Jonathan Meth of The New Playwrights Trust in conversation with Anthony
Fletcher, author of The Focus Group:
How did you come to writing for the stage?
I did an MA in performance studies at RADA/Kings and I've worked as a
director. My first play, Mickey Valid, began life as a novel, a comedy about
assassinating a member of the Royal Family, Narrative voices kept jumping
out so it became a play almost by accident. At 160 pages with 45-50 scenes
it then sat, unwieldy, in a drawer, but s director friend heard about it,
asked to read it and liked it. We managed to get a reading at the end of
last year, then I began to edit. Then we secured a week at the RNT
studios--brilliant that the writer gets a room to work and everyone gets
paid. After a week we came back and did a reading, although unfortunately
with not much feedback from the RNT folk... that was in June.
How does a play begin to take shape for you?
In Michael Billington's biography of Pinter he cites an early example of
Pinter coming downstairs and seeing an oddly arranged combination of people
in a room and suddenly the play is there. The image is like a black and
white negative, a story suddenly clicks into place.
Is this what happened with your second play, The Focus Group?
I I lived in Uruguay for 10 months. Via a contact at Cheek by Jowl, I was
invited to do some directing work at a cultural centre, which also operated
as a theatre and an English language school in Montevideo. I travelled to
Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay. recently I was reading a book about Che
Guevara, by John Lee Anderson. Fidel Castro and Che are in the early stages
of training a group of about 15 people into a revolutionary cell--doing
little exercises in a farm somewhere in Mexico. The iconic Che with which we
are familiar is from much later on. I was interested in what made a Bohemian
bourgeois, for that was Che' background, become a revolutionary/soldier. I
was interested in how that journey was made.
The difference between ideas and practice?
When ideas become powerful. I wanted to examine the cusp between the idea
and the doing of it. In Anderson's book, he mentions that one member of the
cell disappeared but glosses over it. We can all go down the pub and talk
about how we want to overthrow the state, but if someone came along and put
a gun in your hand and said you've got to use this, especially on someone
you knew well...
Is this about obsession? possession?
I think perhaps a way to describe it is with what I call my shoe shop
analogy. I once worked in a shoe shop. Shoes suddenly became interesting to
me. I became incredibly knowledgeable about all things to with shoes-an
expert. Now I can't really remember any of it.
Something that seems important at the time and is all encompassing, but
without any clearly determined value. Yet you describe the piece as a
Well, it's to do with people feeling detached that political action doesn't
exist for us.
The myth of representative democracy?
Exactly. I don't think you can write about big political issues in Britain
because they're not being played out here. But that doesn't mean they're not
relevant to us. I wanted to write a play that would mean different things at
different times. The Wall coming down, not something we could have expected.
When things start to happen, they happen much more quickly than people
The challenge to write political theatre for our times seems to me to be
partly the challenge to move beyond the implied consensual audience response
to the epic plays of the '70s. The irony of the title The Focus Group
locates us firmly within Blairspeak, yet also suggests the parochial nature
of that world view.
The play is an off-centre play. It's not about where you're looking for what
you may think you will find, nor "let me show you how well 'I've researched
this"... The characters are not very sophisticated (though they think they
are). As I was writing, what interested me was characters trying to make
sense of what is happening and less and less the characters being even
vaguely heroic. The play is about political action. it doesn't end well.
It's not about providing a fixed ending for the audience.
The answer as to why your characters do what they do is not given; we are
presented with a set of circumstances.
The things you suspect are the real reasons could be wrong. I'm dealing with
hunches. The time may simply not be right yet for these characters. The
scale and scope to some extent exceeds personal motivation, although the
central relationship in the play is key to understanding the political
journey I wanted to explore. Underwater rivers in a sea--you don't see them
but they're there--though they're very, very difficult to talk about.
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