Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Fraser Grace: Bliss

By | Published on Friday 13 May 2022

A new play presented by Cambridge-based Menagerie Theatre Company opens at the Finborough Theatre this week, and it’s one which was previously a casualty of the pandemic, having been postponed twice because of the lockdowns. 

Based on ‘The River Potudan’ by censored Soviet writer Andrey Platonov, it’s the work of acclaimed and multi-award winning playwright Fraser Grace, whose previous plays you’ll be aware of – the likes of ‘Always Orange’ and ‘Breakfast With Mugabe’. 

It tells a tragic but heartwarming tale, and its characters and setting – survivors dealing with the aftermath of war – have a sadly contemporary relevance.

I spoke to Fraser Grace to find out more about the production and the creatives behind it. 

CM: Can you start by telling something about the narrative of ‘Bliss’? What story does it tell?
FG: By inference it’s about a society trying to recover from catastrophe – a theme I’m always keen to pursue – as opposed to writing about things falling apart. The story we get is about a young couple who have survived terrible times – and feel they are ready to start a new life.

What they discover is that they are only just beginning to survive; it’s going to take much longer and require more resilience than they ever thought they had to shake off what haunts them. Their optimism is not misplaced, ultimately – just a bit impatient.

CM: What themes does the play explore?
FG: The damage that life does to us, and the grief we carry around. The human capacity for both inhumanity and an almost animal-like tenderness – even between damaged people.

CM: It’s based on a short story isn’t it? How closely does your script stick to its narrative?
FG: It is! It is based on Andrey Platonov’s ‘The River Potudan’ – a story full of quirky humour and surprises, as well as the dark stuff. The play sticks closely to the narrative of the story, but it’s a play, so its method of delivery is very different; what’s inside the head of a character, or implicit in the structure of the story, has to be outed into action – which makes for lots of fun.

CM: What made you want to create a play based on this story? What was the inspiration?
FG: It chimes with some longstanding interests – or obsessions – of mine. How can a society rebuild when all the people it has to build with are traumatised?

And I love its optimism – the kind of positivity that doesn’t play down how tough life can be. Simply enough, I was inspired by reading the story – and I’m very grateful to its translators as I don’t read Russian. The more I dwelt on the story, the more it seemed to speak to our times. The more I learn about Platonov’s life, the more I want him to be heard.

Stalin despised Platonov because he wouldn’t ignore the terrible price ordinary people were paying for their leaders’ grandiose schemes. As a result he lived a very harsh, largely unpublished and ultimately shortened life – yet he never lost his faith in the capacity of ordinary people to overcome; his is definitely a voice worth hearing.

CM: To what extent have you been involved in the production itself?
FG: Quite a bit. The production has been a long time in development, and was then twice-postponed because of the pandemic.

In the course of that development, we have played to an audience of two hundred and fifty, and now arrive in the Finborough Theatre which seats fifty, so the production and script have had to twist and turn in order to catch the wind and realise the vision of the play.

CM: Can you tell us a bit about the cast and creative team?
FG: Yes, Menagerie Theatre is based in Cambridge and specialises in new work, so our collaborations go back a few years. I have them to thank for a national tour of a one-woman show called ‘Gifts Of War’, and the production of another play of mine, ‘Frobisher’s Gold’, which starred Janet Suzman.

The company’s co-Artistic Directors are both involved in the new show: Paul Bourne as director/designer and Patrick Morris leading the acting company. 

The ensemble also includes long-standing Menagerie associate Caroline Rippin, alongside newcomers Bess Roche and Jesse Rutherford, and the highly esteemed Jeremy Killick, known for his work with Forced Entertainment. One more person we shouldn’t forget is Michaela Polakova who composed the wonderful score. Her music captures the quirky mood of the piece beautifully.

Ash Day, doing lighting design and production management; Beth Astins, on stage management; and Jessie Anand, our producer, complete the team.

CM: Can you tell us a bit about yourself now? Did you always want to write for the theatre? How did you begin and build your career?
FG: I’ve always written things – stories, poems – and began writing for the stage when I went to university. I was the first person in my family to darken the doors of such a place and I went with the intention of becoming a social worker. Within a week I had fallen among actors. 

We later set up our own small company – working mostly in what is now called ‘applied theatre’. That was the start, and I remained with the company as actor-writer-van-driver-roadie for seven years, by which time I knew theatre was my future.

I went back to university and did a postgrad course in playwriting, figuring out why I did things the way I did and learning how I could do them better. Since then I’ve been writing plays for the stage mainly, but I’ve also written radio drama, poetry, opera, fiction, and non-fiction. 

For the past few years, I’ve been co-directing a masters’ course in Writing For Performance at Cambridge University’s Institute Of Continuing Education, which has drawn on all of this. It’s almost like it was planned.

CM: What have been the highlights of your career thus far?
FG: I’ve been lucky to work at different ends of the theatre scale: small-scale productions like the show at the Finborough, and also ‘Breakfast With Mugabe’ and ‘Always Orange’ at the Royal Shakespeare Company. When my children came to see a new production of ‘Breakfast With Mugabe’ opening in New York, I was briefly a pretty cool Dad.

CM: What aims and ambitions do you have for the future?
FG: Keep writing – and keep exploring new opportunities. Playwriting has been a great way to spend a working life so far, but I’m still stalking the mythical ‘pension project’ – the one that will mean I can spend the maximum amount of time writing.  

CM: What’s coming up next for you after this?
FG: I have a project underway which barely anyone knows about. I think of it as a motherlode that will spin out projects to keep me busy for the next few years at least. I feel like I’m in a good place creatively and very lucky to be working.

‘Bliss’ is on at the Finborough Theatre from 17 May-11 Jun, see the venue website here for all the info and to get tickets.

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