(a conversation to music)
by Tom George Hammond
In this new feature, we invite creatives to speak about an album of their choosing – it can be recent work, a new discovery, or a long-standing favourite – and see where the conversation takes us.
Ava Wong Davies is a writer, playwright and theatre critic. She is a contributor for The Stage, Exuent, and gal-dem, and was awarded with the Sunday Times Award for Theatre Criticism in 2018. Her debut play, i will still be whole (when you rip me in half), premiered at The Bunker Theatre in November 2019.
We met to talk about music, theatre, and the pressures of being a young creative in the current political climate. Her album of choice was Lana Del Rey’s “Norman Fucking Rockwell”.
Why did you choose this particular album?
It’s punchy, particularly in the first half. Super scathing. I mean I remember when “Video Games” came out in…
I think it was 2011.
Oh God was it that long ago? And I used to listen to “Born to Die” when I was fifteen. Very much the Tumblr aesthetic.
So when you say this album is more scathing than her previous work?
Yeah because she just sounds tired in this album – and it’s great – she sounds fed up. Before she sounded more pining, in an affected “feminine” way, whereas in this album… it’s more droll, with her sense of humour, much more self-aware. The songs feel more robust. More mature.
It’s interesting, it feels like there’s now an aesthetic that’s caught on, particularly with young artists who are quite successful, who then adopt a similar guise to how Lana Del Rey used to present herself, in “Video Games” and “Off to the Races”, being vulnerable and stripped back.
I think her whole thing was always artifice. She has always performed – I think she called herself Nancy Sinatra with a gun – so the album feels truthful, but it has a muscular energy to it.
I’m interested in the idea of artists being encouraged to reclaim the honesty of their own narrative. There’s now an expectation of art that it comes from a place of personal experience.
Sure. I think there’s a big push in theatre, as well – I’m fully going to talk about theatre now..
There is a big push in theatre for that authentic voice – and there is now that type of Fringe show which is super autobiographical – and what stresses me out is when there’s such an abundance of Fringe shows now that are based on people’s personal traumas, and I’m so concerned about it because these are young emerging artists who are then having to perform their traumas – partly obviously for themselves and because they think it is artistically relevant and interesting – but if you are a young emerging artist who doesn’t have any safety net, how are you supposed to take care of yourselves?
And I worry about what is, in a way, the commodification of personal history and trauma – it feels like it could get ugly. As a critic, it’s quite difficult to review that sort of thing, because often there isn’t really a clear boundary between the art and the person.
There isn’t really a ‘death of the author’ type thing.
Yeah, it can feel like you’re reviewing a person, which is really tough.
It’s a fascinating reversal – this is a very broad statement – but the old-fashioned idea of the playwright as someone who, The Ferryman is a good example, someone really established writing about something that entirely isn’t their background, and offering quite a superficial reading of a country’s history – the old-fashioned idea of a writer is someone who could write about these things while being removed from them. And a young writer is sort of supposed to do the opposite.
Yeah and encouraged to tap into themselves for material or artistic expression. Jez Butterworth seems to be permitted to tell those other sorts of stories because he is a successful white guy.
I think with older writers, they think perhaps they are expected to offer statement plays or ‘State of the Nation’ plays.
Yes, because they view themselves as being in the neutral position. They think its fair ground because they are supposedly in the centre so can jump left and right.
I read the piece in The Atlantic about the National Theatre…
Christ, yes, that piece…
That piece, indeed, and it strikes me that we don’t have a polemical writer, like David Hare, or certainly not someone operating at that rate in producing polemics.
I think it depends on what your definition of ‘political’ theatre is. Nine Night, to me, is as political as David Hare’s writing – maybe what needs to be reframed is how we think about the traditional polemical play. My favourite article of the last year was Maddy Costa’s writing on the “well-made play”, where she interviewed Ella Hickson, and Ella says that form is not written for women or people of colour but is written for the white cis man. And Ella seeks to write outside of that form, as that form was not written for her, and I think that is interesting for how we frame political theatre. Maybe the ‘state of the nation’ play – maybe that sort of play has had its time, because we’ve seen that play before. And it always comes from a particular perspective, which is not interesting to me.
To return to the album, you were talking before about it capturing a sense of anger and inertia. I think that’s unique to our generation, and how we are responding to the current news cycle, as compared to older generations, a feeling beyond anger or shock.
I think it’s interesting to read the criticism that surrounded this album. A lot of reviewers called it her most overtly political work, which I don’t think it is. I don’t think an album just about Trump would be… I think it is primarily just about a breakup, but the mood of it is far more indicative of a general political feeling.
And, with reference to that article in The Atlantic, do you think it is the job of the National Theatre to have that immediate play, in response to a National issue – like their plays tackling Brexit or Britain after Brexit (My Country, George and the Dragon)?
That’s a really hard question. There’s so much that the National should be doing and representing, and there’s the fundamental problem that it’s the ‘National’ theatre but that it’s based in London, so how are you ever going to make a work that is a full response to Brexit, for example? I struggle so much with what the National should be doing; there’s possibly a problem with theatre responding quickly to things – at the National, the Brexit plays felt quite rushed out, and it filters into this idea that theatre has to prove its material worth, and prove that it’s a relevant art form and its capable of responding quickly to something, but in that case it backfired. Possibly these things need more time. I think that the role the theatre has to play is to be quite Utopian, and so then in programming, focusing on programming more women and more people of colour, would perhaps suggest better for society.
Was there a particular older writer who drew you in to wanting to write for theatre, in your more formative years? Or a particular play that you thought “I want to replicate that”.
Well – this is quite funny – but in GCSEs we were doing Journey’s End…
And we went to go see it and Captain Stanhope – quite an attractive character – was being played by James Norton, in one of his first big roles. At the time I was really gripped by it, and I thought it was because the play was amazing, but now I think about it, it was because I fancied James Norton.
So your crush on James Norton drew you into theatre?
Basically, James Norton is why I’m in the theatre industry. And then I went to see Michael Sheen’s Hamlet – that was a terrible production – but at the time I thought it was incredible because it felt live and dangerous and stressful. And Mr. Sheen was writhing and ripping off his shirt – and there was a really interesting cut in it. They cut to the interval just after the mousetrap section. It was very frenetic, actors were running around the stage, Claudius had stormed out, Michael Sheen was narrating into a microphone, there’s this weird tinny elevator music, it built to this crescendo. And then Michael Sheen just did this incredibly flamboyant bow, and there was a blackout. And it was amazing, quite irreverent in a lot of ways – I remember gasping because I had never seen anything like it.
And at that age, were you writing short plays and that sort of thing?
Well when I was little, I wanted to be a novelist. I remember writing a novel when I was nine.
What was it about?
It was a fantasy novel. I think I was a princess who saved the world, and I think there were griffins in it, which is a very strange choice of fantasy animal.
I tried to write a novel when I was sixteen.
It was just The Catcher in the Rye, again, but with me in it. It was my understanding, and I think it was for long afterwards, that writing a novel or a play was just re-writing something you liked, and changing a few elements.
That’s quite charming. I think it’s totally normal for a young artist to make something that’s derivative of an older artist’s work because it just means that they’re learning and figuring out their taste.
The way that one is taught theatre at school and at university, with the sense of tradition, but we seem to have reached a major turning point, the first major turning point since the sixties, when the form has now progressed past the whittling down to basics. I suppose the question is, do you feel the pressure now of not being derivative?
Do I feel the pressure to not be derivative?
Not that you are derivative…
I mean yes, all the time, it’s terrifying – because when I get stuck I read plays, and I worry that I’m going to lift something from those plays. But you have to trust it will become your own thing, even if there are surface similarities, it will evolve into something entirely in your own voice.
I read your review of Jack Thorne’s the end of history, and your comments about the “well-made play”. Do you think that sort of structure has become a relic now?
I just don’t care for it, I don’t get anything from it. If I can feel the narrative beats – they’re so ingrained, but for a reason, because they work – there is a bodily reaction to a “well-made play” because it is inherently “well made”. I will always be more interested in things – this is just personal preference – but things that aren’t so narrative-based. I find narrative and plot difficult to handle and will always prefer things that are almost mood pieces, to be honest. Things that push away from dramaturgical ideas of how a play should flow. I think there is something to be said about, say, a brown female playwright writing in that form and claiming that form, which feels radical, but I still think the form itself has been wrung dry.
And is this something that you felt when you entered into theatre criticism, or is it something that has crystallised?
No it’s crystallised, for sure. Being at Warwick University, which has such a reputation for being formally inventive and trying out new things, and while I was there, having peers who were doing stuff that was more performance art based, and that came from that aesthetic rather than ‘the play’ aesthetic – I definitely went into uni loving plays, and I came out really loving devised work – although I know I could never write for that form. I know I couldn’t. But that sensibility has really cracked into my mind, and that sense of almost holistic ‘making’, and it being quite a democratic process, with everyone in a room together and everyone making a thing together. Rather than just the writer working separately to the director.
Do you recall moments in devised work – individual moments of physicality or movement – that really stick out to you?
So much of it is Emergency Chorus. I’ve seen all their work, they’re friends of ours, and I love the movement in their shows, and I love that it’s purposefully not professional and that it is clumsy and very human and tender, and it is crafted but it is not sleek or slick, which I find so delightful and charming – and live – because it’s constantly failing, in a way, and much of performance art and devised work is about the failure of doing something, which I really like, and which is why I have an aversion to big West End musicals. They feel so well-oiled and often they don’t feel ‘live’.
You were sharing some of your favourite articles of last year, and you included an article from Vulture – which was Sarah Holdren’s review of Betrayal – and the writer was talking about Tom Hiddleston’s performance and she said she could a sense of detachment because she was watching a “good” performance…
Yeah, very calibrated…
And it felt like a similar point in your review of Robert Icke’s Oedipus at the Edinburgh Fringe, of how it felt very well-oiled. So, to return to the idea of honesty…
And spontaneity… Anything that feels too calibrated. I can really admire the craft, I really admired Betrayal and I admired Oedipus, even though I didn’t like it, because you can see how much craft went into it. But if it doesn’t have a sense of heart then I’m not going to connect to it.
With current expectations of the “well-made play”, there’s either the want to lean into a political discussion and representing it in a personal manner – again political with a capital ‘P’ – or replicating a Martin McDonagh esque black comedy, and it’s very rare to see a straightforwardly romantic play in that format, or even a straightforward comedy in that format.
I can’t think of any young writers who write just comedic plays – Zia Ahmed, who wrote I Wanna Be Yours, which has just closed at The Bush – I love that play so much, it’s like a romantic comedy, it’s a romantic show, it’s about falling in love. Contextually it’s about a white woman falling in love with a brown man, and it can be polemical in a sense, because it talks quite clearly about differences within interracial relationships, but it doesn’t feel like it’s too much. There is a rhythm to the words, and a texture to the words, and it feels very rich, and there are these poetic images folded into it, and it feels heightened, and that really melds with the ‘political’ edges to it.
Recently I went to see a monologue you’d written for The Upsetters, and it was a monologue about falling in love. And it was a very beautiful piece, very moving…
You’re welcome. It is very atypical to see someone write something with the notions of ‘uplift’, not necessarily something that is just uplifting as there were strains of melancholy throughout it, but something that is about things which are ‘good’ or ‘nice’.
Because it feels toothless?
Well, it’s that thing of what is relevant? Which is similar to being derivative, in that it can feels like a noose for creatives. Do you worry about writing something that isn’t necessarily ‘relevant’?
Yes, I mean the only reason that I wrote that was because it was a commission, and I had a theme and could interpret it however I wanted, and it was a very safe space to do that because I knew it was going to be performed no matter what. Even if it was very undramatic – which it was – but purposefully so. The monologue was just about falling in love, and how it can feel difficult and scary, and if it were to come back it would be a strain of a larger piece. But there is definitely the worry that people would ask, “who cares?” What I liked about that piece was that I think there is something quietly radical about a South Asian woman delivering a monologue about being scared, and falling in love, and having a queer relationship. I remember being really worried that it wasn’t ‘political’ enough, and I said to Marcus Bernard, who runs the night, that I thought I’d misinterpreted his theme. Because he’d given me the theme of “home”, and the other writers wrote quite overtly political pieces – as is their right– but I know myself as a writer, and I know I kind of lack the skill to write about ‘political’ issues well, and I don’t trust myself to write about it without becoming me just saying what I think. I will always go for something smaller and then the politics can feed into it. But yes, also I wanted to write something nice and happy, because before that I was working on i will still be whole, which was very bleak in a lot of ways, and I thought people would like to see something that is kind and warm and would make them feel a bit fuzzy.
Did you ever watch i will still be whole?
I watched it during previews, and then the last time I watched it was on press night. I just find it awful. It felt very exposing.
Something that I noticed in the play is food seemed to be a recurrent thing, and quite important to the themes of the play itself.
It’s the idea of consuming and being consumed. In earlier drafts, there’s a bit where the mother talks about being fed beige food by her husband, but I cut that. It was quite an easy way of talking about being mixed race without really talking about it. For me, personally, there is such a gulf – my father’s family all eat English food, heavy, stodgy food, and my mum’s side is Chinese-Malaysian, so there is much more flavour and spice, and the food is more fragrant, and feels more nourishing, in a way, than English food. I find food interesting. I’m writing something right now about cravings – I was thinking about the film Raw and the equation of female adolescence and sexual appetites growing, and then that being equated with cannibalism, which is a very satisfying way of talking about that. Food is tricky, it’s not a neutral thing – my favourite piece of food writing is Anthony Bourdain’s first article for The New Yorker, when he writes about how chefs like the piece of the animal that no one else wants – so chefs love offal, and they love hooves, and eyes, and feet. I love that – I love that food is ugly and brutal and disgusting, and I’m always into that link of something being disgusting and horrible and wonderful and nutritious and life-giving.
There was also, I thought, a wonderfully captured contradiction in i will still be whole, with the daughter character being someone who is both very mature, and older beyond her years, and also, in that way that is quite common with people our age, particularly when reaching a point of emotional conflict, very understanding of an expectation that because you’re younger you’re going to respond more passionately to a subject. And that she doesn’t quite do that, and in the end shuts down slightly, and doesn’t get fully angry.
Yeah, it was important, in that final part of the play, when the mother and daughter meet for the first time, that they have to keep trying to express something – I felt like I could have pulled back on it more – but that they didn’t have the vocabulary to address it. I like that the daughter has spurts of anger, and then she tries to cycle back, but just keeps sort of spitting at her mother and then says, “I’m just kidding”. It’s basically a callout, and it’s a very childish thing of saying, “I’m going to put that there, and then take it back, but it’s still there”. And it’s impossible for the mother to respond to the question that’s actually on the table, which is, “why did you leave?” … And that feels very familiar to me, the way the daughter puts something out there and then shuts it down.
It felt like an honest representation of a discussion – in that it replicated the beats and awkwardness of conversation – instead of a dramatic representation. And that fascinates me, the closer one gets to conversation and the accuracy of conversation, the more you step away from traditional ideas of drama because inherently it’s less dramatic.
Of course, because miscommunication is vital to it. We wanted to pull away from it being a showdown, and we wanted it to feel excruciating. It felt like a more honest representation of that moment.
I want to end on a question about music and theatre – is there a particular moment in non-musical theatre, so a striking use of a song in a play, that sticks out to you?
There’s a bit in the Benedict Andrew’s Three Sisters, which he directed for the Young Vic in 2012 – that was such a formative production to me, I loved that production so much, it was my first real experience of European sensibilities in theatre, with the play being chopped up, and the swearing – and there’s a bit where Vanessa Kirby, as Masha, started singing “Golden Years” by David Bowie, and it’s so on the nose but I kind of love it. I think about it a lot. I love that song. It’s so on the nose, but there’s something so wonderfully “fuck it” about it. The other one is in The Children, where they do a dance to “Ain’t it Funky Now”, the James Brown song, and it’s got a very insistent beat, and these three old white, very middle class characters do this shuffle dance to it – and it’s an odd moment, because the play is about the end of the world – and it goes on for quite a long time, and you start to realise that the song is quite ominous. There’s something a bit drone-y about it. And it sort of creeps up on you. And then it stops. And I really loved that moment.