At the tender age of 24, Freddy Syborn appears to be full of both philosophical intellect and curiosity. It’s fitting, then, that the name of his theatre company, Negative Capability, is derived from world-renowned psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion’s theory. Syborn explains Bion’s hypothesis: “We the listeners, have no way of telling whether what we’re being told is true or not, nor whether the intention of the storyteller is to help or hurt us or themselves. It’s essentially about being able to live in uncertainty, to improvise with an eye on understanding what’s not said.”
This uncertainty is the model for Crypted (one half of Negative Capability’s double bill), Syborn tells. Crypted explores the life of computer science prodigy, Sherlock Holmes counterpart to the German Enigma code, life saver, hero and OBE recipient Alan Turing. His death in 1954 has been the topic of debate: his cleaner found him dead with a half-eaten apple by his bedside, which is believed to have been coated in cyanide but never tested. His mother, protesting at the suicide verdict, believed consumption of cyanide would have been accidental, due to his careless way of working. Speculation over the true cause is still very much present. Is this something that Syborn explores?
“To a degree […] I have my own theory, and the play may leave you with a certain impression, but I wanted to focus on his life, not his death. Ambiguity is more interesting than certainty. Numbers have secret lives. A mathematician called Kurt Gödel proved beyond doubt that a number can be true but not provable. I took this as the model for the play. We know the result (Turing’s death) but we can never prove why or how Turing died or what his death ‘means’.”
This exploration of a man so influential couldn’t be more apt, as technologists across the world commemorate his 100th anniversary since birth. Syborn, however, was oblivious to this milestone: “I started writing about him for two reasons […] I felt that Alan Turing’s ideas could only have been dreamt up by a mind forced to exist on the margins of society. He lived secretly; he sought hidden gestures. And while he was unique and uniquely brilliant, what struck me was his universality. He was unhappy in love. He had to wear disguises. He was alone.” Turing, who was a homosexual and sexually active (therefore breaking the law at the time), was publicly humiliated and forced to undertake hormone treatments intended to make him asexual.
Crypted is, then, a dedication for Turin’s hero status, but also more poignantly for two of Syborn’s friends, who tragically took their own lives. Syborn asserts that he will “remember them as they were and not as they ended […] Crypted is for both of them”. Syborn continues with his second reason for writing about a man with such a torturous and celebrated past: “I love reading maths and physics – two subjects I flunked at school – because they expose me to systems of thought entirely different to my own. It is this point of vulnerability that I choose to write from,” He expands on this: “If I have a trade (which is debatable), it’s words. So I love things that don’t employ them. I enjoy clowning. Or sculpture. Or music, even,” affirming his inability to hold a tune.
“You learn so much more from otherness than you can from similarity” is perhaps a fine way of thinking for all human beings, particularly writers. “When I read quantum physics, say, the thrill is me absolutely knowing I won’t understand the subject matter. I can only respond to it imaginatively.” There is clearly success in this approach for Syborn, as 2008 saw him winning the coveted RSC The Other Prize, exclusive to Cambridge University.
Accomplishing The Other Prize did not come easily to Syborn, ironically after securing its £500 winnings. “The main theatre at Cambridge was obliged to stage the winning play. However, when I won it, the theatre declined to stage my play for reasons that its committee chose not to explain.” The play was called Father/Son and, interestingly, is not listed below ‘Recent Winners’ on Cambridge’s Marlowe Society website. Syborn continues, proudly proclaiming his ability to see through obstacles, “I staged it at another, smaller space. […] So the university certainly provided the prize and the space, but without self-belief I’d have been left with nothing.”
Syborn has achieved an impressive amount so far, having written comedy gold for numerous television shows. His long list of credits include: 8 out of 10 Cats, Never Mind the Buzzcocks, Mock the Week, Have I got News for You and most recently Sky’s Little Cracker. He writes these with best friend Jack Whitehall, whom he regards as “kind and loyal enough to bring him along” having succeeded in gaining paid work. Though fortunate to have Whitehall’s connections in writing, Syborn clearly works hard, having written an impressive 16 plays to date (according to www.freddysyborn.com), which he also acts in and directs. He has worked on shows for the Edinburgh Fringe for “six years straight”, so it is not surprising that he remarks on “a change in the way it operates”.
Clearly impassioned regarding the festival that has been so instrumental to his work, he tells how this is the first Fringe where venues prohibit flyering around them. Listen up Edinburgh Fringe committee: “It’s becoming very corporate and segregated. If Edinburgh becomes even more institutionalised, the people who’ll suffer first are the artists, and the people who’ll suffer second are the audiences, when the whole thing becomes too expensive and too fucking annoying to bother with. Ultimately, the Fringe exists for artists to experiment. It does not exist to supplement the coffers of Magners. We’re in danger of forgetting that.”
For now however, while Negative Capability still have the willpower to fight through this change and expense, their six strong cast will be performing at C nova venue from 14 to 26 August. Excess, a comedy, forms the other half of its double bill and is a completely different kettle of fish to Crypted, as Syborn wears a dress or a gimp mask. Excess addresses the body, whereas Crypted addresses the mind, Syborn informs, making it a difficult decision if funds only permitted one: “I like Crypted because it satisfies an intellectual curiosity; I like Excess because it works violently against the characters and their audience.”
Excess is about boy, Joe, who tells his sister he is getting a sex change, and her strong reaction to this. Asked, curiously, what his inspiration was behind a play concerning drag queens and sexual identity, Syborn discloses “a great night out” he had in Manchester with his writing partner. “We went clubbing with a drag queen and his boyfriend, then went back to their flat. We asked the drag queen about why he performs, and the gap between his female persona and male reality. While he talked, the drag queen took off his wig and changed from a very culturally-specific type (outrageous, sexually confident, reckless) to a quiet bloke in his late thirties. Excess, I suppose, is about that difference between what we are and what we present of that self to the world,” Syborn demonstrates: “This interview is a performance. What I wear is a performance. Everything I am is conditioned by what came before me and my reaction to it. The definition of a self against its history – that’s what interests me.”
He talks with great aplomb with regards to what he enjoys writing about and certainly seems to have a niche within this dog eat dog world, though he proclaims, with apt calmness and comfortableness, “I am at the earliest possible stage of my career, and haven’t been at all successful to date” (depending on how you define successful). “I’ve never been paid to write a play, or to stage one, so I’m an amateur. And the word ‘amateur’ has some positive connotations. For me, it implies that you’re working for love, not money.”
“All I can say is that I believe in my shows, I believe in my actors, and I believe that some people may enjoy watching us improve together.” And there it is: believe and you will succeed. Freddy Syborn knows so.
Image credit: Negative Capability