Finding ‘Callisto’: In Conversation with Playwright Hal Coase

“In London, 1680, opera star Arabella Hunt has secretly entered into the first recorded gay marriage in UK history.
In Worcester, 1936, Alan Turing pays one final visit to Isobel Morcom, mother of his lost first love, Christopher. In the San Fernando Valley, 1979, Tammy Frazer arrives at Callisto Pornographic Studios, searching for the love of her life. And on the Moon, 2223, Lorn is building a paradise to sleep in, but his A.I. companion Cal is determined to keep him awake.”

— Blurb for ‘Callisto: a queer epic’

‘Callisto’ is something of a marriage of fate and skill. I’m about to ask Hal Coase, its singularly talented author, “of all the moons of Jupiter, why Callisto?” when he tells me an origin story. What I have assumed up until this point is a convenient theatrical contrivance (that all the stories in the play are bound by fate and fortune to the word ‘Callisto’), is actually rooted in something wonderfully true.

“Looking back on it, the way it all fell into place it was remarkable fucking coincidence.” he tells me. The play is centred around the word ‘Callisto’, a thread that spans 600 years and intertwines the four queer narratives, lending its name to a 1680’s opera house and 1970’s porn studio, as well as a moon of Jupiter, and a sarcastic robot. He explains that the narrative does follow the word Callisto in an associative way, but the real eureka moment came while researching separate Queer British histories. He came across a piece of correspondence between Alan Turing and his lost love, Christopher Morcom, where Callisto was there mentioned (although not by name) as the fourth moon of Jupiter, and discovered during separate research, that as chance would have it, Arabella Hunt (one half of the first recorded same-sex marriage) was in an italian opera by Cavalli called Callisto, around the time that she entered into that marriage. It would seem that providence lent a helping hand to his queer epic.

I ask him how long ‘Callisto’ had been in the works before its 2016 Edinburgh Fringe debut. “It took a really long time, is the answer, and actually it went through a few different phases.” ‘Callisto’ didn’t start off necessarily as a queer proposition, which Hal admits, seems ‘absurd’ to him now. What began as a series of monologues with overlapping voices, had been shelved for a year as far back as 2014, and only really gained traction once again after a conversation with Forward Arena’s Thomas Bailey and Emma D’Arcy (director and artistic director respectively).

Francesca Zoutewelle (Tammy)| Lidia Crisafulli

“I was looking through these drawers that I have in my room…and there were [notes from around 2013] in there about a character called ‘Cal’ who was a robot…back then [part of] a series of monologues, [four interlocking voices], possibly actually just to be performed by one person.” But he had a degree to complete and life got in the way and so he left it. [When Tom and Emma asked what I was working on], I panicked that I didn’t have anything, so me then narrating to them this idea of Callisto was like a sort of attempt to find something to cover up that sense of inadequacy,” he laughs.

When he told them about the monologues they were convinced it should be a play, and the rest is history. ‘Callisto’ was born. I first fell in love with the play in its first iteration at the fringe, and I ask him to explain to me what’s changed about it in the 17 months since then. There have been inevitable recasts due to schedules and availability, but from the hour of rehearsal I saw, the show isn’t thin on chemistry. Jonny Purkiss makes a formidable and incredibly natural Lorn, in turn weary, callous, obsessive and yet tender, and he clicked effortlessly with Nick Finnerty’s pitch perfect Cal. He says the plot remains unchanged, but structural rearrangement to avoid a loss of momentum that comes from weaving and eventually tying up four disparate and yet simultaneous storylines in the space of a play. “We’ve shifted one of the storylines almost entirely into the first half, so there’s now something a bit more imbalanced and peculiar, less orderly about the arrangement in that one of the storylines basically exists all for but one seen in the second half, and one of the storylines operates all but for one scene in the first half and then two [storylines] kind of bridge it and hopefully it will make the ending feel less like a sort of deceleration, and also make it less predictable in how its progressing between the four different places and times.”

Conversation strays and I suggest that I think that at its heart ‘Callisto’ is a play about how intimacies phase in and out, how they are they are born and how they die— He tells me he likes the idea that what one might take away from the play is this waxing and waning of intimacies. “If I were approaching it now [I’d have gone] further— a lot of the desire in the piece is within the realms of some sort of normativity, in that its pitched at one object, that can fulfill or satisfy the person wanting, and i think that maybe what’s interesting about it is still the way in which those encounters work, and how people encounter each other.”

Georgia Bruce (Amy & Melissa) and Marilyn Nadebe (Arabella)| Lidia Crisafulli

He suggests that he’s not sure if it’s bold enough. I suggest that time and proximity have rendered him hypercritical of what I believe is a beautiful narrative demonstrative of a great deal of clarity and skill. “What I would want this show to be more about” he says, “[is that] these are four random examples of different relationships, and part of a a pattern, and they all link to others beyond them, and they all link to others beyond them…and it just so happens that these four have been plucked out and put together on this stage…”

“[I’m worried] that it’s not sufficiently opened to the idea of randomness,” he muses. “I see it as a closed loop because i’ve been over it so many times.” he adds. When i suggest that the placement of individual stars in a constellation are random, but the way we perceive their connectedness is the contrivance, he seems to come around a bit more.

Darren Siah (Alan/Blake/Dryden) | Jonny Purkiss (Lorn/Richard/Killigrew) | Lidia-Crisafulli

Towards the end of our conversation I ask Hal if he’d describe ‘Callisto’ as a love story or a story about love.

“The latter…” he says. To suggest the former, that the whole play is a love story, he explains, is to advance that each of the four different narratives necessarily prescribes that each is what a love story looks like. He tells me that the bits of the play that he still finds the most surprising still and brimming with potential, are those that unravel a single notion of love and desire: Scenes that are almost “aggressively at odds with each other”— the juxtaposition of the manufactured desire of a 70’s porno audition, with the formalized speech between Isabel Morcom and Turing, about a memorial window through which they view Callisto and yearn for a lost love.

The mastery of Coase’s storytelling comes from his preternatural (and largely downplayed) ability to constellate floating voices through, and indeed across, time and space. In Coase’s “closed loop” he achieves something quite special— he makes infinity delicate and intimate enough to hold in your hand for an evening.

‘Callisto: a queer epic’ runs from the 5th to the 23rd of December at the Arcola Theatre. You can purchase tickets and find out more here.