From Adman to Playwright

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This weekend Crowborough Players will be performing “What the Gods Made Thee”, a comedy drama involving Shakespeare, Marlowe and a theatre desperate to get bums on seats.  It’s the first play written by Crowborough resident Ian Pinkerton.

In a Question & Answer session, Ian tells CrowboroughLife about the play, his background and inspiration.

What can you tell us about the play?

Have you ever read something that stuck in your mind, but you couldn’t let go of until you properly understood it – at least in your own mind?  Have you ever then tried to find out more about the thing, only to find yourself blanked at every turn?  That’s how this play came to me.

It’s called What the Gods Made Thee, an odd title for a play, I admit.  The line is a rip from a speech in Shakespeare’s As you like it [Act III Sc (iii)] in which Touchstone, the sage clown, refers directly to the death of Kit Marlowe as ‘a great reckoning in a little room’, but then strangely adds, ‘truly, I would the gods had made thee poetical.’  That was the phrase that stuck in my mind, that got my goat and made my head spin.  Why did he say that?  What did he mean?  It seemed to have no bearing, I had to find out, so I wrote a play about it.

The wheels started churning, slowly at first.  What if Shakespeare and Marlowe were more than just contemporaries, more than just rivals, what if they actually worked together – Hollywood style?  Marlowe was the playmaker, creating the form, Shakespeare was the poet, adding the content.  Maybe that was the essential difference between them.  Maybe that’s why they made such a great team.

Ian-Pinkerton

Some people believe Marlowe was the true writer of some of Shakespeare’s work – do you think this theory holds any water?

No, but it makes good theatre.  There’s an old rumour that’s been kicking about for years, that Marlowe wasn’t murdered at Ma Bull’s Victualing House in Deptford in a fight over the bill (or ‘reckoning’) but was smuggled away to the continent.

Marlowe was a seasoned spy, much too fly for the heavies of the day, he could well have faked his own death and made his getaway.  But how did he do it?  How could he be sure that he wasn’t going to be followed, and put to death abroad?  He would have known the only way the authorities were not going to track him down, was if they didn’t go looking for him.  And the only way they were not going to go looking for him is if they thought they’d already found him – dead.  To make a seamless exit, he needed a friendly corpse.  But maybe things didn’t go quite according to plan.  Picture the scene, it’s stuffed full of comic potential.

But what happened after that?  Did he return to write more plays, who knows?  But he would have to have stayed well undercover.  He could never have been the head of a company of players again, now could he?  How useful would that have been to the ambitious young Shakespeare?  To find out what happened next, you’ll have to come and see the show.

Are you also directing The Crowborough Players’ performance?

Nooo!  The saving grace of theatre is that it’s a collaborative medium.  The writer lays down the bare plot, then fashions it to fit the company.  The director shapes the play and takes it to the place he wants to go, and the actors bring it alive.  Along the way, there can be many rewrites and changes.  One recent revelation for me, was that for all the fine words and speeches the script is little more than a prompt for the actors to do what they do best.  To keep ego at bay, it’s best if the functions are kept well apart.

What techniques did Shakespeare and his contempories use to “pack the houses” – and what lessons should modern playwrights learn from 16th Century Theatre?

I think Theatre has lost its way.  It is too rarefied, too up itself.  It’s been opera’d, if that’s a word.  We’ve lost touch with our audience, to the extent that we can only ever hope to attract a minority crowd.  We ought to loosen up.  We need to mix it, as they did.  If I had my way, every pub with an upstairs room would be encouraged to set aside a couple of nights a week to put on a wide range of entertainment: variety, burlesque, dance, circus, stand up, just to drag people away from their screens and out of the house.  Of course, some public houses do put on competition nights and supper shows – but more for footfall than financial benefit.

Otherwise I imagine running a theatre company in the 16th century wasn’t so different from what it is today.  I’m sure there were the same rows; the backbiting, the bitching, the in-fighting.  The conflict between idea and reality, between art and money.  The dream of putting on something entirely ‘new’, always challenged by the need to put ‘bums on seats’.  The management’s fear of scaring off the punters … “you can’t say that…this is Crowborough, you know!”.  We are in a constant search for a winning formula to see off the competition from other forms of entertainment.  Today, we have telly, cinema and the internet.  Then, they had cockfighting, bear-baiting and wrestling, as well as every other form of entertainment that theatres provide, aside from plays.

With the financial difficulty theatre faces, comes the heavy realisation that most people only like what they know.  Regardless of what acting groups might want to do, by and large, the paying public don’t want to see what’s new, what’s different.  They might think they do, but they don’t.  That’s the last thing they want.  What they really want is not to be disappointed.  So year after year, theatre companies up and down the country, professional and amateur alike, churn out the same old programme: a Shakespeare, an Ayckbourn and a Panto.

When it comes to Shakespeare, I think we should drag them up to date and focus on the relevance over the reverence.  I think the 450 year old man would have approved.

…my background.

Like most people, I suffered Shakespeare at school and never got into it until the teachers stuck me in the school play.  After Uni, I did a bit of acting and worked as an adman.  I was writing for a living, but an ad. is a long, long way from a play – about 15,000 words.

I went freelance and moved to Crowborough, and when I retired and was scratching around for something to do, it was natural for me pick up my keyboard again.  I’ve written a book (self published), joined Crowborough Players and acted in a couple of productions.  This is my first play, but I have another waiting in the wings.  I joined Uckfield Writers and I am a member of High Weald Poets.  For any more information, see my agent (only joking!).

What the Gods made of Thee

Why should we go and see it?

It’s a laugh.  If you see history more as “magic realism” than plodding fact, and you like it spiced with plenty of action, this is the show for you.

History is what happens in the gap between what we know and what we don’t.

Magic realism: “when a highly detailed, realistic setting is invaded by something too strange to believe.”

When and where is it on?

“What the Gods Made Thee” is being performed by the Crowborough Players on Friday 13th & Saturday 14th May at 7.45 pm at Ashdown Primary School (formerly Herne Junior School) on Luxford Road in Crowborough.

There is a licenced bar

The tickets cost £7 (concessions £6).

The can be bought at Guest Shoes on the High Street.  or you can get them online here.

For more information about Crowborough Players – see their website:  crowborough.weebly.com.

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