Interview: Roger Mortimer-Smith

The trust between psychoanalyst Dr Beckmann and his client Jenny is shattered when he finds her breaking into his office in the middle of the night. What she discovers will change their lives forever, and begin a descent into memory, murder and madness from which there is no going back.

Roger Mortimer-Smith’s Trauma is a surreal psychological thriller that blurs the line between fantasy and reality. It premieres at the White Bear Theatre on 14 November, following praise from the Southern Appalachian Repertory Theatre, who rated it among the top 12 entrants to their 2012 ScriptFEST competition.

Mortimer-Smith’s previous work includes The Telephone, which was selected to be performed at the Future Ten Play Festival in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, last November. His first thriller, Guilty Secret, was praised by The Stage as “truly unique” and “guaranteed to hold audiences spellbound.”

Trauma is directed by Conrad Blakemore, who recently worked with writer Edward Bond (SavedBingo) on a season of his plays at the Cock Tavern. The cast includes Jonathan Rigby, who played Kenneth Horne in the West End and touring production of Round the Horne.

Speaking to me a few days before opening night, Mortimer-Smith discussed the inspiration for Trauma, the appeal of Hitchcock and the neglect of thrillers on stage.

What inspired Trauma?

It was the idea of a psychiatrist who wasn’t just a blank canvas or a device to help us focus on the patient, but someone who had their own story, some sort of guilt. That was where it came from. In terms of the use of dreams and fantasy, obviously there are rubbish ways of doing it – like in Dallas where they decided a whole series was a dream just because they regretted killing off a major character. But there are interesting ways of doing it as well. If there was one particular piece that inspired my approach, it was David Lynch’s film Mulholland Drive. Because the point when you realise that it was a dream isn’t like, ‘Oh, OK, everything that happened until now is nonsense’. It is about how the characters’ real lives are refracted into that dream state. That’s what I’m trying to do with Trauma.

By using later revelations to make audiences reassess what they thought they knew?

Absolutely – it’s about presenting people with information that creates one set of assumptions and then pulling away the rug. It’s what Tom Stoppard does in The Real Thing by having his characters be actors, and the first thing you see is them acting in an entirely different play – you only find out who they really are later. It’s a question of how much you know and what you are led to believe in the meantime; how much you can claim to know for certain, even at the end of the play.

Feedback from the Southern Appalachian Repertory Theatre compared Trauma with a Hitchcock thriller. Do you see his style in your writing?

Obviously, I’m very happy with the comparison! I’ve been reading Robert McKee’s famous book Story, in which he cites Hitchcock as an example of someone who created art at the highest level but managed to be extremely popular as well. I don’t think there’s the distinction between the two that people sometimes imagine there is. The big question for me is about thrillers in theatre. They’re so out of fashion. Someone I once learned from asked if a play I was working on was ‘going to be one of those dreadful things that are all about what happened next?’ That really took me aback, as you can imagine. David Mamet says this interesting thing about human beings being hunters and the importance of sitting around a campfire telling stories of the hunt. Wanting to know ‘What happened next?’ is an entirely natural thing. It’s McKee’s belief in the human need for story. WithTrauma, I hope I’m challenging the assumption that in stage thrillers the characters are just ciphers, with no depth. I don’t see why that has to be the case.

Do you think there is snobbery in some quarters towards thrillers?

Yes, I do. I think it’s partly due to the technological advantages of modern TV and film, because you can do so much with flashback and focus on a particular thing you need to show people. A little like painting went down a different route once photography was invented – because you didn’t need to be photo-realistic anymore – the stage perhaps followed a different route after the arrival of TV and film. But I still think there’s room for that question, ‘What happened next?’

Film is clearly an influence, so why did you end up writing for the theatre?

Obviously, I’ve seen a lot of films I’ve enjoyed, but it’s only been seeing things on stage that has made me wonder, could I do that? I remember watching a production of Athol Fugard’s Master Harold… and the Boys several years ago at the Southwark Playhouse’s old venue. At one point, when Master Harold is on the phone, I caught myself looking away. It was as though I had gone to a friend’s house and a big argument had erupted. I was uncomfortable and didn’t want to be there. That would never happen with a film. It’s also an argument in favour of intimate theatrical venues, which give you an experience you can’t get any other way.

Is theatre most effective when it is discomforting?

I think so, yes, absolutely. There has to be something going wrong for the character you’re identifying with. You have to feel – at one step removed – that it’s happening to you, as it were.

Why did you start writing in the first place?

I have to give credit to my wife, Nadine. She knew that I’d wanted to write for the longest time. As an opera singer, she knew about an upcoming competition, the Grimeborn Festival at the Arcola Theatre, which was about alternative opera. She said, ‘Why don’t we do a show about the history of black opera singers, and why don’t you write it?’ It was really a history lesson in the format of a play, but it was theatre of a kind – verbatim theatre. I enjoyed doing it, and it went rather well, so I thought: why not take away the prop of telling a true story and tell something entirely fictional? That was how it started.

Earlier you cited McKee’s description of Hitchcock’s work as high art with populist appeal. Would you define good theatre that way?

I think so, although I wouldn’t want to discourage theatre that doesn’t aim for popular appeal. I just think that theatre that aims for popular appeal doesn’t have to mean selling out or neglecting artistic value.

You tend to focus on small numbers of characters in your work. Is situation drama your preferred style?

The old cliché is that you set a play on the day that someone decides to do something about a situation that’s making them uncomfortable. I probably am drawn to using a small number of characters. I read something recently about how every time a new country joins the EU, it doubles the number of translators they need, because they need to translate between the new language and all the existing languages. It’s like that with a new character – a single extra character potentially doubles all of the existing relationships. If you want to be in-depth and detailed, it’s tempting to write relatively few characters. I think it’s actually more interesting in a way. Going back to Master Harold, you learn so much just by watching a few people. Their relationships tell you so much about their world.

Is that why the intimate space of the White Bear is a good fit for Trauma?

I love the unpretentiousness of the White Bear. It really is just a theatre above a pub – or behind it, in this case! I love that it’s been there for years; in a part of London you perhaps wouldn’t associate that much with theatre. But it has such a good following and does work of such high quality, like the recent London premiere of John Osborne’s first play, The Devil Inside Him. And yes, the intimacy of the venue was a huge draw. At a certain point in Trauma, there’s a long hypnosis sequence. It’ll be interesting to see it done in that small space. It’ll be almost like it’s happening to the audience rather than just to a character on stage.

So, why should audiences go and see Trauma?

I would hope that I’ve combined the visceral thrill of ‘what happened next?’ with what you get from Mulholland Drive – the very intimate and complex interconnections between the characters’ real lives and their dream and fantasy lives. And I hope I’ve provided characters with real emotional depth. At any rate I can say, having watched them rehearsing, that the director and actors have done an absolutely splendid job with the play.

Trauma is at the White Bear Theatre from 14 November to 1 December. For more information, and tickets, see:

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