The theatres may be closed for now, but the creativity and ingenuity with which performers, producers and playwrights alike are continuing to entertain and delight us has been a lifeline. Getting your theatre fix via a digital screening has become the new normal, and haven’t we been well catered for? But if you’ve been searching for something a little less one-sided, something with a deeper connect, Nick Hern Books are offering a new opportunity to reconnect with the theatre community.

The NHB Playgroup is a book club – for lovers of plays. Every Wednesday during the coronavirus shut down, one contemporary play from their collection will be available online to those who sign up, with the opportunity to send questions to the author themselves for a Q&A a week later. What better way could there be to discover new plays? Well, without the opportunity to see them of course.

Since the lockdown for me personally, play reading has lost its charm. I’ve been out of practice living abroad and since I’ve been back I’ve found it’s hard to discern a purpose. It’s an uncertain time and not one I feel I can realistically plan a new production, then there’s the fact I have no live material to read around for the merit of outside interest.

I’ve become more aware than ever that theatre is a social and communal art form; when watching a stream or reading I acutely feel the achingly empty space left by the absence of audience members squashed in at my side. What I wouldn’t give to even have to scathingly whisper at someone to put their phone away, or silently glare at someone sneakily eating crisps. What I really miss is seeing a play with a good friend and then debriefing it over a drink in the pub next door.

But in short, this little playgroup (what a lovely word!) has answered my unuttered prayers for a community to spring up again, and you (yes, you!) should be involved. Now we not only have the opportunity to ask questions of our friends, but of the author. I’ve got a few friends involved already who are keen to discuss together. Perhaps we’ll even read it together and get some voice work practice in!

This week’s NHB Playgroup play is Arlington (2016) by Enda Walsh, and my thoughts are below.

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Ah, the theatre! A place to escape this unprecedented climate of isolation and fear! Well, rather than console us with sweet tales of the world before, Nick Hern Books have instead chosen to haunt us, just a little, with this claustrophobic, dystopian tale of human isolation. But don’t despair! This one-act play has been cooked up beautifully in the mind of the playwright who brought to life the weird and wonderful world of the late David Bowie’s Lazarus; filled with weird and wonderful imagery (which certainly helps when you can’t actually see the performance) and laced with dark, Irish humour.

“Isla’s whole world is a waiting room with plastic chairs and a window she fears to look out of”

Sinister, faceless ‘supervisors’ have locked humanity into towers, dividing the world into “those keeping” and “those being kept”. Isla’s whole world is a waiting room with plastic chairs and a window she fears to look out of. A faceless voice is also her only real contact with the outside world, but love is blooming in the bleakness.

The pain of loneliness and our need for human connection explored here by Walsh clearly has an aching relevance for these times, but it is the often humorous little details that make this play such a necessary and strangely enjoyable read. Isla’s favourite food group is biscuits and so tea and a good dunker become her currency. They are signs she is cared for, something she can only dream of, but I am sure we too can also imagine exchanging bourbons and custard creams as love tokens as lockdown drags on.

Isla fantasises about desk jobs and strikes up imaginary conversations with talk show hosts. These moments allow us to mentally fill in images of our own lives, the mundane things which we miss and the parts which turned out to have a higher level of importance than we ever realised. Who knew I would miss making cups of tea for my coworkers in that cramped little kitchen? This has become a time to reflect on what we may have taken for granted. If you were talking to a TV talk show host about your life, what would be your highlights? Who would you namecheck? Would they have been the same before we were all cut adrift from ‘normal’ life?

Oh, the lengths we will go to for human contact! And the ‘hope’ offered by green spaces and growing things. But unlike Isla we should not be considering risking our own lives or the lives of others to hold a hand or steal a kiss – that’s the cruel crux.

We must endure, and console ourselves with the wisdom that our care for each other can not be separated from us, whilst we ourselves are separated.

 

You can find this week’s play and more at: www.nickhernbooks.co.uk/playgroup

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