Brian Woolland discusses DOUBLE TONGUE with Roshni Mooneeram
RM: Tell me about why and how you came to write this play situated in the Hungarian town of Szeged and which brings together an American researcher, an English art dealer, a Hungarian language teacher...
BW: When an earlier play of mine, Getting Over You, was performed in London (at the Etcetera Theatre), it was seen by a Hungarian director, who subsequently contacted me to ask if she could work on the play with students at the University in Szeged. I was delighted; and she subsequently invited me to Szeged, where I worked on the play with the student cast - and later went back to see the play in performance. The play is about an English rock star who goes into reclusive retirement in the early 1970s; but has never come to terms with the reasons for his reclusiveness.
The play moves about in time - shifting between the late 1960s / early 1970s and the present day. I wanted to revisit the 60s and 70s and see these years beyond the commodification of a particular lifestyle. People tend to dismiss that period as a rather empty-headed ‘revolt’. Whilst not in any way wanting to reclaim or recuperate the more vacuous excesses of the period, I wanted to focus on the fact that it was a time when many people were seriously reviewing ideas about family and society, about individualism and social cohesion. I was intrigued by the fact that a play that seemed to me to so very English (the modern day scenes are all set in a grand house on the banks of the Thames) could be relevant to a Hungarian audience, let alone as successful as it was.
I realised that the appeal of the play to the Hungarian cast and audience was the questioning of identity in a time of immense social change. As I subsequently went back to teach at the University in Szeged on many occasions, I became fascinated by the changes taking place in Hungary in the 1990s; and some of the scenes of DOUBLE TONGUE were triggered by specific experiences from times that I spent in Hungary, in particular, the scene in the Fish Restaurant.
RM: It seems that through people's attitudes to food, so much is revealed about Western and Eastern European attitudes towards being Hungarian.
BW: Yes, James, the English art dealer is clearly dismissive and exploitative. Anna, the Hungarian adopts a self-deprecatory voice, almost parodying herself - perhaps in defence against James. Milan does not say a word, he gives nothing away. The different characters’ attitudes are postures. I did not, however, in any way mean the play to be a social documentary but rather an exploration of identity in the broadest sense.
RM: Sexual identity seems central to DOUBLE TONGUE. One of the most exciting aspects of the play is the sense that sexuality is nothing if not fluid. At least two of the characters, James and Robert are, or seem to be, bisexual; and B. is a male prostitute. Questions are left unanswered and you leave us, as an audience, with no certainties.
BW: That’s right. I wanted to portray sexuality as being fluid, as you put it, rather than a definite state. It’s unstable; and when the characters seems convinced of the stability of their sexuality, they are shocked by their own responses to the unexpected.
RM: There is a very strong sense that none of the characters is confident of their sexuality.
BW: They all display varying levels of sexual anxiety. James does not simply come across as bisexual, but, more importantly, is genuinely surprised by the intensity of his attraction for B, the black male prostitute; he’s caught out by his own passion. Certainly, James had played around before, he’s been to the seediest of places in Budapest; but this relationship with B. is different - and he doesn’t know why. He is attracted to the exotic which is why he ends up in the night-club where B works. But he does not expect to be entangled in such a dangerous roller coaster of emotions. Robert, the PhD student, is ambiguous. He is Anna’s lover but he also gives out a lot of signs of being gay. Robert is frightened by his own attitudes, particularly by his own attraction for Milan. I wanted to explore sexuality as something that catches the characters out when they are drawn towards those they should not be attracted to. This sexual instability, which overturns the very foundations of what you think of as your sense of self, is one of the most frightening elements of the play.
RM: But it is also very exciting.
BW: I hope so! It’s complex. I did not want to judge any of the characters, although certainly, I’d judge some of their actions. I think, for example, that Robert’s naïveté, his apparent innocence, is irresponsible - which ties in very closely with his refusal to face up to his ambiguous sexuality. On the other hand, B. has a much better sense of who he is, and what he’s doing. He may be manipulative, but so is Robert. The difference is that B. knows what he is doing, whereas Robert hides behind his mask of being the innocent abroad. B. is, of course, also anxious about who he is but he knows the rules of the game. He adopts the black prostitute’s role as a posture to his advantage and is, therefore, far from being a victim. Sexuality in both cases (i.e. Robert and B.) become another posture.
RM: So are languages. I was intrigued as to how you make the different languages work for you in your previous play Away Games. In Away Games, your British character’s condescending attitudes to French and German speakers clearly reeks of cultural imperialism. In DOUBLE TONGUE, code-switching from English to Hungarian and Serbo Croat is a marked reoccurrence . What are its functions? I suspect this is partly where the title of the play comes from?
BW: The title of the play (a quotation from Midsummer Night’s Dream) certainly refers to the use of the different languages, but it also has sexual connotations and also the implication of duplicity. It’s not unlike that old cliché from Westerns - White Man speak with forked tongue. In this case, however, the use of the various different languages works in a number of ways. At its most basic, it raises the dramatic tension. When, for example, Milan speaks in Serbo-Croat, Robert doesn’t understand him; but then nor will most of the audience. And the situation becomes quite terrifying - for Robert, and for us. It becomes a way of placing the audience in specific positions in relation to the narrative. It is likely that many people will find themselves not understanding what is being said at certain parts of the play; and whilst that could be alienating, I think that in performance it enormously increases the dramatic tension. But the shifting use of language is also thematic, in that one of the things I was wanting to explore in the play is our relationship to the exotic. Robert is attracted to Anna at least partly because she is strange, she’s exciting because she’s so unlike anyone he’s known. But he doesn’t really attempt to understand her. And he’s frightened by her - not least because she is probably the most intelligent person in the play; certainly, she has by far the most assured command of languages - she’s a Hungarian who speaks fluent English and has a pretty good grip on Serbo-Croat. Language is used in numerous different ways in the play: to entice, to exclude, to seduce, to frighten....
RM: How do you think your audiences will react?
BW: I very much hope that the audience in Szeged itself will be highly responsive to this play for obvious reasons. Most of the play is set in Szeged (although there are several scenes in Budapest) and the changes taking place there written from an outsider's point of view and previously circulated elsewhere. I am also, however, self-conscious of writing about Szeged as a foreigner - a stranger in a strange land, though hopefully with more positive attitudes than Robert’s!
RM: And how do you think Milan's outspoken views about the role of Nato in the Balkans will be received?
BW: Milan’s views are shocking. They are not my views; but I think that if we are going to avoid an endless repetition of the terrible conflicts in The Balkans in recent years, then we have to try to understand those views. Milan is terrifying, but it’s important to understand why - and I think that one of the reason’s he is so terrifying is that whilst he’s obsessive and single-minded, he is also plausible. His views about America and the involvement of NATO also act as a sharp contrast to Robert’s political and cultural naïveté. These radical views are certainly intended to be thought-provoking although I am unsure about how they will go down with an English audience.
RM: The play certainly deserves to be seen by large audiences.
BW: Thank you. I guess my worry is that many people in England will be turned off by the politics; that the play is dealing with an issue people don't want to think about too much.
RM: But is that not the reason why we go to the theatre?
BW: I hope so.