What's with the solo?

7 April 2020

Issy Flower weighs in on the abundance of monologues on our stages and screens

From Fleabag to Bojack, Dot Cotton to Ian McKellen, the monologue is everywhere at the moment. It’s understandable – monologues allow for close insights into character and situation that is rarely found in the hustle-and-bustle of contemporary theatre and television. They allow an audience to move into the mind of a character and share with them their private thoughts and feelings, those that are perhaps only revealed through subtext in previous encounters. However, with accusations of narcissism, plagiarism, financial ulterior motives slithering in alongside the praise, do we really want a theatre entirely populated by them?

Admittedly, the monologue provides, and has provided, an attractive prospect for writers looking to flex their muscles by fully inhabiting a character, and for theatres looking to appear supportive of this. Despite the mass of resources the National Theatre possesses, they still chose to put on a one-man show, Death of England, reflecting their commitment to top quality acting and writing as well as spectacle which recent shows, such as The Ocean at the End of the Lane, have demonstrated. Death of England allowed the audience to get inside the mind of a man who feels disenfranchised in his own country, a thrilling move when the Brexit divide has chucked these issues to the top of the mile, and so the monologue allowed the theatre to explore themes and values that can be lost in an increasingly digital and technical theatrical world, even if that means using some of the theatre’s fund in something that might lose money.

However, there’s a thin line between this and just putting on a vanity exercise. Ian McKellen’s recent tour combined interviews and anecdotes with speeches ripped from their original contexts and used as trophies. Surely it’s enough for McKellen to demonstrate a lifetime of theatrical skill without presenting tired-out monologues to an audience that’s more hungry for stories about Peter Jackson than Henry VIII. Shakespeare wrote monologues for a reason: to connect his characters with the audience and reveal their inner workings. The reason was not a victory lap around regional theatres, no matter how laudable that aim might be. 

Similarly, the preponderance of female-led monologues seems to be a blessing and a curse. This can be attributed to the incredible success of shows such as Chewing Gum and Fleabag, which started as short fringe pieces and catapulted their writers to stardom through the clever mix of taboo topics and recognisable situations. It’s difficult not to like the witty voices of Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Michaela Coel, who speak to young British women in a way that a lot of art has struggled to before, and watching it as a teenager I really connected with the trials and tribulations of their lives. However, as the Royal Mile from last year's Fringe can attest, everyone seems to have jumped on the bandwagon. You cannot move in small-scale theatre for one or two-woman shows discussing periods, mid-life crises and sex stories, in a way that is meant to be shocking but can’t do anything but become wearing. Of course we want these stories to be told, without them there’d be a distinct lack of freshness and flair, but there are ways to tell them that don’t copy Phoebe Waller-Bridge. 

If you look at the sources, film, television and theatre have been delivering both epic largescale work – like the recent Marvel CGI-fests – and monologue shows, for decades upon decades. Shakespeare was attempting to deliver battle-based spectacle in the 1590s, and BBC and ITV were producing weekly plays and serials at the same time they were importing The Incredible Hulk. The sudden jump in monologue based shows receiving awards is only an indication of the current trends. These shows have always been here, have always been well written and acted, and their visibility is only due to fad.

The real question is whether we really want this fad to continue. True, we have gained some incredible pieces of television, film and theatre from it—but what we’ve got alongside them is as a dull market saturated with monologues all saying the same thing or drenched in vanity, put on to lower costs or to challenge the predominance of the blockbuster. The monologue may be here to stay—but I for one would like to put it in the rubbish.

@noffmag / [email protected]

Photograph: Beatrice Debney