Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Ross Sutherland: Party Trap

By | Published on Monday 12 September 2016


We’ve been fans of Ross Sutherland for a long time, through his theatre and poetry work, and in fact, I interviewed him not all that long ago about recent, much acclaimed one man show ‘Standby For Tape Back-Up’.
So, you might think I wouldn’t want to speak to him again so soon, not least because I’m terrible at staying in touch. But when I heard that he had written a palindromic play, ‘Party Trap’ (see what he did with the name there?), I really wanted to find out more, and decided a catch-up was very much justified. So, here it is.

CM: Can you tell us about your new show? What story does it tell?
RS: The story is based around a live TV interview between a journalist and a politician. The whole thing is set in a parallel time-line UK, where there’s this new political party that’s just swept to power. This new government wants regulatory power of the media, and this live TV interview ends up being the flash point between the two sides. The interview goes off the rails, and then lots of horrible things happen.

I wrote the whole play as one big palindrome. So, the first line of dialogue is the same as the last, the second line is the same as the penultimate, and so on, until the script meets in the middle. When you get to the middle point of the show, it’s a bit like stepping through a mirror. The second half of the play is a twisted version of the first.

CM: Does it explore particular themes? Does the fact that politics are involved make it political? Does it make any political points?
Everything is heightened in this particular world. The palindromic form encourages things to be quite farcical. I suppose farces are quite often political, but it’s definitely a blunt instrument we’re using here! The story works on more of an allegorical level. The actual politics mentioned inside the play are intentionally vague and hard to follow.

I suppose the aim of the piece was not to make a point about politics, but to make a point about language, and the way that we consume information. Lots of people have recently been talking about us being in this new “post-factual” age, where the speed of the internet has removed all responsibility for fact-checking, and context becomes this completely fluid thing. Politicians and the media (on both professional and amateur levels) exploit this schism all the time. I came up with the palindromic structure because I wanted a play where all the language in the first half gets recycled in the second. When all the dialogue is run backwards, is takes on new sinister meanings. Our journalist character gets damned by his own words taken out of context.

CM: What was the inspiration for it? What made you want to create something with this as its subject?
RS: I was writing the play when the Parisian massacre happened earlier this year. People were making statements of grief and support. Then there were these response messages saying, “why are you grieving for these people over here, and then not these people over here?” It struck me as such a difficult problem: to be judged not only on the things you say, but also for all the things you don’t say. You must not only be aware of your public self. but also of its negative image. This is part of the difficulty of making a political statement in a digital age.

CM: How would you say this compares to your previous output? Have you gone in a new direction? How much does your poetry inform the way you’ve worked on the script?
RS: Although I’ve made quite a lot of theatre, I’ve never written a drama before. My last piece of theatre was a one man show (‘Stand By For Tape Back Up’). Before that I made an interactive murder mystery in a comedy club, where the audience got to stand on stage and read a comedy routine off a karaoke machine (sort of a dying-on-stage simulator).

My first passion as a writer is poetry, and I think I approach every project like it was a poem. I come up with a form – some kind of arbitrary constraint – and then I just work into it blindly. The idea is, if you make it so difficult to write, you end up having to go deeper into yourself to find the solutions. The rules stop you copying other people or dining out on cliche, so you end up pulling lots of stuff out of your subconscious that you didn’t know was there.

CM: You are not performing in this, are you? How easy is it to hand over the words to other people and step back…?
RS: These actors are doing stuff I could never do. The language of the play is quite counter-intuitive at times, and every verbal tick is part of the palindromic structure. It’s a relief to pass something over to professionals. I still love being on-stage and I’ll continue to do that. But I know my limits.

CM: Have you been hands on with the production? Will you be at all the performances?
RS: Getting the play ready has brought me out in shingles, so I’m in bed with a peppermint tea right now. As soon as I’m well I’ll be back! I think this will be a play that will continue to grow and change over time.

CM: I love Jeremy Warmsley, and apparently he has done the music for this? How did that come about?
RS: I love Jeremy’s music! Both his score work and with Summer Camp. We’d been at events together and hung out a bit. I wanted the music to also have some palindromic qualities, and Jeremy can seemingly turn his hand to anything. I really like the pieces he’s written for the project.

CM: What’s next for this particular production? Do you have touring plans?
RS: No touring plans yet. I’d love to make a film palindrome – the film cuts would give me extra room to manoeuvre. God, I can’t believe I’m talking about writing another one.

CM: Are you working on anything else at the moment? What’s next for you?
RS: I’m just about to start work on the libretto for an opera. It’s about the death of Charles Byrne, a giant who lived in London in the 1780s. It’s an incredibly sad story. I’m making it with composer Sarah Angliss, who is tremendous musician. We start work in about a week. God knows how you write an opera though. But I suppose that’s part of the fun.

‘Party Trap’ is on at Shoreditch Town Hall until 1 Oct. See the venue website here to book your tickets.

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