No-one wants to hear anything more from older, white males. That seems to be a given in some quarters. Especially not older, white males talking about the difficulties of being older, white males. Yawn-a-rama. Change the vinyl revival record, grandad. We don’t spend all day calling out Centrist Dads on Twitter only for them to continue to talk and have opinions.
That being the case, has genial, moderate-of-manner Ross Ericson created the most controversial, misguided theatrical piece of Fringe 2018?
“I don’t think I’ve felt so apprehensive about a piece in my entire life… I’ve either come up with a brilliant idea, or I’ve really fucked myself.”
Ericson’s new play, The Straw Man, draws from the Book of Job to tell the story of a middle-aged man who’s had the rug pulled from under him, a man who simply doesn’t know what’s what any more. The Book of Job, for the non-Bible scholars amongst you, sees God, after a wee tete-a-tete with Satan, take all that’s good from Job as a test of his piety. “The Lord has given, and the Lord has taken away,” so it goes. It’s definitely a step away from Ericson’s previous historical work which includes his Fringe perennial, the brilliant and relatively uncontroversial WWI play, The Unknown Soldier.
“It’s about a man who has reached the end of his tether,” Ericson explains of The Straw Man. “There’s a lot of blokes of my generation, Generation X, that are starting to feel ‘what the bloody hell is going on?’ Back in my youth, we fought against apartheid and nuclear war, and everything seemed to be getting better, then it got worse, and now it’s gone a bit mental. It’s a bit of a strange world. I wanted to put a man on stage who’s the modern joe. It’s not looking good for his life, and he wants to explore where it went wrong… where we went wrong.”
That man, played by Ericson himself, is an entertainer, one who grew up on punk and indie and rave and fought the good fight in the days of Thatcher and the Cold War. Now things have, shall we say, taken a turn…
“He’s had a public meltdown on a television programme and he’s run away and hidden in a hotel room. The police are knocking at the door. He’s been on one of these panel shows and the conversation started going in different directions. Instead of keeping his gob shut, he’s started arguing and it’s blown up. It’s got to the point where he can’t keep his mouth shut any more.”
And there’s some sort of social media backlash against him?
“Isn’t there always?”
So far so reactionary, or so it might seem. Yet Ericson’s motivation isn’t to reinstate old certainties, but to pose questions and to probe the quickly emerging new orthodoxies. He’s well aware he and his generation don’t hold all the answers. At the same time, though, he’s not ready to throw some painfully-birthed babies out with the bathwater.
“I’ve grown up thinking this or that, and now they’re telling me what I think is wrong. Well, is it wrong? Or am I right? That’s the question you start asking yourself. Each generation must go through that. When I was young, we asked it of my parents’ generation. What they thought then was either ‘racist’ or ‘sexist’, and now we’re being told the same thing. Our generation is finding it harder to understand, because we thought we’d got through that.”
“It’s a very strange world I think, and it’s not just our age group that don’t understand it. I’ve had conversations with people who are much younger than me. They’re feeling a bit like they don’t understand either.”
Clearly, The Straw Man isn’t intended as a salvo in a generational war. Ericson is more than happy to hold Gen X’s hand up when it comes to bringing about the current state of affairs.
“The youth seem to have forgotten the past, but we really haven’t helped! What have we done, as our generation? We’ve sat there between the two. On one side you’ve got the Baby Boomers, on the other side you’ve got the Millennials, and we’re in the middle. It’s our duty to ease the next generation in, and we’ve screwed it up somehow.”
He must be aware of how the play might sit with people though, even with that mea culpa. How would he answer the obvious charge? We don’t need to hear another white man’s voice talking about how he feels. We’ve heard enough from stale white males.
“Have we? People say that all the time. ‘It’s another older white man moaning. Oh, he’s bound to say these things.’ But you ask why and you never get an answer.”
“Also, it’s not just middle-aged white men that get it. It’s anybody that challenges the perceived ideas and the new faith. You’ll just get wiped out, whatever your ethnicity, or sex. If you say the wrong word, all of a sudden you’re being attacked right, left and centre. It’s like feminists – you have younger feminists attacking older feminists going ‘you don’t know what you’re talking about, you have no idea what feminism is.’ These are the women that actually had to break through the glass ceiling, who managed to get us the Equal Pay Act! So, yeah, I’m male, heterosexual and white. I’m the devil incarnate maybe. But if I do get challenged, I hope I can come back with humour and dignity.”
Is he prepared for that backlash?
“It’s a worry! I can’t say it’s not something that concerns me. It’s probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever tried to write. You write it and you look at it and you think, ‘oh God how can someone take that and twist it around?’ I need to make sure they can’t screw with it. But if people want to have a go, they’ll have a go.”
All of which brings us to social media. It’s a feature of the play, it’s where people turn to voice their disapproval and take people to task, in theatre as much as in any other aspect of modern life. What is Ericson’s personal relationship with this modern menace/marvel?
“I do try to avoid it. After Brexit, I came off Facebook and it’s the best thing I ever did. I’m still on Twitter but I don’t post much unless I see something funny. I just follow people, even people I don’t really want to follow, and find out what they’re saying. I found my own bubble, everybody does, but Brexit opened my eyes. It’s quite interesting what you can find out there. Quite scary as well. The best thing to do is not engage with the idiots, but you have to understand what’s going on, otherwise things are happening and you don’t know why they’re happening.”
So, presuming he does escape some sort of trial by Twitterstorm with The Straw Man, what are his hopes for the piece?
“Theatre’s become very one-sided and very boring. We try to think of an audience and try to challenge our audiences, even with the more mundane things we do. We do our best to develop some sort of feeling they can leave with after we’re done. ‘OK, that made me think’ or ‘not sure what I feel about that’ or even if they just hate it, I’ve affected them in some way.”
And does it end OK for our protagonist? Does he figure it all out?
“It’s going to be one of these plays where people will end up with different endings in their head. The Straw Man doesn’t give answers, he asks questions…”
Are they the right questions to be asking at this time? Shouldn’t Ericsson stick to the history plays? In the supposedly free-thinking Fringe, it’s strange that thought should even come to people’s minds.
Ross Ericson is also in: