There is a good reason that most Fringe shows wait until a person’s life is over before telling their story. Just like history, biography requires a look back on an entire life or career to construct a narrative.
In this context, writing a play about Boris Johnson is like trying to hit a bullseye on a moving target (though admittedly a large and bumbling one). With the benefits of tackling an unpredictable current personality come the risks that the story could change at any moment. Though I accepted this as an occupational hazard when I began work last year on Boris: World King, I was nevertheless a little surprised when history recently decided to speed up, and Boris went from Brexit underdog, to unexpected victor, to Cameron assassin, to PM apparent, to assassination victim, to Foreign Secretary – all in under three weeks.
Playwrights usually spend years constructing a play – which must be fixed at least a month before opening night – and therefore can only hope to reflect general trends in society. The japes of Boris seem to have gifted me a potentially unique opportunity to have a piece of theatre react to something very current.
But unlike stand-up comedian Bridget Christie, I will not be throwing out my entire show and starting again from scratch. My approach is to attempt a dynamic script – with sections I’ve spent the last two years on, sections I’ve spent the last two weeks on, those that won’t be confirmed until the start of rehearsals, and even lines that can be written on the day of the show. Ultimately, I must rely on two actors with good improvisational skills to essentially write lines in the moment of performance. A good deal of the play’s story occurs in the immediate present, so with things going the way they are, up-to-the-second changes may be required.
The basic story has had a few chapters added this last month and some entirely new material is needed. My latest version (hopefully my last) sees Boris, unhappy with his consolation prize as Foreign Secretary, visiting Edinburgh to springboard a new entertainment career.
But there is also a question of tone: Boris has always inspired strong feelings, but his responsibility for taking us out of the EU released a new anger. Can an audience still bring themselves to laugh at a clownish interpretation of a man, if they feel he has actually destroyed their country (and for seemingly mercenary reasons)? Worse still, might our audience now consist solely of Tory Brexiteers and change the show into a bizarre pro-Boris rally? Much as the show has to be robust to current events, I am attempting to create one that is flexible to vastly differing political opinions.
A slightly unexpected consequence of Brexit was simply the explosion in commentary and comedy about Boris himself. Everyone now has a cutting take on Boris or a good joke, the best of which have been shared on Twitter. These are now the story, the image and the context of Boris – as much as anything he’s done himself. My audience will be more clued-up than a year ago, not to mention having heard almost every Boris joke there is going. The show has to find a way to cut through that and present a still original and compelling story.
Although not the result I wanted, Brexit has presented a huge challenge and an unique opportunity for my play as well as, hopefully, a captive audience. After all, with the disastrous effect on sterling, the people of Scotland will hardly be holidaying abroad this August.
l Boris: World King is at the Pleasance Dome, Edinburgh, from 3-29 August