I saw a really excellent play last Saturday – The Witness, by Vivienne Franzmann. I see a lot of plays, and this was one of the best I’ve seen recently. Playing at The Jerwood Royal Court Theatre, the play is brilliantly acted by the three actors who comprise the cast.
Writers can often learn things from good plays, and The Witness was no exception.
First of all, an outline of the story…
The play was an unravelling of secrets and lies – first one secret was revealed, then another, as the close bond between Joseph (Danny Webb), a dedicated photo-journalist who’d turned wedding photographer, and his adopted daughter, Alex (Pippa Bennett-Warner), was slowly broken down.
Alex, 19 at the time of the play, had been plucked as a baby by Joseph from the aftermath of a Rwandan massacre, and she’d been brought up by him and his now deceased wife. As the play opens, she’s just returned to their Hampstead home after dropping out in her first year at Cambridge University. The third character, Simon (David Ajala), Alex’s brother, whom she hadn’t known existed, appears after the interval. It’s the first time he’s met her since the massacre.
Simon has an agenda that is at first hidden, but increasingly less so, and before the play ends, two secrets are revealed which shake the foundations of the lives of both Alex and Joseph.
Well, that’s enough about the story – I wouldn’t want to spoil it for you, should you be lucky enough to see it at some point.
So now, a couple of things that writers might take away from this excellent play.
1) The only scene was a sitting room in Hampstead. The intimate auditorium framed the stage and was furnished like an extension of the sitting room. At the same time, the tiered arrangement of the audience seating conveyed the feeling of being in a courtroom. We were simultaneously witnesses to two tragedies – one personal, one public.
Just as the enactment of the drama was framed in such a way that enhanced the dramatic revelations, so, too, should novelistic framing devices, such as prologues, be relevant, They should heighten the reader’s enjoyment and perceptions, otherwise they are just gratuitous and distracting.
2) The naturalistic script was the perfect vehicle for Alex’s sense of fun, sensitivity and perception, and for Joseph’s humour and educated cynicism. Not a word or a phrase jarred; not a word or phrase was superfluous or wasted – the dialogue perfectly matched the character, and helped each character to peel away his or her different layers until the core lay bare.
In the same way, the dialogue in our novels should reflect the varying cadences and idioms that people use, and conversations should always have a purpose. They should never be there for the sake of filling a few pages or reaching the word count for the day. Just as actors are limited to a certain extent by their script; so, too, are the characters on the pages of our novels. If we give them one-dimensional dialogue, we will create one-dimensional characters.