Robin Soans and Verbatim Theatre
Philip Fisher interviewed Robin Soans two years ago when he was in the spotlight as two of his plays opened simultaneously. He has now met him again as Life After Scandal is about to open at Hampstead Theatre.
In mid-July 2005, Robin Soans suddenly became the man of the moment. In a single week, two of his verbatim plays, Talking to Terrorists and The Arab-Israeli Cookbook, opened to great acclaim. In between, London succumbed to the terrorists portrayed in each of them.
Now in 2007, Soans is being projected into the media thanks to the subject matter of his latest Verbatim drama, Life after Scandal. This is a play that looks at a number of disgraced individuals, primarily politicians, who came into sharp focus after scandalising the world, or at least the tabloid press.
The big names involved include Jonathan Aitken, Neil and Christine Hamilton and Lord Montagu of Beaulieu and their tales are told in their own words. What interests Soans is far more than just the misdemeanours that brought about a brief period of infamy. He is fascinated by what comes afterwards; having quickly identified that there is no such thing as bad news. Though some of the subjects may still be suffering, most have put their scandals behind them and gone on to successful careers, many in the media.
There is now the odd situation that in order to maintain a certain level of press coverage, some celebrities actually seek out scandal as a way of furthering their careers.
He likens his press nights to attending your own wedding. "You go through them in a blur so that the event almost disappears." They clearly did make an impression though as "both nights were terrific for me because the audience was clearly interested in what they were witnessing on stage. So much theatre isn't captivating and therefore I'm proud that fewer people go to sleep in my plays than most others".
The real difference that he draws between Verbatim Theatre and documentary journalism is that the stories that he looks for are human rather than socio-political. "You reach the political through theatrical stories. Both plays provide new information about uncharted territory. This isn't Newsnight or the Guardian".
Soans proves to be a delightful and easy interviewee. It is necessary to do no more than buy him a cup of tea and a croissant and ask him about his plays to get one and three quarter hours of fascinating material encapsulating a very successful life in the theatre.
He feels a great affinity with the individuals whom he interviews and cites as an example Terry Waite who watched himself on stage at the opening of Talking to Terrorists. "You grow to love your characters".
He learned an interesting lesson from the manager of a bail hostel where he was interviewing one of the girls for A State Affair, his sequel to Rita Sue And Bob Too:"You must never forget that it's someone's life". He never does.
Like many actors, he likes to quote, especially from Shakespeare but in this context, he uses Yeats' "Tread softly for you tread on my dreams" before saying that "When people are honest with you, you mustn't exploit them".
He also cares for his audience. "One of my golden rules is not to drag an audience through something that is too grim. You have to intrigue and beguile an audience before you move them".
He is a firm believer in the power of this kind of theatre. "All these things need saying for our understanding". Critic Paul Taylor in The Independent quoted Chekhov when he said that "the purpose of the theatre is not to provide solutions are but to state the problems more clearly". The actor-playwright puts it slightly differently when he says that "Theatre is there to put human nature under the microscope" before citing the examples of Othello's jealousy and the Iago's exploitation of his weakness.
Soans is clearly a man who reads his reviews because, with a twinkle in his eye, he also remembers that Taylor had described this play as "Unmissable" and Michael Billington in the Guardian wrote "It shed light on dark places . (it) is the most important new play we have seen this year ".
He is clearly very pleased with the critical and public reaction to his Cookbook and Talking to Terrorists plays, particularly because "Terrorism had never previously been put under the theatrical microscope". This has become vitally important since four suicide bombers have given the subject extra topicality.
Its main exponent, along with Sir David Hare, attributes this sudden vogue for Verbatim Theatre to the fact that there is so much spin in life. "While there has always been spin, for example Winston Churchill during the Second World War or going back further, Alexander the Great, with so much media coverage spin has increased remarkably. The guarding of information is a huge business now".
Theatre is a good antidote to this because audiences don't have to process, they get the whole picture. "Craig Murray (an ambassador portrayed in Talking to Terrorists) isn't some glorious crusader battling for human rights. He is also scurrilous in his private life. In a theatre you see him warts-and-all".
Soans ensures that after interviewing subjects, he presents their words absolutely verbatim (give or take the odd "and" or "but"). As he says, "You can do anything with editing, be very creative. You always have to think of the audience".