I wish I could silence it, but I can’t. I’m talking about the niggling voice in my head that threatens to ruin everything whenever I settle down to watch an online version of a night at the theatre.
The voice whispers: “This is all well and good, but what was it really like in the theatre?” At which point, my carefully mustered disbelief is no longer suspended.
There are, naturally, exceptions, chief among them Adam Brace’s terse, quietly affecting Midnight Your Time, which went out last week via the Donmar Warehouse.
When it first appeared at HighTide in 2011, Brace’s play was, if not groundbreaking, then certainly ahead of the game when it comes to theatre’s current embrace of digital technology. Focus was split. Audiences didn’t just watch Diana Quick’s concerned, liberal mother Judy as she sat at her computer attempting to speak to her estranged daughter. They also simultaneously saw Quick’s face writ large as she recorded the heartfelt video messages to her daughter that form the play’s dialogue.
As Tim Bano observed in his review of the new version, it’s small wonder that its director Michael Longhurst – now the Donmar’s artistic director – reworked it as one of his venue’s first contributions to theatre in lockdown. This wasn’t a second-hand attempt at showing a theatre piece, it was a reinvention that improved it for one simple reason: in this version the drama was purer because form and content were now ideally indivisible.
More practically, Quick didn’t have to worry about being in the potentially unsafe environment of a theatre or studio because everything took place in her own home. And a play with just one actor means social distancing restrictions are not a problem.
This is why monologues are suddenly en vogue again. The Bush Theatre’s Monday Monologues have just appeared with new work by writers including Travis Alabanza, Natasha Brown, Shaun Dunne, Sophie Ellerby and Tristan Fynn-Aiduenu. And given their technological focus, it’s highly likely that there will be monologue sections in the short plays created using Zoom and commissioned by Headlong in collaboration with Century Films for BBC Arts.
The BBC, with Kevin Loader and Nicholas Hytner and his London Theatre Company, are also remaking almost all of Talking Heads, Alan Bennett’s two series of monologues from 1988 and 1998.
The prospect of two new ones, in the hands of Monica Dolan and Sarah Lancashire, is positively tantalising. And though the originals are indelibly linked to the performers who first played them – including Maggie Smith, Penelope Wilton and Patricia Routledge – Hytner’s casting of stage actors as strong as Lucian Msamati, Imelda Staunton and Kristin Scott Thomas alongside names more readily associated with screen work (Jodie Comer, Rochenda Sandall and Martin Freeman) is typically acute.
In his monologues, Bennett is doing far more than merely writing character sketches
One of the reasons Bennett’s monologues work so well is that – for my money – he has greater mastery of the short form than the full-length play. With the possible exceptions of his delicious early farce Habeas Corpus – in which, intriguingly, Bennett took over from Patricia Hayes as charwoman Mrs Swabb – and The Madness of King George III, these fiercely distilled monodramas are his finest dramatic works.
But playwrights keen to seize the moment and emulate them should be careful. Bennett is doing far more than merely writing character sketches and giving actors a personal history to recount.
It’s the same with monologues written for theatre and, frankly, Brian Friel has a lot to answer for. Faith Healer, his 1979 towering masterpiece, is comprised of three characters – a faith healer, his wife and his manager – who speak four monologues. Each one retells the story of a terrifying night in rural Ireland from their own, partial perspective. The play’s genius – I use that word advisedly – is its subtext. Not only does each version of events contradict the previous one, they simultaneously add to the story while, like removing successive layers of tracing paper, uncovering more about the truth they share.
It feels artless but isn’t, yet it opened the floodgates to lesser writers imagining that all you need for a monologue is to put someone and a life story on stage. But without subtext, there’s only exposition, the enemy of drama.
Friel and Bennett and others, including Bryony Lavery, know better. Their dramas focus on solo speakers but are properly dramatic, with vivid tension between the speaker and unseen characters and the audience. The gap between what is said and what is skilfully left unsaid creates spellbinding tension.
And in the best screen monologues, such grippingly filled gaps can be savoured up close, another reason why Midnight Your Time worked so well. Let’s hope the new monologue writers have taken note of their forebears.