When playwright Oliver Emanuel was approached by artistic directors of Vox Motus theatre company Candice Edmunds and Jamie Harrison with a proposal for a new play, Emanuel jumped at the idea. The Glasgow-based writer of works that have included The Day I Swapped My Dad For Two Goldfish and Titus and the pair behind The Infamous Brothers Davenport, The Not-So Fatal Death of Grandpa Fredo and Slick had wanted to work with each other for some time, and this new idea seemed a golden opportunity for them all. For Emanuel, Edmunds and Harrison's brief sounded particularly enticing.
“They said, we want to do something about a twelve-year old boy who's grieving for his mother,” Emanuel says of that initial conversation. “Oh, they said, and we want there to be a dragon. Oh, and we want it to be done without words.”
Three years on, the end result of that conversation is Dragon, a collaboration between Vox Motus, the National Theatre of Scotland and Chinese company, the Tianjin People's Art Theatre, which opens at the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow this week before touring the country. Dragon tells the story of Tommy, whose mother died a year earlier. Tommy's dad is racked with grief, his big sister won't talk to him, and he has become the target of the school bully. When Tommy opens his curtains one day he discovers a dragon with whom he finds an angry affinity. Tommy and the dragon do everything together, but when fires start happening around Glasgow, things change in a story which has a very personal root for its author.
“I came to Scotland a year after my own mother passed away,” Emanuel explains. “I've written about grief in a lot of different ways, and been quite open about my own grieving, and this seemed to fit in with that. Having said that, I think it's only auto-biographical in the sense that everything you write is auto-biographical. I did lose my mum, and I do have a father and a sister, but I'm not the play's main character. None of what happens in the play happened to me, and a dragon didn't come to my house. But when you're grieving you don't always have the words for how you're feeling. Tommy can't speak, and he doesn't know how to express himself, and out of that I wanted to find a new form, because there aren't that many plays with no words.”
If Tommy's relationship with the dragon sounds akin to that between the little boy and his stuffed toy tiger in comic strip Calvin and Hobbes, albeit with inclinations for fire-raising, think again. Nor is the dragon an invisible friend for Tommy.
“Tommy can see the dragon, and nobody else can,” Emanuel explains, “but it's certainly not an imaginary dragon. When the Chinese company got involved, that really changed the dynamic and opened the story out, because when we think of dragons, you have something like St George, who slayed a dragon, but the Chinese believe that there's a dragon in everyone, and that's about balance and equilibrium. So there's this idea that we all have our own dragon, and we all have our own things to deal with just as Tommy does.”
Vox Motus' pedigree utilising puppets, magic and other visual effects in their work was certainly a gift for Emanuel, who describes his script for Dragon as “a cross between a short story and a film script, with myself as a kind of story wizard. Historically, you can look back at Bertolt Brecht, who said his work should always be understandable, and there's a lot of visual stuff going on with the Berliner Ensemble. I saw them in Berlin, and I don't speak German, but I could understand what was going on. Then you've got something like [feature film] The Artist, so with Dragon it's a case of me wanting to try things out. Titus was just one man on stage telling a story for forty-five minutes, but I'm not interested in repeating myself, and never want to do the same thing twice, so this is the complete opposite of that.”
While not specifically aimed at children, Dragon's exploration of childhood is something Emanuel knows well.
“I've done quite a lot of work for young people,” he says, “and although Vox Motus have done a lot of work for adults, they noticed their audiences were getting younger, so began to be interested in pursuing the younger end of that spectrum. I think Scotland has proved again and again that theatre for young people can be made with real depth, even though writing for children is much harder than for adults, because they won't put up with just any old rubbish.”
In describing who Dragon is for, Emanuel contrasts his dhow with another NTS piece, the stage adaptation of John Ajvide Lindqvist's romantic horror novel later adapted for film, Let The Right One In.
“Let The Right One In was an adult show about childhood,” Emanuel says. “Dragon is a show about childhood as well, but it's for both children of about twelve-upwards and adults, and I think people will have very different experiences of the show. I'm really interested in everyone having their own different dragon experiences, and what the dragon means to them.
“I have a personal wish to explore the idea that children experience things different to adults, and what it's like to feel a particular emotion for the first time, whether it's grief or first love. There have been recent suggestions that children don't feel grief, and that they can just get on with things, but that's not my experience at all. Of course children feel things, and that's what Dragon is about. I've always been interested in telling big emotional stories, and there's something really eloquent in doing it without words. It can speak more powerfully done that way. There's a real poetry in silence.”
Dragon, Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, October 11th-19th, then tours.
Oliver Emanuel – A Life in Words
Oliver Emanuel was born in Kent in 1980, and studied English and Theatre at the University of Leeds before going on to take an MA in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia. In 2002 he set up Silver Tongue Theatre with writer and performer Daniel Bye, and produced four plays by Emanuel; Iz, Bella and the Beautiful Knight, Shiver and Man Across The Way.
In 2006, Emanuel was appointed Writer-on-Attachment at West Yorkshire Playhouse, who produced Emanuel's play, Magpie Park, in 2007. Since moving to Glasgow in 2007, Emanuel has written for the National Theatre of Scotland, Dundee Rep, Oran Mor, Visible Fictions, the Tron Theatre and the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. Emanuel has written plays and short stories for BBC Radio 4, 3 and 7, while his short film, This Way Up, has been shown at film festivals around the world.
The Herald, October 8th 2013