Interview: Alistair McDowall
Published by the Guardian, 26.04.2014
Alistair McDowall’s debut play, Brilliant Adventures, looked like social realism. It took us inside a scuzzy Middlesbrough sink estate where a young man sat on a sofa playing his Game Boy surrounded by teenage detritus: books and DVDs, a Superman duvet and a time machine.
Yep, an actual, working, homemade, cardboard time-machine. And just like that, McDowall blew open the play’s possibilities. Think kitchen-sink naturalism with a wormhole where the plug should go.
That brio, the willingness to prise open mundane reality with free-form flights of fancy, has marked out McDowall, 27, as one of the most distinctive new voices in British writing. Talk Show, one of the plays in the Royal Court’s recent Open Court season, zoomed in on a dreamy loner running a Letterman-style chat show from his bedroom. Captain Amazing, currently at the Soho theatre, follows a single father who happens to be a bona fide superhero.
A born film-buff – he reels off a string of auteurs including Takashi Miike, Andrei Tarkovsky and John Carpenter – McDowall started writing for theatre because he couldn’t afford a camcorder. He quickly became hooked: “In theatre, I can do whatever I want. No one is going to say, ‘Don’t put a time machine in your play.’”
Growing up in Great Broughton, a village near Middlesbrough, he spent a lot of time alone – an experience you see reflected in his characters, many of whom share his anxiety issues. “When something is so in your bones,” he says, “it finds its way in.”
He read voraciously: novels, comics, plays, theatre theory. Beckett’s Endgame “ripped the roof of my head off”, he says, but it was Sarah Kane’s Blasted that provided the major breakthrough. “I had that realisation: there are no rules in theatre – you can do anything. Whatever rules there are, you can break them – immediately if you want to.”
For McDowall, naturalism is not enough. “Real life is weird and scary,” he says. “It feels technicolour and grayscale altogether. It’s everything, all at once. Physicalising that is something theatre – and only theatre – can do.” He is adamant that the playwright is duty-bound to embrace theatricality and liveness. If an idea could be a book or a film, he says, don’t put it on stage.
Captain Amazing, for example, began life as a standup comedy routine. As a student, McDowall wanted to dress up in the standard-issue Lycra and cape get-up and “do open-mic spots, telling observational comedy about being a superhero”. To research the character, he wrote pages of dialogue between the father and his daughter and, over time, the supporting material became the script. “She’s a lovely character. I just enjoyed spending time with her.” There is a brilliant ambiguity at the resulting play’s heart: is this unprepossessing, hangdog bloke – a head cold in human form – really a paladin, or are his heroics more humdrum?
McDowall’s plays – a little like Philip Ridley‘s, perhaps – have an edge of comic-book hyperreality to them. Pomona, written for Royal Welsh drama school and recently seen at the Gate in London, made Manchester into a neo-noir metropolis that’s jittery and dangerous. One character has a squid for a head; another, a gawky teen, has invented a Jumanji-esque role-playing game.
McDowall likes the parallel with graphic novels, citing Scott McLeod’s theory of comic books by way of explanation. “A comic is two panels and a space in between; everything that happens exists in that gap. You fill in the blanks. It’s the same with theatre: it’s all created, not on stage or in the audience, but somewhere in the air in between them.”