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Duncan Graham’s ‘CUT’

19 June 2016 | Tom Faber

In CUT, a woman prepares for work. Pursued by a man, she is hunter and hunted. This dark, disorientating one-woman show has taken both Adelaide and Edinburgh Fringes by storm, and it’s about to come to London. We caught up with playwright and director Duncan Graham to chat about claustrophobia, writer-directors and the differences between Australian and British theatre.

London Calling: Feelings of fear and claustrophobia aren’t common in the theatre world. What inspired Cut?

Duncan Graham: These feelings aren't common in theatre, I agree. But they are driving the world around it. I desperately wanted to give expression to these feelings. CUT is part of a trilogy of works that I wrote on a trip to London back in 2009. They came out of a series of nightmares that I was having about being pursued by someone. In my waking life I thought they were always present in my periphery. The dreams always ended with an act of violence. It was unusual for me then and even now to have such dreams. I wouldn't describe myself as that type of person. When making this production, Hannah Norris (the actress) and I wanted to head right into the heart of the worst fears that women have when in public. This play is directly about our worst anxieties and fears and feelings of confinement and proximity to others.


LC: Have you had any problems with frightened audience members?

DG: In each season of the play we've had a handful of audience members who have had to leave the performance. We had one reviewer leave the performance after 2 minutes. He then wrote a review of the work talking about his fear of darkness. It was only one paragraph, more of an apology to us the makers, but to me it's the best review we've had. We've had the full range of responses from disgust to elation, terror to joy. It's not a show that leaves people without an opinion.


LC: Were there any logistical issues staging a play that sometimes plunges the room into complete darkness? Apparently you’ve developed a special lighting system.

DG: There is always a technical problem to solve when you want to achieve total darkness. And I mean total. It's very hard to get that sort of light lock. The closer you get to it, the more the leaks appear. But once you achieve it, which we have always been able to do, you are then able to control light in a more specific way. And you don't need much of it. Sam Hopkins who is currently making all the lighting systems of Ridley Scott's Alien crafts, is the lighting designer on this work. He is using a similar system that he developed for CUT for Ridley, which delights me no end. I wouldn't mind the same budget. It's a purpose built system that is all LED lighting. Sam has made and wired the whole system. It tries to reflect the sort of lighting that we travel through on a daily basis in public spaces - public transport and parks and even more and more in our own homes.   


LC: Have you directed all of the plays you’ve written? Can it be a struggle performing both roles?

DG: This is the first work of mine I have directed on my own. I have co-directed some works. But this has been a tremendous challenge. Especially on a one person show. They are so demanding and you can't turn around to anyone else in the room and say, how's this looking to you? But working with Hannah on the text has been so rewarding. The play was performed at Belvoir in Sydney, in 2011, so it feels just far enough away for me not to be tangled up in the text in a way that might impede my decision making process as a director. It can be hard to know who is responsible for solving problems in the process, the director or the writer. When it's the same person you can't hide.


LC: How do you feel the Australian and British theatre worlds differ?

DG: Our 'mainstage' theatre model doesn't differ too much from the British model of theatre making. Our largest theatre company in Sydney, Sydney Theatre Company, up until a few days ago, was being run by a British director. I think this speaks volumes about the similarities. And I don't think this always a good thing. There is one important difference between the two cultures, that's the attitude toward new writing, and the value placed on it. The British theatre scene is flushed with new work. This is not the case in Australia. It's very hard to get new work up at home. In London, but across the country more generally, there is a tremendous drive among the writers, and appetite among the audiences for new work. It creates great innovation in theatre writing - Churchill, Kane, Crimp, Stephens...just to name a few. The theatre culture here can generate and sustain this sort of work. That a playwright like Churchill exists and writes Love and Information in her 70s is a testimony to this. It's no surprise that so many Australian playwrights look here for inspiration and opportunity. To characterise work as Australian though is very difficult. The work that is imported onto the main stages here, driven by star casting, isn't indicative of what is being made by the next generation of theatre-makers in Australia. I hope CUT reflects something of the innovation, passion, and daring that characterises that new wave of work. 


LC: What was the last theatre performance you saw that really excited you?

DG: I was completely taken aback by a dance/theatre work that played two nights at Sadler's Wells, Betroffenheit. I was thrilled by the way the set, the movement and the text all served the psychic event of the trauma, how we deal with it, how it restructures our mind and our emotions. It was such a precise and beautifully thought through work that managed to make all the elements work towards a moving and startling whole. The pain in the work was so palpable, given such clear and sharp focus, it was almost too much. But that's what made it beautiful.
 

LC: What’s next for you?

DG: I am adapting a play of mine, Dreams in White into a film for a company, Madman, back in Australia. It's the first time I've written a screenplay and it's throwing up all sorts of challenges. It'll be back into that. The project is at an interesting stage where the script is ready to show around, directors and actors are reading, and we're starting build the production. 

 

Cut will be at The Vaults from 5th – 31st July. Book tickets online.

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