Mark Farrelly Interview: Writer, Actor, Performer

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We saw Mark Farrelly’s solo depiction of Patrick Hamilton in Silence of Snow, at the Old Red Lion theatre pub in north London, back in October and were hugely impressed. Few people would be able to write this piece, let alone perform it… and he managed both. And perhaps more laudable still, he even ran another one-man show, based on the life of Quentin Crisp, at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, simultaneously. Searchlight Magazine Arts catches up with Mark Farrelly to discover his views on literature and the arts… and find why he loves those long dead underdogs so much.

We missed Naked Hope, unfortunately, but you appeared to be running this and Silence of Snow – both intense one-man shows – fairly concurrently. How did you find this, especially as you’d never done a solo show before?

It was purely chance that the two shows ran concurrently. I found a producer who was passionate about both pieces, and it was more effective in terms of expenses and publicity to get them both out there at the same time. Performance-wise I think it worked in my favour. Patrick [Hamilton] and Quentin [Crisp] are such different characters, that I found it invigorating to switch rapidly between the two, especially at Edinburgh where I was doing them both every day. It’s true I’d not done solo work before, but I’ve found that once you say the first line, off you go, and the audience becomes the other character with whom you interact. 83 performances this year, but it’s flown by.

Both Patrick Hamilton and Quentin Crisp provide excellent source material to work from, but how did you set about writing these monologues?

The writing process was very different for the two pieces. Patrick, the first one I tried, I slaved over for many months, major amounts of rewriting and polishing. It’s mostly my own writing, with little flashes of Patrick’s work. I was utterly determined to get both my own and Patrick’s heart on the page. Quentin was much simpler, because 90% of the script is Quentin’s own words, so my job was the relatively simpler one of shaping the material.

Patrick Hamilton was extremely successful in his day and writes very accessibly. Why do you think his novels have fallen out of favour today?

Patrick’s writing is only underrated because there isn’t very much of it…only five great novels (in my opinion) and two stage thrillers. It’s such a tiny oeuvre, blighted of course by his alcoholism, that he’s slipped through the cracks a bit. It’s unfortunate, but then a lot of life is, if you choose to look at it that way. I prefer to be glad that he produced what he did, and hugely enjoy passing it on to anyone who wants to discover an unheralded gem. One could argue that E.M. Forster only wrote the same amount, and he’s much better known. And in fairness, Forster’s thematic and geographical sweep is far broader than Patrick’s. But Patrick’s novels are no less enjoyable for the narrowness of their focus on the lost and the desperate in interwar London.

Despite the limited popularity of his novels, there seems to have been a mini-resurgence of Patrick Hamilton’s plays in recent years, even some which really have been forgotten. Why do you think that is?

The interest in Patrick’s plays is simple: they’re damn good. They are rivetingly plotted, but there’s so much depth in there too; be it the Nietzschean, murderous rage lurking in everyone’s subconscious (Rope) or the way that so many people torment and torture the ones they love (Gaslight). Plus the theatre is surprisingly short of good material, so it’s inevitable that producers periodically look to the past for a forgotten cracker.

We read your account in Exeunt Magazine, which described how a difficult period in your private life saw you come to love Patrick Hamilton and eventually write the Silence of Snow. Did you have a similar experience with Quentin Crisp?

Creating Quentin Crisp: Naked Hope was absolutely inspired by my personal travails. I lost so much that I loved in 2012, through romantic rejection and suicide, that for quite some time I thought “That’s it. My life is over”. And indeed, it was – in terms of life as I had known it. So I’ve been in quite a wilderness period of trying to find a new direction. Quentin appealed to me because the first seventy years of his life seem to have been a ‘wilderness period’! He sat in his Chelsea flat and believed, quite stoically and philosophically, that life had passed him by, hence his gorgeous one-liner “If at first you don’t succeed, failure may be your style”. I think we all feel that every now and then. But then late in life Quentin was ‘discovered’, and embraced by much of the known world. So I created the piece to encourage the audience, but principally myself, to remember that tides do turn, life changes, and new energies enter it. That’s why I put the word hope in the title: I wanted to be honest with the audience, but also put a very positive message out there. I read a quote by Alan Bleasdale the other day: “You’re only here on a message. So make it a good one”. That sums Naked Hope up.

What is your view on the connection between mental health and the arts?

I’m a great devotee of the view that “Nobody who had a happy childhood ever went into showbusiness”. Of course it’s a gross generalisation, but there’s truth in there. More generally, there is of course a huge and direct correlation between mental health and the arts. People create art because they’re hurting. It’s as simple as that. The art is an attempt to assuage and understand the pain and confusion. Show me an artist of any depth or merit, and I’ll show you someone who’s suffered considerably. My great hero George Harrison sang “Gotta pay your dues if you wanna sing the blues”. How true. If the world was a happy, sorted place where everyone was mentally balanced and actually doing what we were all unequivocally put here to do (love each other unconditionally without limit) then I don’t think there’d be much art produced, except maybe celebratory pictures of meadows and waterfalls. To me, that would be wonderful. Meantime I’m going to keep making drama to heal and entertain people because I haven’t met a single human being who isn’t in some measure hurt and confused. I relate best to people who, like me, freely admit it.

Both Patrick Hamilton and Quentin Crisp have a rather hardcore, niche fan-base. Do you think these were the people who predominantly attended your shows?

I honestly can’t say who made up the audiences for my shows this year. I think it’s been a mixture of the devotee and the Intrigued. I can certainly say that I will quit 2014 with a hatful of great experiences of connecting with people who saw the shows and were moved in some way. Three people so far have said they want to leave ‘The City’ (whatever that is) and become actors, largely because of Quentin’s wonderful lines “To arrive at the end of your life thinking ‘I never did anything I really wanted to do’ must be one of the most profound miseries the human soul is capable of feeling. So discover who you are. And be it. Like mad”. As for Patrick, more than a few women have cried on my shoulder (not an unusual situation for me), saying that Patrick’s descent into alcoholism has taken them right back to a time in their life when someone they loved did the same. Forster again: “Only connect”.

What recent theatre productions have you been particularly impressed by?

I don’t go to the theatre nearly enough, but I was much impressed by Frank McGuinness’ one-woman play “The Matchbox” at The Tricycle. Very powerful piece which left all of us gasping, and desperate for a gin and tonic.

Do you think there are any cities in the UK that are doing particularity innovative theatre at the moment?

I’m not sure that there are specific cities doing innovative theatre at the moment. I think that the theatre world is very stagnant and play-safe, often afraid to challenge an audience that’s crying out for something edgy and deep. This is partly due of course to financial constrictions which make producers understandably very risk-averse. But there may be hotbeds of creativity of which I am ignorant.

It has been said that although many organisations, like Punchdrunk, are putting on some extremely interesting immersive shows, no company has found a way to utilise technology in a truly integral way. Do you agree with this? And if so, why do you think it is?

I think Punchdrunk is great, and they along with others have done great things with technology. That’s the great thing about this polymorphous nonsense called theatre: you can do virtually anything with it, and the only limits are your imagination. Ultimately though what matters are words and the soul, and sometimes a very techno piece of theatre can strike the audience as cold and empty, because the technology is covering a lack of depth and heart.

What next? Do you have plans to do more solo stage shows about long dead underdogs?

Long dead underdogs! It’s true I could have picked more commercial subjects, but that’s not me. I had to tell the stories I wanted to tell, regardless of whether three people saw it or three thousand. And I think everyone who saw the shows could see that I was coming from a very honest place. I am writing two plays at the moment, one about Frankie Howerd, who is long dead but rarely an underdog, and a two-hander about the process of psychotherapy, partly based on the life of David Foster Wallace, an inspirational American who, rather like Robin Williams, inspired everyone but himself, and ended his life far too soon. I’m also performing another run of “The Silence of Snow” next year, in Patrick’s hometown, for the Brighton Festival in May.

Is there anything else you’d like to share with Searchlight Magazine Arts’ audience?

Anything else to share? Never give up on your dreams. I had to jump through endless hoops and copyright rows to make my two solo shows happen. At one stage they were in a drawer, apparently doomed, no producer and so on. Love everyone, especially strangers and those who cross you; any fool can love their family and friends. Be authentic, be yourself. Both my shows are about ‘finding yourself’; one the story of a man who did find himself (Quentin) and the other a tale of the consequences of running away from your true self (Patrick). But both plays are a call to authenticity. Which usually means becoming properly acquainted with your shadow side, your hurts and fears.

The world is full of fakers and people who can’t get deep and real. Don’t be one of them. Evelyn Waugh described it as “a tiny part of a person pretending to be a whole”. What a ghastly fate. Why settle for 20% of what you really could be? Finally, ask yourself at all times, am I operating out of love or fear? If the latter, change it pronto!

First published on Searchlight Magazine Arts…

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