When I was little, I had a board game called Never Ending Stories (nothing to do with the furry-dragoned, slightly disturbing kids movie of the same name). A player would place a hexagonal tile down on a board and attempt to improvise and tell part of a story that corresponded with the picture on the tile, then the next player would do the same, steering inevitably towards either a Happy, Sad, Surprising or Scary ending. This game was a delight for the more verbose and attention-seeking members of my family (me), who would go for minutes on end stringing loosely connected fantastical events together, and a bit of a chore for the more reticent and shy (my grandma and great aunt), who would consistently try and close things off with a quick “and then it rained and they all had to go home”. I suppose it was one of those seminal gifts, like Beckham getting a football or Paxman getting a My First Interrogation Kit.
In my first year of University, me and a cabal of other Creative Writing students got together on Thursday evenings for Board Game Night (because, you know, who wants to do drugs and have sex and stuff like that?), and one week I decided to bring Never Ending Stories up from my family home to it. It was a truly life-affirming experience, opening the lid on this inchoate stage of my life, drinking lots of wine and putting a new grown-up twist on the game, spinning yarns of Rasta crabs, murderous muppets and Brian Blessed in a tank. It felt fun in the way that the writing exercises we were handed in the day never were, although to my knowledge no-one’s exactly got a Pulitzer Prize off anything created while playing.
Stories are important. They are how we define ourselves and how we understand the world. It’s a mistake to think that our enlightened scientific age, with its exposure of many of the factual inaccuracies of theism, means that the universe isn’t explained in narratives anymore: there are few tales more epic than evolution, few farces more tragic than global warming. The old becomes the new: Jesus becomes Neo, Ragnarok becomes the Zombie Apocalypse. Stories hold colossal cultural capital in influencing mass thought: that’s why politicians use them all the time: you can’t have beans on toast today without being a part of Hardworking Better Off Alarm Clock Broken Big Society Britain. In the 19th century, companies could put spartan ads in the local paper that said things like “buy Wilkington’s Lemon Soap, because by Jove, it’s tolerable” and still sell product. A hundred years of market research down the line, they use the insidious fingers of fables to pluck at your heartstrings, most notably in John Lewis’ orgy of schmaltz last christmas. But for all this, I still believe stories are fundamentally good, as long as they are used not as crutches for a worldview or cudgels for an agenda, but taken in the spirit of the stories that we were told as children and will go on to tell ours.
Like most artists, I have to spend a lot of time justifying my existence. I go to venues and tell them why they should book me. I go to commissioning and funding bodies and tell them why my next show will kick the world of its axis and melt people’s faces with its magnificence like in Raiders of the Lost Ark. I go to my parents and tell them that shouting at strangers in dimly lit rooms is the best possible use of two degrees. I go to you, the public, and tell you how 50 minutes of time in a room with me and my bucket’o’words will change your life for the price of a Pret A Manger sandwich. I don’t mind doing any of that, but really the only USP I hope for is that somehow my work brings people a bit closer to the way I felt on that hexagonal grid: as if anything could be imagined, anything said, anything believed. I probably can’t influence whether your ending is Happy, Sad, Surprising or Scary, but if I get to put down a couple of tiles that make you think about things differently for a moment, then my job is done. Then it’ll rain and we’ll all have to go home.
Threnody for the Sky Children
Bristol Old Vic Studio
Fri 11 Jul, 6.30pm