Preview: Mike Bartlett's Snowflake at Kiln Theatre
PUBLISHED: 12:52 11 December 2019 | UPDATED: 12:52 11 December 2019
The Doctor Foster screenwriter has taken on the "challenge" of writing a Christmas play for adults that offers hope and redemption
Screenwriter Mike Bartlett had the nation gripped in TV dramas such as Dr Foster and Press.
His next, Sticks and Stones sees a stressed out middle-manager squeezed by bonuses and corporate bullying.
But he's long been an innovator on stage - Earthquakes in London was a futurist take on climate change, King Charles III speculated about the monarcy in verse, and Game invited audiences to voyeuristically watch the targets in a cruel contest.
So Snowflake at Kiln Theatre is something of a depature, a "Christmas play for adults" that fields difficult discussions of race, gender, and generational conflict.
40-something Andy is estranged from daughter Maya since the death of her mother. He likes a pint, old TV shows and listening to whole albums. He has hired a church hall in the hope of staging a reunion, but a young stranger Natalie arrives to challenge his fondly-held beliefs.
"The brief was 'I know your work is often a bit bleak, but this is Christmas. We don't want to flinch away from dealing with difficult things but do leave people with some redemption and hope. That was quite a challenge," says Bartlett, who points out that bleak and hopeful are the very stuff of Eastenders Christmas specials.
"It's one of the bleakest things on TV but that's what Christmas is about, finding a hearth at the harshest moment of the year. It's the time of year when people find it difficult to go back to family and deal with stuff they have been putting off.
"At the heart of the play is the father waiting for his daughter."
As a starting point, Bartlett was taken with how those in their late 40s and early 20s have a "totally different set of reference points and way of seeing the world."
"Something's happened in the last five years, people in their early 20s are demanding that their parents update their software and say their way of being is unacceptable. That hasn't happened since the early 60s when a bunch of 20-year-olds said to the establishment 'you've got it all wrong and we are going to burn your house down. It's such a challenge for the culture and to this dad, to his understanding of himself."
Of course Snowflake references both the winter season and the derogatory term for self-righteous overly-sensitive youths who shy away from opinions they dislike.
But Bartlett, who turns 40 next year and thus sneaks into Gen Y, admires millennials' uncompromising activism.
"A lot of what that generation is talking about is not actually new. We talked about feminism, race and equality all the time, but did we do anything? That's the difference."
He adds: "What's the difference between being sensitive and having standards? A lot of what they are demanding is politeness, kindness, professional standards of language. That's often set against freedom of speech which normally just means you can't put it on Twitter. People say 'it's gone too far', and occasionally that will be true, but that's often a defence against changing yourself."
Bartlett was interested in that very question of whether it's "too late" to update the software.
"Or should we be doing that all the time? The value of youth is not to entrench yourself in old ideas but to constantly look at how you can progress as a person, it's hard to do that and maintain your identity, which is built on old stuff.
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But it's not a problem liking things from the past, it's how you behave now that's crucial."
As for his own software, Bartlett says social media "plays no part in my life".
He loves technology but wants to "draw a line when capitalism and people are making a profit from me and my social interactions".
"The idea of giving away data that other people own, my friends, private life, opinions.. if some of these social media companies were a person you would run a mile if they followed your every step and started talking you into giving them information.
"Itfeels like the wild west to me."
Snowflake previews during the General Election and Bartlett observes that the young now have "the strongest voice" putting issues like climate change on the agenda.
"But is that going to have tangible effects on the ground? It's one thing to have a cultural voice and another to change society."
Brexit hovers over the play, as Natalie makes the case for remain, we're reminded that age was one of the divisive faultlines in 2016 with 71pc of under 25s voting remain while 64pc of over 65s voted leave.
"It's set now where people talk about things that people are talking about, and they are talking about Brexit. Twentysomethings are going home for Christmas who voted different ways in that referendum. Will that come up on Boxing Day after a few sherries? You bet."
The debate between Andy and Natalie is humane and even-handed, something Bartlett says is true of all his writing.
"I'm not interested in weighting a play against a character, what interests me is if I don't know what I think, I love getting 100percent behind the views of one character and 100 percent behind another, half agreeing with each, that's how you get conflict and dialogue in your audiences. I pick subjects where I don't know the answers and try to look at them in truthful ways. It can be bleak and difficult if you follow it truthfully but it's called drama and that's what we go to the theatre for - they go through hell so we don't have to, or perhaps they think; 'I've been there, I recognise that'."
He likes telling stories in both TV and Theatre but says the more he writes the more he realises the huge difference between them. Not just in terms of scale, but in how they are received.
"I love that theatre is in the hands of the actors, they go out on stage and play the truth of a scene, theatre can be ritualistic, with no real narrative, and it's communal. If we didn't have theatre already we would make it up as some amazing radical thing to do, to get people into a room off their devices, and focus on one thing together. We don't do that in life any more, we barely watch TV at the same time as other people."
But when he writes for TV, he loves that "people are sat on the sofa at home watching people they recognise in houses kitchens and work places."
"The work I've been drawn to is to show that all these 'normal' lives contain the epic. In Sticks and Stones a Reading business park turns into a vicious primal showdown, Doctor Foster is set in a nice market town but turns into Medea.
Everyone has Greek tragedies going on in their lives, persecution, jealousy, passion, blood and guts stuff. Just because it's set in a kitchen doesn't mean it doesn't feel to those characters like the biggest thing in the world.
"And with the intimacy of TV you can go right into their lives and up close to their faces."
Snowflake, runs at Kiln Theatre Kilburn until lJan 25 kilntheatre.com