Setting the bar too low

showbiz-mojo-stage-rupert-grint-ben-whishaw-et-al

I saw the revival of Jez Butterworth’s infamous play Mojo last night. It’s a spellbinding mash-up of Pinter, Mamet and Tarantino, by turns thrilling, shocking, perplexing and, mind-blowing. In part, this is down to the world class acting and Ian Rickson’s phenomenal production. But at the heart of the show – as with Butterworth’s more famous play, Jerusalem – is the writing. He’s a master craftsman of writing for the stage, his words somehow simultaneously sharp and rambling, precise and free-wheeling, almost out-of-control but always nailing the human condition from an unexpected angle.

I’ve written on here before about creative ambition. Last night was another reminder for me that working in advertising, we’re constantly in danger of thinking too small, of subconsciously limiting our creative possibilities. I spend my life coming up with ideas, crafting them and helping other people develop them. I like to think I’m a creative person. But when I’m confronted by real creativity, by genuinely bold, fearless, risk-taking ideas and craft, I’m humbled. It makes me feel as though advertising talks the talk but only real art walks the walk. I went home dazed, absolutely sure of only one thing: I’ve been setting the creative bar too low.

Ads ain’t art. A press campaign’s not a novel and branded content on the internet isn’t a play. But. Isn’t the point of all creative endeavours to use ideas and craft skills to move people in some way? To make them question their preconceptions and perhaps change their minds? Butterworth’s writing does all of this and more. His use of vocabulary is extraordinary. Even simple descriptions somehow make you change the way you see the world (in Mojo, a pair of loafers are described as “baby fuckin’ buckskin, hand-stitched by elves.”) Characters are drawn so powerfully and the situations they’re put in are so hyper-real that when they drop Butterworth’s word-bombs you don’t know whether to laugh or cry (when a just-bereaved character said, “There’s nothing like someone cutting your dad in two for clearing the mind” a ripple of gasps and giggles went around the theatre).

While they’re vastly different plays, Jerusalem had exactly the same inspiring/humbling effect on me.  To borrow a phrase from the central character, Johnny ‘Rooster’ Byron, that “alcoholic bucolic frolic” was so brilliantly written that it felt to me that Butterworth had captured the pure essence of what it means to be English in a single show. Not something I’d say about any ads I’ve seen recently. And while you might say this is an unfair comparison, that ads simply aren’t a relevant forum to explore social issues and deep human insights with wit, wisdom and stylistic flair, I’d argue that’s is exactly what we should be doing. This ad did it, so did this ad and this one.

I think of great art like Jez Butterworth’s work as nourishment for the soul, inspiration for creativity, a kick up the arse to craft more, to be better. It reminds me that to be a writer – whether of plays, prose or press ads – is a difficult but wonderful thing, a privilege and badge of honour I need to work harder at to deserve.

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About antmelder
Creative Partner at DDB Sydney; passionate vegetarian; lover of books, boxing and Bruce Springsteen.

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