LONDON — When Joe Penhall wrote “Mood Music,” he had no idea it would be so topical.
The Olivier Award-winning playwright wanted to consider the emotional wrangle over intellectual property in art. But in the wake of the #MeToo movement, a long-overdue examination of systemic sexism and male power in the entertainment industries has come to the fore, and it’s made the drama — about an acrimonious case of artistic differences in the music business — timelier than anyone expected.
The play, which is now in previews at the Old Vic, charts the toxic working relationship between a middle-aged male music producer and a young female singer-songwriter. Their fight over who owns a hit record spills from the studio into legal offices and psychiatrists’ couches.
There are striking similarities to Kesha’s lengthy legal battle with her former producer Dr. Luke, but “Mood Music” grew out of an abstract idea rather than a specific case.
Penhall, who wrote the screen adaptations of the novels “Enduring Love” and “The Road,” most recently created Netflix’s hit psychological crime drama “Mindhunter.” He described himself as fascinated by the complexities of artistic collaboration.
“You’re exploiting your own vulnerability to make the work,” he said recently. And since artists mine their own lives for material, working relationships are necessarily personal. “If that’s betrayed, it’s a shockingly intimate form of betrayal,” he said. “It’s like a marriage breaking down.”
Matthew Warchus, the Old Vic’s artistic director, programmed “Mood Music” on that basis alone.
“It’s a really volatile subject: the paradox of two people fighting violently and emotionally over something that should be beautiful and life-enhancing,” he explained.
Penhall has a few close collaborations of his own — though none that have soured as starkly as those of his protagonists. This is, for instance, the fourth time he has worked with Roger Michell, who directed his breakthrough play, the psychiatric-hospital-set “Blue/Orange” in 2000. “There’s one collaborator who really gets you and you get them, and there’s something about that chemistry,” he said of Michell. “You have to trust them implicitly.”
“Mood Music” is not a #MeToo play — not directly. Written and programmed before allegations were made against Harvey Weinstein, there’s nothing sexually untoward between Penhall’s protagonists, played by Ben Chaplin and Seána Kerslake. Their relationship is as platonic as it is vitriolic, but in picking at the power dynamics of a creative industry, it feels entirely on point.
Stories of sexism in the music industry are rife — like the male critical response to Joni Mitchell or Björk’s recent complaints about ceding credit to her male collaborators. In February, an academic study by Stacey L. Smith of the University of Southern California found that, of the 600 most popular songs in the past five years, just 12.3 percent were written by women. Female producers were even more rare: sometimes as little as 2 percent.
Despite that, Penhall, who started his career as a cub music reporter (“I know what it’s like to be in a room with a rock star,” he said), doesn’t believe the music industry is “inherently patriarchal.” Rather, he blames commercialism: “You’re selling to a mass audience, and a mass audience isn’t necessarily forward thinking. The market is domineering and brutal and coercive.”
The effect is to turn people into products — particularly female artists, whose personal lives become part of the package. “It’s not just monetizing talent, it’s monetizing trauma,” Penhall said. “That’s true of every artist, whether you’re Picasso or Miley Cyrus, but I think it’s more acute with songs because it’s more naked. The whole industry has exploited heartbreak and sex.” The Old Vic is on something of a roll — its musical “Girl from the North Country,” with songs by Bob Dylan, won two Oliviers this month, and Warchus said it would “certainly” come to New York — but it’s also dealing with the fallout of its own #MeToo moment. Until 2015, it was run by Kevin Spacey, one of the first people to face accusations of sexual harassment and assault.
Though Warchus stressed that the issue in this instance was about “a person rather than an institution,” he believes “Mood Music” cuts to the issue’s core. “The sexual side of things is the sensational side, the headline, but it’s not really the interesting side of any of this,” he said. “We really do need to have a hard think about how we deal with power, because people are always going to have power over others.”
Plenty of creative industries feed on hierarchical distinctions. “It happens in our world all the time,” Kerslake said. Actors end up kowtowing to producers and directors. “The funny part of our job is that you actually have to give over control sometimes.”
Playing such a toxic relationship onstage is a challenge of its own. Chaplin, who took on the producer part when Rhys Ifans dropped out for “family reasons,” recognizes the responsibility that comes with representing an abuse of power. “I don’t want it to appear easy,” Chaplin insisted. At the same time, acting such a part can take its toll: “Doing it night after night, you inevitably start feeling battered.” Widely regarded as one of the sharpest script-polishers in Hollywood, Penhall has had his share of unsatisfying artistic encounters in an industry he likened to “a sausage factory.” He said he’s walked away from several sizable projects uncredited, including the Oscar-winning film “The Last King of Scotland.”
“I didn’t want a credit because I didn’t think it was worth a credit,” he said.
It’s his way of retaining creative control. “If it stinks, it stinks,” he said bluntly. “Life’s too short, and I don’t need the dough. Nobody needs money that much to traduce themselves.”
With “Mindhunter,” Penhall knew exactly what he was getting into: a big-budget setup with a collaborative writing process — “but I wanted to do that.” He submitted to its rigmarole, partly to work with the director David Fincher, but mostly for the chance to write something expansive. (And, as in many of his plays, the series, about the early days of the FBI’s criminal psychology unit, allows him to explore a favorite subject of his: abnormality.)
At it turned out, “Mindhunter” afforded Penhall more creative control than expected. “I was free,” he said. “I could write what I wanted to write. The budget was enormous. The subject was as dark as you could possibly get.”
“This is what’s glorious about how the industry’s evolved in the last couple of years,” he said of the advent of streaming services. “It’s now incumbent upon you to be as distinctive and original and challenging as possible. That’s the status quo.”
It might still be a production line, but, Penhall said, “you can still make your own sausages.”
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