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

Arts and Entertainment
Tate Modern chief Chris Dercon, who will be leaving to run a Berlin theatre company
arts
Arts and Entertainment
Tasos: 'I rarely refuse an offer to be photographed'
arts + ents
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Girls on the verge of a nervous breakdown: Florence Pugh and Maisie Williams star in 'The Falling'
Film
Arts and Entertainment
Legendary charm: Clive Owen and Keira Knightley in 2004’s ‘King Arthur’
FilmGuy Ritchie is the latest filmmaker to tackle the legend
Arts and Entertainment
Corporate affair: The sitcom has become a satire of corporate culture in general

TV review

Broadcasting House was preparing for a visit from Prince Charles spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: There are some impressive performances by Claire Skinner and Lorraine Ashbourne in Inside No. 9, Nana's Party spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Glastonbury's pyramid stage

Glastonbury Michael Eavis reveals final headline act 'most likely' British pair

Arts and Entertainment
Ewan McGregor looks set to play Lumiere in the Beauty and the Beast live action remake

Film Ewan McGregor joins star-studded Beauty and the Beast cast as Lumiere

Arts and Entertainment
Charlie feels the lack of food on The Island with Bear Grylls

TV

The Island with Bear Grylls under fire after male contestants kill and eat rare crocodile
Arts and Entertainment
Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Quicksilver and Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch, in a scene from Avengers: Age Of Ultron
filmReview: A great cast with truly spectacular special effects - but is Ultron a worthy adversaries for our superheroes? spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Ince performing in 2006
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Beth (played by Jo Joyner) in BBC1's Ordinary Lies
tvReview: There’s bound to be a second series, but it needs to be braver spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry, the presenters of The Great Comic Relief Bake Off 2015

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A still from Harold Ramis' original Groundhog Day film, released in 1993

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence