A stunning terrace, full summer in Venice, the seagulls sing loudly and the air is crystalline, the thoughts are so rapid, electrified and excited by the terse blue surrounding our heads.
The sun strikes the eyes, he sits with a pop hat on his head, sipping an iced espresso with me. Dark and without sugar at the same time.
Regularly, immense and obscene cruise liners cut our sight of the Giudecca island, obscuring the sun, the visuals, the imagination, hitting the ears with their high volume music. The man, for first time here in Venice, is quite surprised.
His hands – small, neat, white – are both spotted with a very red ink as if they were hurt and bleeding. He loves to see the reactions of the people. Immediately after shaking hands, he says – amused – that ‘it’s ink, no worries’.
The man is Mark Ravenhill, one of the most successful European writers, who did not sit on the golden age of his first theatre piece, Shopping and Fucking, one of the most translated and represented plays in the contemporary ages. One of the pillars of new Brit theatre.
For the first time in his life in Venice, he directs a class of playwriting during the local Venice Theatre Biennial.
Your story in a few lines – especially pointing on your childhood and teenager time, the years of your formation.
I was born in the South of England, not so far from London and I always – as far as I can remember – made up little plays, little theatre performances, in the first plays with my younger brother and so; yes, it is just something I always liked to do.
I started not dividing the task in terms of writing, directing, acting – it just was a way of making theatre. I still think of myself as a theatre maker rather than just a pure writer and I think when I was young I guess that in many ways rock and pop music was the most exciting thing as well as theatre, so if I wanted to be anything at all it was a sort of pop or rock artist, followed in the magazines; something about energy of pop music as part of me.
Then I went to the university and I studied English literature and theatre as well. So, yes, I definitively have a literary background and I do feel in some ways that I am drawing on a dialogue with classical artists because of my education and of my interests. I guess those initial influences of pop music melt with classical literature. The same applies with my theatre.
Which kind of pop music? Something like Pet Shop Boys?
I listen to everything. Even with music, I never really made a difference between the cool and the not-so-cool music. I just like music. I like cool and alternative music, bands, I also liked the Pet Shop Boys.
Did you parents take you often to the theatre?
Not that often. They loved theatre but we did not go to see so much theatre and this was until I was 21 years old, when, ended the university, I moved to London. There I saw lots of theatre, London has hundreds of theatres.
How has it been difficult to reach the goal to be such an important playwright in your country? If you happen to know the situation in other countries, can you make a parallel with your own experience?
When I first started to work in theatre, really I wanted to be a director and I directed two or three new plays and I just found myself more and more interested on the way the play was written and I also maybe thought I had gone too far on how I wanted the play to be and trying to get the writer to rewrite the play more to the way I wanted it to be. So, I thought, ‘I shall really try to write something myself’. This was happening on 1995, almost 20 years ago. I was searching a play expressing what was my age, to be alive in London, to capture the real spirit of life at that time. I just felt: I want to try and write that play. Maybe that was the good start – the fact that there was a missing play on that subject – to let me write it. Somehow it could have been easier to have somebody else writing it and I would have directed, but I was not finding any play speaking of our times. So it became necessary to me to write it myself.
At that point, has it been difficult or did you find an easy career as playwright?
I was very lucky, because the very first play that I wrote, Shopping and Fucking, has been very successful and because it was translated in many languages and performed a lot around the world. Then, really very quickly, I could make a full time living with this profession, the playwriting, and that continues to the present day. I am sure you can have a very lucky start by writing in English because it is an international language, easy for people to read and to translate and find out about it. But also you’ve to think to other, important and practical things about plays in England: every play that is produced in UK is published. So it easy for people to get a copy of the play. A bigger country as US, with a bigger market for books, is not working in the same way: not so many plays get published. English publishers, instead. think that it is so easy and quite cheap to publish a play and since we do have a lot of drama students and many people buying plays publishing is worthwhile.
It is your first time in Venice but not your first time having a workshop with students…
I’ve done quite a lot of workshops with different authors and in many different situations. I’ve been to many Italian cities but never in Venice, so this is my very first time! I’ve been very happy to have an invitation by Alex Rigola (the Theatre Biennale director), but when I saw that the invitation was for Venice, I told to myself, ok it is a must, go, I have to do it! Even if the workshop will be a disaster, I will be in Venice! Enough!
Was it your decision to work on Ibsen? Did you have carte blanche by Rigola?
Yes. I’d been reading, before coming, only six months ago, this famous essay about laughter (Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of The Comic, Henry Bergson, note of the editor) that over the years came to my mind but I had not been able to read it earlier. So I told to myself, I have to! And also that I have to read more essays. When I saw it is actually quite short, I thought ‘nice!’, and I found it fascinating; so when I received the invitation I thought it was made exactly in the conditions under which I received the invitation by Alex and all the things which interested me were in the book, making it perfect to use it in order to illustrate what people not necessarily associate with comedy. I then found the less comic of Ibsen’s plays, Ghosts: in the workshop, I asked to explore laughter with Ibsen’s Ghosts. Then I also got the feeling that actually Ibsen’s theatre did learn a lot from French Boulevard (a 18th Century comedy genre of upper-class Parisians made in private theatres, note of the editor): people coming to other’s door, bourgeois characters, plots…There is a link, an element that he owes to this kind of theatre comedy. I found it an interesting…
With this attempt on Ibsen, are you switching to art therapy in writing or is just my imagination?
No, I don’t think so. I think we’ve always been adamant that at a certain stage in theatre making what we do is professional writing and not therapy. But I think, Am I am very happy about this aspect, that there also is an element of therapy if you write or direct or act. Getting older, I realized that it is silly to pretend that there is absolutely no aspect of therapy in this. When working, everybody is bringing memories, fears, hopes into the room. There is some parallel with therapy.
Which kind of audience did you have in the workshop: Did you choose the students?
Actually the Theatre Biennial had chosen for me because lots of applications were in Italian. So Alex put together the group. All I’ve asked was that I wanted at least 50% women because I think quite often playwriting is still a male dominated thing. And it is also for pleasure: I do not like a whole male class talking! I just prefer to have a combination of female voices as many as the men. And I like real life: I went to a normal school – half men, half women! Particularly, I think that in some parts of the world, maybe still in Latin countries, this big male figures who are the masters and choose other men to be with them, it is not confortable for me. I do not like to be in a male patriarchal thing.
Other artists (such as Neil Labute) teaching in other workshop told me that the hardest part with the workshop is the editing part. Young playwriths get in love immediately with the first version of their work and do not know that the joy (or the perversion) of writing is editing. Do you agree?
Yes. Often I found, with young writers, that – once the work is put out of them – there is a fear that in whatever way they try to change it, that every time they criticize their work, then it would somehow disappear. There is often a skill that can divide the people. The ones can write a brilliant play just by inspirations, the others (the ones who are going to write many plays) are often having the second skill: ability to edit and to shape, to criticize their own work, to take a month to write five pages…
How do you combine the ‘fast and furious’ aptitude of social networks with your total body of theatre maker, that is probably slow, reflective? How do you engage yourself in social networks? Are you caring personally your different accounts?
I think lots of writers really like the social networks, because writing is a solitary, sometimes lonely thing. It’s just a way of gossiping. If you work in an office or in a factory, you meet people in the canteen or by the coffee machine. The writer does not meet people for months…When you go to the coffee machine and talk to your workmates, then the writer will go on Facebook and talk. So is a sort of gossiping.
Will you be able to share on social network something more than the “surface” of your daily life, something, we could say, more intriguing or personal or heavy? Or, even, political issues?
Not so much, really. And, then, there is a real danger of what is so called slacktivism. Real politics is still something when people gather together in real life. I do not think it is a political act to post everyday what you think about Gaza. So I tend to do not have political statements.
Which has been your most unexpected meeting you had in recent times either in your work or in your normal life?
I do not think I have ever had unexpected meetings, maybe I am too much in control. I like to meet new people and maybe FB helps. One day somebody posted a link to a very young English pop musician called Baby Tap, so then I started to become friend on FB with Baby Tap – I never met him: he has just finished the university and worked in his bedroom making his videos and one day Baby Tap posted a link to an American drag artist called Christeene. I liked Christeene’s song, the first one that I listened was called African Mayonnaise. I showed it to a friend of mine theatre producer that managed to bring Christeene to the UK and so Christeene played in London and now is playing in Edinburgh now and I spent time with her. Somebody posted in Baby Tap and Baby Tap as well re-posted and then my friend producer saw it so…social network is a good source of new contacts with people but that’s actually more an example of me making something happen! I quite like making new connections and bringing people together who are normally not connected….
Are you in love at the moment Mark? In any case, do you think there is a form of “fictional love” able to last forever, in certain forms?
I am in love and me and my partner had a civil partnership in London in 2009, right now he got a job in Austria (Bregenz, where Austria meets Italy). Particularly being in two different nations, you have to work on it, like watering plants. Working all the times to renew it, to fall in love with the same person many times, every day. Yes, sometimes, everyday falling in love again. This love is different from the youngers’ love where there is always “wow” and then after three weeks or three months all is finished…I prefer the kind of love you put more work into.
What does society for you and what do you do for society?
I think one of the really important things about human beings is that we’re social, but we have to keep on making society everyday so is the same metaphor I’ve just used for love. We could and should face bigger political and social issues but I think is much more relevant on an everyday basis to take care of how we treat each other, how we work with each other, just creating social genuine situations. One of the most pleasant things of this workshop in Venice is to put the people in smaller groups, watch them working in different languages, find the way to share idea, to talk to each other, to encourage each other…You can’t have a take of society as a fixed, a given thing. Everyday each one of us creates society.
What do you do for society as a person?
I am not sure how much I do. I mean I know many more people who are much more directly political or charitable or whatever involved…My particular talent or my particular skill is writing these plays: sometimes it is hard to feel it as socially useful or a relevant asset. Sometimes you feel it as a luxurious thing, but anyway it is a contribution….
You give the fuel to the soul of people, I guess
It would be nice! I hope so!
Which are the books and the music with you in these days in Venice – if there is anything in particular?
Actually I was talking to Alex (Rigola, note of the editor) last night, just recently I’ve read a very good novella by George Bataille, a French author: the English translation of the title is The Blue of Noon (the original title is Le Blue du Ciel, note of the editor).
A very nice novella set in London, Paris, Barcelona. He wrote it on 1935, it is around 75 pages: it’s about Europe going towards Fascism without knowing it and before people understood what was happening – this is the sense of the book. The author never speaks in political terms about it. I found this very upsetting and very powerful. And frightening: a fantastic piece of writing!
What music I am listening while being here? A couple of years ago I wrote a new adaptation of Monteverdi, The coronation of Poppea, and now I am constantly singing Monteverdi in my head .
A talent you do not have?
Something dealing with music, I guess. I love music and I work more now in music and opera theatre. But I do not even write music. So anything related (playing the piano, singing) would be fantastic to begin!
What have you learned from life?
Ah ah ah (he smiles)!
That your experience is never unique. Something that is very hard to understand when you’re younger. You always think that what’s happening to you is the first time for anybody, that you’re unique but many people experience the same as you. Somehow, you need to moderate your ego. It took me long time to learn this. Certainly this was a great part of my growing up and I suspect it also happened in the lives of lots of other people.
What are your next projects and your next workshops – if you’ve scheduled already any?
Currently, I am writing a big opera for the Norwegian composer Rolf Wallin. Once back in London, I will be rewriting something of the second act. It will be opening at the Oslo Opera House in April 2017. It is a big, big opera: 16 in the chorus, 17 in the orchestra…lots of characters: it is a huge piece. The libretto will reduce everything. He had an initial idea of stuff he was interested in and then we had long conversations that led to something more concrete. I started the story and he gave me feedback to rewrite, rewrite. Once we’ll have the libretto in a more advanced stage, then he will start to write the music…
Was the British Council doing something useful for you for the success of Shopping and Fucking or the censorship did not help?
I did not have any problem with censorship and the British Council was very supportive right from the beginning. I think that at that time they were very quick to realize in the mid Nineties that suddenly there was much more interest in young British authors and visual artists and Brit pop music. They decided that this was the sort of image for the country they wanted to have. They could have been also deciding to still promote Shakespeare, but they saw the energy coming from the young generations and bet on this. Good reaction.
Did you manage to follow some Italian theatre authors or directors?
To be honest, it’s been quite a while ago. I was very lucky in the past to know some Strehler (25 years ago) and one of the most amazing things I’ve seen was Dario Fo directing some comedies françaises (two Molière and others). He managed to combine absolute high clowning, physical comedy and a high social-political perspective: I saw it in Paris (people in UK were not having the possibility to see Fo as a director or knowing him as a writer), he is incredible.