Preview: A Clear Road
Hannah Greenstreet talks to Harry Baker about his directorial and writing debut
by Hannah Greenstreet
Tuesday 1st May 2012, 12:14 BST
When Harry Baker, writer and director of A Clear Road, which opens at the ADC on Thursday, told a friend that he had written a play, her immediate response was, ‘Oh, is it a tragedy?’ Baker, however, is reluctant to label his play: in terms of genre and inspiration, the play is ‘trying to be its own beast’. Yet, as he says, ‘just because it’s trying to be intelligent and serious about the themes it’s treating, doesn’t mean it has to be humourless’. This is, after all, a play with a coffin on wheels.
Baker came to writing this play, his first to be put on in Cambridge, ‘from an actor’s perspective’. This experience made him ‘very keen that all roles should give an actor something to do’. He was particularly concerned to make the brother and sister relationship, which dominates the play, believable, saying that he wrote the dialogue as he would act it. A Clear Road is also Baker’s directing debut. In directing his own work, he stresses the importance of collaboration, saying the play changed as soon it was cast. What he likes is that the ‘deliberately non-specific’ quality of the play in its setting and occasion allows people to come up with surprising interpretations. One cast member was convinced that the unspecified conflict was the Bosnian War, while assistant director, Mark Wartenberg, was sure that the play was inspired by Brecht’s Mother Courage.
Baker says his main starting point was actually the fact that the Pembroke Players are the only drama society in Cambridge with their own coffin. This prop, on a specially designed cart, ‘a technical fiend’, is the central image of the play. He describes how his play grew from the original idea of a two-hander between two siblings going to bury their father to the intrusion of the other characters and the conflict plot, prompted by the urge introduce something radically different to the family set up. He admits, ‘It’s a crowded piece for a short play’ but is keen to stress how the two plots and halves of the play parallel each other, the first exploring loyalty to one’s family, the second loyalty to a political cause.
His literary influences are harder to trace. He detects hints of the poetry of George Mackay Brown, which he was reading at the time for his dissertation, in his urge to set the play in an open space. The title, meanwhile, was stolen from a 1970s pulp-thriller, A Clear Road to Archangel, about a British spy in the Russian Revolution, which he spotted on his bookshelf as he was making his application to the ADC. Despite the somewhat arbitrary choice, he thinks that it is ‘a title that the play has grown into’, especially through the motif of the road.
The play deals unashamedly with ‘weighty’ issues, tackling death, conflict its other themes. Although the A Clear Road is concerned with ideology, Baker is reluctant to say there is a definable ‘message’. He has aimed to be even-handed, believing, ‘if you’re going to write a character who believes something fervently, you have to believe it too.’ He hopes the result is to provide ‘scope for the audience to think about these issues, whether they are having their own ideas affirmed or questioned’.
This leads on to what Baker believes is the main problem with writing in Cambridge: ‘so many writers here are worried about being labelled as pretentious’, fearing they do not know or have the right to talk about weighty subjects. Instead, he believes, they should not be afraid to venture out of their comfort-zone, as ‘a twenty year old writer doesn’t really have the right to talk about anything.’
As Baker enters the last few days of rehearsals, he is most looking forward to ‘being able to sit back and watch it as a play’ on Thursday. Having seen it as an actor, a writer and a director, this audience perspective will be another stage in the journey of A Clear Road.