THE ART OF THEATRE / Nicholas Wright's Masterclass: 21 How to read a play upside-down

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ANGUS: No, seriously I like jokes. What was the joke?

GORDON: You like jokes?

ANGUS: I love jokes. I got a video of jokes for Christmas.

GORDON: Tell us one, Angus.

ANGUS: I can't tell them. I get them wrong.

GORDON: It's getting dark. There's no rescue boat. It is two degrees centigrade. We could do with a good laugh.

ANGUS: No, I mess them up. When I try. At dinner parties, I'm terrible.

GORDON: Just say the words.

ANGUS: Yes, but it's more than just the words.

GORDON: No it's not.

ANGUS: It's the timing and all, you know, some people can naturally tell jokes.

GORDON: Anyone can tell a joke, now bloody tell one.

ANGUS: I don't want to.

GORDON: Tell.

Angus pauses and gulps.

ANGUS: Er well let's er . . . d'you know the one . . . there's this bar. And er . . . this bloke goes into the bar, right. (pauses) It is quite funny actually. One of the kids er . . . the er . . . (slight pause) and anyway. He says to the bloke behind the bar 'please can I have some lipstick.' (slight pause) It's a chemist, sorry. Chemist shop. Not a bar. And this bloke, the chemist, says 'Certainly sir. Would you like it in a bag?' And the bloke says (pointedly) 'No, it's all right, can you put it on my bill?'

Pause. Roy and Gordon frown slightly. Angus thinks.

ANGUS: Sorry. It was a duck. The bloke who went in was a duck.

Huge pause.

GORDON (quietly): Good God.

ANGUS (smile drops): You see? I told you. I always kill a joke.

GORDON: Killing would have been more humane. You just shot it in the knees.

ANGUS: I know. I know.

GORDON: It's writhing around on the floor in agony. Go on. Put it out of its misery. Say it wasn't lipstick either. And it was actually a hat shop.

ANGUS: I know I can't do it, don't I. I said.

GORDON (barks): Well if you can't, don't go round saying 'what joke?' to people who can. Mate.

NEVILLE'S ISLAND by Tim Firth, Act One

LIKE MANY of my contemporaries, I learnt to read upside-down while working at the Royal Court Theatre in London, where reading memos on other people's desks was often the only way to find out what was going on. I've never tried reading a whole play that way and I don't recommend it - but you can learn a lot by reading a page or two as though they were upside-down: by looking at them pictorially, in the way a child might, or a mild illiterate. The meaning of individual words gets blurred. What springs out is the shape of the text, the sound of the words, their pattern when artfully repeated down the page. These too have meaning - or can.

Tim Firth's excellent new play is about four mid-range executives shipwrecked on a small island in the Lake District: it's a Swallows and Amazons adventure which, once hunger and hostility bite, turns into Lord of the Flies.

Gordon is a compulsive cracker of jokes. They make us laugh like anything - but is he actually trying to be funny? Or just aggressive? How amusing really are his witty fantasies about Angus's wife being banged on the bread shelf by a Sainsbury's sales-assistant? 'It's Mark,' his victim broods a few scenes later, 'The one with the earring who hangs around the meat freezer.'

If you scan the excerpt on the left for shapes, the first thing you'll notice is the encouraging zig-zag pattern down the right- hand side of the page: a longer speech, fraught with anxious pauses, is framed by a flurry of shorter ones, some two lines long, one a monosyllable. Why is that encouraging? Because you only have to look to know that the pace will vary. Things will get fast and frisky, then slow down - reflectively? hesitantly? - and the gear-changes will produce energy. Nothing is more ominous than the sight of a page where the blocks of dialogue are all the same size. The ear will be lulled, the heart will sink . . .

Sound. 'Joke', in gag-writer's terms, is a funny word - not because of what it means but purely and simply because of the noise it makes. (So is 'duck'.) Neil Simon explains the principle in The Sunshine Boys:

WILLIE: Words with a 'K' in it are funny - I'll tell you which words always get a laugh. (About to count on fingers.)

BEN: Chicken.

WILLIE: Chicken is funny.

BEN: Pickle

WILLIE: Pickle is funny.

BEN: Cup cake.

WILLIE: Cup cake is funny . . . Tomato is not funny.

At the start, 'joke' is ping-ponged back and forth in time-honoured music-hall fashion. It sounds like a joke itself. But a few lines down, it loses its punch-line status. Gordon interrupts it, then bungs it any old how in the middle of a sentence. 'Anyone can tell a joke, now bloody tell one.' By the end of the scene, it's said with a sneer, prior to Gordon's poking Angus in the chest and spitting out the equally pungent 'Mate'.

And there - in shape and in sound - is the theme of the play. It's no wonder that when the rescue-boat finally arrives, it discovers a frozen tableau: Angus - who killed the joke - attacking the joker himself with a Cobra cutlass.

Next week: SURPRISE AND SUSPENSE

(Photograph omitted)

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