A friend of mine saw Stef Smith’s new play Swallow at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival this year and said I just had to read it! Smith wasn’t a writer I’d heard of and when I discovered she’d won an Olivier award in 2012 for her play Roadkill I felt a bit out of touch. However, I’m glad to say I have read this fantastic play and with inspiration from Sarah Kane in her work, she presents a beautiful, hopeful piece that takes theatre to its the limits.
So what did I learn from this one?
- Don’t worry about stage directions, establish 3 characters and let them tell the audience what they’re doing
Swallow reminded me of For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow Is Enuf and even though this isn’t a choreopoem, it does feel like 3 intersecting poems at the start with each character reflecting on what they’re doing. The writing is so image-full that you don’t need stage directions and even though the writing is reflective it’s active in a different kind of way -a lot of the action is described which gives the director a lot of space to envision what the characters are doing and how it will best work on stage.
- Shifting out of reflective/described action to actual action means you see each character through their own eyes
It felt novelistic in many ways as instead of seeing the action unfold (I often think of theatre as being about the space between the actors as they take decisions in front of you driving the story forward), Smith has her characters, when they are in the moment of action, say their words of dialogue and also some comments on the situation they are experiencing. (Almost like the judgements and comments you may say to yourself in your head while you’re having a conversation with someone). It leads to a richer sense of each character and as Smith says in her forward to the printed edition, this play is about the ‘chaotic ways in which we continue’ by which she means exploring the anger and dissonance we have inside us, and she cleverly brings the audience inside and between the characters by using this descriptive/active dialogue. We are not apart from them, we are with them in every moment.
- 3 separate characters with separate stories intersect and move the story on in a very interesting way
Ok so this is nothing new, however I’ve been really inspired by the way Smith does it. The quick fire intersecting moments of speech from all 3 characters peppered with longer speeches brings a vitality to the text that makes it feel like dialogue when it isn’t. Later on and by the end of the play when all 3 characters have met and through each other their lives have changed, it all wonderfully knits together in a way that you don’t realise it will, because the whole play has been written like this. Suddenly you can see the patterns between all the characters and maybe where they become everywomen that we can all relate to. I loved this quality about the play as all 3 characters are extreme, yet somehow by the end, I felt I could relate to them all. Something I’m definitely taking inspiration from for my current rewrites.
I think Smith has a play at Royal Court next year which I’ll definitely be checking out. For more info on her work check out her website.
I know I’m running a bit late with this series but I’m currently working on rewrites for one of my plays and with a full time job as well I only get so many hours in a day. However November’s playwright will be Dawn King as I have her Papatango Prize winning play Foxfinder in my bag ready to read.