By Julyan Oldham.
Since Flo Read’s Twin Primes won Best Script and Best Production in the 2015 Oxford New Writing Festival, she has gone on to develop several more acclaimed plays. Her work has been performed both nationally and internationally, including at the Edinburgh Fringe 2015 and 2016. She recently graduated from Oxford University with a degree in English Literature.
I catch up with her in the last week of the Fringe, where she has been promoting her one-man play Cold/Warm.
It’s been eighteen months since Twin Primes won Best Production and Best Script at the Oxford New Writing Festival. How has your writing developed since then?
I entered that prize thinking it wasn’t a big deal, then suddenly when I got the chance to have my work on a stage, it felt massive – then afterwards it felt like nothing, only the first tiny step in a marathon that I’d entered by mistake.
The biggest thing in the last year was learning that I could write for myself. After the first time someone says they don’t like something, that’s it. That’s done. I realised that everything I write is divisive, and I can’t please everyone.
My writing has gone all over the place, but the essence is the same. It usually has some intermingling between contemporary scientific or clinical culture, and a kind of mythology. With Twin Primes, I didn’t want to be held by traditional standards of narrative. That’s carried on, I think. I’ve never written anything that has a three-act structure; I’ve never written anything particularly with character, as you might call it. I’m moving in steps towards that. It seems a bit roundabout, but I think that’s been good for me: my work has developed in a way that perhaps is not what people expect, looking more at traditions of structure and form and character. That comes with confidence, and that’s what the last year has given me.
Are you more aware of tradition now than you were?
I’ve never been an avid reader. My mother would force me to read things that were difficult, and I’d eventually give in and read things like Middlemarch or David Copperfield. David Copperfield was the turning point: I realised that there was some worth in literature that wasn’t going to be immediate and bizarre in a way that allows you a get-out clause, which is I don’t have to understand this, because in the end who really does? Everybody understands David Copperfield. I found that intellectually intimidating, because it wasn’t the kind of thing where you were special for having read it – it was something you just had to sit and read. It was just a story and it had a beginning and a middle and an end. You laughed and you cried, and I was so scared of that. For me that represented regression. It was a fear of the text as it gave itself up to me, and also a fear that I thought I might not get it. When I did, I realised I didn’t have to be this person who said I didn’t want to read anything before 1925. That was arrogance and fear.
Learning more, reading more, being more open-minded means that I can now appreciate the value of that which may not seem sexy and cool, but which is actually the coolest thing in the world, which is to be able to create real people. That’s hopefully where I can go – towards the real.
You mentioned regression, and the fear of somehow going backwards – do you think your characters are imbued with that fear?
I think every character I write has a fear of going back to something they were before. That comes from having a very scared childhood. I was a very, very nervous child. I had an incredible life – I was very lucky – but I still felt scared all the time. It’s funny: my constant anxiety now is that I will go back to that.
I realised I was grown up quite recently – I hadn’t thought about it, and then I did. My parents left me on the first day of university and I expected them to come back and collect me. They didn’t, and I thought no, that’s done now. That fear definitely finds its way into every character.
Children and Animals plays out as a game between two people trying to deal with the fact that they can’t grow up. Game-playing and the way language games work on stage is hugely interesting. I think Wittgenstein puts it best when he says that these games are as much about coping with society as they are about creating society.
Theatre’s great because you don’t have to give any answers. Children and Animals definitely doesn’t, which makes people angry. You get this interesting double layer where they’ve gone and watched a play about being a child, and what it is to act as a child when you’re an adult – then they come out and have a tantrum because it’s not what they wanted. I love the irony.
So are you the adult in the relationship between you and the actors, you and the reviewers?
I depend on a lot of people to envision something greater for what I’ve written. That takes a huge amount of trust, because you’re giving people words with blank spaces in between. I don’t say, like Samuel Beckett, right foot forward, left foot forward, right foot forward, stop. I say he moves. And that’s up to “him”: the actor, director, whoever. I have a strong feeling that that isn’t my choice, partly because I love the idea of ripping control out of my own hands. But I think there’s something inside me that needs to be looked after in that way. If I grow up, properly, maybe I will learn to take more control over what I do.
They say at school you should never use scissors without supervision – I think I still haven’t quite realised that I’m allowed to use the scissors alone yet. I’m wondering where the adult has gone.
Your work is often described as “dark comedy”.
I don’t know, still, what “dark comedy” means, and I don’t think anyone does. I write stories that are in their essence dark and grotesque, but which have within them elements that are so recognisable to people watching that you can’t help but laugh. I seem to be able to write things that have just enough truth that people find them funny, but with so much grim subtext that they feel bad for laughing.
I like when I see people’s faces in the audience contorted in a grimace, halfway between a sneer and repulsion and a laugh. It gives me something, to think that I’m confusing people in that way. Maybe that’s it – maybe it’s not “dark comedy”, it’s “morally-confusing drama”.
In your one-man plays, Blow and Cold/Warm, a blow-up doll and a microwave seem to replace human roles. What’s the place of inanimate objects in your work?
Blow was a moment where I saw an opportunity to write something supposedly about one man but actually about how men interact with women. The sex doll as an object is a really charged and terrifying totem of our culture.
The microwave I find equally terrifying. When I went to university, that was when I first had one – it coincided with the beginning of a life that was all about instant gratification. A microwave fits into a modern world in which time is money, and it’s also got the slightly sci-fi element of being a machine that no one really understands. We have it in the room with us, but there’s no seeing what is going on in there. So there’s a kind of religious aspect: you put the food in, you put the timer on, and then faith guides you through.
Don DeLillo writes about how the background sounds of modern life affect the way we think and interact with the world. We live with constant chatter, and we fill up every space. The ticking and the beeps of the microwave become this sacred sound of that.
Blow and Cold/Warm talk a lot about the relationship between loneliness and masculinity – is there something intrinsically lonely about the one-man form?
Blow brought into my world the potential of having the same amount of people on stage as there were writing it. That’s a nice idea, I think.
For me, putting men onstage is not that exciting. It’s certainly not radical. Putting men on stage on their own makes it into an investigation of that individual’s masculinity. And when that intersects with intense loneliness – which is necessary for a one-man show because you can’t have anyone punctuate that – it says something interesting about what it is to be a man in society today.
During a time in which gender is being allowed to be opened up into so many new shades and nothing at all, you have to start legitimising to yourself why you still call yourself a woman. For me that’s a massive thing, because I felt very much growing up that I didn’t fit. I still don’t. I think a lot of writers have to write because you have to have some other way of explaining yourself, and exploring yourself and things like gender.
Thinking of myself as a woman, that decision was then also to look at men and the way they are presented. The one-man show doesn’t have to be about giving power to an individual man. It can be about deconstructing that man. Cold/Warm is about the way that a situation where you have nobody to go to, and having only a confused sense of self to live with, can create a really damaged individual.
That urge to put people on stage and then deconstruct them is particularly real and strong with men. I’ve been incredibly lucky to be surrounded by men who aren’t locked in by their gender, who are interested in what I have to say. To use those platforms to talk about why it’s problematic to have men in our society who are being neglected is a responsibility that comes with feminism.
Do you think theatre has a responsibility to be political?
There’s this shortcut: the film industry is sexist. Yes. It is. If you take the top five major-grossing films of every year and look at their central characters and how much their actors are being paid. But that lets individuals get away with it, because it’s saying there’s a problem with ‘the industry’ – there’s nothing anyone can do about that.
Theatre is still a sexist world. There are problems with diversity; with the way they treat women; with the way they treat people who are not acceptably queer; who are queer in ways they don’t like… I don’t think institutions that don’t exist, like ‘the theatre’, have any duty to anyone – there are individuals to be held accountable. ‘The industry’, this amorphous cloud, does not exist. There are only people who are holding up that cloud and keeping the shroud around themselves by blaming that cloud –which they have created – for the misgivings of that industry.
When I hear a man say there’s a problem with the lack of women writers, women directors in the theatre, that makes me feel empowered. I think that in this new movement of intense political correctness we’re worried about talking about other people’s struggles. We forget to support other people and say there is a problem there.
It’s not just gender politics – it’s about race, about class. We still don’t have black people represented on stages. We don’t have working-class people represented on stages in ways that are not stereotyped and flippant. I strongly believe that people need to be talking about the fact that there aren’t enough black people given roles onstage in Shakespeare, and there aren’t enough women being allowed to write major films in Hollywood. Just because those struggles might not be my personal struggles doesn’t mean I shouldn’t be able to call them out. What is “the Arts” without people speaking out?
Which female writers have influenced and inspired you?
Caryl Churchill means a huge amount to me. It’s an amazing thing to be alive alongside someone like her. Far Away was one of the first plays I ever read – it struck me in a way that nothing else has. The word is only ever used for men, but I think she is a genius. It’s heartening that she’s getting the recognition she deserves – though I always think she deserves more.
With people like Caryl Churchill and Sarah Kane there is a deeply political element to the way they deconstruct the form of theatre. Sarah Kane does brutal, terrifyingly poignant things onstage. But there’s also room for someone to come in and beat men at their own game, to play by their rules and do it better. I think women have the ability to match men in anything, and proving that is a joy.
If you’re working somewhere like London now, as a woman, you have the chance to start performing your gender without fear. That’s a privilege that has been won by people like Sarah Kane. For us. And that is a duty, I think: to carry on that tradition.