In the latest look at a show that should have opened this week but could not because of the coronavirus lockdown, Lyn Gardner speaks to Rona Munro, writer of Donny’s Brain, which was due to run at Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre. She also looks at a significant show that opened this week in a previous year
Donny’s Brain by Rona Munro was due to have its press night on April 15 at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh, with the run continuing until May 2. It was third time unlucky for Munro’s play after its unreviewed try-out at Hampstead Downstairs in 2012 and then a reading at the Manhattan Theatre Club. In neither case did the show progress any further, so the Traverse production was billed as a world premiere. “It was a play I couldn’t let go of,” says Munro. “It is one of those plays that as a writer you fall in love with and becomes like a lost child you love and believe in but never seems to quite find the light. So, the prospect of it being at the Traverse made me very happy.”
Who was involved?
The play was to be directed by Caitlin Skinner, whose previous credits include the Scotsman Fringe First award-winner Woke. Set design was by Becky Minto, lighting design by Renny Robertson and sound design by Danny Krass, who was also the show’s composer. Emma Jayne Park was choreographer. The cast included: Roanna Davidson, Bhav Joshi, Michael Dylan, Lauren Grace and Suzanne Magowan.
What is it?
Donny has suffered a brain injury that has caused memory loss. The crucial thing he has forgotten is that he’s fallen out of love with Emma and has since married Trish. He is convinced that he and Emma are still together, with consequences for all three of them.
“We talk about being crazy in love and this is a play about love that plays out like a bittersweet romantic comedy,” says Munro, on the work commissioned by the Alfred P Sloan Foundation and Manhattan Theatre Club under an initiative designed to make science accessible to a lay audience. Previous high-profile plays written via the scheme include Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen and David Auburn’s Proof. “The commission gave me a chance to get interested in how our emotional states are affected by neurology and how a brain injury might impact that.”
How far did they get?
The production was two days into the second week of rehearsals when it was closed down. Munro began to suspect during week one that they wouldn’t make it to opening night, but she explains: “Once the car is moving, which it is when you start rehearsals, everybody has to keep going.” She adds: “It was such a lovely rehearsal room, so collaborative and playful.” After the shutdown, one of the cast members developed symptoms of Covid-19.
’I’ve written monologues for the cast – it has made us feel that we are still a team’
“Of course it is disappointing that the play isn’t happening,” says Munro, “but I’ve survived plenty of disappointments in my career and I will survive this one. If this had been my first play it would have been a different story.”
She continues: “I really worry for so many people working in theatre. What Covid-19 means for theatres is brutal. I can’t see daylight this year, and unless there is a huge influx of government money, theatre’s future is very uncertain. Getting audiences back may not be easy.”
What is Munro doing during the shutdown?
“I’ve written monologues for the cast of Donny’s Brain that they will be able to record in their bedrooms. They are called The Rona Munro Monologues. It has been very therapeutic because it has made us feel that we are still a team, and maybe we will be again. The Traverse is saying postponed, not cancelled.
For further details, visit: www.traverse.co.uk/
Arcadia by Tom Stoppard had its press night on April 13 at the National Theatre in London, 27 years ago this week.
Who was involved?
The cast included: Billy Nighy, Felicity Kendal, Rufus Sewell, Emma Fielding and Samuel West. The show was directed by Trevor Nunn and designed by Mark Thompson.
What is it?
Set in 1809 in Sidley Park, a Derbyshire country house, and in the same drawing room more than 180 years later, Tom Stoppard’s affecting comedy is a literary detective thriller that considers the puzzle surrounding a possible scandal involving Lord Byron. Unlike many of Stoppard’s plays, which tend to make audiences’ brains hurt, this one is extraordinarily playful as it dances around ideas including chaos theory, garden design, fractal geometry, thermodynamics and computer modelling. The latter is very much in the news, as the government draws on the modelling of scientists at Imperial College to predict the impact of social distancing on deaths from Covid-19.
Was it acclaimed at the time?
It won an Olivier award for best play, and received nominations for a Tony and Drama Desk award. In 2006, Arcadia was shortlisted for the Royal Institution award for the best science book ever written. It was nudged out of the NT’s 2000 list of the most significant plays of the century by Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. But writing in his excellent book The Full Room, Dominic Dromgoole speaks for many when he declared: “It strikes me as a masterpiece, the equal of anything written this century. Here disclosure, encryption, concealment and delight all dance hand in hand together. Its breadth, its wit, its imagination, its invention, its terrifyingly painful sense of fragility together with the strength of its spirit, are breathtaking.”
How is it relevant now?
There is a great speech in which Septimus responds to Thomasina’s despair on realising all has been lost to the world because the Library at Alexandria has burned down. During a time when it feels as if theatre is being razed by the attempt to contain Covid-19, and so many great shows may never see the light of day, I find it comforting.
He says: “We shed as we pick up, like travellers who must carry everything in their arms, and what we let fall will be picked up by those behind. The procession is very long and life is very short. We die on the march. But there is nothing outside the march so nothing can be lost to it. The missing plays of Sophocles will turn up piece by piece, or be written again in another language. Ancient cures for diseases will reveal themselves once more. Mathematical discoveries glimpsed and lost to view will have their time again. You do not suppose, my lady, that if all of Archimedes had been hiding in the great library of Alexandria, we would be at a loss for a corkscrew?”