Mathematician-come-funny man Mark Cantan tells Shelley Marsden about the brilliantly bizarre romantic farce he is bringing to London
Playwright Mark Cantan’s award-winning contemporary farce Jezebel is luring celebrated Irish theatre company Rough Magic to London for the first time in eight years.
A fast-paced, clever comedy which doesn’t take itself too seriously, Jezebel premiered in Dublin in 2012, before being revived the following year and touring Ireland. Its creator was subsequently awarded the prestigious Stewart Parker Trust New Playwrights Bursary for it.
It’s about Alan and Robin, a high-flying couple who find their relationship going a little stale after just six months together. So they hatch a plan to spice up their sex-life, leading them to a threesome – the fallout of which is the basis for a whole series of funny and unexpected misunderstandings and complications.
It was while studying Maths at Trinity College that Mark Cantan started writing and acting. Since then, he’s worked “in any medium that will take him”, for theatre, TV, radio, magazines, and the medium that just can’t say no: the internet. He’s currently taking part in Six in the Attic, an Irish Theatre Institute Initiative (when he’s not performing as part of comedy improv group, Goose).
Jezebel, he says, is a journey of sexual exploration but a very funny one. Mark says his play is for people who think they don’t like theatre, or at least deep, dark tragedies – generally, he finds, it’s boyfriends and husbands who are dragged along to see his show and are delighted they bothered.
The threesome idea gave him the perfect Carry On under the Bed Sheets scenario: “When you’re writing farces, you’re looking for situations which are going to get complicated, where people can be confused about each other and what everyone else’s motivation is. Taking the idea of a couple and adding a third person to it introduced a third channel of communication where people could go round in circles, lying, protecting each other, spinning yarns in order to do so.”
Did the inspiration come from personal experience? Alas, no. “I guess it was just the perfect set-up to let things get complicated”, he says. “I found a statistic on the internet (yes, I did some statistical analysis at some point). One of the characters is a statistician, so I was vaguely trying to prove to my parents that four years of maths was of use to a career in comedy and writing. So anyway, I read that 15% of people have had a threesome. Fortunately, or unfortunately, I am not one of them. “
Comedy’s a great place to tackle topics that are hard to face elsewhere – such as that of a couple that has lost all spark. Does Mark think his play could be a springboard for healthy debate – or experimentation?
“Absolutely”, he laughs. “Maybe if people are unsure they can bring their partners to see Jezebel and go oh, what a funny play, gosh, imagine if WE did something like that! They’re in Soho, the play’s over pretty early in the evening, listen, the opportunities abound, the night is yours.”
Comedies can be tricky beasts to get right, but for Mark – who mostly writes comedy – it was the only natural thing to do. The last show he wrote was another farce, but had a cast of eight (“that’s difficult to get on stage in the current economy!”), so the main focus with Jezebel was to do another farce, but with a cast of three which they could afford to tour. Tour it did, and received a swathe of four and five star reviews in his native Ireland.
Winning the Stewart Parker Bursary for Jezebel gave Mark the opportunity to start working on a new play, which he says he’s desperately trying to do, it’s just, well, not going brilliantly so far.
“Actually I’m working on half a dozen plays”, he reveals, “none of which I’ll ever get finished. But today, until I abandon it, I’m working on something about a writer who can’t write a play; though I’ve cleverly disguised it as a writer who can’t write his next novel, so nobody will ever guess it’s me. We’ll see what happens, anyway…”
Mark has written in his blog that maths is the “perfect degree for an aspiring actor and writer”. Is this purely facetious or does he believe there’s a connection between the two professions?
“Look, it’s entirely not”, he confesses. “But in a way I justify it and think it is. Maths is all about logic and finding a route to an answer. Comedy is all about illogic. People’s opinions differ, but for me, to have a good sense of logic can lead you to the illogic – there needs to be logic to the illogic, if you know what I mean.
“There needs to be a sense to what happens – even if it’s bonkers a joke needs to, in some way, make sense. There are tools you need to use in maths, and there are similar tools in comedy. I don’t know, it’s my dubious theory anyway.”
When he’s not procrastinating instead of writing plays, Mark is doing long-form improve with mates in the group Goose, but that’s not all. Apparently, he’s also about to finish work on his debut solo album, breaking away from the band he’s been in with a pal for the last few years, to be released soon on Bandcamp.
Music is a bit of a hobby for Mark based, he says, on absolutely no musical ability whatsoever. He plays guitar (“about three chords”) and The Supermarkets have never played a single gig, but have released a few albums online (form an orderly line, ladies and gents).
He says: “My friend interviewed this band The Supernaturals in college, and one of the dire questions he asked them was: ‘Next to you in the dictionary is supermarket – have you ever thought of calling yourselves The Supermarkets?’ They were not impressed. So we formed a band and called ourselves that instead.
By way of explanation (or apology?), he adds: “I get easily distracted. The theatre distracted me from maths, and now music is distracting me from theatre. That’s the kind of guy I am.”
Jezebel is at Soho Theatre, London, August 12-31. Call 020 7478 0100 or visit sohotheatre.com.