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Morna Pearson - How to Disappear

Morna Pearson isn't the most obvious playwright to have her work open in the run up to Christmas. A darkly comic mix of taboo-busting absurdism and social comment with a magical realist twist. How to Disappear is a not exactly everyday tale of a man called Robert, who confines himself indoors, where he has been since Helen Daniels died. That was in 1997, when the passing of Daniels, a fictional character from Australian TV soap, Neighbours, marked the last link with the programme's original cast.

Since then, Robert has spent his days literally tearing his hair out, with his kid sister Isla acting as his carer, and only a menagerie of animals, including an iguana called Scott and a corn snake called Charlene, for company. Scott and Charlene, of course, were the characters played by Jason Donovan and Kylie Minogue in Neighbours. Only benefits assessor Jessica, on a mission to prove Robert fit for work, disturbs Robert and Isla's little republic.

“It goes off in a different direction after that,” says Pearson, whose remarkable voice first leapt from the Traverse stage a decade ago in a play called Distracted, which won the Meyer-Whitworth playwriting award. Since then, the Elgin-born writer has taken her time to create a body of work heightened in a way that resembles what might have happened if The League of Gentlemen had been overseen by Mike Leigh.

With another play, The Artist Man and the Mother Woman, also seen at the Traverse, Pearson is now an artistic associate of Edinburgh's new writing theatre, where she worked on How to Disappear while the company's Channel 4 Playwright in Residence. By that time, the play had already been seen in miniature as part of a compendium of work by women writers produced by the Agent 160 company. While the full-length version has won the 2016 Catherine Johnson Award for Best Play, the roots of it date back several years earlier.

“I had the character of Robert in my head already,” says Pearson, “but I didn't know what to do with him. Then when the Conservatives announced their policy to reassess all the incapacity and income support benefits, I thought that might be a good way to tell a story with him. It started as a fifteen minute play, which I knew I wanted to expand, but I didn't have a clue where to go with it for years.”

The mix of pop culture references and exotic creatures in How to Disappear are familiar tropes in Pearson's work. Her most recent play was a collaboration between Grid Iron and Lung Ha's theatre companies called Dr Stirlingshire's Discovery. Performed in Edinburgh Zoo, the play focused sibling rivalry between scientists and an excess of strange creatures.

“There's obviously patterns in my writing, in terms of where I get my ideas from,” she says, “but I don't recognise it at the time I'm writing something. I think all these things seem whimsical, but they all mean something. There's certain animals there for a reason, and there's always something significant about them. I don't know if that's apparent or not, but all of us in the production have a logic for everything. We know what it means. I'm not sure if that will become apparent to the audience, but we'll see.”

For all the trademark wildness of Pearson's writing, How to Disappear appears to have a more explicitly political edge than her previous works.

“There's probably always been something political with a small p about my work,” she says. “There's always been something running underneath it, but I probably don't verbalise it very well. This time I've probably gone a bit further, and it feels a bit more political with a capital P.”

Beyond How to Disappear, Pearson is developing a new play for Dogstar theatre company. Pearson calls Let's Inherit the Earth, “an absurd climate change play.”

Again, politics sound very much to the fore.

“Yeah,” she says, more a ponder than affirmation. “I think it's just come from getting more confidence as I get older, saying things more explicitly than I maybe would have done ten years ago.”

With this in mind, where is she at as a writer?

“I'm not sure. I've still got a lot to learn. It would be silly for anyone to think they haven't still got a lot to learn. Writing for a big stage is an ambition, but I think again, I've still got to come up with big ideas. I've been trying to get into film and TV. It helps finding inspiration outside the theatre, and also exercises different writing muscles, which I sometimes ignore, or think things will just work themselves out.

“With TV, you don't get anywhere without writing a rigorous treatment first. With theatre I tend to have an idea and just start typing away, but hopefully my processes have matured.”

Pearson is currently writing a treatment for a sit-com, “which may or may not get past that stage. Even ten years ago I was having meetings with TV folk, and it's all very well having meetings, but if you don't have the ideas...” She trails off. “Again, it's just a different way of thinking. Theatre ideas come more easily to me. Which is strange, because I probably watch more film and TV than theatre, but I think I'm coming round to having TV and film ideas now.”

In keeping with this, Pearson has recently written a short film with young director Joe Carter called I was Here. The I of the title refers to Isla, who has been given another life beyond How to Disappear.

“I took her out of the domestic situation,” says Pearson. “The film is only ten to twelve minutes long, but it's kind of a day in the life of Isla, on a day when she discovers a dead body.”

As you do, it seems, in Pearson's world.

“I'm not sure about my intentions,” she admits. “I think I just wanted to transfer my skills to film. I knew I had to ease myself in gently, partly to learn the language of film as well, because it's completely different. It was a visual idea I had, as well. It's not dialogue heavy at all, whereas I'm more comfortable with dialogue.”

Pearson's sponge-like knowledge of TV comedy may go some way to explaining why her writing resembles little else seen on a stage of late, and some of the heightened light and shade in her work are more akin to the darkness of recent TV comedy than more regular theatre shows. Inside No. 9, the anthology series created by former League of Gentlemen mainstays, Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith, looks like it occupies the same world as Pearson. As does Flowers, Will Sharpe's unremittingly bleak family-based series.

“These days there feels like there's a broader range of comedy,” says Pearson, “and the boundaries where drama meets comedy are becoming increasingly blurred. I'd like to think I'd fit in somewhere there.”

In the meantime, How to Disappear might just be ideal for this time of year after all.

“I think it's a play about characters whose voices aren't heard,” says Pearson. “The idea of it being on at Christmas is the idea that we're all spending hundreds of pounds on presents, and there's a whole section of society who very much aren't. It's not a Christmas play in any sense. It just happens to be set in December. Christmas really isn't on the minds of the characters, but I hope the audience goes away thinking I've left the characters with some hope.”

How to Disappear, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, December 6-23.
www.traverse.co.uk


The Herald, November 30th 2017

ends

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