Exclusive: Creating Hannah

Published February 18, 2014

This season has seen the Unicorn attract some of the UK’s most exciting theatremakers and its current magical offering Hannah is no exception. Taking Christopher Marlowe’s Dr Faustus for inspiration, acclaimed writer Chris Thorpe has transported the fantastical story to the home of teenager Hannah, where a pet lizard reveals himself to be someone far more sinister and ill-fated wishes can be granted in the blink of an eye.

Here Thorpe and director Simon Evans exclusively offer Official London Theatre a fascinating insight into their professional relationship, revealing how egos needed to be put aside and trust built to bring this magical adaptation for young audiences to life.

Chris Thorpe on working with Simon Evans:

The best thing about writing plays for me is being surprised by them.

I don’t mean surprised by what I write, as I’m writing it. I mean the feeling that the script is only part of the experience. I love that.

I’ve really enjoyed Hannah in that respect. Partly the element of surprise is logistical for this show. The timings for the production mean I haven’t been around much in rehearsal. I’ve been out of town working on other things. But always with this knowledge that somewhere in London a team of people are making a show that my script is only part of, and will come to life in ways I hadn’t envisaged during the writing.

That’s the biggest surprise – when I see things in the production that, being honest, I hadn’t even known were there. It’s tempting to sit back on that feeling, and enjoy it, because I guess it can make me feel clever. Which is seductive, but rubbish. It takes other minds interacting with a text to see that. If it’s just an interpretation of what I thought I was doing, none of that stuff would exist.

For the surprise to be a pleasant one though, there has to be trust. I hadn’t seen a run of the show until the dress rehearsal. And Simon and I, although I definitely think we’re friends, haven’t spent that much time together in person. We didn’t know each other before we started working together on this. So the trust doesn’t necessarily have to come from long friendship. Or even intimate knowledge of each other’s work. It’s something more gut-felt than that. You have to know someone gets it. Simon gets it. Which means he can see those meanings, rhythms I didn’t even know were there, and have fun with them. Which is what he’s doing. I might not have been in the room, but he’s given me plenty of reports from it, some asking for clarification and some, crucially, asking if I’d thought of doing things differently. He can challenge me to do it better.

That’s when you really know the trust is there. When the work’s not just yours, but the whole team’s too – a joint effort at meaning. Not just what someone thinks you meant.

Simon Evans on working with Chris Thorpe:

I always like to think of the rehearsal process in two stages: initially I work to minimise the distance between the actors and the characters, then I have to minimise the distance between the characters and the audience.

Both stages are at their most complex when working on a new piece of writing. The cast and I sit around a table and dissect the play, pulling out character details and establishing the plot; asking questions and challenging any conclusions we might have leapt to a little earnestly. At the end of that stage it’s perfectly possible to have found ourselves in a cul-de-sac or two, confused by a narrative detail or a character’s motivation which seems to have been supported by one line then contradicted by another…

That’s when I go back to the writer and ask for their help.

It can be a real “Emperor’s New Clothes” moment for me. No one is eager to ask what might seem a stupid question, especially not to a writer of Chris’ talent and reputation. He’s trusted me with his play and the last thing I want him thinking is that I don’t know what he’s trying to say.

Chris is, however, a writer of such generosity and patience that, far from feeling ignorant, the cast and I felt we’d taken another huge step toward clarity every time we spoke to him. Sometimes he’d explain the reason behind a line or narrative moment and we’d suddenly understand the way out of the paradox we’d found ourselves in. On other occasions, refreshingly, Chris would take the responsibility on himself: hold up his hands and beg our patience while he reshaped a section slightly. 10 minutes later a new page of script would be before us which completely opened what had been a closed moment, both for us and, ultimately, the audience.

He’s incredibly supportive, believing that once the cast and I come together on the first day of rehearsal, we all begin to take ownership of the telling of the story. He’s always been a phone call or email away to listen to our worries and offer understanding, new lines or just a good ear. It’s a wonderful way to work. I’ve collaborated with writers who have such little faith in their writing that they give me carte blanche to change as I go and I’ve worked with writers so vehement in their original intention that any whisper of a change is met with stony silence. Chris maintains the perfect balance. He, like me, puts the audience first and foremost. If the company and I need to wrestle for an hour to unlock a moment, the audience might have trouble with it too, so it needs to be cleaned up.

When I’m sitting in front of a rehearsal I always try to put myself in the place of the audience and ensure the story is being told clearly and thrillingly. It’s been an absolute delight to work with a writer of the same opinion. Ego takes second place to the experience of the audience. We all work together to shape the show they see and that requires the openness to ask ridiculous questions, humility to realise we might have taken a wrong turn and confidence to make changes.

Every now and again, sensing a change had to be made, I took the liberty of sketching a new line out myself and sending it to him. “How about something like this?” I’d suggest. With customary patience he’d reply with “Okay, I see what you’re trying to do…” and, a few minutes later, send something back which did indeed accomplish exactly what I was trying to do, but with infinitely more wit, depth and clarity.

I try not to take offense. We’re all in it together after all.

I like Chris a lot.

Hannah is suitable for children aged 11+ and plays at the Unicorn Theatre until 9 March. Visit our show listing for full details.

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"The trust doesn't necessarily have to come from long friendship. Or even intimate knowledge of each other's work. It's something more gut-felt than that"