On Robert Holman

I am not ashamed to declare my love for Robert Holman: I wish more people would know about him.

I always knew plays could effect a drastic change in the way I look at the world. When I first read Brecht’s Mother Courage, I got angry at the injustice of the world and thought of myself as an (incessantly) oppressed being. When I read Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, I became an existentialist, and constantly wondered about my purpose on earth and my state of being.

My first Robert Holman play – Making Noise Quietly – is similarly life changing. Before Holman, when I read plays, I tried to align myself in relation to them. I thought of myself as political, as existential, or as both of them. I positioned myself against Russian Naturalism, against Surrealism, and against Dadaism. Throughout, I constantly tried to understand myself as a human being by placing myself into categories – to essentialise my lived experiences into easily understood categories. I tried to fit myself into boxes because that was the easy and orderly thing to do (perhaps that is why I prefer academia so much – because people try to understand things by putting them into boxes).

Yet, something changed when I read Making Noise Quietly. I read the play and thought, “Wow, what a great play! What well-written characters! What a fantastic way to talk about big macro issues through very small micro human stories! What a technically accomplished play! How do I describe this play? How do I categorise this play? Where does this play fit in my (extremely) limited knowledge of theatre?” I didn’t have an answer to any of the questions that surfaced. I realised that I could not actually fit Holman into a specific theatrical tradition.

Maybe that is why he is so rarely written about in academia.

The play found its way into me. I kept reflecting about it. I kept trying to understand why I was so blown away by it. Cliché to say, it was in me, all the time, making noise quietly. I could not stop thinking about it.

I finally discovered why the play left such an impression. I realised that I have been trying to understand Holman by pigeonholing him into something specific, very much symptomatic of my bigger (flawed) aim to understand the world through obsessive compartmentalisation. I realised how wrong I had been my entire life; it should never have been the case. I should have never tried to explain myself through categories.

The characters in Making Noise Quietly try to be better human beings. They fail and they succeed. And they are never judged. A lot of critics of Robert Holman do not like him because they are unable to easily describe him. He has also received a lot of flak for his plays, particularly about the talking monkey in Other Worlds (I mean, come one, how can anyone not love a talking monkey?!), because they’re too “oblique”. But, to judge Holman is to do what Holman is trying to not do. To typify him is again to do what Holman tries to not do.

Making Noise Quietly made me realise that it might perhaps be more helpful to understand the world as life itself, as a series of relationships. My place in the world is always in relation to someone else’s. I may not understand or agree with their viewpoint but I will not judge. I will not hate because someone disagrees with me. They are, after all, also trying to place themselves somewhere. Holman made me understand that – sometimes – things do not have to be in boxes; life does not have to be packed up neatly. Sometimes, things are just messy, and it is meant to be messy.

After Making Noise Quietly, I began to track his work down and read them ferociously. Each play made me more certain of this hypothesis. Each play made me more acutely aware of my relational connection with everything around me. Holman has an incredible ability to make the smallest things significant without making them overt/in-yer-face. The eggs in Across Oka are so small, so simple, and so everyday. The tree that gets uprooted in Rafts and Dreams, likewise, is so mundane and so unimportant. Yet, we get completely invested in them. We care about them. We understand their significance in relation to the lives of the characters. We understand our significance in turn.

Holman’s plays burn and burn and burn. They never explode – just like us. Our lives burn. We don’t explode. Things happen to us and we get angry. Things happen to us and we get sad. Things happen to us and we get happy. Yet, at the end of the day, life goes on, and we try to understand ourselves better. Even when a thousand stars in the sky explode, our lives still burn. At the end of the day, like Holman’s plays, we are left simultaneously hopeful and hopeless. More hopeful than hopeless. Because we are all always trying to be better human beings. What kind of human beings? I don’t know. But we find the courage to try.

We find to courage to try because we love.

What love? Don’t know. Neither does Holman. But he observes them so beautifully with astute accuracy. The love between Penrose and Francis in A Breakfast of Eels – his latest play at the Print Room – is romantic, is brotherly, is parental, is friendly, and is sexual; it is everything and nothing. To try and explain or essentialise is to go against what I have just suggested. Holman brilliantly verbalises it through Penrose: ‘To love. To be loved. Difficult things.’

He’s dull? No, he’s life.


A Breakfast of Eels is at the Print Room until 11 April 2015.


About maohui

MaoHui Deng is currently a PhD student at the University of Manchester. His research is interested in the ways in which films about dementia can help further and/or complicate our understanding of time in cinema, gerontology and the wider society. His research interests include time and temporality; the representation of age on screen; childhood and cinema; memory; and the films of Federico Fellini. He is the postgraduate rep for the British Association of Film, Television and Screen Studies. He wants to become a lecturer, hopefully. You can contact Mao at maohui.deng@postgrad.manchester.ac.uk You can follow him on Twitter at @dengmaohui.
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