‘I thought I’d written a stinker’ – Alistair McDowall on global hit Pomona and new play The Glow | Theatre

Alistair McDowall’s new play The Glow transports its viewers again to the 1860s the place Mrs Lyall, a spiritualist medium, is visiting an asylum, trying to find somebody to behave as an assistant. There she finds a unusual, anonymous, unvoiced lady and takes her residence, solely to find that the lady herself has powers.

The premise isn’t wholly unfamiliar however McDowall is worried as a lot with English fable and Arthurian legend as he’s with the supernatural: how the previous stays with us within the current and how we fictionalise historical past to make sense of ourselves. McDowall got down to write a fairytale “that had precise penalties”, taking one thing that seems to reside within the realm of the improbable and grounding it in the true world “for there to be value and emotional heft”.

The Glow is meant to catch individuals off-guard, he explains over Zoom from Manchester, the place he sits surrounded by packing containers, having moved home the day earlier than. Presenting audiences with one thing that appears acquainted and then unravelling it’s one thing McDowall is sweet at: his performs have a method of enjoying along with your expectations. This may make them troublesome to jot down about with out revealing an excessive amount of. X, from 2016, is a good instance: it’s set on a analysis base on Pluto that has misplaced contact with Earth. The clocks begin going backwards. There may be a glitch in time. However it’s, at coronary heart, a play about loss.

‘I have a tendency to jot down work that’s fairly high-concept’ … The Glow. {Photograph}: Johan Persson


Time has performed a key position in a lot of McDowall’s work. “To not contemplate time as a correct aspect inside the writing of the play,” he says, “can be like not contemplating character or scene construction.” Nonetheless, like JB Priestley, he has a number of works that may very well be described as “time performs” and 2011’s Good Adventures even comprises an precise time machine.

Extra just lately, All of It, a 45-minute rattle by way of one lady’s life, was carried out by Kate O’Flynn at London’s Royal Courtroom final yr. It was directed – like X and The Glow – by Vicky Featherstone. “I have a tendency to jot down work that’s fairly high-concept,” he says. “There’s all the time a hazard of somebody getting fixated on the idea and making one thing flashy.” However Featherstone, he says, may be very rooted. Regardless of X’s off-world location, she understood that the “story was truly fairly easy.”

Rising up in Nice Broughton, North Yorkshire, McDowall’s curiosity in theatre was sparked, partially, by a drama instructor. At college, he learn a huge quantity and began stealing books “which I’ve since posted again out of guilt”. He finds the decline of drama in colleges upsetting, not simply because it implies that potential writers or actors gained’t have their eyes opened in the best way his have been, but additionally as a result of drama can “temporally erode all of the divisions that may construct up in school”.

Desirous about movie to start with, he couldn’t afford a digital camera however discovered he might strain his pals to be in his performs, a lot of which have been “variations on The Breakfast Membership”. By this he means a lot of individuals sitting in a room, speaking. “That’s what I thought a play was.” However then he acquired into Beckett and Sarah Kane, Laurie Anderson and Sam Shepard, and started to find the potential of theatre. “I’m a theatre nerd,” he laughs.


Part dystopian thriller, part Lovecraftian horror … Pomona.Half dystopian thriller, half Lovecraftian horror … Pomona. {Photograph}: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Initially commissioned by Royal Welsh Faculty of Music and Drama, earlier than enjoying London’s Orange Tree theatre, his 2014 play Pomona – a mixture of dystopian thriller and Lovecraftian horror – feels just like the antithesis of a Breakfast Membership play. After a wobbly first preview, he remembers considering: “Oh God, I’ve written a actual stinker.” It’s a bleak play, nightmarish in locations, but it surely grew to become a cult hit, transferring to the Nationwide Theatre’s short-term Shed house. It’s his most carried out play so far and has been staged everywhere in the world, one thing that also appears to shock him.

Studying an early draft of The Glow brings to thoughts every part from Caryl Churchill’s The Skriker to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Critics usually remark on the deft method McDowall makes use of style tropes, however he’s shocked theatre doesn’t do that extra usually. In spite of everything, he says, “a analysis base on Pluto is simply as pretend as a drawing room in Victorian London”.

McDowall is energised by the concept of individuals with the ability to come collectively in an auditorium as soon as once more. That is why, he says, theatre will all the time be his residence: there’s a magic there you possibly can’t discover elsewhere. “You possibly can put individuals in a room with some actors and you possibly can go wherever.”

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