BWW Interview: Playwright Phoebe Eclair-Powell on Modern Medea FURY
Phoebe Eclair-Powell began training as an actress at the Drama Centre London, but soon switched over to playwriting. She's worked with the National Youth Theatre on their Epic Stages programme, and her debut play WINK premiered at Theatre503 last year. Next up is FURY, shortlisted for the Verity Bargate Award and winner of the 2015 Soho Theatre Young Writer's Award. This modern Medea centres on a young, single mum in a Peckham council flat and opens at Soho Theatre next week, directed by Hannah Hauer-King.
What were the origins of the piece?
After Wink, I had second album syndrome - I didn't know if I'd be able to write another play. It was hard to get over the grief of it finishing. Then I was on the Soho Writers Lab, which has monthly workshops, and one exercise we had to do was write something responding to a family motto. I got "Don't mug yourself", which I was thought was a very London expression. I wrote a monologue about this angry young woman with kids and no money in her pocket, facing a reality she didn't wanted to be part of it, and it grew from there. She got bigger and stronger as a character in my head.
I grew up in Camberwell and moved to Peckham with some friends, and we lived in a flat above a single, young-ish mum. We probably made her life hell without thinking about it - us twentysomethings coming in at two in the morning, boyfriends coming and going, parties. We didn't think of the effect on her. In London, we're all squashed on top of one another, living different lifestyles, and there's that tension between haves and have-nots, whether we help each other. We've become very selfish, because we're so worried ourselves about slipping through the cracks - there's that growing sense of insecurity.
It's described as a 'modern Medea' - what elements have you used?
The play wasn't quite coming together - it lacked cohesion and structure. I saw Carrie Cracknell's Medea at the National and I loved the poetic mad language - it was so heightened, dramatic, visceral. Greek drama really does it for me. Medea is the ultimate single young mum - she's such an iconic figure. I read lots of versions and adaptations, and modern takes on Greek plays.
We don't use the Chorus structure as much in modern theatre, but it's great. I've got Londoners being the eyes and ears, and spouting a mixed bag of opinions on stereotypical young mums that probably reflect some of what the audience is thinking.
Were there particular negative connotations you wanted to challenge?
Definitely. 'Single young mum' often conjures up a negative image, but 'single young dad' is a more sympathetic figure - hasn't he overcome such odds to look after his children, how dare the mum leave. It's a huge emotional disparity. We're exploring that grey area of how we all think about these things, like our actress Naana Agyei-Ampadu has two little boys, so she has a new take. But our ability to empathise with those in a different situation is so important. If you thought the worst of Sam, our mum, do you still want to save her? How do we judge people who don't meet our expectations? Society often puts you in a box and punishes you when you fail to comply with it.
We don't always see those complex, unsympathetic female characters in drama
Damsel Productions, who are co-producing, their big thing is female playwrights and production teams, but also female protagonists who are quite tricky - that's the interesting thing. Not just 'strong', but complex. There are so many male antiheroes, like Richard III, and they're all over American TV, but we can't handle that with women. Doctor Foster was the first time I saw that and thought "She's a nightmare, but she's my hero - I want her to win." The same with Sam - I'm on her side, no matter what.
Which other works have affected your approach to writing women?
I love Andrea Arnold - she always puts complicated female characters to the forefront. Human beings are complex - it feels sad we've denied that to half the population. People, Places & Things is extraordinary, and Denise Gough just nails that part. When I was at drama school, everyone yearned for a big juicy part, and all the boys were talking about Hamlet - they've got a map for that. For women it's harder. I constantly get girls emailing me asking "What's a good audition monologue?" It's hard to find ones that aren't stereotyped or focussed on sex life. It is getting better.
How much has the support from young artists programmes meant to you?
I'm so lucky to have done the Royal Court Young Writers course, Soho Writers Lab, Old Vic New Voices, the National Youth Theatre. Every time I've had teaching and help it's been brilliant. And working in theatre buildings - just being in there spurs you on. Damsel is a really inspiring company, and it's made me think about what I do next, in terms of complex female characters, and hopefully making all my characters complex and interesting.
Has the current climate affected how you think about your work at all?
There's so much going on in theatre at the moment - I hope Brexit doesn't dampen people's spirits for too long. It's so important to keep narratives going. Writing a play about someone no one understands and everyone's quick to judge, it does feel similar to the way we're all suspicious of one another and judging the rest of the nation. I've got another project on the boil where the blurb seems to be coming true - theatre has a way of almost predicting the future, or giving us a vision and helping us understand it.
How would you like audiences to respond to Fury?
I hope it provokes lots of discussion in the bar. Opening something up, what they think, how they feel, talking about stuff like class divisions, gentrification, family, gender. We did a workshop and there was a very visceral reaction, especially from female members of the audience. I want people to question how it feels to be a man, a woman, a non-binary person, a parent. If someone helps a mum or dad with a massive pram up the stairs the next day or stops tutting at kids on buses, then I'll feel like I've won. Life is hard, but it's not the fault of the person in that situation - it's the fault of society. We need more human spirit and collective responsibility.
Who inspires you, and where would you like to go next?
I'm always in awe of Bryony Kimmings - if I could one day make an in-yer-face multimedia piece like her, I'd be happy. Luke Barnes, EV Crowe, Jack Thorne - I take influences from everyone. I've love to do more with movement too, like Frantic Assembly. Next up I've got a couple of Edinburgh shows. I really want to push myself and keep experimenting with who I am as a writer and what kind of theatre I make, so I'm not standing still.
Fury is at Soho Theatre 5-30 July. Book tickets here
Photo credit: Helen Murray, Lidia Crisafulli