The 2009 children’s film Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs was a zany, fun and fairly trivial animation. So how did it inspire a theatre project attempting to take stock of masculinity in 21st Century England?
Along with his Spray-On Shoes and Hair-Un-Balder, the Monkey Thought Translator was one of madcap inventor Flint Lockwood’s greatest creations.
As well as letting the film’s characters hear what Steve the monkey was thinking, the contraption was put on the head of Flint’s emotionally inarticulate dad to allow his son to hear his inner thoughts.
“This invention gets put on this man and he spoke beautifully and honestly about his son,” recalls theatre director Scott Graham. “It’s a great little film.”
That scene inspired Graham to embark on his own project asking men to talk honestly about their dads, and dads to talk about their sons, in the hope of getting an insight into the state of fatherhood and masculinity.
Graham, who is the artistic director of the Frantic Assembly theatre company, enlisted award-winning playwright Simon Stephens and Underworld musician Karl Hyde.
Together, the trio tried to tap into the often-unspoken emotions that lie beneath blokeish bonhomie. The resulting interviews have been turned into a theatre show, Fatherland, for the Manchester International Festival, which opens on Thursday.
The three men decided to go back to their home towns to conduct the interviews. Stephens is from Stockport, Greater Manchester, Hyde is from near Kettering in Worcestershire and Graham is from Corby, Northamptonshire.
They interviewed their own dads, old school friends and strangers – but had to find a way to drill beneath the usual surface small talk.
This is how Stephens describes an average conversation: “I was talking to a really dear friend of mine and there’s so much I want to say to him and end up saying nothing, ‘All right mate, how’s it going? What you up to? Nice one. See you later’. And all those questions sit on this volcano of feeling.”
The best way to get men to open up was to make their interviews feel artificial and staged, they decided. Not just everyday chats. So their interviewees wore headphones, plugged into recording equipment. Their own Monkey Thought Translator.
Stephens has written about father-son relationships in plays like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, On the Shore of the Wide World and Herons. His own dad died at the age of 59.
He says “the artificiality of the situation” helped when interviewing his stepdad for Fatherland.
“I was confronting the volcano with my stepdad, talking to my stepdad about his dad’s death. My stepdad raised his biological children as a single father and [I was] talking to him about what it was like the moment his wife left him.
“I really love my stepdad but I mainly talk to him about Manchester United.
“So that artificiality was really exposing and really tender as well.”
Hyde, 60, a dance music pioneer in the 1990s and beyond, took his two collaborators to see his mum and dad.
“It was very strange to be sat there with recording equipment attached to my dad with a pair of headphones on and my two friends sat on my mum’s sofa,” he says.
“And then they ask him, after he’s been very chatty, ‘What’s your earliest memory of your father?’ And he replies, ‘I don’t want to answer that’.
“I’m sat there thinking, ‘Woah, what don’t I know after all these years? These two guys have just unearthed something that’s been lying dormant all my life and I don’t know’.”
Whatever Hyde’s father didn’t want to talk about must have been worse than some of the “real horrors” from his life that he was willing to discuss, the musician says.
Months later, back at his mum and dad’s house, another thought struck him.
“Whatever had happened, he’d protected his children from it. He’s carrying it with him to this day and he won’t let that infect his children. And I think that’s amazing.
“Those are the kind of characteristics [we found]. People who are prepared to say, ‘This is not good enough for the way we want our children and our friends and families to live, so that’s enough of that’.”
After speaking to lots of men about their upbringings, Graham was surprised to find how many were “genuine survivors of a very difficult situation”.
That’s not only true of men, of course. “That there’s so much trauma in everybody’s everyday life and the way that we challenge it and rise above it is incredibly heroic,” he says.
“I don’t think that’s purely a masculine thing. It’s constantly surprising, constantly inspiring.”
Stories from the interviews have been woven into the show, with actors portraying the men the trio met. Snippets of speech are also used in the music, composed by Hyde and Matthew Herbert.
But Hyde, Stephens and Graham didn’t just interview other people – they also interviewed each other. So they too are played by actors on stage.
What did they learn about men and themselves during their interviews?
Stephens says: “In drama, characters don’t learn anything new – rather a truth which they’ve known for a long time is revealed and articulated.”
Referring to himself, Stephens adds: “I think [I learned about] my relationship with my dad’s drinking. The extent to which I write out of fear that I might become an alcoholic.
“The extent to which I write out of fear that I might die before I’m 60. The extent to which I am unapologetically a middle class man from a suburb. I could go on.”
‘A celebration of England’
What started as a journey to the heart of England has become a somewhat unsettling step into their own emotional hinterlands.
Stephens later says they did build up a bigger picture of the nation too.
He says that through the men they interviewed, they found a country that’s “capable of bravery and kindness and compassion and defiance”, and says that’s been proven by the reactions to recent tragic events in London and Manchester.
“Weirdly, it’s become a celebration of how good this country can be,” he says of the show.
“It’s been difficult to be English and to talk about how good the English have been until the last two months and then all of a sudden, with the events up the road [Manchester Arena] and London Bridge and Westminster and then Grenfell and Finsbury Park, actually the English are great.
“And I don’t mean in a nationalistic way. I mean there is a dignity and a brilliance to the English that is really beautiful. That’s what I found when I went on the road with these guys.”
The Monkey Thought Translator triumphs again. Perhaps every man should own one.
Fatherland is at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester from 1-22 July. The Manchester International Festival opens on Thursday 29 June.