Lords of misrule: Just what would have happened in a meeting between folk legends John Martyn and Nick Drake - and a young Tony Blair?

A new play brings together two folk-rock heroes ... and a certain Anthony Blair. Nick Coleman observes this curious work in progress

John Martyn and Nick Drake have just tipped up backstage at an Oxford College Commemorative Ball. It is 1973. The older, newly successful man, Martyn, is performing tonight and is having a rummage through the cardboard box containing his backstage rider.

His star is on the rise, following the release of his album Solid Air, while his friend Nick’s is plummeting from a low zenith. His latest, Pink Moon, has sold a mere five thousand copies.

“Fackin’ ’ell,” bludgeons Martyn, looking up from his box, his face a picture of cold-eyed indignation. “Where’s me crisps? Me smoky bacon! I insist on crisps ….”

Nick Drake says nothing, but looks traumatised, as usual. He turns away. Martyn opens a bottle of brandy with his teeth and spits the cork out; takes a series of angry slugs. His friend melts into the furniture, his face an unresponding mask – within seconds it is as if Nick Drake is not even in the room ….

This is acting, of course. Acting in a play by actors. The play? It’s a brand new one by Doug Lucie, also entitled Solid Air (and staged at the newly “regenerated” Theatre Royal Plymouth), imagining what might have arisen had these two contrasting yet comparably bright flames of the early-Seventies English folk-rock scene actually found themselves in such a situation. In real life they were friends all right, but this scenario is fiction.

And, of course, in the play there’s a dramaturgical twist. The ingratiating posh boy tasked with the job of corralling these card-carrying members of the awkward squad into playing ball, and then playing the Ball, is one Anthony “Call me Tony!” Blair, self-appointed “Ents Comm Liaison Officer”. He’s the guy running the show! He is both obsequious and superior, by turns patronising and way out of his depth.

Also hanging around backstage are a bilious grammar-school radical from Somewhere Up North, an off-duty squaddie from Somewhere Out There and a non-Varsity posh bird roughing it with the bad boys. You can see that the play might have something to say about social mobility, class tension, and the questionable future of artistic integrity, all themes which might be considered germane to the world in which we live today….

“All right, we’ll stop there!” This is Mike Bradwell, the director. These are rehearsals we’re watching, not a performance, and it is time for some notes.

Bradwell shuffles into the acting space and huddles with Tom Clegg, who is embodying the role of the barely sentient Drake. What passes between the two is inaudible, but you can tell from the director’s gestures and from Clegg’s attentive nods that they’re wrestling with the subtle details of how to perform a negative: how to make a dead spirit readable.

Sean Biggerstaff who plays Martyn, meanwhile, stays in character. He throws himself back into the cushions of the onstage sofa, spreads his legs, works his jaw and scratches his crotch. He is too hard, too worldly, too unruly to be ’aving any of this directorial-notes bollocks.

Later, over sandwiches and crisps during the lunchbreak, I ask Mike Bradwell about the benefits offered by a dramatic recreation of figures we already feel we know – perhaps too well – from their artistic works. What are their useful dramatic properties? What do they symbolise?

He looks pensive, sucks the fronds of his moustache.

“We need them, don’t we?” he says. “People like John Martyn are mad, bad and dangerous to know. We need them. He’s a ringmaster, a Lord of Misrule – he doesn’t like authority and he won’t take any shit. He gets pissed and has a good time and entertains people. He does funny voices. In fact he doesn’t seem to have had a voice of his own, except when singing. He was always either being a Cockney or a Scot or a Goon or posh … John was culturally schizophrenic – grew up half the time in a tenement in Glasgow and the other half on a houseboat in Kingston-upon-Thames. People like that are important.”

Drake?

“Hmm. Difficult to say… the mythical Nick Drake is mythical because he’s dead and he wrote fantastic songs. In our play, John says that he doesn’t like Nick’s latest album, Pink Moon, very much – that it’s a self-indulgent suicide note ….”

Bradwell pushes back his chair and sucks some more.

“Actually, here you go – Nick Drake’s favourite poet was William Blake, who sat in a tree in Lambeth and saw angels. I think Nick Drake was a bloke who saw a lot of angels. And they may just have been demons …. But look:” – he opens his hands on the table in front of him – “here’s where they’re essentially dramatic: one of them is the Lord of Misrule and the other one’s an Angel. There you go.” He shrugs and smiles. “Without wishing to be pretentious and wanky about it of course ….”

The playwright Doug Lucie doesn’t “normally write plays with real people in them”. And in fact it was not originally his intention to do so on this occasion either. He set out to write a piece founded in his own memories of being a bolshy radical at Oxford in the Seventies, grounded in real events arising when he and his politicised faction of undergrads picketed a commemorative ball and the college hired a  platoon of local squaddies to “police” the picket.

Lucie just happened to be reading a Nick Drake biography while this idea germinated and learning about the fey, recessive songwriter’s somewhat unlikely friendship with the culturally schizophrenic and belligerent Martyn. “They were like chalk and cheese,” says Lucie, “but both wonderfully talented, and I thought, ‘There’s got to be mileage in this ….’ After all, Nick was virtually catatonic for two years and, being a writer myself, I could relate to some of that. And, of course, if you want to be indulgently self-referential, there’s the fact that I know what it’s like to be churning out pretty good stuff and to be virtually ignored. I’ve had me Pink Moon moments ….

“But I was casting around, looking for a way to drop some fizz into the situation, and that’s when the Tony Blair idea struck. He was in the year above me at Oxford but completely invisible. No one had heard of him. The name Anthony Blair simply never cropped up, which was interesting given what he went on to become.” Lucie chortles. “Mike likes to describe the play as ‘the night Tony Blair consumed a lot of hash brownies and invented New Labour’.”

There are no Nick Drake songs in Solid Air, as is appropriate. By 1973 Drake was adrift and floating out of sight. But there are four John Martyn ones. The first is the title piece, a song actually written about Drake and his talent for barely existing. Sean Biggerstaff performs it in full in rehearsal, accompanying himself on guitar, clawing and hacking at the song as if attempting to force entry. His impersonation of Martyn is very fine indeed, but it is the intensity of his desire to get inside the music that really catches in the throat. Solid air indeed.

‘Solid Air’ is at The Drum, Theatre Royal Plymouth  (01752 267222) until 23 Nov

What if? Five other imagined theatrical encounters...

Insignificance

Terry Johnson’s 1982 satire on modern celebrity assembled Albert Einstein, Marilyn Monroe, baseball star Joe Di Maggio and Commie-hunting senator Joseph McCarthy in a hotel room and let sparks fly. As well as getting Monroe to explain the theory of relativity, naturally.

The Habit of Art

Composer Benjamin Britten and poet  W H Auden were early friends and collaborators but fell out in the 1940s. Alan Bennett’s 2009 play imagined their reconciliation in their later years to masterful and moving effect. 

Travesties

Tom Stoppard’s comedy of errors centres on the fictional meeting between three seminal revolutionaries of the 20th century: Vladimir Lenin, James Joyce and Tristan Tzara, the founder of the Dada movement, while sticking them into a rewrite of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest.  It is, as they say, complicated.

Collaborators

This 2011 National Theatre hit saw playwright John Hodge posit a series of tense meetings between Mikhail Bulgakov and Joseph Stalin after the latter commissions the former to write a play about him. That wasn’t a million miles away from the truth: Bulgakov did produce a play in tribute to Stalin at the behest of the Moscow Art Theatre.

Kurt and Sid

Mixed reviews greeted Roy Smiles’s rock two-hander, premiered in 2009, in which an apparition of the late punk legend Sid Vicious tries to talk the late grunge legend Kurt Cobain out of killing himself on the night before the Nirvana frontman’s 1994 suicide.

Hugh Montgomery

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