MCH | BLANK

Official website for Mark C. Hewitt & Blank Productions

CIVILIZATION AND ITS DISCONTENTS: 11 MOVEMENTS FOR THEATRE
as work in progress
Blank Productions
2002 - 2022


Origins and early development
13 March 2001: a chance observation in the bar of the White Hart Hotel. A woman, all but obscured by the bulk of a red leather wingbacked armchair, talks with a friend. All that can be seen is her bare arms and legs in profile as she gesticulates. As I described in my notebook at the time: "Sleeveless little black dress, black nails. When she leans back … all I can see is her bare arms and legs and shoes. Femininity of arms and legs enhanced by bulk of chair. Mesmeric the sight of arms and legs moving as she talks." I guess I became obsessed with this image. Over the coming days it transformed in my imagination to a scenario on a stage in which two armchairs face each other in profile. A man and a woman are sitting in these chairs, talking. Long before any words were written, this visual world was explored in a first phase of R&D in 2002, working with photographer Magali Nougarède and visual artist Lindsey McGown. The work, which took place at Komedia in Brighton, was initially with life models, then with actors.

More images in the gallery »

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Photos © Magali Nougarède (Komedia, Brighton) 2002
Sketches © Lindsey McGown, 2002


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Outsize armchairs were specially constructed for these explorations by upholsterer Marc Whatling. However, the size of these chairs led to the actors looking infantilised, which had never been the intention. For this reason, these exaggerated chairs were dropped from the future development of the work.

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Above: actors Jonathan Cullen and Jo Howarth in one of the big chairs.

Following the refurbishment of the bar of the White Hart Hotel a few years later, the chairs were replaced by newer ones and I was able to purchase the original chairs that prompted the initial vision. These were first put to the service of dramatic dialogue at Farnham Maltings in January 2009. At a day of short scratch performances of new writing organised by members of Farnham Playwrights Collective, I presented a few tentative drafts as Untitled (exposure 1). I expected the worst but audiences seemed to find the emerging piece interesting. Performances were by Cary Crankson and Kathryn McGarr, directed by Elizabeth Newman.

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Photos © Lesley Brewin. Farnham Maltings, 2010.


Further development work was done in early 2011 during a residency I undertook in Ireland hosted by The Performance Corporation. The Space Programme at Castletown House in County Kildare was an international gathering of practitioners exploring interdisciplinary collaboration. As part of the residency each participant also did work on one of their own projects. I undertook a number of experiments with chorus and dialogue, including the dialogue session below with Irish performers Niamh Shaw and Sonya Kelly.

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In 2013, a grant from the Artists' International Development Fund allowed me to travel to Norway to set up a collaboration with percussionist / composer
Thomas Strønen, who I know of from his work with ambient jazz ensemble, Food. Something in the overall sound and use of electronics on the Food recordings made me think that Thomas Strønen would be the right person to create music for the emerging production. Following our initial meetings and discussions, Blank Productions applied successfully for funding from Det Norske Komponistfond, giving us the funds to commission the music.

The focus then turned to developing the text. Over the course of 2014, I worked with dramaturg
Katalin Trencsényi, leading to an R&D week at the Half Moon Theatre in Limehouse, London, in November of that year. By this time, a tentative title had attached itself to the work-in-progress, Civilization and its Discontents, the title echoing Sigmund Freud's essay of the same name, published in 1930. Although the play is not 'about' Freud's book and neither does it attempt to vindicate or champion it. Rather Freud's text stands as a loose cultural association or point of reference that is quoted in the subtitles given to ections of the play as well as being quoted here and there in the text. The R&D at the Half Moon Theatre involved seven actors and a technical/production team and combined explorations of the half-written text with bits of improvisation and devising.

R&D of work in progress, Nov 2014
Dramaturgy: Katalin Trencsényi
Music: Thomas Strønen
Sound design: John Avery
Lighting design: Kristina Hjelm
Movement direction: Imogen Knight
Dramaturgical assistant: Simon Stache
Production Co-ordinator: Jo Rawlinson
Visual artist (documentation): Lindsey McGown
Photographer (documentation): Nivine Keating

Performers:
Kathryn McGarr
Lucas Augustine
Rhys Meredith
Liam Shannon
Ipek Uzman
Oxana Nico
Sylvia Chianti

Photos below by Nivine F. Keating © Morrighan Images. Half Moon Theatre, London, 2014

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In September 2016, with a first draft at last completed, I visited composer Thomas Strønen in Oslo to consolidate the collaboration that we'd begun in 2013, discussing in more detail the interaction of text and music as I was imagining it. The music created for the production included recordings made by Food and other material written for drum ensemble and lead instruments. During my stay in Oslo, I was able to hear for the first time, live, the music for drum ensemble that occupies a central role in the play in the section entitled 'Songs of the Chambermaids'. This music is performed by Strønen's undergraduate percussion ensemble at the Norwegian Academy of Music, where he is Associate Professor.

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Strønen leading his percussion ensemble, Extended Ground, at the Norwegian Academy of Music, Oslo, Sept 2016.

In September 2017, I worked with three female performers to R&D one particular section of the play, known as Songs of the Chambermaids. In this sequence (the ninth of the 11 movements) the lines of text are variously spoken or chanted over the aforementioned music for percussion ensemble. Because of its rhythmic complexity, however, it's very difficult to perform, requiring split second time. The aim of the R&D, therefore, was to find the answer to two questions. 1: can it actually be done by actors or is it too difficult to perform? 2: if it can be performed, will it be theatrically valid and will it be entertaining? After an intensive week of rehearsal, the sequence was performed as part of the Half Hour Hits experimental R&D platform, presented by Lewes Live Literature on 30th September, 2017. But I never got to see it as I ended up in hospital with pneumonia and pleurisy. See video clip »

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Vid still © Nicola Joy. Performers (l to r) Leann O'Kasi as Bo, Marta Carvalho as Ana, Melissa Sirol as Cressida

In September 2021, once again working with the same three performers, I took Songs of the Chambermaids to Braga, Portugal, re-rehearsing and refining the sequence as part of a one-week international artist residency hosted by Academia de Teatro Tin.Bra. The work was performed on 11 September 2021 at Auditorio do Centro de Juventude de Braga. As part of the accompanying collaborative activity, I wrote two self-satirical dialogues intended to playfully introduce the Portuguese audience (and particularly non-English speakers) to the content of the three 'songs'. The dialogues were translated into Portuguese and - with minimal rehearsal - beautifully performed by Vânia Silva and Dalila Lourenco of Tin.Bra, directed by Maira Ribeira,

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Photo © Marta Pinto, 2021

Working with film artist Matt Parsons, we also videoed the sequence to create a digital version of Songs of the Chambermaids, which was streamed as part of The Living Record 2022 digital theatre festival in January/February 2022, winning a 4 Star review Lucy Gill on The Reviews Hub: “Lively and thought-provoking" … "a performance that depicts every human emotion from rage to pleasure to despair, with a sprinkle of humour".

POSSIBLE EPIGRAPHS FOR THIS WORK
'War's necessity is terrible, altogether different in kind from the necessity of peace. So terrible it is that the human spirit will not submit to it so long as it can possibly escape; and wherever it can escape it finds refuge in long days empty of necessity, days of play, of revery, days arbitrary and unreal.'
Simon Weil (from the essay 'The Iliad, or the Poem of Force', 1939, translated by Mary McCarthy)
'Against the dreaded external world one can defend oneself only by somehow turning away from it ...'
Sigmund Freud ('Das Unbehagen in der Kultur' (The Uneasiness in Culture) 1930, translated into the English as 'Civilization & its Discontents’ at the suggestion of Joan Rivière
'… people expelled from life and time. Their past is cancelled, their future empty. They have no gods at all. They seem caught in an inertia where significant action, should it occur, has to be motivated by ghosts. There is nowhere in these characters to dig for a profound reversal or a revelatory recognition.'
Anne Carson (from introductory essay to her translation of Euripides’ ‘Hekabe’, from the book, Grief Lessons, 2006)
'You see ... all art has now become completely a game by which man distracts himself, and you may say it’s always been like that, but now it’s entirely a game.’
Francis Bacon ('Interviews with Francis Bacon 1962-1979’ by David Sylvester)

The production at its current stage of development »