Phil Ormrod: “What is it like to just see stuff you want to break?”

Writer Phil Ormrod explains how animated sitcom Family Guy inspired his new play, Isaac Came Home From The Mountain.

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Isaac Came Home From The Mountain is the story of a boy’s search for self-respect, when everyone around him tells him he’s worthless,” writes Phil Ormrod. “It’s about the mix of satisfaction and soul-crushing boredom that can come with a manual job. And the ways men incubate each other’s violence. And it’s about a particular face of England, though it never mentions the place by name.

“It began back in 2014, when I saw this Family Guy cutaway scene.

“To tell the truth, the story of the Binding Of Isaac had been lurking in my mind anyway. This just happened to drag it into view. I’m obsessed with father/son narratives. More broadly, with the idea of someone ready to be sacrificed to someone else’s ideals only for those ideals to dissolve at the critical moment. It feels like there’s something crucial in there about the ways we wound each other as parents and children. Not that you see that in Genesis, which is what the Family Guy gag plays on: how anyone felt afterwards is irrelevant; they just all (be)get on with it.

“More broadly, I’d been thinking about a bunch of lads I grew up with in Northamptonshire, playing rugby and doing crap jobs. Packing horse food in a draughty barn was a particular highlight. There was a night we were all drunk and kicking around behind a pub we’d failed to get into. Someone’s cousin was there, who was normally this shifty, quiet fella. The booze had cleared away whatever usually walled him in, and he was sounding off.

“He was trying to impress everyone, I think. How his dad had been in the National Front, how he didn’t respect anything except strength, etc. Being 17, I didn’t really know what to say or how to say it – apart from, ‘Don’t be a dick’, which wasn’t that productive – but his intensity was pretty disturbing. Later, I thought, ‘What is it like to look around and just see stuff you want to break?’

“Then I saw Ivo Van Hove’s A View From The Bridge at the Young Vic and thought, ‘Wow, I really want to write a tragedy.’ Something that driven and direct and precise. And the ideas started to fuse, as ideas sometimes do.

“There are a lot of plays you could write about all this. Isaac has tried to be at least three. Writing it has been a long process of trying to figure out what matters and what’s true.  Whole characters and acts and endings have fallen by the wayside. That process intensified once Carla [Kingham, the director] was involved, and in many ways became much easier. It’s easier to make brave choices when there’s someone you can trust to tell the baby from the bathwater.

“We’ve been left with some fundamental questions about responsibility: what it means to inherit someone else’s problems, and where to draw the line between the mistakes we make ourselves and those that others make for us.

“Anyway, now that the play’s finally happening, there’s a whole other process of letting go – for me, at least. I spent the first week in the rehearsal room, but now it’s time to get out of the way.

“It seems peculiar to spend three years of your life tending to something, privately, wondering whether anyone else might ever be interested in it, and then, when it turns out that they are, to spend the final days of its gestation elsewhere, wondering. Having mostly been a director, I’m used to spending this time working too hard to think. It feels like a luxury, just to stop and reflect – and feel the distant rumblings, as all that thought and feeling comes to life.”

Isaac Came Home From The Mountain, by Phil Ormrod, runs at Theatre 503 until 2 June.