The Brains Behind: 'This Is Living' - Liam Borrett's Debut West End Play
Not So Popular's Nataša Cordeaux sits down with upcoming playwright and director Liam Borrett. She goes behind the scenes to discover his secret to being a successful, young creative in London, whether romance is dead, and how directing E4's Michael Socha (Aliens, This Is England & Being Human) and the BBC's Tamla Kari (The Musketeers & The Inbetweeners Movie) went down... Warning - SPOILER ALERT.
Not-So-Quick Play Review
Not so long ago, I went to see 'This Is Living', the debut West End play of Norwich-born playwright and director, Liam Borrett. It was the show's opening night at Trafalgar Studios. I wandered down into the intimate theatre, to the front row. The set was simplistic but visually stunning - the whole piece took place on a raised platform which harboured a pool of water. Alice (Tamla Kari) and Michael (Michael Socha) were soaked throughout the ninety minute performance and the lighting and sound ran across time and space smoothly as Liam took us through their memories, love, traumas and ghostly conversations. The piece was complex but not complicated. The writing and characters were relatable and grounded, whilst the creative direction encouraged us to feel constantly emotionally conflicted - I was quite literally on the edge of my seat. This was a result of the how 'This Is Living' blurred the lines between the living and the dead, memory and delusion, so that the audience's comfort zone was constantly challenged. We sat between romantic, nostalgic flashbacks and tragic, raw realism. For the whole night, the theatre was filled with the potential and frustration of Alice and Michael's unrealised future, whilst Alice's chilling death dripped down our necks... So inevitably, I had to find out more from the Brains Behind It All...
Not So Popular: Let's start with the basics. How long have you been writing this play?
Liam Borrett: So, it took me four years to write the current version as its now published. I started writing in my second year at Drama Centre and reworked it continuously for the following four years - this included an hour long production of it at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival 2014. However, it couldn't stay that length, so I heavily reworked it. Now running at ninety minutes, with this extra time, I felt able to explore and flesh out those crucial moments in their relationship - like the night they first meet each other - finally they can properly talk to one another.
NSP: I like the way you talk about your characters as real people - they certainly felt like it. I have to ask, were they plucked from your imagination? Or are they perhaps familiar faces from your life?
LB: Well, when I first started writing they were just fictional characters I created, they weren't based on particular people. But then, in Edinburgh I experienced a significant moment, I met someone. Ultimately it didn't work out with them, but they changed the play totally. Suddenly Alice and Michael became more akin to that person and myself. Some of the themes of the couple's dialogues are even based on conversations I shared with that person over a period of a year. It was this new association that really helped me to see the characters as tangible personalities. And then of course, you cast your two actors and suddenly they are no longer you and that person. That was important too - Tamla and Michael had to own the characters and bring their unique personalities to their respective roles. The evolution of Alice and Michael made them fuller, rounder characters.
NSP: Speaking of Michael and Tamla - considering their background in film and TV, how did you find it working with them on such a challenging theatrical piece?
LB: They were really brave in this piece. It is the hardest play Tamla's ever done on stage, and Michael hadn't been on stage for nine years. They totally appreciated how difficult the play is. It's an hour and a half of two people talking on stage, constantly jumping in time and range. It's like running a marathon every night, and they did it for a month without fault. They threw themselves into it. They realised early on that they had to really commit to it - they couldn't do it half arsed. I'll hand it to them - they were a pleasure to work with and they did really solid work; they fully deserved the praise the reviews gave them.
NSP: The play is a romantic tragedy of sorts, but your portrayal of romance isn't the conventional clichés we've all come to know. Is romance dead?
LB: Romance was always going to be a part of the play. However, people switch off if you do an overly romanticised version of a relationship - or at least, I do at the theatre. In 'This Is Living' there are moments which are slightly sweetened, but actually we tried really hard to ground it in a practicality - the characters don't really hold hands or gaze into each other's eyes - at the end of the day we wanted to show a real couple. We wanted to find the balance.
Romance is not dead, but frankly if you are going to make this kind of play accessible, you don't want a disney love story - it's not practical, its not messy. Love is really painful, and that pain is testament to the character's relationship, because they stick together and work through it - even grief.
During the play that a moment of joy can turn instantly into a moment of grief, it shows that those two emotions are not really that far apart. In a way, romance in the play is about finding moments of grief which really make you cherish moments of happiness.
NSP: In the same way 'This Is Living' plays with the line between grief and joy, and with our understanding of love - you also seem to unravel of the boundaries between the past and present, memory and reality, the living and the dead. It's quite chilling in ways - how was this tackled in rehearsals?
LB: The three of us talked for a long time about what is reality with the play, reality for Michael and reality for Alice. If we were to look at the situation realistically, Alice would be in a morgue, dead, and the conversations they have in the play would be fabrications, delusions of his grief. But we treated those conversations beyond the grave as if Alice was actually there with Michael. In rehearsals we asked each other: if you could stand in front of death and speak to a soul of a passed loved one, or if you could speak to your loved one you left behind on earth - what would you say? What are the fundamental questions you would ask? How do you prepare someone to carrying on living without you? Furthermore, whether they're on the side of the living or the dead, both Alice and Michael are isolated, they are both grieving equally.
NSP: How did you find it writing a female voice?
LB: I actually find it a lot easier than writing for Michael. I primarily write for female characters, and I tend to watch and read a lot more female led plays. I find female characters incredibly accessible as a viewer - it's my way into the story and to sympathising with a character. Whereas, I felt a slight detachment from male characters - it wasn't until the Michael character became me, that I could then write about how he felt - otherwise it seemed almost impossible. It took a long time to balance the play between them, so it wouldn't just be Alice's play.
I do think it's incredibly important to showcase the female voice, and for me exploring parenthood was vital. There is something theatrically interesting about taking a child from its mother; having carried the child and being the child's primary source of care - taking the bond away from the mother opens our understanding up of this relationship in new ways. I felt like it's more interesting than the father's plight.
NSP: Arguably it does feel that 'This Is Living' really looks at the male emotion and the role of the father. I found this element particularly important, especially as today we still have a society which is uncomfortable with seeing men vulnerable. How do you think the play deals with this?
LB: Alice's death instantly makes Michael a single dad. He is clearly not prepared for that situation, and this is where he is most vulnerable. He'd worked a lot and saw Lilly at the weekends. He was the fun parent, and Alice was practical. Without her though, the question then becomes: how do you suddenly switch to giving and being everything to this child? It puts him a totally foreign place...
It is an uncomfortable experience to watch a man cry- to watch him be incredibly vulnerable. An audience member confided in me about the show. She said she'd never see a man cry before seeing Michael's weeping for his wife. She described it as extremely uncomfortable to witness as she'd not even seen her husband cry. But that is what the play allows us to do - it opens up this private moment - the audience is ease dropping and sees distressing moments that frankly you shouldn't be watching, because in everyday life, you wouldn't.
NSP: Speaking of uncomfortable, I was struck by the presence of water on the set. I thought it had a very powerful affect given that Alice dies by drowning. What was your thinking behind that? Why drowning, for example?
LB: Why drowning? I don't know, there is something innately accidental about drowning... people don't generally tend to try and drown themselves. Also, water can be anywhere - so water becomes a constant reminder of her death. If Alice had been shot or hung, Michael wouldn't be confronted by as many visual reminders in his everyday life. Whereas water is everywhere, it's coming out of your tap... it's a strong visual connection he has at all times with how she died. Throughout, the presence of water on set and the fact that Alice is constantly soaked is a visual reminder that they will never be able to get away from the tragedy, the audience is not allowed a moment to escape from the haunting fact that she had drowned - Alice is dead and no, it's not pretty.
NSP: You moved from Norwich to London five years ago. It seems to me London's been a hotbed for your work and the city features in various forms in the play. For example, Alice and Michael first meet on the underground. How has London impacted you and the play would you say?
LB: Being from Norwich, I've always really wanted to live in London - I was enthralled by London growing up. But once I finally came here I find it really hard - I felt instantly detached, it was depressing. It's strange, London is so full of life, so many people and yet it's incredibly lonely, especially if you come here without knowing anyone. I literally didn't know anyone when I arrived, and that's horrible. So in a way, I was very keen on having two people in the play who didn't know each other and were also not from London. In that sense, they are both isolated and keen to latch onto each other and explore London together. There's something about country people living in the city... but her death had to be on holiday in the country - Alice wouldn't die in the city, she would die in the place she was born.
NSP: Lots of our readers and contributors are creatives who are struggling with balancing work-for-money and work-for-love. What's your secret to being a young, successful (or at least getting there!) playwright in London?
LB: Well, first of, London's the place to do it. Secondly, you really have to be proactive and make sure you find time for it. Thirdly, you've go to know that if you want to do it, you can do it.
For me, the best thing about writing, opposed to directing (as you are reliant on other people), is that as long as you've got a pad and pen or laptop, you can do it anywhere. I write verbatim, my phone is filled with dialogue and voice memos, ideas for scenes or funny anecdotes - I type it all up later.
Saying that when it comes to writing, I can be incredibly lazy. This is where having an agent with time constraints has been a god send. You know, it was only on the orders of my agent that I managed to finish a play that I started a year and a half ago - and I finished it in just two weeks. It was clearly all there in my head, but I was too lazy until someone said 'Uh Liam, we'd like to read that in a fortnight'.
NSP: So, you've hinted at a new play... can you tell us more about what's in pipeline? And also what the future is looking like for 'This Is Living'?
LB: Well the-new-play-that-shall-not-be-named is a bigger piece in terms of length. I normally write for maximum of five people, but this has around ten characters, and is very epic in its scale compared to the intimacy my other work. Hopefully you'll see it surface in the next year or so.
For 'This Is Living', I feel I have gone as far as I can with it on stage, but I would be interested to look at it in a different medium.
NSP: Finally, that old classic question - what's your inspiration as a playwright?
LB: Theatrical experiences made me want to write plays. There are two performances in particular which made me want to be a playwright: Mark Rylance in Jerusalem by Jez Butterworth and Kate O'Flynn at The National starring in Port by Simon Stephens.
ABOUT 'THIS IS LIVING'
'You weren’t moving. Your hair was soaked. We saw you.'
Alice and Michael met six years ago. Three years later their daughter Lily was born. Now, in a Yorkshire meadow, just past midnight, they’re having an argument. Because Alice is cold, she’s tired, and Michael won’t stop telling her that she died twelve hours ago.
Following a critically-acclaimed Edinburgh production, this award-winning debut play by Liam Borrett was presented at Trafalgar Studios 2, starring Michael Socha (E4’s The Aliens, This is England, Being Human) and Tamla Kari (BBC's The Musketeers, The Inbetweeners Movie). It is a poignant exploration of what it means to say goodbye, and the blurred line between living, memory and death.