The 2009 children’s cinema Cloudy with a Opportunity of Meatballs was a zany and fun animation. So how did it inspire a theatre project attempting to take stock of masculinity in 21 st 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 reasoning, the contraption was put on the head of Flint’s emotionally inarticulate papas to allow his son to hear his inner thoughts.
“This invention get put on this man and he spoke beautifully and candidly 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 frankly about their daddies, and dads to talk about their sons, in the hope of get an insight into the nation 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 demonstrate, Fatherland, for the Manchester International Festival, which opens on Thursday.
The three men decided to go back to their home townships to conduct the interviews. Stephens is from Stockport, Greater Manchester, Hyde is from near Kidderminster in Worcestershire and Graham is from Corby, Northamptonshire.
They interviewed their own fathers, 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 dialogue: “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 running? 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 merely 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 father succumbed at the age of 59.
He says “the artificiality of the situation” helped when interviewing his stepdad for Fatherland.
“I was to address the volcano with my stepdad, talking to my stepdad about his dad’s demise. My stepdad raised his biological children as a single parent and[ I was] talking to him about what it was like the moment his wife left him.
“I really love my stepdad but I chiefly talk to him about Manchester United.
“So that artificiality was genuinely uncovering and truly tender as well.”
Hyde, 60, a dance music pioneer in the 1990 s and beyond, took his two collaborators to ensure 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 is still very chatty, ‘What’s your earliest memory of your father? ‘ And he replies, ‘I don’t want to answer that’.
“I’m sat there guessing, ‘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 their own lives that he was willing to discuss, the musician says.
Months afterward, back at his mum and dad’s house, another thought hit 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 procured ]. People who are prepared to say, ‘This is not good enough for the route we want our children and our friends and families to live, so that’s enough of that’.”
Manchester International Festival on the BBC Image caption