WAIST is showing on March 20th, at 7.30pm: A Splendidly Absurd Time is Guaranteed for All

Toby Parker Rees

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WAIST has been winning plaudits since its opening nights, thanks to some wonderful acting, a strong inclination towards stirring the audience and some marvelously sharp writing from the Royal Court Young Writer, Toby Parker-Rees. You can read snippets from reviews, and get more info on the Live Beasts website. I scurried a little deeper to get some word-time with the playwright.

Sam: From your ‘Fringe’y beginnings (and looking at reviews), you’ve played in pubs a lot. Does this type of audience lend well to the play?

Toby: Often the set-up in pubs means people can just wander in, which makes everything more informal and relaxed. It also means you have an excuse to avoid too much narrative. All that’s heightened by the fact that people also tend to be a bit drunk in pubs. People aren’t overly respectful, so you have to work at winning them over. That’s good for everyone I think.

Sam: How does the mythology of the pub shape your play?

Toby: I like that Shakespeare learnt about plays doing tours of inn-yards and taverns, and I think it taught him how to master Elizabethan crowds. Some hostility is good. It means you get the equivalent of nice lean punk instead of flabby self-indulgent prog.

Obviously theatre (or Western theatre anyway) has its roots in the Greek Dionysia, a festival honouring the god of wine. Liquor and theatre are old mates. The Greek word ‘ek-stasis’, which is the basis of our word ecstasy, means standing outside yourself — that’s what liquor & theatre do for you. An end to self-consciousness.

The play has quite a lot about being drunk in it — there’s a satyr, for one thing, and satyrs are sort of necessarily drunk. And the other two main characters are fairly keen to get out of their heads. So pubs have been a suitable setting. And it’s fun to get noise leaking in from downstairs in the quieter bits, because it creates this sense that people are having a better time elsewhere — which is quite useful.

Sam: And will there be any challenges in transferring to the confines of the stage?

Toby: The main change to the play as we take it to more traditional spaces is that we have to work harder to work everyone up. That’s a good change, though, really. We’re naturally lazy people so we need to be kept on our toes/hooves.

Sam: Which other playwrights or literary people influence you?

Toby: Stewart Lee and Johnny Vegas are the only people I’ve seen work an audience like Tim Crouch (apart from bands who have an unfair advantage because music automatically makes people less self-conscious). I steal from Ivor Cutler whenever I possibly can. And I saw a show by ‘Sh!t Theatre’ at the Yard [an exciting theatre in Hackney Wick, next to the rotting legacy of the Olympic Park] last week that was really fun and involved sort of lenticular goggles for the audience. I’ll probably try and steal that quite soon. Also every scene in WAIST has an allusion to a Rihanna song in it because I really like her.

Sam: ‘WAIST’ involves references to mythology. Your blog involves lots of modern, quite satirical videos and imagery. Do you feel that there is an authenticity in blending aspects of the lofty past and the minutae of everyday life? And do you feel that as a playwright there is a pressure to modernise whilst paying respect to your predecessors?

Toby: I don’t think the bits of mythology that I like/use are very lofty, really. Satyr plays traditionally came as the fourth part at the end of a Greek tragic trilogy, so there’d be three chunks of loftiness and then these goat-men would come in and throw up all over everything and fall down. The satyr play as a genre or a form seems like it existed to get rid of the idea that everything was incredibly important — everyone had taken things seriously for a while but then it all falls apart into sex & nonsense.

It’s quite a modern sort of idea — absurdism, basically; nothing means anything. It’s a bit more positive than Kierkegaard though. Closer to Kim Kierkegaardashian. EM Cioran is a 20th century philosopher whose ideas are all over this play, and he said ‘I’m simply an accident. Why take it all so seriously?’ — that’s very close to what the satyrs say to these tragic characters they butt up against.

I don’t feel any pressure to modernise I don’t think. I feel pressure to arc a narrative and so on, which is basically Aristotle’s fault so it’s not that modern. I think using specifically current references is quite a good way of keeping your characters human & ridiculous, because everyone likes ephemeral faff and obviously everything is ephemeral faff anyway in the grand terrifying EM Cioran scheme of things.

Sam: How lively do you like your audiences? Have you had any disasters audience wise?

Toby: I like them livelier than we’ve ever had them, to be honest. The very first time we did WAIST, as a preview after not a lot of rehearsals at a pub in London Bridge, the whole audience was quite drunk & they were all on rickety stools so they kept sliding off them. It was really easy to get them all on their feet singing and stamping, and by the end they were all on the stage. But I’d like a mob, really. I don’t think you get really good as a writer or as a company until you’ve played to a fair few mobs. Pelt us with fruit until we’re good enough to shut you up. Let us earn your silence and respect.

Any disasters we’ve had have been for the opposite reason — audiences all divided and self-conscious and shushing each other. That’s much worse I reckon. Doing a tour of some Shakespeare a few years ago there were people complaining about the fact that a couple of children with Down’s Syndrome were being too loud. When you realise you’re putting on a show that actively excludes disabled children, that punishes/shames them for volubly enjoying it, you start to think that probably you’re doing it all wrong.

WAIST – Thursday 20th March – 7.30pm – Theatre at The Old Fire Station

One can purchase tickets here.