26 Years of Babel’s Cupid

So my play Babel’s Cupid has just been announced as one of the three runners-up for the Yale Drama Series Prize 2021. Over the moon, me. Many thanks to judge Paula Vogel and Yale Drama Series, and huge congratulations to the winner Rachel Lynnet, as well as my fellow runners-up Molly Bicks and Francisco Mendoza.

Babel’s Cupid is a project developed by Sleepdogs (much of my writing is, even if only in the earliest stages) and given that Tanuja and I often build up our ideas over fairly lengthy stretches of time, I thought it might be ‘interesting’ and maybe even, who knows, “fun” to chart the journey Babel’s Cupid has been on so far.

As part of my Bristol University studies in Theatre, Film and Television I do a module in ‘Representations of Gender and Sexuality’. It’s led by Simon Jones – also known as co-founder of, and writer of texts for, the performance group Bodies In Flight. While devising our end-of-module production I pitch an idea about a love triangle where two lovers share no common language, and need an interpreter to make their entire relationship possible. Simon finds this idea reasonably interesting. My fellow students find it reasonably not. The idea is not included in the show.

I read a core linguistic text by George Steiner, After Babel. I understand about 65% of it. But what I do understand, I find extremely exciting. It rekindles the love-triangle-with-interpreter idea, and also provides the working title of Babel’s Cupid. This won’t stop me absent-mindedly calling the idea After Babel for approx. 10 years.

As things stand I’ve imagined Babel’s Cupid remaining a project for the stage, and in my head that will require that a good portion of it is written in some language other than English. I decide this is a good way to revisit my childhood Portuguese, lying dormant since I was about 10.

Still not re-learning Portuguese.


Beginning to think this won’t be a stage play, then.

Sleepdogs is formed, and as part of our very first The Thirty session, Tanuja suggests including Babel’s Cupid on the slate – but our discussions lead it away from the complications of a multilingual drama, and we end up filing it under ‘prose fiction’ instead. “I think maybe it’s a novella” will become my catchphrase for every single project we ever assign to ‘prose fiction’.

Turns out I do not write ‘prose fiction’ quickly. Not at all. Babel’s Cupid, the novella, stands at roughly 400 words, all of them unacceptably horny.

Multiple scattered attempts at writing the opening chapter do end up having some use. One attempt suggests the whole idea might be able to maintain some kind of erotic charge without qualifying for the Bad Sex Awards. It also helps me identify that while the characters and concept seem sound, something’s missing – and I eventually realise I’ve been ignoring the word BABEL in the title all this time, which in a roundabout way gives me the final major element of the concept, a [spoiler].

I dabble around with the nature of the linguistic exchanges between the characters – which since the switch to prose I’ve imagined would be recounted at a distance by the interpreter, without the literal dialogue on the page. But it feels, well… distant. Overly intellectual.

Suddenly it strikes me that if Babel’s Cupid was done on stage, there’s no reason you’d have to present the act of translation in multiple languages – because, duh, it’s theatre. It could all be presented in, oh let’s say, English… and you’d hear the shifts in meaning only as if everyone was speaking different languages. T agrees it’s an exciting breakthrough, perfect for theatre, and suddenly: we’ve got a stage play again.

But I’m really busy and I don’t have any time to write it.

Mid 2019:
Frustrated by lack of progress on a clutch of exciting theatrical projects with complicated conditions, T and I try to identify 2 or 3 theatre ideas that might be nimbler on their feet – for smallish casts and budgets at first, with the potential to adapt flexibly to different scales. I later learn that Nir Paldi from Ad Infinitum calls these kind of projects ‘Accordion Shows’. T and I agree that Babel’s Cupid feels like it might be an accordion show.

Late 2019:
Bored in a travelodge in Ealing, I start sketching the theatre version of Babel’s Cupid. There isn’t a story as yet, but I feel confident I can find it in the writing; the people on the page have chemistry, and when I put them in a room together things just naturally happen. I show the sketches to T and, alongside our producers MAYK, Sleepdogs apply to do a work-in-progress of Babel’s Cupid at Bristol Old Vic Ferment.

February 2020:
Over four days at Ferment, supported by Ben Atterbury and team, Tanuja directs Heledd Gwynn, Mofetoluwa Akande and Harry Humberstone through the first 20 pages of the play – which is currently all I’ve written. Laura Dannequin is working with us as movement director, and because I’m behind a laptop as composer / sound wrangler, I’m mostly letting the script do its thing without too much authorial intervention. This is by design – I want to see how it’s treated in the rehearsal room, I don’t think the writer’s voice is the most important thing at this stage. Anything I’ve wanted to include is in the script to date. The questions for me are mostly: does the concept fly? Is it theatrical, is there room for magic within and around what I’ve written? Does it work well enough in rehearsal, and in front of an audience, for me to keep writing using the same processes and techniques? Have I got away with it?

The answer seems to be a resounding yes on all counts. The team do wonderful work, and the audience response is staggeringly positive. At Ferment, companies receive written feedback from audiences, and it’s the most overwhelmingly enthusiastic set of notes I’ve ever had for a work-in-progress.

March 2020:
Just as T and I are about to head to Manchester for production R&D on my play Heartworm, the UK enters lockdown. I decide to make the most of it, especially because I’m still buzzing from the audience response at Ferment, and power through the remainder of a full draft of Babel’s Cupid in a couple of weeks. Another pass follows after notes from T. As we’re extremely unlikely to head into production on the play later in the year, as hoped – social distancing just won’t work for a love story like this one – I decide, what the hell, to enter it into two playwriting competitions: the Nick Darke Award, and the Yale Drama Series Prize. (And for those interested in knowing the score, it’s my third attempt at both.)

April 2021:
26 years after I originally had the idea, Babel’s Cupid is announced as one of three runners-up in the Yale Drama Series Prize.

So. If any theatres are interested in working with Tanuja and yours truly on the next 26 years of this story – please, bend our ears, do.