Caro Meets Musicals & Opera Interview

Seiriol Davies: How To Win Against History

By | Published on Thursday 23 November 2017

If you were at the Edinburgh Festival in 2016 or 2017, you probably heard about, and possibly witnessed a performance of ‘How To Win Against History’, Seiriol Davies’ hugely acclaimed musical about The 5th Marquis Of Anglesey.
We loved the show, of course, so were thrilled to hear that the production was headed Young Vic-wards for a month long run. I spoke to Seiriol, to find out more.

CM: So, firstly, who was The 5th Marquis of Anglesey, and why did you want to create a show about him?
SD: Henry Cyril Paget was a real-life aristocrat who lived briefly, brightly and fabulously at the turn of the 19th into the 20th Century. He was one of the richest men in the universe, born at the pinnacle of the British Empire and groomed to rule. Except, he decided to blow his entire fortune on frocks made of diamonds, cars customised to give out rose-scented exhaust fumes and putting on amazing, sparkly plays starring himself, which it seems nobody much went to see.

After he died aged 29, his vengeful heirs burnt every trace of him they could get their hands on – his letters, his diaries, his documents, what have you – and carried on as though he’d never been.

I grew up on Anglesey, and I used to make my family take me to Plas Newydd (the Pagets’ seat, which is now a National Trust place) a lot. There, there were a handful of photos of Henry grudgingly photocopied, laminated and put literally above the doormat. Google Henry Cyril Paget and you’ll see the ones I mean – he looks like he’s vogued through a branch of Elizabeth Duke in a sellotape suit; he’s wearing all the jewels. Next to those there was a little paragraph explaining how he’d been so disreputable and how he’d been burnt out of history.

Even as a kid, I think I identified with him as a bit of an outsider. Not the fabulousness thing; I’m not really that into clothes. But it just seemed so wrong that anyone would be just rubbed out of the world. So my little pre-adolescent bell of righteous outrage clanged and, because I believe in swift and decisive action, I decided to make a musical about it about 25 years later.

CM: Are there any particular themes you wanted to explore, or is it mainly just the story of his life?
SD: Because of the whole ‘all his letters being burnt’ thing, there’s an inherent challenge to telling ‘just the story of his life’. There’s so little to go on, and a lot of that is so bonkers. I mean it’s a gift for a writer, being able to have that much creative licence. And that’s folded into the story too: our Henry, even narrating his own story, isn’t totally clear on what his story is, and he uses words like ‘apparently’ and ‘allegedly’ a lot.

Which is how we’re forced to engage with queer history, with so many figures who have been ignored or removed from mainstream history. It’s the same with BAME figures, disabled figures, women, etc etc etc. So it’s about that.

But for me, more broadly, it’s a show about fitting in versus not fitting in. What do you do if the world doesn’t accept you? Or if it doesn’t seem like it was built for you? I think that’s something we all feel to different degrees at different times. Do you change to fit the world or do you stand resolute and just be yourself? What the hell does it mean to ‘be yourself’ anyway?

Aaand it’s about a bunch of other stuff too (why not!), like Britishness, imperialism, privilege, art, sequins, poncing around… it’s also really funny and it has dancing and a sentient German apricot.

CM: Did you do a lot of research into his life?
SD: I did as much as I could. I’m not, not, not a historian, but I dug in as much as I could. I was helped by Christopher Sykes, who is descended from Henry’s wife, and he was great and took a look at what I had, and added some other tidbits of family legend. Also, Prof Viv Gardner (world Henry Cyril Paget expert, who’s literally writing The Book on him as we speak) was brilliant and fleshed some stuff out. But essentially a lot of what we have is speculative, gossip and legend, which successive generations of people a bit obsessed with Henry have garnished around the bare factual bones. Which I think is very on brand for Henry, frankly.

CM: So his life was short, and ended a bit sadly, but your production is obviously very upbeat. Discuss?
SD: Discuss. Right. Well basically: I try to make the kind of shows I’d like to see, and I like funny things, and songs. I think theatre has a primary function in being entertainment, and laughter is the best way I understand to open up an audience to feel things. It’s a story that is sad in parts, but also has a lot of joy in it, and life – even at its most painful and frustrating – is always inherently ridiculous.

There we go, three answers.

CM: Can you tell us a bit about how you put the show together? How do you balance the musical element with the narrative?
SD: Yep. We devised the show. By which I mean we talked through it, and broke down some of the key bits that would happen in it, then we set about improvising sections. The director, Alex Swift, would sit out and watch me and the other performer/devisers, Matthew Blake and – at different times – Dylan Townley and Tom Penn, arsing about. After we’d finished, we’d pore over what we’d done and figure out what worked and what didn’t. I’d then go off and write a draft based on that, then bring it back and then we’d mess about with it some more.

I’d also talk it through with the dramaturg, Eve Leigh. A dramaturg, in this instance, is someone who helps make the show ‘more itself’: funnier if it wants to be funny, philosophical if it wants to be philosophical. A dramaturg helps design its structure so that it’s hitting all the beats it needs to as efficiently as possible.

A song needs to push the plot forward as much as a scene does, otherwise it’s using up valuable time. Often it can be more fluent at moving the narrative than a scene. The coronation song “He is a Good Marquis” in the show, for example, covers what was previously about ten minutes of scene in a third of the time.

So we didn’t differentiate between the two when we came to devising. A song is just a scene except you’re singing.

CM: Can you tell us about the performers who work alongside you in the show?
SD: I can.

Matthew (Blake, who plays Alexander Keith) is someone I’ve worked with for a longdy long long time. We met in character during a long form improv in the mud in the music festival Bestival. He was playing an 8-year-old girl in 1950s Clapton and I was playing her 6-year-old brother. We soon realised we could talk nonsense at each other more or less indefinitely. We later started to do cabaret comedy and variety together, and developed characters called Peter & David McWizard, who are two unemployed, destitute, but endlessly positive life coaches who tell you how to make your life better by pretending it is better. They were probably inspired by our actual lifestyles from that period. He’s also worked a whole bunch with Punchdrunk and many others, is a brilliant director, and I think can sing most of ‘Rent’ straight off without thinking about it, just off the top of his head.

Dylan (Townley, who plays The Band) I met through casting him in this. He’s a deeply funny man and a musical wizard. As in funny-ha-ha not funny peculiar and he’s good at music, not that he’s an actual wizard, unfortunately, AFAIK. Even being so hatefully young as he is, he’s got a pretty epic track record as a long-form improviser, and has toured internationally and with a number of groups doing that. Seriously though, about the musical wizard thing, he played through the show once on the piano reading the score, and then after that he’d memorised it. Maybe he is an actual wizard. NB I might burn him just to be safe.

CM: We loved the show when we saw it in Edinburgh in 2017. Is the show any different now from what we saw at the Fringe?
SD: Thank you, I’m delighted to hear it.

It’s essentially the same. We’ve worked on it, as one does, to try and make sure all of it’s firing on every cylinder, so there’s some line tweaks here and there. And it’s probably slightly relaxed time-wise now as we don’t have a crazy Edinburgh length restriction, so we can stretch moments a bit if we want to. And there’s a few more design and light bells and whistles.

CM: You write, compose, and also perform. Is that what you always wanted to do, and is that what you will continue to do? Are there any other avenues you’d like to pursue?
SD: I do. Pretty much. As I’ve said, I write things that I’d want to see, and I naturally wrote this for myself as a shrewd economical move. I mean because I strongly wanted to play the character.

I think it’s very fortunate if you can create roles, and opportunities, for yourself. I don’t think I’d have got much casting luck if I’d gone that route, acting-wise. I don’t think I could face going to casting after casting where they’re looking for a ‘quirky gay friend’.

That said, it’s not exclusive. I’d be delighted to work as a performer on someone else’s script if they think I’d be good for it. When I was a kid I always wanted to be a Bond villain, but probably not if they stay being ‘realistic’.

CM: What ambitions do you have for the future?
SD: The Bond villain thing is now all I can think of. But also, I want to keep making musicals that are surprising and sumptuous and subversive, but hopefully have some substance to them. I think musicals are so brilliant at wielding political punch in a sparkly glove, and I think especially now it’s critical for entertainment to open up tricky conversations in a way that draw in as broad a congregation as possible. I also want to work out a way to hang my hoover in the utility cupboard so it doesn’t keep falling out whenever the washing machine goes.

CM: What’s coming up next?
SD: I’m working with the same team as ‘How to Win…’ on a follow up, which is an epic draggy murder mystery set in a sleepy town in Snowdonia. It’s about community: what we do to ourselves to fit into it and what we’ll do to others to protect it. It’s tonally drawing on Under Milk Wood and Twin Peaks, but also Benjamin Britten and South Park. It’s called “Milky Peaks” and it’s gonna be mega.

I’m also working on a show with Boundless and Ice & Fire, provisionally called ‘Scroungers’, which is set in the kafkaesque half-world of ‘Positivity Training’, where people who are long-term unemployed get sent to forcibly learn how to be positive about their own situation. Which actually happens in real life. That one is also gonna be super.

‘How To Win Against History’ is on at Young Vic from 30 Nov-30 Dec. See the venue website here for more information and to book.

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Photo: Kristina Banholzer