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Howard Colyer: Taking Flight

| Culture, Hidden London, Theatre | 15/01/2014

Howard Colyer photographed by Martin Slidel
Howard Colyer photographed by Martin Slidel

Howard Colyer is a South London based playwright who has enjoyed many stagings of his works on the London fringe and notably at the Jack Studio Theatre in Brockley. I caught up with him in advance of his series of Russian translations to be produced throughout the year.

First on the books is the current production of Bulgakov’s ‘Flight’ which as Howard explains benefits from “a fascinating range of characters… fleeing the Red Army… trying to survive; each scene in a different setting and, as described, a dream-like quality of some of the passages.” Does Colyer identify with the cohort? “Khludov’s marvellous: the mad general with the ghost to talk to. Khludov and his ghost I think make the play. The National did it with an actor… I think it’s better with the ghost conjured by the mind of the audience.” Indeed. To allow the audience to ‘play their part’ is an art in itself. Meanwhile, Howard is more than pleased with his long-running association with the Jack. “Kate Bannister and Karl Swinyard have done a very good job to produce a very good theatre.”

We move onto Gogol’s ‘Marriage’, the date set for the summer. In his introduction, Howard compares it with ‘Waiting for Godot’ in that there is “hardly any plot at all, the action develop[s] very slowly…” I wonder how he feels it may present itself. “I want the director to go and do his own thing; I need to imagine a theatre in my mind’s eye to make sure it’s playable but I don’t want to express that by any other means.” Clearly an aspect he enjoys. “Yes. There’s an advantage in layers of imagination.” What is it about a process of layering that appeals? “I think the chances of something worthwhile coming out of it are greater than if one person controls it… it’s inevitable that other people will see something in your work that you can’t.”

Of Pushkin’s ‘Boris Godunov’ Howard enthuses it’s “a grand historical play and I very much look forward to seeing it on stage. I’m surprised it isn’t done more frequently. It’s mostly staged as an opera which I’ve not seen but I think the play is very strong. I’ve produced a short version, about seventy-five minutes. It’s a revolutionary time in Russian history but it could be given a contemporary setting, I think that would work well.” As Howard writes, “With little more than a change of costume the play could be about the Middle East today – and many other places too.”

Howard also pens novels and short stories. ‘Oldshaw’ is an unusual, continual, narrative; a single paragraph of over 200 pages; an introspective account of remnant relationships with absent wife and daughter. “The style is supposed to suggest the character of the narrator. It’s best at one sitting. It’s not a book for leaving. One adverse comment is there’s nowhere to put the bookmark.” ‘Oldshaw’ tells of a “long history of misunderstandings and acrimony” that underpin the tone of the tome. It’s an uneasy but enticing read for which I struggle to find comparisons. Howard refers to Thomas Bernard and Camus. He insists that his approach is analytical, and further references Kafka, though Colyer’s output is decidedly real-world: “None of my characters transform into insects. So far.”


Howard writes in longhand and I recognise the correlation between this and the expressive scribing of his hand-drawn book-covers. “I’ve now found that I enjoy drawing greatly and I do it most days. I’ve moved on to portraits but the main impulse is to provide the covers [for the books] more than anything else.” The image for ‘Oldshaw’ appears as a shadow-puppet, and I’m interested to know how he achieved the effect. “That’s done in charcoal, then I photographed it, put it into a laptop, manipulated the colours, and published it” – more of those aforementioned “layers of imagination”.

The book I ‘enjoyed’ most of Howard’s was the fictional misery-memoir ‘Gregory Gun’. Again, it could hardly be described as uplifting but nevertheless spends torrents of empathy from its lonesome protagonist. When the safe margins of Gregory’s world collapse, he finds himself incapable of reconfiguring his life. “He’s gone down with the ship, hasn’t he?” Howard muses. I mention that I can visualise it on film, and Howard responds “Black-and-white and silent?” But it’s not how I imagined this contemporary piece. Colyer’s oeuvre obsesses on the internalisations of socio-political structures, the city a wider lens, ‘Gregory Gun’ like ‘Oldshaw’ redolent of the isolation of urban living. Less an exercise in character-building than complete psychological dissection.

It brings to close an intriguing hour – an education. I ask Howard if he’s ever considered addressing his interests as a critical essay or Blog but he says that “I can’t imagine many people would be interested… in a way it comes out in some of the fiction.” Who are writers anyway if not scripting their own character in the play of life.

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