Spring Mischief: Part I
Tom Morton-Smith’s hotly-anticipated new play The Earthworks is part of a festival double-bill at the RSC’s The Other Place, Stratford.
The playful and profound month-long Spring Mischief festival at Stratford’s The Other Place has two awesome new plays The Earthworks and Myth, from Wed May 24- Sat June 17. And there’s more…festival talks, spoken word events, late night music and two sharings of works in progress: #We are Arrested and Busking It. I caught up with playwright Tom Morton-Smith over a cappuccino in a booth at Susie’s Café Bar…
TOM MORTON-SMITH: THE EARTHWORKS
Oppenheimer playwright Tom Morton-Smith has been getting his head around physics again for his funny but deeply touching new one-act play, The Earthworks. Directed by the RSC’s deputy artistic director Erica Whyman it’s part of a double bill with Myth, a collaboration between Kirsty Housley and Matt Hartley. The Earthworks is set in a late night Swiss bar in Geneva on the night before the Large Hadron Collider was switched on November 23 2009. Journalist Clare (Lena Kaur) is a science correspondent on an assignment for a broadsheet and she’s got writers’ block. She and goes in search of a physicist to help her explain the science, cue Swedish Fritjof (Thomas Magnussen), a postdoctoral research associate at the Institute of Particle and Nuclear Physics. Clare and Fritjof begin to make discoveries about the black holes in their own lives through the prism of particle physics, wine and custard….
Bearded hipster Tom, who lives in Deptford, South London, said: “It’s supposed to be quite funny, silly – and sad. They have this great odd couple relationship and end up talking about everything – one of those meaningful nights of drunken conversations which is hugely important to both.” Drinking coffee in one of the booths at Susie’s Café Bar in The Other Place – formerly the Courtyard Theatre – Tom swears he’s rubbish at science. “I’m dreadful at it! It’s so abstract. This was just an excuse to spent time researching particle physics. It’s the challenge!”
The Large Hadron Collider is – for the non-scientific brains out there – the world’s biggest and most powerful particle accelerator built by the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN) on the Swiss-French border. “It’s a 27km ring of superconducting magnets – a wonder of the world. They started building it in the early 1980s,” explained Tom. When it was activated physicists hoped it would unravel some of the remaining mysteries of the universe –the origins of mass, gravity and mysterious dark matter. Tom said: “Talking about why things have mass is a good metaphor for the weight we have in our lives – grief, hope and loss. The science is just the background.”
Tom’s own career shot across the theatrical galaxy like a flaming comet in 2015 after first RSC commission Oppenheimer, about the father of the atom bomb, starring actor John Heffernan was a huge critical success –and transferred to the Vaudeville Theatre in London’s West End. He said: “I’d worked in Waterstone’s bookshop for 10 years in London and Sussex and had things on in the Fringe, but had got to the stage where I thought: ‘I should probably give up on this playwriting thing’. Then I got the RSC commission to write Oppenheimer.” He was just 31. Tom wrote the play in mornings and evenings around his day job over 5 years.
Tom’s beautifully written 3-hour epic had a cast of 22 and dealt with J Robert Oppenheimer’s complex emotional life – his relationships with his wife and lovers in 50s America as well as nuclear science, the race to build the atomic bomb and the moral consequences he faced following Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Even the physics part was exciting! Tom said: “All I wanted was to come out of Stratford unscathed. I had no idea how people would react. It was really well received. Suddenly my name was on posters in London. The fact it moved to the West End meant I could quit my day job.” In the midst of it all, he and his partner got married.
The Devonshire-born playwright, who grew up in East Grinstead, Sussex, studied drama at UEA, then trained as an actor for two years in London. His parents are “constantly amused” at his career choice. Tom said: “When so many people in this industry come from dynasties or theatrical background I came to it from school theatre trips when I was 15 and 16. I didn’t know what was good; I just knew what affected me.” Tom’s now writing his first screenplay for Ink Factory Films – who co-produced BBC 1 hit The Night Manager with Tom Hiddleston and Hugh Laurie – “a spy thriller set in the Vietnam War”.
He’s also been recommissioned by the RSC for another play in The Swan. Tom said: “They’ve had such a good year of new writing – with Vice Versa, Snow in Midsummer and The Hypocrite. What they’re doing in The Other Place is really exciting and playful. The two plays are quite stylistically different. Myth is very technical; mine is just people talking. It’s great to be in a rehearsal room and collaborating. I tend to only speak when I’m spoken to.”
Tom sought scientific advice from an old pal. He said: “Because Angus (Jackson), who directed Oppenheimer, studied physics at uni, I’d met one of his old professors, who used to work at CERN. I called him up and he came and talked to us in rehearsals about what it’s like to work there and what Prof Brian Cox is like.” Both The Earthworks and Myth have a shared cast including Rebecca Humphries, Lena Kaur (RSC Winter 2016 Swan Season), Fehinti Balogun and Danish actor Thomas Magnussen. Tom said: “I’d seen Rebecca in a couple of things in London. She was in Pomona at the National which was brilliant; I saw Lena in Seven Acts of Mercy at the RSC and Thomas was in the third series of The Bridge (on BBC4) and is normally based in Copenhagen.” For an interview with Myth co-collaborators Kirsty Housley and Matt Hartley read here.
The Earthworks and Myth will be presented as a double bill in the Studio at The Other Place from Wed May 24- Sat June 17, 7.30pm / 1.30pm, rsc.org.uk, Tel: 01789 403493.