny play really is. It’s easier is to say what it is not. It is not a comedy sketch; it is not a large piece scaled back to fit a particular form; it is not a formal one act play. This play is an enigma, a question mark. It inhabits its world perfectly rather than being “made to fit in”. The result is charming, terrifying and uplifting.

Over recent years there has been an upsurge in new writing for the stage in Shetland. This is to be encouraged and supported. Oppor­tunities to present new work need to be exploited to the maximum providing a platform for writers to explore style, content and form. This publication is an important part of that process. While not a compendium of perfectly finished plays, it nevertheless provides a clear snapshot of the breadth of talent in Shetland and is a fascinating insight into the process of creating new work. It tackles assumptions about what a play “should be”. Best of all it is theatrically stimulating.

John Haswell


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