I LOVE this play. Really, really love it. Michael Gow’s Toy Symphony is highly theatrical, incredibly clever and very funny. It’s a joy to read on so many levels and, as a writer, I feel indebted to Gow for putting so much of himself on the page.
Toy Symphony is about a playwright called Roland Henning (the same character as the protagonist in Furious), who can no longer manage to write but refuses to call what he’s suffering from ‘writer’s block’.
ROLAND: And I mean writer’s … thing, I mean it’s such a meaningless term anyway, a Hollywood fiction, a monumental cliche and if that’s how you’re going to, if you think that’s how you’re going to whatever it is you intend doing or attempting, by removing this … block, as if, as if there’s this river, that comes bubbling up from the deep, way down in the Permian layers, thrusting up through the ancient strata, forced up by the internal forces, pressures, and it spills out, it bursts out into the dazzling light on the slopes of some painfully clear, bright mountainside and runs down this upper slope, this high country all clean and clear and sparkling like a Norsca ad, pure inspiration running over stones, through rapids, until it reaches the tree line.
This amazing sentence is the start of a two-page monologue that is as hilarious as it is desperate. When I’m reading plays for this project, I put slips of paper in as bookmarks to remind me of quotes I might like to use in my write up. Toy Symphony is bristling with scraps of paper. I had to restrain myself from marking every page.
As Roland discusses events with his therapist Nina, the past comes alive in gloriously intense scenes. You see, when Roland was young he had a gift: he could make people appear.
ROLAND: Once, when I was young, I’d have been able to show you.
NINA: Show me?
ROLAND: You’d have been there. No, they’d have been here.
NINA: You can describe things very –
ROLAND: No no, it’s got nothing to do with ‘in your mind’s eye’, no. They’d have been here. Actually been here.
When Roland thinks of Alexander the Great, he appears, bursting into the classroom before the startled class. Fortunately for Roland, he has a wonderful teacher who resists the doctor’s instructions to ban the apparitions.
MRS WALKHAM: In my bag here I have a notebook and pencil. Perhaps, if you can whenever you feel they want to come, your special visitors, you could write it down. Here. Try to use the pencil and paper to empty your mind.
The first act of Toy Symphony leaps backwards and forwards in time and is shaped around Roland’s visits to the therapist. It’s a bit of a shock when she is out of the play by interval, but this frees the second act to work chronologically as Roland tries to manage alone. The flashbacks to the past are gone, replaced with a potential romantic encounter with an acting student and a slide back into the drug use he was trying to end in the first act.
Having recently read Sweet Phoebe, I was fascinated by the references to the writing of that play and to the civil action that resulted from it.
ROLAND: She was hoping, this is what I think, she was hoping that my play would somehow redeem, or or transfigure the experience she had. But my play didn’t exactly follow her story […] No redemption. And that is very difficult for her, she feels betrayed. She must. Betrayed, hurt, angry. And her feelings, those feelings … I think she wants to punish. Me.
Roland’s lawyer gets him to go through every draft of his play (which we recognise as being Sweet Phoebe), line by line and word by word, to check that he didn’t unwittingly copy any ‘distinctive linguistic patterns’ from the woman whose story it was based on. This process kills his creativity.
ROLAND: It’s like, I’m wandering through my own brain with a smoking torch, scorching everything I’m looking at.
Having to analyse his work so closely made him intensely self-conscious about it and paralysed his creative impulses.
ROLAND: […] what I need is lack of clarity. I need, darkness. Obscurity. I want the light turned off, not up.
Fortunately, life, death and the promise of love bring the magic back to Roland’s life.
Publisher: Currency Press
Cast: 3M, 2F (with lots of doubling)