With cutting edge theatre company The Riot Group, playwright Adriano Shaplin has built a reputation for unflinchingly contemporary work. For his RSC debut, however, he has tackled a new idea, a history play, as Matthew Amer found out.
For Adriano Shaplin, founder of the award-winning The Riot Group and playwright of new Royal Shakespeare Company production The Tragedy Of Thomas Hobbes, the build up to his new play going before an audience for the first time has been rather unusual. While he is used to performing in, directing and even sound designing his own productions, on this occasion he merely has to sit in the auditorium, arms crossed, watching everyone else fulfil these roles. It is, he says, “more of the conventional author’s experience”. For an unconventional author such as Shaplin, the experience is “relaxing”, though I have my suspicions about how much he has to control his urge get involved.
The whole process of creating The Tragedy Of Thomas Hobbes has been new for the American writer, the first playwright to be named the RSC/CAPITAL International Playwright in Residence. Shaplin made his name with The Riot Group producing “ripped from the headlines kind of plays” with restricted casts, where everyone would chip in to bring the piece to the stage. By comparison, working on The Tragedy Of Thomas Hobbes offered him a huge wealth of resources with which to construct his piece.
“I felt I had to write a history play,” he explains. “This is a company with an incredible wig store, with incredible costume manufacturing, with fight choreographers. I’ve never had a fight choreographer in my 14 years of working in theatre. It’s a luxury item in the kind of world that I come from. Movement Directors, Voice Directors. They inspired me; I need to raise my game to meet where this company’s at, not bring them down and do some sort of rude new writing piece, but do something that honours the house playwright and the genius of the artists that are already working for this company.”
“Authenticity is overrated”
The result is a piece set in the 1600s, at a time when theatre was banned and science was discovering that experimentation could be both informative and entertaining, when the Royal Academy started to emerge as a scientific force and battled quite publicly with philosopher Thomas Hobbes. As Shaplin describes the time, it does not sound entirely unlike today: “The London that they lived in had machines and scientific developments unknown for millions of years of human history. For the first time in anyone’s memory England didn’t have a king, it had a protector. There’d been revolution; there’d been all these changes. The world they were living in was tumultuous, unsettled, in the process of becoming.”
“I had to do all the research,” Shaplin explains, “and then I had to forget all the research because I don’t think anyone really cares about what happened in the past; you have to tell a story about the world we live in now, so you sort of have to forget all the details and the facts and the history and then rewrite it through the lens of now. Authenticity is overrated.”
The playwright is openly unconcerned about words or phrases slipping into the characters’ speech that are not true to the 17th century. He certainly hasn’t lost sleep over a stray ‘okay’ or the odd ‘dude’. And this, he says, he has learned from the man in whose world he has been immersed for the last three years.
When Shaplin joined the RSC, he could count the number of Shakespearean productions he had seen on the fingers of one hand. He had read none. Dropped into Michael Boyd’s Histories team, he soon got up to speed on the Bard. “I’ve seen 18 of his plays for the first time since I’ve worked for the company, which is very unique,” he smiles. “Not a lot of people in this country get to have that experience of being an adult and seeing Shakespeare’s work for the first time with completely fresh eyes. That’s the feeling I want people to have with this play; seeing a lost play for the first time that they never saw before.”
“I just try and think like 50 Cent; what would 50 Cent do?”
Shaplin now speaks about Shakespeare with confidence and assurance, coolly drawing any number of parallels between both he and the Bard. Like Shakespeare, he says, he doubles up as writer and performer. Like Shakespeare, he writes for a specific ensemble and tries to exploit the resources they have. In creating a history play in a Shakespearean style, Shaplin has embraced Shakespeare’s disregard for exact history and has also chosen to write in blank verse. He may well have set himself up to be measured against a benchmark that can never be met. Shaplin, who is nothing if not confident, sees it slightly differently, through hip hop-tinted glasses: “I just try and think like 50 Cent; what would 50 Cent do? He would assume that he could come in and sample the Great One and make it even better. I can’t do that, but it’s worth trying. Maybe it’s just naivety or arrogance of youth or something, but I had to go for it. I want to borrow his scale, not his plot. I wanted to borrow his ambition. If you look at the history plays, they’re extremely ambitious plays. Humble poets don’t create works like that.”
He is not wrong. It takes a certain amount of confidence in your own ability to take on such a challenge, but Shaplin has never been short of such self-belief. As a college student he left his theatre course after just one semester as it was not teaching him what he wanted to know about the art form. Instead, he set up his own theatre company, The Riot Group, which has since built a reputation for creating immediate, inspiring work that never shies away from shock. With its shows, which include Victory At The Dirt Place, Switch Triptych and Pugilist Specialist, The Riot Group has won four Fringe Firsts at the Edinburgh Festival, where, when it appears, it is among the hottest tickets in town.
“I’m so allergic to trying to be a part of the industry that I’ve always just focused all my energy into making good art,” Shaplin says, explaining his decision to leave formal theatrical training behind to pursue his own goals. “As an artist I consider worrying about agents and producers and what the industry is going to think of what you’re making shouldn’t be a priority for someone who’s trying to write poetry about the world. I guess I’m happily an outsider.”
I would venture that Shaplin is now happily an outsider who has found that, in some forms at least, the establishment is not all bad. While he sticks to his guns that most mainstream theatre does not interest him, working on a history play with the RSC has sparked new ideas. He is talking about The Tragedy Of Thomas Hobbes as possibly the second piece in a trilogy of plays featuring its characters. He is considering treating America to a Shakespearean style piece about the American Civil War. He would go back to the RSC without a second thought, if they would have him.
“I’m a terrible storyteller, I’m good at writing speeches”
The idea of a teenager walking out of college because he thinks he knows best summons images of brashness, arrogance and precociousness; Shaplin openly admits to anger and rage being part of the core of much of his writing. Yet the playwright I meet in the gloom beneath the Wilton’s Music Hall stalls is confident, open-minded and eager to make clear that he knows his flaws and that none of his creations are his and his alone.
The Tragedy Of Thomas Hobbes was a half-written script when he began rehearsals. This is the way he works with The Riot Group and the RSC saw no reason to change that. What audiences will see is a piece that grew with the input of the actors and other creatives during the rehearsal period. “I’m a terrible storyteller,” he admits. “I’m good at writing speeches.” Much of the plotting, he says, came from director Elizabeth Freestone. “You’re not supposed to say all that stuff, but I do because I don’t care. It’s the truth. In theatre no-one works alone. Nobody ever achieves anything alone. Anything worth a damn in theatre is grown up through collaboration of some kind. I like to dialogue, I need to dialogue about my scripts as I’m writing them.”
As his time with the RSC comes to an end – Shaplin is replaced as the International Playwright in Residence in 2009 by Tarell Alvin McCraney – Shaplin is looking forward to collaborating with The Riot Group once more. He already has a new show planned, but is unsure whether to take it to Edinburgh where, because of the previous success, “all we can get is a kicking. It’s a privilege to be negatively compared to yourself, but that doesn’t make it fun.”
And while The Tragedy Of Thomas Hobbes may mark Shaplin’s first tentative steps towards the mainstream, there is little chance of him selling out the ideals that have been key to his development so far: “I feel like theatre in this corporate media world is one of the most punk rock art forms you can be part of, you know. You can still just throw a show up with nothing but sweat and a pencil,” he says, which is lucky with the credit crunch pinching everyone’s pocket. But money has never been the driving force for this American playwright. “I’m in it for the excitement and the challenge of good work. If you just make good art then you’ll survive.”