Lay The Table: Tanya Ronder on her new play at National Theatre

Written for Spoonfed. Originally published on 27th March 2013.

Naima Khan talks to Tanya Ronder about her new play, Table, before it opens The Shed at National Theatre.

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Have you seen The Shed? It’s the big, bright, red building sporting four massive chimneys that has popped up on the South bank recently. This new venue is one of National Theatre’s more experimental spaces and will open on 9th April with Tanya Ronder’s play Table. Directed by Rufus Norris, Table follows six generations of the same family as they travel the world and battle with a personality trait that none of them can seem to shake.

I met with Tanya to talk about the ideas that sparked the play and what she says rings true with what Paddy Dillon (of Haworth Tompkins Architects) mentioned when he talked about creating The Shed and “making buildings more porous, physically and culturally.” When Tanya talks about Table, she describes a family that, over a century, has allowed itself to take on this porousness as they absorb the changing world around them.

Taking inspiration from a table she shares with husband Rufus and their children, Tanya explains the ideas of furniture bearing witness to these evolving attitudes. “We have a kitchen table that we got at an auction about twenty years ago,” she says, “it already had some graffiti on it. Not with a pen though. It had been carved in and there was lots of chewing gum on the underside of course. But we’ve continued the tradition of that. (Not the gum.) We had au pairs for years, and they’d live with us, so they carved their names into the table. All our close friends and relatives have all left their mark on this table and it’s a really scruffy old thing but it has become this document that bears our history: friends we’ve known, couples who’ve split up, people we miss.”

She also talks about another piece of furniture that made its way into the play, a solid, well-made table that dates back to the beginning of the last century, inherited by Rufus from his grandfather. The play is a combination of the two objects: something that recalls an era when “people strived to make something perfect even though it wasn’t necessary,” and a possession that bears witness.

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“What started out as something about attention to detail and work” says Tanya, “has turned into something about pride and the struggle that the characters have with this stumbling block.” This quest for perfection is personified in table maker David who begins the play and is explored through his progeny. Their personal stories take in the events that unfold around them over the course of a hundred years.

For David and his son, it’s World War I that rips through their family. For the next generation, it’s missionary work in Africa and travel across Europe in the ’30s that shape their lives. By the time the play ends in 2013, we’ve been taken through convent life in Tanganyika (now Tanzania), a commune in Herefordshire and settle with a gay couple in London.

But it’s David’s tenacity that kicks the story off. His obsession with his work could be to blame for a family tragedy that sets the fault lines for generations to come. It’s the idea of how David lives that comes into question. “He’s an obsessional worker,” says Tanya, “he’s devoted to his work and there’s a religious question in that as well. What do you do if you don’t have faith or God in your life but you have the urge to devote yourself to something?” She talks about figures in history and asks “where would Florence Nightingale be now? What happens to people who have the engine but don’t have the reason or the ‘guidance’ outside of themselves?”

The question doesn’t bear as much relevance for people today now that ‘guidance’ is everywhere, usually in the form of handy lists of ten tucked into lifestyle magazines. But the wider implication of how to live and what to prioritise warrants discussion. As Table takes us from the end of the Victorian era to 2013, it prompts us to consider the culture of ambition and devotion that has emerged for our generation. What are our passion projects? What do we sacrifice to make them happen? And is it worth it?

Photos by Richard Hubert Smith

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