31 August 2011 

Chris Hannan has written several plays, including the award-winning Shining Souls. His 1990 play The Evil Doers was produced by the Bush Theatre in London and won numerous prizes including a Time Out Award, and in 2001/2 he was the Judith E. Wilson Visiting Fellow in Drama at the University of Cambridge. In this post he explains how he came to write The God of Soho. 

When the Artistic Director of Shakespeare’s Globe Dominic Dromgoole asked me to write a new play for his wonderful theatre I spent a couple of years finding polite ways to say no.

It seemed too odd to put contemporary characters in contemporary clothes onto an authentic reproduction of an Elizabethan stage. Wouldn’t it just look like some ropy time travel story?

Clearly, this was a space that called for big characters and big emotions and I began to sketch out the idea for The God of Soho, setting the story in a celebrity world where my celebrity couple fought each other in the front pages of the tabloids, hoovered up cocaine in celebrity nightspots and rocked up to the funerals of celebrity friends in dark sunglasses.

Kings, Celebrities and Gods

Where the Elizabethans had put kings and courtiers on stage I thought I would put their contemporary equivalents – stars and their publicists. The inherent theatricality of the celebrity world – the constant performing in public – had an irresistible attraction. And of course celebrity is now the core of our culture and economy so it seemed an ideal topic for such a public space.

Celebrities could not have become the gods and goddesses of our mags and the staple of our news and gossip unless they answered some core need in all of us and The God of Soho is about what that is. It’s about what we worship and do we even know.

How the Globe space works 

I kept going to see shows at the Globe to learn about the space and how it works. And whether it was The Merry Wives of Windsor or Henry IV, I was struck by the magical relationship which exists between the actor and the audience – a frankness, an ease, an equality. Time and again it is a relationship which throws up unrepeatable moments of ‘liveness’.

It happened again during a recent performance of The Mysteries. They were telling the story of the Crucifixion – the episode where Judas repents of his betrayal and returns the blood money to Pontius Pilate.

In the Globe production the thirty pieces of silver is thirty pence and the actor playing Pontius Pilate – Matthew Pidgeon – joked amenably with the audience that he didn’t need thirty pence and would be happy to give it to a groundling. But when he placed the coins under the nose of a woman leaning on the front stage she viscerally recoiled, wanting nothing to do with the money or the betrayal.

The actor almost rocked back in amazement and for me – looking on – the two of them created a moment that was deeply touching because I felt the emotional power of the story and understood that it mattered.

Driven by an inner urgency 

Other playwrights will see it differently but to me but the Globe stage requires a big nonrealistic story that has scale. It is not interested in minor details; it gobbles up narrative at considerable speed and you have to keep feeding it more. It wants movement, sweep. Because there is no stage lighting you cannot get actors on and off in blackout, they need to be driven by some inner urgency

I enjoyed that. The God of Soho starts out in a Heaven which is losing its sense of reality, plunges into a fetishistic Soho and heads out to celebrity Essex. The characters are gods and homeless people and rock stars; and the stage allows those disparate worlds to co-exist because the characters are motored by the same story and the same needs. There can be realistic elements, yes, but only so long as they don’t distract from the sense of storyness.

This article by Chris Hannan also appears at Nick Hern Books who have published the script.Sections of the article first appeared in The Independent (18th August 2011).