“This is not an interview, this is a conversation,” asserts Chris Thorpe fervently, as I’m apologising for offering a stream of personal observations on his work rather than any straightforward questions. It’s a generous, evocative statement that’s usefully indicative of Thorpe’s approach – from recent Fringe success, There has Possibly Been an Incident, to his collaborations with poet Hannah Jane Walker, (I Wish I was Lonely is soon to arrive at BAC) his work is always a kind of conversation – a meticulous contemplation of “cause and effect, the examination of the tiny steps” rather than any dogmatic dictation of the way things are. He resists any assumption that, as a writer, he intends to set himself up “as an expert – to suggest that the reason that I’m doing this because I have the answer, that’s absolute rubbish!” At the heart of his works is always “an attempt to grapple with a fundamental question,” he explains, adding with emphasis “…and not to provide the answers”.
That sense of “starting the conversation” is no doubt present in his newest play, Hannah, currently playing at the Unicorn Theatre, a work for younger audiences based on Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus. In the original seventeenth century text, an arrogant, over-learned scholar sells his soul to the devil in return for absolute power and knowledge. In Thorpe’s retelling, the eponymous heroine – 11-year-old Hannah, frustrated by her life and feeling neglected by her hard-working mother – is rather more sympathetic. For Thorpe, it was crucial that the protagonist wasn’t “a selfish princess that just believes everything is hers by right, or a hyper-intelligent scholar ready to sell what makes her human,” but rather “an ordinary person as capable of being considerate and good – or selfish – as we all are. It’s really important that she’s quite ordinary, and that’s not to say dull or unintelligent, because she’s just like you and me, and this isn’t about asking ‘what would a theoretical selfish person do?’ It has to let us think about what you and I would do, given this opportunity.”
Though Marlowe’s work provided the impetus and basic structure, and Thorpe acknowledges it, as “one of the first plays [he] ever read,” as highly influential, he is also keen to communicate that Hannah is not simply Doctor Faustus modernised and “translated into a different language, into my idea of what this audience would want,” nor is it “a historical re-enactment”. He has kept to the verse form, which Marlowe uses only partially in the play, because it excites him and challenges him as a writer: Thorpe marvels at “the discipline that verse places on you, the different ways to express that it forces you into, and as a result of that, the different kind of work it asks an audience to do. As a conscious taking on of that archaic poetic form, I love what it does to the way I have to help the characters express their thoughts… and it’s incredibly versatile,” he insists, pre-emptively combative of any suggestion that the verse form is a redundant one, “and I don’t think it feels old, it simply asks us to work with language in a way that we don’t usually do in the theatre.”
If, as Thorpe emphasises, Hannah is not strictly an adaptation of the material of Doctor Faustus, what is its relationship to, and how does it reinvigorate, Marlowe’s macabre morality play, bursting with decadent greed, moral failings and religious terror? “Hannah is a new show that re-casts the questions that Doctor Faustus is asking, for now,” Thorpe explains. “I think those questions are still valid and very pertinent, particularly to young people. There’s something in Faustus which is about those ideas of personal power and agency that start to develop in you as you’re making the transition into adulthood. The fantasies we all have about our own power as we’re growing up, if we could do whatever we wanted – the idea that we can explore our relationships with the world and other people through the lens of how much we can exercise power over them.” What he finds deeply fascinating is that “richness in contrast” between how these ideas of power and punishment in Faustus play out, then and now. “Marlowe explores these questions through a moral and social framework that is absolutely tied up with ideas of external judgement.” Indeed, the original play ends with Faustus doomed to eternal damnation, a conclusion, that quite rightly, Thorpe views as somewhat incompatible with the way most of us live. “Now, the idea of supernatural, external rules that will crash in and punish you if you violate them has mostly faded away. The difference now -–although many people may still have a religious, spiritual upbringing – is that the world in general, the society in general that the play is happening in, is much more concerned about your status as an individual, and what your individual responsibilities are.”
It’s seems like a delicate point to try and communicate to any audience, and indeed, Hannah might be viewed as a reaction, a kind of antidote, to the fact that young people in particular are often spoon-fed that simplistic, punitive system of morality. The reality for Thorpe is that “that idea of good and bad, those clearly delineated moral choices that we make, breaks down really quickly when we put it against the world, against any one individual and put that individual in society. If there’s an underlying principle in Hannah, it’s that there are no magic wands, because magic wands, in terms of being able to make moral choices or solve problems, are very dangerous ideas to carry around. It’s about recognising the complexity, and the advantage you have with a story based on Faustus is that you can show the consequences of wishes coming true – the cascading effect of that, even if that wish is unselfish. In fact, the main difference between Faustus and Hannah is that she is capable of making unselfish wishes, but even those have unintended consequences – because they are overly simplistic attempts to solve problems at a single stroke.” He visibly recoils from the suggestion that writing for a younger audience might mean “diluting the difficulty or the complexity of those ideas, because then you’re into a situation where you’re second guessing what your audience can cope with – that’s something that for any audience is dangerous, as a writer, especially when you’re dealing with people who are younger than you.”
There’s a line, of course, between necessary ambiguity and an inability or reluctance to tackle an issue head-on. Thorpe clarifies that “it’s important to be clear about what those questions are – to be clear about what we’re talking about, but remain open about any possible conclusion.” That leads us to wondering, I suggest, that if it is no longer theatre’s purpose to moralise, to warn us, to essentially frighten us into behaving, what should it do? Thorpe’s response is, as I’ve come to expect, eloquent yet refreshingly accessible. “We live in a world where, technologically, there is absolutely no reason for theatre to exist. If we look at the many ways there are to absorb information, for story and literature to exist – the many easier ways – it almost makes theatre redundant. But yet, it absolutely isn’t. It hasn’t gone way, and it never will. So what is it about theatre that makes it this different space? It’s not the ability to moralise, absolutely not, I think we accept that now. But it is the only place where we all are real in that room. Whether our job in that room is to watch and listen, or to pretend to be someone else, or to start a conversation, if we acknowledge that we are all in that room, then what that means is: theatre hasn’t died, and it won’t die. So the function of theatre, then, is to examine those questions in a participatory way, whatever forms that participation takes… and what I am hopeful about,” he muses, when I ask if he is an optimist or a pessimist (or neither) as a theatre-maker, “is that we can continue to develop these skills to analyse ourselves – to ask ourselves and each other when it’s pertinent, am I doing the right thing, right now? And I am hopeful about that – the ability to stand outside ourselves and go, ‘ah, I’m not right all the time,’ – to really get us somewhere… I think!”
Hannah is playing at the Unicorn Theatre until 9 March. For more information and tickets, please see The Unicorn Theatre website