INTERVIEW: Tom Morton-Smith on Making Mischief at the RSC

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Tom Morton-Smith

A YEAR after its first Radical Mischief Festival, the RSC’s Other Place continues to make thought-provoking theatre as it hosts its Spring Mischief Festival. The month-long festival features new plays, Myth and The Earthworks. Gill Sutherland met with Earthworks playwright Tom Morton-Smith to talk mischief and science.

You wrote Oppenheimer, which was preformed at the RSC in 2014 – how did this second play for the company come about?

“The Earthworks started off as a short play a few years ago and it’s been at the bottom of my drawer for a while. I always wanted to do more with the characters, and I was enjoying spending time with them; they like to chat.

“During rehearsals for Oppenheimer and I was talking about Earthworks with Pippa Hill, the literary manager here; it didn’t seem like a very RSC play because it’s small… and not particularly influenced by Shakespeare in anyway. Pippa said she would be interested in reading it — she read and liked in and unknown to meet passed it to Erica, who said yes, we’ll do that.”

What is The Earthworks about?

“It’s set on the eve of the activation of the Large Hadron Collider [LHC] and essentially it’s about these two strangers that meet and the relationship that develops over the course of one night as they share their insecurities about love and loss; it’s quite heavily about grief.

“The LHC is all about searching for the Higgs Boson — why anything in the universe has mass or weight, and what gives objects weight. That’s quite a good metaphor for the things we give weight to in our lives: the things that we say are important, the things that we carry around and define who we are; the grief that we carry. The science is purely a backdrop for the human story on top.”

You’ve incorporated big science themes in your work before — is that deliberate?

“I wasn’t intending to follow up Oppenheimer with another physics play, it’s just how it happened. I think what’s so good about talking about science on stage is when you are dealing with physics — or particle physics generally — you are talking about things that don’t operate in a way that is recognisable in the everyday world. So you have to talk in metaphors…

“Like when people talk about the LHC at Cern and they say ‘it’s the biggest machine that mankind has ever built! And it’s going to find this particle that everyone’s been looking for’ and I think great, but I don’t understand anything. So in an effort for me to get my head around it I had to find a story to tell.

I don’t have a mathematical or scientific brain so I have to find a different way into why they’ve spent £6m creating this thing.”

What do you hope the audience will get from Myth and The Earthworks?

“The two plays are so different from each other stylistically but they have themes that resonate between them. It’s all to do with the things we do to cope in the world. In Myth it concerns climate change and the things we ignore to get on with our lives. In Earthworks it’s the things we cling to in order to get on with our lives.

“I hope people would come away thinking about things in a slightly different way.”

What else are your currently working on?

“I’ve been commissioned to write a screenplay that is adapted from a memoir about the last days of Saigon — so right at the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, whereas most Vietnam films are set in the 1960s; this is more about the politics and diplomacy.”

Oppenheimer was such a success, is that a pressure?

“Yes! I worked out that when it was showing in the preview week at the RSC more people had seen my work than ever before. I was taken back by the success of it and the fact that it transferred, and that people really got behind it. So it does put pressure on the next thing. And I’m glad that although this one is also about physics it’s a completely different sort of play: it’s not a sweeping historical piece but more a small character piece, my own story, so it’s not something that is directly comparable to Oppenheimer and that takes the pressure off.”

Where do you do your writing?

“In a box room in my small flat in Deptford. I listen to music as I write, it stops me from becoming distracted. I’m also one of those annoying people who set up in a café with a laptop. I tend to go to the Southbank and soak up the culture there and hope it feeds in.”

Which writer would you have liked to be?

“I can’t do prose writing — I’ve tried but it turns into dialogue — so a prose writer like Raymond Chandler or Kurt Vonnegut. If it had to be a playwright, well you can’t get away from Shakespeare, but then I would have to live in Elizabethan England and have rotten teeth.”

Most mind-blowing scientific fact you’ve learned creating The Earthworks?

“Light generally travels at the speed of light, which is 186,000 miles per second, but in 1998 scientists in Harvard passed light through a material that they had made extremely cold and put in a vacuum and they brought the speed down to 38 miles per hour… A few years later they managed to bring light to a full stop.”

Your favourite mischief-maker?

[Pauses to think] “I can’t think of one, never mind a favourite! I just keep coming back to Tigger from Winnie the Pooh. That probably doesn’t have the expected gravitas.”

Most depressing thing in the world?

“People reveling in their own ignorance.”

Last green thing you did?

“I took the recycling out — does that count?”

If Spielberg bought one of your scripts, what materialistic object would you buy?

“I’d love a decent guitar. Although beyond clothes and computers I try not to buy stuff.”

Do you believe in happy endings, everlasting love?

“Yes, I am romantic — hopefully my wife would agree. But then you get into the science: how do you define everlasting?”

When and where: Spring Mischief Festival takes place at The Other Place, Waterside, and runs until Saturday (17th June). The Earthworks and Myth are presented as a double bill in the Studio theatre during those dates, evenings and some matinees; tickets are £15. R&D Work in Progress Sharing takes place at the Michel Saint-Denis rehearsal space -#WeAreArrested on 16th June, 2.30pm; tickets are £5. There is also a programme of talks, music and spoken word events. For more details and to book tickets visit www.rsc.org.uk or call the box office on  01789 403493