The Road to the Fringe - Joe Sellman-Leava
Monster (Pleasance Courtyard, Upstairs, 3.15pm)
Monster is a new show borne out of an old idea. I’ve been working on the script for eight years, since its first outing in 2009 as a very short piece. It will make its official debut at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe. Now that I’m finally getting this project – which has been close to my heart for a long time now – in front of audiences, here’s a whistle-stop tour of how it got here.Monster - Pleasance Courtyard
Monster is (very) loosely autobiographical. Back in 2009, I created a short script threaded from fragments of several male voices, including my own, discussing violence, anger, and relationships. Having never considered myself to be a violent person, or even a particularly angry one, I started to explore memories and experiences of anger – times where I’d lost my temper or even felt like lashing out. And I put these extracts side-by-side some other, very different texts, creating a performance where the various voices, though independent narratives, began to comment on one another.
Putting flesh on the bones
One of these voices came from a piece in The Guardian, written by Patrick Stewart, in which he describes his first-hand experience of his father’s violence against his mother. His grave, unflinching words on domestic violence resonated with me, not because I’ve had any direct experience but because he talks very honestly about the discomfort of knowing the worst parts of yourself. Stewart’s perspective on the subject matter, and the authority and eloquence of his writing added a new layer to Monster.
Soon before or after reading this, I saw the film Tyson, a documentary about the former heavyweight champion of the world, by Tyson’s old friend James Toback. I found it morbidly compelling – a raw stream of consciousness pouring out one of the most frightening people in the world – and it led me to watch some of the many other infamous clips of him shouting at, threatening or flirting with people (all equally troubling). Tyson was convicted of rape and deviant sexual misconduct in the 90s, and the way he talks about his relationships with women, and his relationship with his own anger, is horribly fascinating, adding another layer to the Monster script.
The final element of this collage of texts, was drawing on a then-recent experience of playing a very violent character in a piece about domestic violence, which used mostly Shakespearean text. With this strand, the piece became partly about how we express and perform both our gender and our anger, as well as how we behave, talk, and feel about these things.
Redevelopment and works-in-progress
Since late 2016, the show has been constantly re-written and redeveloped, in partnership with director Yaz Al-Shaater. We took an early incarnation of the show, then called Love Thy Monster, to FringeWorld in Perth in February 2017. These early shows sparked lots of discussion (and some debate), ultimately leading to several drastic re-writes and another rehearsal period at The Old Vic’s Workrooms.
As well as working with Yaz, and his assistant director Lucy Moss, I’ve also had several sessions with the excellent dramaturg Anna Beecher, and fight director Enric Ortuno, leading into this summer’s work-in-progress shows in Buxton, London, Bristol and Exeter. We’ve worked on really stripping the show back to just the text and the physical scores, and the current version tells a much more focused story.
It may have taken the best part of a decade (off-and-on), but I think (at the time of writing this at least!) the show has now reached a point where the cacophony of voices converge much more clearly around the central themes, questions and images, and are anchored by a central story of someone trying to work out exactly what control he has over his emotions, and the lines he’s willing to cross.
Continuing the conversation
Monster draws attention to the bias and unreliability of its storyteller, and deliberately challenges audiences’ trust in the person they’re listening to, by never revealing the extent of what’s true and what isn’t.
Ultimately, it’s a predominantly male experience of anger, aggression and violence – it can’t really be anything else. That said, I’ve already had many eye-opening conversations with people of different genders about their responses to the piece. I always want to make work where people leave talking about and thinking about what they’ve seen and, so far, Monster seems to be doing exactly that: provoking discussion. ‘Toxic masculinity’ is a phrase that’s discussed widely at the moment and, whilst I’m not sure buzzwords are inherently helpful, there is certainly an urgent conversation with and about men, masculinity and anger which we need to be having. I hope that Monster can contribute to that conversation.Book Tickets
Throughout the last year we’ve been supporting a host of emerging companies and artists over at The Workrooms by offering them 100% subsidised rehearsal space and development support through our project The Old Vic Lab. If you’re a creative, find out how you can develop your work here at The Old Vic.