What makes a winning play? “… it comes down to a compromise between the judges as to which play is hated least.”
What’s the play about?
Whether it is possible to understand or come to terms with what remains unspoken, unutterable or, indeed, unspeakable.
What is your relationship with philosophy?
A dilettante – a rank amateur.
What were the particular writing techniques used in developing this play?
I couldn’t give you an answer in technical terms. I’m an instinctive writer and, though I often deal with intellectual subjects, have no formal approach or training for what I do.
How much research did you do into the private life/public life of Wittgenstein?
There’s not a great deal out there. I read a couple of biographies, a book about Wittgenstein’s work by A. C. Grayling, quite a few pieces of information online as well as making a (failed) attempt to read his Tractatus Logico Philosophicus, which remains virtually impenetrable unless one is a professional logician. I basically just needed to get a taste of the man and his work/the meaning of his work rather than knowing him inside out. Sometimes it’s a disadvantage to know too much about a character for the purposes of drama, as opposed to biography.
Why bring this play to London now?
The opportunity, basically. King’s Head was putting on this festival of new plays and I’d just finished writing the play when I was asked if I had anything that would fit into a 1-hour time slot. I had already formed a relationship with Dave Spencer, the director, and it didn’t take long for him to read the play and give it the nod.
You’ve won a number of awards including four Australian Writers’ Guild Awards, the Mitch Matthews Award (2006) and the Houston International Film Festival Award for Best Screenplay. What makes a winning play?
Mostly luck. The right people on the panel – i.e. those who are able to connect with your work. Politics. Whether one has connected with the zeitgeist. Often it comes down to a compromise between the judges as to which play is hated least.
“The characters are ... salt of the earth meets dust of the stars.”
How far is this play about philosophy for you?
Since the play deals with a very specific moment in Wittgenstein’s life, where he left a formal philosophical career out of guilt, and began menial work as a dispensary orderly in Guy’s Hospital, the play - at least to me - is not so much about philosophy as it is about the relationship between the two men. To Wittgenstein, philosophy is attainable, whereas the unspoken and often untraversable field of human relationships is much more difficult to compute. This is what the play is about - the unspeakable and difficult aspects of Wittgenstein’s life.
What particularly appeals to you about the play?
I absolutely love the fact that the play is set during such a turbulent time in history, and yet very little mention is given to the raging war. These facts exist in the world of the play, but they are secondary to the characters’ concerns. This is what makes the play so compelling in my eyes. External political life continues unaware of the inner troubles we have to tackle, and so we have to sideline them. Take for example the current climate in the UK. Brexit has caused an uproar and, while it is a hot topic, it is not the only thing on people’s lips. Life comes breaking in as usual.
You already had experience in directing before graduating from the King’s Head Theatre’s Director’s Programme. What new things did you learn that will help you to direct THE SOUL OF WITTGENSTEIN.
I have learnt such a huge amount during my time at the King’s Head - it’s been wonderfully informative and formative. I’m really going to focus on the individuals in this process - so far my work has tended to be large, bombastic, and spectacular, and I’m really excited to get down to the nitty gritty.
Ron Elisha is an experienced playwright. How far have you been collaborating on this project?
I was put in touch with Ron via Adam Spreadbury-Maher at the King’s Head. I read a few of his pieces and then, when I told him that I needed a one hour play for the Festival, Ron told me he was just about to finish the first draft of a new play about Wittgenstein. I read it, fell in love with it, and organised a couple of readings in order to gain feedback so that Ron could redraft before we started rehearsals. It’s been great working with him, but I have to say, he is a phenomenal writer and requires very little help or advice.
How do you draw out the differences between the two characters in the play?
From the outset, the characters are evidently very different: one is a Cockney with one leg, and one is an incognito philosopher. They are also so different in their outlook on life. John is the kind of person who understands all that remains unsaid, all that Wittgenstein is trying to capture, and if he can’t he must remain silent. He contrasts with Ludwig, who is analytical, intellectual and snobbish without meaning to be so, and more than a little weird. Salt of the earth meets dust of the stars.
An electric combination to say the least.
You’re Artistic Director of Another Soup, an award-winning and critically acclaimed theatre company he founded in 2010. What new things will you bring to the company as a result of the training you’ve received and your current collaboration?
I have a far greater knowledge of the business side of theatre, the production and true logistical craft that goes into generating work. The King’s Head scheme is not merely a directing programme and instead has offered us invaluable experience on the production side of things. I have also had the opportunity to assist Sarah Berger, Wayne Harrison, and will be assisting Adam Spreadbury-Maher in August on La Boheme, so can bring a broad range of directorial styles and methods to my practice and company. I’m very excited for our next project, whatever that may be...
The Soul of Wittgenstein offers a fictional account of one of the finest philosopher’s of the 20th century, Ludwig Wittgenstein, whilst he was a volunteer hospital porter at Guy's Hospital during World War Two.
1941. Guy’s Hospital, London. A battered copy of War and Peace. An illiterate Cockney dying of cancer and a philosopher handing out pills. Their world is determined by these facts. But is it defined by them? Written by Ron Elisha, winner of four Australian Writers’ Guild Awards, The Soul of Wittgenstein is a pertinent, engrossing, confrontational, yet tender, new play.
Trainee Resident Director Scheme
The King’s Head’s Trainee Resident Director Programme takes on four early-career directors to study under and work alongside artistic director, Adam Spreadbury-Maher. This unique opportunity provides each year’s cohort with a holistic grounding in all aspects of theatre production, as well as learning from world-class directors and practitioners in and outside the rehearsal room.
The Soul of Wittgenstein by Ron Elisha
King’s Head Theatre
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