Aug 23rd, 2008 by David
I had done the Wimbledon gig for three years and was pleased, towards the end of 2005, to be asked to do it yet again. This time Michael Pavelka, the programme leader, had decided not to do the usual Shakespeare but opt for Webster’s ‘The White Devil’, for a little light relief. I read the play with the usual reluctance. Notable for its body count and delirious bloodletting, the play as text still remained, as far as I was concerned, intractable. It would have to be severely adapted. By this time I was entirely comfortable with my inability to like any plays more than a few years old. I had, after all, scarcely thought about the matter throughout my life as a writer and it had only ever seemed to be an issue when the Wimbledon gigs came round. I’d felt that the students expected something recognisably Shakespearean and it would be wrong to withhold it because of my churlish fundamentalism with regard to the olden. It continued, however, to be the case that Michael was not perturbed by my disability as long as the students were kept busy and had their design skills constructively tested, so I cut loose.
For one of the two short Webster pieces I was required to direct, I thought “Let’s just go with the blood part.” The designers should endeavour to make concealed devices that would release, in a controlled manner, copious amounts of stage blood throughout the show. I wanted a bloodbath at the end of which the walls and floor would be awash and the actors would be soaked. I spoke at length with the designers about gore and how we might use it in an excessive yet poetic manner. I put it to them that the set, its furniture and the actors’ costumes should all bleed. The set would bleed from its every orifice: walls would run with blood, sofas would leak it, lamps would ooze it, drawers would be brim full of it. The characters would conduct conversations as blood ran from beneath their hair lines, from their sleeves and trouser legs and dresses. It would pump from their chests. They would put six blood capsules in their mouths and blood would foam uncontrollably from their gaping gobs.
The ‘Red Devils’ playlet, then, is the result of subtracting everything apart from the blood from the text of ‘The White Devil’. To these remains are added various dialogue elements. The first section of dialogue constitutes an attempt to simulate what I understood of the Freudian notion of primary process. This is premised on the effect of the unceasing desires that characterise the pleasure principle. The desires cannot be satisfied and the pleasure principle cannot be satiated. Primary process thought, which is unconscious, stems from the id, the seat of instinctual drives. Primitive thought processes are illogical and concerned with instant gratification. Thoughts and actions are not distinguished, a condition which, if not checked, would lead to the acting out of all impulses, with attendant personal and social disorder. Such material is to be found in dreams and in the behaviour and assumptions of children.
Primary process is preverbal and its qualities and goals can only be inferred. I understood that if something is unconscious, it’s not conscious. It cannot be copied and, in the the case of something preverbal, there is no speech that can be attributed to it. However, the language and grammar of dreams offer many clues. Similarly, it is useful to think about what babies think about. If they were to speak about what they know about and what they want to know about what would they say? Furthermore, how would they say it if they spoke not like three year olds but adults?
The bleeding would be gradual. Wherever the performers went, whatever they touched, they would leave bloody footprints and handprints.The space would initially be of a pristine cleanliness. By the end of the show it would be a charnel house. The space would be as much a sculptural installation as drama site. The actors would not acknowledge the blood. Their conversation would contain unspoken tensions that were expressed by the blood. It would be startling, beautiful and grotesque.
One of the actors, Chris Newland, found a website dedicated to the manufacture of stage blood. A number of recipes were displayed, each offering different consistencies and shades. The blood that would run down the walls had to be thick enough to trickle rather than gush while the stuff seeping through the garments would need to be thin so that it spread fast. The top drawer of the chest of drawers was to be filled to the brim and, when the entire drawer was removed in the course of the scene, the contents must splash like water, creating an effect similar to that obtained by dropping a cow onto a carpark from a helicopter.
The most technically demanding effect involved bleeding the walls. The designers rigged up lengths of concealed plastic drain pipe along the top of each wall of the box set. The pipes had holes drilled in them at intervals like mighty piccolos. Each pipe was then filled with 25 litres of blood. The holes, of course, were kept uppermost and the pipes were rotated in order to release the gore. The effect could not be rehearsed. The blood would stain the walls and we had no budget to re-cover them. Small prototypes were tested on the back lot but the difference in scale between the set and the test was unnerving. We would have to go into performance with a major design function untried.
On the day in question not only did the blood run free but it formed undulating vertical rivulets on the pristine white walls and made a completely unpredictable regular splattering noise as it flowed onto the floor. The drawer of blood was satisfyingly splashy but the costumes did not ooze quite as woundedly as we had hoped. This was an academic misgiving, however, for the actors ended up strikingly stained and the set was pleasingly pooled.
Go to ‘Red Devils’