Matthew Warchus on Mood Music

Rehearsals for Mood Music[ a new play by Joe Penhall being staged att he Old Vic], Directed by Roger Michell.

I expect we are all reasonably used to seeing great music artists accept awards; emotionally thanking peers, colleagues, parents, even God, and often referring to ‘a dream come true’ or stating that they ‘never thought it was possible’. And, in contrast, we are probably all equally used to seeing headlines declaiming various versions of ‘Record Label Sues Singer’, ‘Artist Sues Manager’ or ‘Writer Sues Producer’ and so on. But what lies beneath these very public glimpses of vulnerability and disputed power? What is it about the recording industry that causes something as potentially glorious, celebratory and uplifting as musical creativity to so frequently mess people up? Or is it just money that does that? What role do we all (the public) play, as avid consumers and fans, in the extreme commodification of culture? Are we simply being manipulated by marketing or do we inherently crave idols – even when it clearly contributes to unhealthy power dynamics, amplifies dysfunction and causes suffering? And what about the paradox that the seeming polar opposites of hero-worship and narcissism can both be traced back to comparable self-esteem issues triggered in childhood?

Joe Penhall’s spry and punchy new play picks its way deftly through these swirling themes. It turned up out of the blue in the middle of last year. ‘Can I send you a script?’ Joe said, ‘It’s about a young singer and a middle-aged producer fighting over who owns a hit song’. The subject seemed immediately compelling to me because its analysis of art versus commerce and freedom versus control is universal and timeless. He sent me the play and I quickly agreed to programme it. Since then a great deal has happened. Much of the professional world has been reassessing how it protects against disrespect in the workplace as a result of the cascade of abuse-of-power revelations and allegations. As a society we are embarked on a hopeful new process of self-examination, improvement, repair and healing. So, although unintentional, some aspects of Mood Music have gained an acute topicality in its exploration of the many forces at play when power relationships go so badly wrong.

Matthew Warchus

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