To Kill a Machine writer Catrin Fflur Huws and producer Sandra Bendelow talk about the how things are going at Edinburgh Fringe Festival
SB: What has it been like to come to Edinburgh festival to see your play – which is doing really well?
CFH: It’s overwhelming, because there’s so much good stuff here, we’ve seen so much good stuff this week, and the fact that ‘To Kill A Machine is getting such good audiences really is wonderful. The competition is so strong here that I’m really proud that it’s grabbed so many people’s attention and that it’s been getting sell out audiences. At one level, that doesn’t make sense because we’re up against famous plays and plays by well-known writers and established companies, and plays that are splashed all over billboards so that people can’t but notice them. And yet on the other hand, I’m thinking, well it’s a good show. I’m really proud of it as a play and I’m really proud of what Angharad and the cast have done with it. So I think it’s brilliant that Edinburgh’s festival goers have seen that in amidst all the other things and that they’ve given it a chance. So, For the play itself I’m not surprised that people like it, but in terms of there being so much other good stuff here, I’m delighted that this has been something that people have gone ‘yep putting my money on that’ and that they’ve come out thinking ‘Waw – yep – that was brilliant.’
SB How do you feel about this version of the play which has been distilled now from a longer piece into a one hour play?
CFH: It’s really weird. When I cut it I thought I’d cut about 15 pages from the 2015 tour script and I’m finding I can’t think of much that I miss, I can’t think of things that I regret cutting or things that the show is poorer for. So I think that’s quite a valuable lesson for writers about how much you can cut and how much noodling you’ve got in a play that you can be that ruthless. Cut 15 pages, and you find that you’re very rarely thinking ‘ooh there’s a bit missing.’
SB: I always thought that the natural length of the play was a little bit longer, I always kind of felt that I wanted to put a bit more in, those other scenes, like the one in the national guard, just was such a lovely scene, I’d like to have seen it, but it feels with this one now the journey it goes on is a lot more intense and the impact on the audience is more powerful.
CFH: Which is odd because when we were developing it there was the idea that it should be about an hour and a half. And I sort of think, that’s much longer and I’m kind of wondering ‘Would that have worked?’
SB: Where as a lot of audiences here are actually saying ‘I want more’.
CFH: Yes people do feel it’s kind of a whistle-stop tour of his life in that you get through 42 years in as many minutes. So yes it is a bit of a situation where you’re 5 minutes in and he’s already an adult, so perhaps people do want to linger on aspects of his life for longer. But I think that’s part of the point as well – that his life was so short and that it does get cut short too soon. Also, it’s better to leave people wanting more as opposed to having them going ‘can we have an interval please?’ The other thing is that although people say they want more – do they really want more, because so many people have left the show feeling really drained and shellshocked. Some people have felt the need to be quiet for a long time afterwards while other people want to talk and to hear their friends’ voices. And you think, well if it does that to you, do you really want more of it or has it told you what you need to know no more no less?
SB: How do you feel about the performances because obviously they know the play so well now so that does have an impact on how they perform it, they’re playing with it a little bit, how do you feel watching the performances now?
CFH: Yes I feel it has developed a lot, even in the period between the tour in May and now. I think the actors have all reflected a lot on their characters in those two months, so I’m finding that Robert Harper is just getting more and more menacing and yet very urbane and very nice in a sort of dark Sir Humphrey Appleby kind of way, and yet at the same time you’re think no, this person could kind of completely mess someone’s life up and not mind or even care particularly And yet there’s warmth there too – the father is well meaning even though he has absolutely no understanding of his son. And Rick Yale, he’s developed the character of Arnold Murray in particular to the extent that now, in the court scene, I do feel sorry for Arnold Murray. In a way I think he is a character you do need to feel some sympathy for because in a way he’s been appropriated by the system, he’s a victim of the system as well. And I think the interaction between Robert and Rick, that wasn’t written into the script, really brings that out: the way in which The Interrogator bullies Arnold Murray into giving the right answer in court. He’s being used by the system there too.
And I Think Francois’ different characterisation, they’ve diverged much more, so you’ve got the very delicate character of Christopher, of someone who probably knows he’s dying, and his fondness and affection for Alan, you’ve got John who’s this very uptight and very black and white, these are the rules, these are what you’re meant to follow. And then that just being taken apart when Alan doesn’t fit into the rules that he lives by, so one the one hand you’ve got someone who has no understanding of why you could break the rules, and on the other hand, this wave of love for his younger brother. And then you’ve got the Gordon Welshman character, quite light, quite sort of straight forward in a way that, Alan gets confused. And I think Francois and Gwydion spar against each other much more in those scenes now – Turing only thinks about the job at hand while Gordon is quite garrulous on the surface, while he’s processing the problem of the enigma machine in the background, and Alan’s gets increasingly frustrated with him for seeming to be so focused on chitchat rather than concentrating.
And Gwydion of course is just…I don’t know how he does it…he even looks more and more like Alan Turing every time I see him, so when I see him as Gwydion I’m sort of slightly baffled that he’s got a welsh accent and I’m thinking ‘where’s that come from?’ I’ve even found myself starting to get confused as to ‘is it Alan Turing playing Gwydion Rhys, or Gwydion Rhys playing Alan Turing?’ But what he puts himself through as an actor is absolutely jaw-dropping.
SB: Do you have any advice for other writers in terms of lessons you’ve learned in terms of how you’ve gone through this process? It’s actually quite exceptional, not only have you had quite a long development process, but also it’s been out and toured now over quite a long period of time so you’ve seen, experienced the actors taking it away and it becoming less the script than what they’re doing after a long period of time. Any lessons in terms of that?
CFH: I think the lesson I’ve learned is how little I knew. You think when you’ve written a play, it’s finished. And then I realised that once it’s gone through a development process and a tour and it’s in the hands of Angharad and in the hands of the actors, how much I didn’t know. How much it could be edited, how much it could be changed, what it could be done to it to make it visual. Despite it being largely the same words as the words I wrote, it is a completely different play from what I thought was a final written version, and the difference between the final written version and the performed version, you realise, just how much of a process it is. Of taking it from a flat 2 dimensional medium to a 3 dimensional medium, that’s been something I wasn’t expecting. And how much it changes in performance too – the actors are bringing out little nuances, so I’m not seeing ‘my’ play any more, I’m seeing a play that’s made by so many layers of rehearsal and performance and re-writing and performance and the director’s ideas and the cast’s ideas.
SB: I know you’ve seen lots and lots of things in Edinburgh, but what’s the one you’d recommend?
CFH: oooh the one I’d recommend? I haven’t seen anything I haven’t sort of liked, haven’t seen some merit in – I’ve seen children’s shows, plays, music, cabaret, circus and it’s difficult to say ‘oh that’s better than that.’ The one I’d recommend for writers is The Bookbinder. That is absolutely spellbinding in terms of the performance and the visuals, but because it is a story about writing stories, and it has an important lesson for anybody who wants to make anything, so I think that’s the one I’d recommend to people who are writers.
More information is available on Catrin Fflur Huws here
To Kill a Machine is at Edinburgh Fringe Festival ZOO Venues until 31st August, https://tickets.edfringe.com/whats-on/to-kill-a-machine