The Secret Act of Murder, a new work in progress by Two Gallants (director Conor Madden, producer Colm McDermott, writer Stephen McDermott and performer Rob McDermott) is an exploration of controversial, Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe whose untimely and unusual death is still a mystery today. The production will be staged in a one-man show as part of the Collaborations festival in Smock Alley next week (March 6-9).
I picked the Marlowe-loving brains of director Conor Madden and writer Stephen McDermott to find out more about the production:
So, first off, tell me about the Collaborations festival and how you got involved:
Stephen (S): When I began writing this last autumn, I had my mind on submitting it as a work-in-progress to Collaborations because I knew how accommodating Jack Burdell were to new writing. On top of that, there’s also that collaborative aspect to it; there’s a nice energy about the festival that you don’t always get everywhere else, because everyone’s on the same level and helping each other out.
So, The Secret Act of Murder – you’ve said the play combines the form of American film noir with Marlowe’s signature blank verse, but how have you drawn parallels between the two?
S: In terms of the play itself […] It’s written in a way that shows how a form like film noir can be transposed onto a story based on true events, one which occurred more than 400 years ago. Similarly, it makes a case for the relevance of an old form like blank verse in presenting a story.
Marlowe’s blank verse would have been unusual for a writer of his period (Elizabethan) but did you find it restrictive when it came to stage:
Conor (C): Blank verse can be tricky, it has rules. Blank verse, un-rhymed iambic pentameter, allows the “heartbeat” of the meter to communicate on more than an aural/cogniciant level, it speaks directly to the listeners hearts, much like music. It’s a beautiful form, when spoken well. It is meant to be spoken, not read, it doesn’t work nearly as well when you read it quietly to yourself.
S: It’s tough work; there’s more to it than just unrhymed iambic pentameter. If you don’t play with it a little, you run the risk of boring the audience to sleep. […] It’s funny how different it can sound when you’re actually hearing it spoken; sometimes myself and Conor have both found ourselves wanting to cut the same lines for doing that in rehearsals, without either of us having had to say it to one another beforehand.
The play questions of narrative and truth – tell me more about the role it plays in The Secret Act of Murder:
S: Basically, the aim is to establish history as a form of narrative. Everyone’s aware that there’s a definite subjectivity to it, but the ways in which past events are described, with the recording of “facts”, are usually assumed to be true. It’s become more prevalent with the advent of something like Wikipedia, but it’s rare that we actually step back and question who’s telling the story and giving us these facts.
In the Marlowe case, we have a coroner’s report describing the murder, one which holds weight as an official government document, but there’s even flaws in that version for various reasons. The play is an interrogation in that sense, asking whether we can really believe what history tells us all the time.
What is it that intrigued you about Christopher Marlowe and how do you see him as being different (if at all) from his contemporaries?
S: There’s definitely an element of the ‘James Dean effect’ there, in that he was killed relatively early in his life. Also, his life outside of his writing is another draw: his spying for the government, his supposed atheism and homosexuality and his apparent tendency towards violence mark him as a bit of a badass before the concept even existed. […] I think that’s where he differed from the likes of Shakespeare or Ben Jonson: they might be regarded as superior playwrights, but Marlowe’s biography is arguably much more colourful.
Christopher Marlowe was known to have been an atheist which at that time would have been quite controversial but not so shocking for today’s audiences. Do you address his religious beliefs in the play?
S: Yes. Without ruining anything, they’re in there, as is the controversy of them at the time. Again, it plays upon the backdrop of conflict between the ideologies of Catholicism and Protestantism. I’m not going to give too much away though.
What is it about the story of Christopher Marlowe that you think will appeal to a modern audience?
S: I honestly never thought I’d say this, but the day-to-day mechanics of Elizabethan politics and espionage are absolutely fascinating. It’s definitely not a ‘Murder, She Wrote’ or ‘Poirot’-type whodunnit, but there are those type of aspects of the unfolding of a murder case and of getting to the facts too. We have a kind of morbid fixation when it comes to untimely death; we crave the story and sequence of events for some reason, which the play definitely attempts to provide.
C: Today we have iPhones, internet, space exploration, green energy, hoverboards. Lots has changed in the 400 odd years. Humans really haven’t. We’re still ruled by our emotions, fear, love, loyalty, trust. Marlowe’s life and death is full of intruige and lies. Much the same as mine, or so I’d like to think.
Catch the Play:
The Secret Act of Murder, a work-in-progress will be staged as part of the Collaborations festival at Smock Alley Theatre next week – March 6 and 8 at 7.30pm and March 9 at 6pm (tickets cost €10/12). Click here for more info on tickets.