Interviews with some of the best contemporary British Playwrights

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Playwright, Elinor Cook interview: “If the dudes are pitching great plays — then those of us who aren’t the white men need go in there and nail those commissions.”

Elinor Cook is not some no-frills interviewee. My time with the feisty young playwright involved her batting my base level questions politely, while occasionally pouring herself a glass of water.

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Elinor Cook

Not having arrived today with any sort of agenda, we simply had a chat. She tells me that yesterday she had an ‘impromptu Mexican dinner’ with the Lady From The Sea cast and Kwame Kwei-Armah to celebrate his recent appointment as Artistic Director of the Young Vic. ‘FYI’ she had pan-seared tuna tacos and a beer… And a margarita. “Two drinks — Mexican appropriate,” she says, laughing.

Her new version of The Lady From The Sea, directed by Kwei-Armah opens at the Donmar tonight. Ibsen’s play encompasses those familiar Ibsen themes: obligation, accountability, the role of women and how the past impinges on the future. How has she found adapting such a classic text? “I’ve found it a complete joy,” says Cook. “I’ve loved it and I definitely want to do more of this sort of thing because there is something about having the map in place. It’s gone through a couple of permutations in terms of the setting of it. The first draft was all set contemporary, in time of the second draft we had a conversation and decided it would be more helpful to make it post-colonial and that mirroring Ellida’s own restless and need to be independent herself.”

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The Lady From The Sea at The Donmar Warehouse

Cook is revelling the opportunity to work with the new Artistic Director of the Young Vic. “He has this ability to facilitate an incredibly open rehearsal room,” she says, smiling. “He’s able to make people trust him and each other. There’s a beautiful lightness and airiness with the work and with what is happening on stage and it’s all there because of his attention to detail. He’s really big on psychology and emotion and my God you can really see that. It’s just extraordinary. He’s incredibly generous and honest.”

Every Playwright has a unique approach to writing. Where does she work best? “I work in the library – I go to the Wellcome Collection Library, which I’d highly recommend as a place to work,” she says. “I try and do a full work day because I need the structure and just to have other people around. It’s nice to feel that you are part of something.”

We talk about the lack of female writers on our biggest stages. “You can’t ignore that conversation because everyone’s having it”, she shrugs when I suggest that the scenario is not exactly ideal. “It does anger me, but I’m reluctant to go: ‘The reason it’s taken me 10 years is because I am a woman.’ However, I am conscious of the fact that I am white, privileged and straight. I think it’s more about how you get into those rooms in the first place.”

Not, she hastens to add, that she’s had it easy. “As someone who’s had every opportunity, but struggled so much with confidence for a long time and that feeling that I didn’t know how to hold my own in the room the way my male counterparts did. I wrestled with the feeling that at any second I’d be chucked out because I had nothing of interest to say.”

How can we ensure a real shift toward gender equality? “It starts before the theatres are making those decisions,” she says.

“If the dudes are pitching great plays — then those of us who aren’t the white men need to make sure that we are enabled to go in there and nail those commissions. There are so many reasons why I would struggle to pitch something and if I find it hard then how hard would those who hadn’t had those privileges and opportunities to get on?”

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Out of Love – Paines Plough

Does she feel obliged to write about politics, I ask. “The whole gesture of playwriting is political in itself,” she states. “With a play like Out of Love, I wanted to write something very human, getting to the complexity of the relationship between two women. I wanted to excavate something that I hoped would touch people on a human level. If you succeed with something like that then you are asking the audience for their imagination and empathy. In this increasingly fractured world, where the divisions are widening, if we are not able to imagine what it’s like to be in someone else’s shoes then we are kind of doomed.”

She continues: “A political play doesn’t have to be one set in the House of Commons, it can be perceived to be a smaller beast. My play Image of An Unknown Woman is my most overtly political play because it directly critiques a repressive regime and questions democracy. But I’d argue that Pilgrims or Out of Love, which are smaller in scale are political in a different way.”

Cook talks of the lucky opportunities that have come her way and in particular the pace at which she has progressed. “There’s something about being the age I am now and my career taking off that feels really right. I’m not sure I would have been prepared for the opportunities had I been younger… I was so crippled with a lack of self-confidence and self-consciousness… It was challenging.”

And now, following a storming debut at Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Out of Love is on tour as part of Paines Plough’s pop-up space, the Roundabout. The play is a comic exploration of female friendship spanning 30 years. What are the challenges of writing for such a unique performance space? “When you are writing for Roundabout the work has to have a universality to it – it has to have something that is going to resonate in Poole and in Stoke and in Darlington or Edinburgh,” she says. “There is something about that space; being in the round and with no props. It demands a particular kind of playwriting, it has to be very front-footed. It has to be very clear about what it is from very early on.”

She looks to Tamara Harvey, Amelia Sears and Charlotte Gwinner, particularly at the start of her career, for inspiration. “I’ve had really great relationships with directors. The first skill of a director if they read a draft and are able to help you as the writer really get to the nub of what you have to say.”

Today, she is honest about her commitments beyond The Lady From The Sea. “I’m at that glorious stage where I don’t know what the next project is,” she says, with a glint in her eye.

“I am looking forward to being able to see where my brain takes me and where the world takes me. I’d love to do more adapting and having written two very intimate plays with Pilgrims and Out Of Love, I’d love to go back to a bigger Image Of An Unknown Young Woman size cast and with international heft. But what that actually is I don’t know and that’s really exciting!”

The Lady From The Sea is at the Donmar, London, until 2 December. Box office: 0844 871 7624.

Out Of Love is currently on a UK Tour as part of Paines Plough’s pop-up theatre Roundabout.

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Review: Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle

Cometh the hour, cometh the show directed by Marianne Elliott, the inaugural show for Elliott & Harper Productions, the company she has set up with director Chris Harper.

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It’s fair to say that expectations were high… But as anyone will tell you in these difficult theatre times, coming up with the show can be the easy bit, and selling it is where things get tricky.

Simon Stephens’ play, first seen at Manhattan Theatre Club, is set at a London train station and tells the unusual story of two strangers who strike up a relationship as a result of the manic Georgie, played by Anne-Marie Duff hitting on Kenneth Cranham’s Alex, while he sits on a bench at St Pancras International. Cranham is spellbinding as a 75-year old butcher. His earthiness is shattered by the arrival of Georgie: 33 years his junior.

This is not your everyday sort of love story, but it winds up feeling both strange and familiar. Stephens’ complex two-hander is as much about romance and ulterior motives as it is about Werner Heisenberg’s physics theory.

Heisenberg is one of the plays of the year – a ninety-minute, intriguing production with the same captivating quality of true spectacle. The heart-breaking pairing of Duff and Cranham manages to encapsulate regret and hopefulness all at once.

Theatre sometimes revels brilliantly in its own meaninglessness. Other times, as here, it hits the spot when it stops being about nothing, turns its nose up at being about something, and fluently manages to be about everything. The questions it throws up about identity, attraction and love collide with a vastness that I’ve rarely experienced in a theatre.

Paule Constable’s gorgeous lighting glues style and substance together in an irresistible modern theatre collage. One of the most electrifying moments comes during an effortless scene transition with Duff trapped between the two walls. Thinking about it in the cold light of day, it all plays better in memory than in real-time. This is an accessible but immensely rewarding watch, and the music by Nils Frahm has an intriguing emotional reach that captures the sparse mood perfectly too.

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Ann-Marie Duff – amazing –

Other points are genuinely touching. But is that all there is to Heisenberg? Well, not quite –the duo’s chemistry will only flourish in enjoyable new directions as the production runs. There’s more to the writing and the performances than a first viewing might let on.

Not everything is sensational; Steven Hoggett’s movement sequences don’t always work. A section where the pair clumsily tango isn’t really that great. Intelligent choreography does more at the same time as it does less, making fewer things more impressive, making smaller statements count for more. When the choreography does hit the spot – it more than makes up for this.

Basically, Heisenberg doesn’t knock the planet off its axis quite as nimbly as theatre fans will have predicted. Maybe that was the point. On one hand, it’s not exactly Angels In America in the landmark stakes, on the other Elliott and Harper have come up with exciting ways to work in the West End and at least it isn’t Oscar Wilde.

Whether a prelude to an exclusion order or a heart-warming tale of encounter, Heisenberg is an extraordinary addition to Simon Stephens canon of recent experimental work; considerate and romantic enough for repeated viewing, but with a theatre sensibility that makes you want to head out in search of a stranger at a train station and live for the moment. Think of this as a controlled explosion.

At Wyndham’s, London, until 6 January. Box office: 0844-482 5120.

Access Booking 0344 482 5137.

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Playwright, David Eldridge interview: “There’s less procrastination when you’re a dad.”

As David Eldridge’s new play Beginning opens at the National Theatre’s Dorfman, he talks about his son, ticket prices, inspirations and success.

We meet in his office at Birkbeck University, London, where he lectures in Creative Writing. Chatting with Eldridge about his career opens up other windows on his experience. For instance: he’s a dad (“I always think about my son Bertie when I write, and he spurs me on”) For instance: despite having written landmark plays like Under The Blue Sky, Market Boy and In Basildon, he remains very grounded. (His best mate is a fireman in Essex, where he grew up). For instance: his new play Beginning was written unsolicited, but with the National Theatre in mind (“I wrote the play and then decided the NT would be a good home for it and sent it to Rufus Norris. Luckily for me he agreed”.)

His new play explores what it means to be lonely in a big city, features two actors and has no interval. “Beginning is a real actors’ piece,” says Eldridge emphatically. “The two characters in the play are on stage for the whole evening without a break. We were looking for people who didn’t just feel absolutely right in terms of the casting but who had the technical ability, personality and guts to do it. On-and-off that casting process took seven months, much of that due to director Polly Findlay’s availability, but we wanted to be absolutely sure.”

What are the particular pressures of writing for the National Theatre? “I’m not sure that applies to Beginning because it’s the first play I’ve written in ages that wasn’t a commission for a particular management,” he says. “I think opening a play in any of the major playhouses is incredibly stressful. On the Olivier stage at the National (where Market Boy was produced in 2006) just selling the 1,150 seats for every show used to give me nightmares. I think animating the larger stages at the NT is a craft in itself and both the Olivier and the Lyttleton eat story, so you need lots of narrative red meat and actors who are on the front foot.”

I wonder how he will measure success with Beginning. “I just want to feel happy that the play has gone as well as it possibly can and that audiences have got something out of it,” he states.

“It’s nice when you can see an audience laughing and crying and reflecting upon the action of a play. But it’s also very rewarding when audiences get in touch.” He references his play The Knot of the Heart, which premiered at the Almeida in 2011. “I kid you not, every day an audience member communicated with me in person, by letter, card, email or via social media to tell me how in some way their life had been touched by addiction. It was exhausting. But beautiful and humbling,” he recalls. “Everyone wants to have nice reviews for posterity and to help encourage audiences to see the show. But I’m much less neurotic about them than I was in my twenties.”

Which fellow writers inspire him, I ask? “Robert Holman has been one of the most inspiring playwrights in my writing life,” he replies, “Robert taught me how to be a playwright in many ways; but his own work, his sense of place, theatricality and commitment to the truth of his characters is always inspiring. Caryl Churchill, as Sarah Daniels says, is “our Picasso” and she seems to reinvent the wheel with every play. Her work always pushes me to try new things and to be bold. Edward Albee inspires me to fulfil John Osborne’s aspiration to give audiences “lessons in feeling”. And I learned a lot from adapting Ibsen. I think the work I did on three of his plays helped strengthen the storytelling in my own plays.”

He reckons that the economics of theatre tickets are out of line. “Theatre going has become too expensive. There’s also a part of me that’s still the slightly chip-on-shoulder, scholarship-and-assisted-place Romford kid at the posh school; who resents how much of British theatre is still occupied by privileged white middle-class men. I think the theatre has got a bit better on that score over my writing life, but it’s still a world that can be too dominated by clever posh white people and far too preoccupied with who’s in and who’s out,” he says bluntly. “It’s why I’ve always preferred to make most of my friends outside the theatre.”

We talk about the differences in writing for television. “On screen you’re cutting away to the next scene all the time and often the cut tells the story”, he explains. “On stage you’re trying to sustain the action. Too many scene changes, inelegantly done, make for a tiresome evening in the theatre. I think TV writing, like writing for a large theatre space, eats story and you really have to pique an audience’s interest the whole time. Otherwise people just switch off and look at their smartphone or change channel.”

On the bookshelf there are various framed photographs of his little boy. How has being a dad changed his writing? “You know,” he smiles. “It’s made me more uncompromising.”

But Eldridge is acutely aware of the legacy of putting pen to paper. “I always have this gut feeling that I never want him to read or see my work when he’s older and feel his dad could have done better. I push myself. Although he doesn’t live with me, we spend a lot of time together, and that means like most writers who are parents, I organise when I write accordingly and use the time much more efficiently. There’s less procrastination when you’re a dad.”

Beginning is at the National Theatre’s Dorfman stage, London, until 14 November. Box office: 020-7452 3000.

Polly Findlay and David Eldridge will take part in NT Platform on Thursday 19 Oct, 6pm.

Now you know. 

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In Memory of Leaves, Natasha Langridge: “Add to the wave; we are at a point where it is sink or swim.”

100 days on and the scorched tower remains exposed and bare. The tragedy at Grenfell Tower, in which at least 80 people died, highlights the long neglect of social housing. It’s part of a bigger problem. A problem that playwright, performer & activist Natasha Langridge is keen to shine a light on.

I had a chat with the lady herself on the phone recently.

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“Grenfell is 10 minutes from where I lived – a lot of people are being treated absolutely appallingly,” she says. “The richest borough in London in one of the richest countries in the world and to be in a situation like this; thousands of empty properties. It’s unforgivable.”

Her new show ‘Memory of Leaves’ is being performed on a wide beam barge at three different London docks. Written in the wake of her home on the Wornington Green Estate in Kensington being demolished, Langridge’s monologue explores what happens to communities when they are moved from their homes. It follows her getting arrested with Occupy Democracy and volunteering in the refugee camp in Calais. The monologue is described by Langridge as ‘a love letter to neighbours and a revolutionary call to the world.’

Memory of Leaves is an impassioned monologue about love and protest,” she explains, “I originally did this show on the road I live on in an amphitheatre. I wanted to reach out to people who can relate to the fact that bulldozers that have become the London skyline. I wanted to reach boaters; that’s a whole community. I wanted to do it on North Kensington on the canal there and for people going through regeneration or people who are seeing or hearing it first-hand.”

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Natasha Langridg

Natasha is co-author of Rage and Reason: Women Playwrights on Playwriting, a powerful book exploring the craft of play-writing and the pressures of working within a male dominated environment. Does she think we have made progress when it comes to gender representation?  “It’s a lot more balanced in terms of women playwrights and there are certainly a lot more BAME playwrights. However, theatre could and should do more; in terms of who’s running the buildings and who is directing work for our nations stages,” says Langridge.

Does she think that mainstream press is doing enough to tackle serious topics within our contracting society, I ask. “The press are not using their responsibility wisely and they are not going to use it,” she explains. “They have a different agenda and that agenda is the status quo. Everybody is hungry for change. What’s different about this piece is I am talking about issues that have affected me directly. It’s a very personal piece.”

The failure by the Tories to tackle the severe housing shortage is part of an ideology to target the vulnerable. We can all make a difference, she thinks. “Ask yourself: what can you contribute? What are you contributing? Are you contributing something positive? Make a difference within your local community,” she pauses, “One of the reasons that we have allowed ourselves to be so fucked over is that we have a government who allow homeless people to sleep on the streets, ensures workers are not earning enough to live on and a political party that is dismantling our public services,” she says.

Making your own work is an excellent way to get noticed and bring your ideas to life. What is her advice for aspiring artists who have something to say in 2017? “Do what you believe in and do what is in your heart. That is what theatre needs and not necessarily clever stuff but stuff that is actually felt. It’s a difficult thing writing,” she says.

The point, for her, is that we aren’t taking the time to look out for one another. “One of the reasons is that we have lost touch with each other. We’ve been encouraged to only do well for ourselves. We’ve forgotten each other and what makes us happy and we need to make a change.”

Langridge maintains that we have to wake up. “Fight for what you believe in. Ask yourself what can you contribute? Are you contributing something positive? Add to the wave – we are at a point where it is sink or swim,” she says defiantly.

What a woman.

In Memory of Leaves Buy tickets HERE >> http://in-memory-of-leaves.natasha-langridge.com/

Meanwhile Gardens

The Fordham Gallery Barge moored at Meanwhile Gardens Grand Union Canal*

Nearest tube: Westbourne Park

Wednesday October 4th – Saturday 7th 7.30p

Camden Lock

The Fordham Gallery Barge moored at Camden Lock (Visitors Mooring) Regents Canal*

Nearest tube: Camden Town

Wednesday 11th October – Saturday 14th 7.30pm

Hackney Wick

The Fordham Gallery Barge moored at Hackney Wick White Post Lane River Lee*

Nearest overground: Hackney Wick

Wednesday 18thOctober – Saturday 21st October 7.30pm

 

 

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From Borders to Angel: the duo putting political drama on stage

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One year after their explosive approach took Edinburgh Fringe by storm, Henry Naylor and Avital Lvova returned this year with new play Borders.  

We met a few weeks ago while Henry and Avital were in Edinburgh, and here’s what happened.

Naylor’s play, Borders, returns us to Syria, and explores how the West view conflict through lenses provided for us by Western photographers. It is story that compels its audience towards strong feeling but keeps spectators at a distance. Avital played a daring Syrian graffiti artist who risks her life to spray-paint slogans denouncing Assad.

How have audiences responded, I ask. “People reacted strongly. I think people have become desensitised by the whole refugee issue,” says writer Henry Naylor. “Apparently, there are more refugees coming across at the moment than at any time; and yet it barely makes the news. It’s very important for me to help the average person on the street connect with the story”

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Henry Naylor

Borders won a Fringe First this year, which was a critical seal of approval and put more bums on seats. They both have nothing but praise and gratitude for the awards. “It’s massive! Winning a Fringe First means a lot to me,” Naylor says.

“It’s had a wide range of positive reactions. Sometimes people come out weeping – and its breath-taking to see people in complete tears,” adds actress Avital Lvova.

“The Scotsman cover so much and for them to pick your show out is humbling. Chief Critic Joyce McMillan is extraordinary. I’m amazed at how well she grasps these productions, after only a single viewing. I find Borders quite hard to describe but not her; she nailed it in just a paragraph,” Naylor says, smiling.

“Others come out in a numb state. One lady came up to me after a show the other day and said ‘I don’t know why I’m not crying – I’m so numb,’ it makes you think of where we are right now and how privileged we are,” she says.

When you are at Edinburgh Fringe preserving your mental health, and taking care of yourself is paramount; there is such a mixture of raw emotions in the air in work around topics such as race, identity, sexuality and diversity; you are often experiencing them within 30 minutes of each other. What are their tips for surviving the Fringe?  “Find a quiet place for yourself at least once a day – you’re surrounded by such opinions and people,” says Lvova. She adds. “Find some peace for yourself. Safeguard time out for yourself. I make sure I do that once a day.”

“My wife is a stand up (Sarah Kendall) and her approach is to not listen to any reviews, she knows it is going well because its selling seats,” says Naylor. “My approach has to be the opposite because I’m producing the show, so I have to know what people are saying and either fire fight or put up stars on the posters.”

In 2016 Naylor premiered the third instalment of the Arabian Nightmares, Angel, at the Gilded Balloon – the play is currently one week into its London transfer. So, what is it about? Angel is the true story of a woman in the Kurdish region of Syria who gave up her studies to become a prolific sniper,” Naylor explains. “Apparently, she shot over 100 extremists. It is said that ISIS believe if you are killed by a woman you can’t enter paradise – so they were allegedly terrified of her. Angel tells her story and Avital does it astonishingly well,” he pauses and grins. “It’s like watching a one-person action movie.”

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Avital Lvova in Angel © Steve Ullathorne

“I’m incredibly happy and privileged to have been chosen to tell this story. I’m happy that I can tell someone else’s stories that are not heard enough,” adds Lvova.

Angel is at the Arcola, until 7 October. Box office: 0207 503 1646.

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Simon Stephens interview: “There is something about bringing Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle to London which means a lot to me. A lot of my plays are carved out of a love for this city.”

Multi-award-winning playwright Simon Stephens is a pale giant, dressed today in dark blue jeans, a maroon shirt and a charcoal grey jacket. He listens and laughs a lot.

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Simon Stephens © Alex Rumford

We’re sitting upstairs in a quiet corner of Black’s, a members’ club in London. The setting is intimate and our talk about his new play, Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle is too. The blurb for the show reads: ‘When two strangers meet by chance amidst the bustle of a crowded London train station; their lives change forever’. The play receives its UK premiere at Wyndham’s next month and tells the story of two strangers who strike up an unlikely relationship. It stars Anne-Marie Duff and Kenneth Cranham, and reunites the production team behind The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, with Stephens, Marianne Elliott and designer Bunny Christie. “Ken and Ann-Marie have a very complimentary energy that’s absolutely perfect for this play. Ken has such earth and a stillness and Ann-Marie has an edge and desire. The two of them dance around one another and it’s kind of exquisite,” he says.

The play is directed by Marianne Elliott and is the inaugural show for Elliott & Harper Productions, the company she has set up with director Chris Harper. Elliott’s many credits include Curious Incident (adapted for the stage by Stephens), War Horse and Angels in America. “I hope it sells – for them,” says Stephens, “I don’t want them to be exposed to anything. I really love them. If I’m anxious about anything, I’m anxious about the people of that calibre enjoying the success that they deserve.”

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Is he nervous? “I’m really happy. I’m not nervous. Because the play has been done before in New York,” Stephens replies. “When a play is being done for the first time your main fear is that it is shit. I kind of know that it’s not shit. It’s not a shit play. There is something about bringing Heisenberg to London which means a lot to me. A lot of my plays are carved out of a love for this city.”

We talk about his friendship with Marianne and I get a clear sense of how and why they work so well together (Simon is Godfather to her daughter and it was some time into working together that she and Stephens discovered that they were both from Stockport and that they used to get the same bus to their schools.)

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Simon Stephens and Marianne Elliott © Alex Rumford

“She’s brilliant because she’s brilliant – we have a brilliant relationship because of some deep psychic connection,” he says. “Above all of those things, she’s the hardest-working director I know.” Hard-working in a different way, he explains, from Ivo van Hove and Sean Holmes, say, who run theatres or do show after show, back-to-back in Paris or on Broadway. “Marianne refuses to go back-to-back with shows. Stephens continues. “At a time when everyone wants her, she says no to so many jobs because she needs the preparation time. I don’t know any director who prepares more than her. Heisenberg is an hour and fifteen two-hander and she has six weeks preparing it so that when she talks to the cast at the beginning of rehearsals, she speaks with more depth about the play than I have. What she’ll bring is the sense of its existential depth.”

He’s on a roll about his peers. “I’m so fucking fortunate, Carl. I’ve been so fortunate with the collaborators that I’ve worked with. Really lucky,” he says, thinking. “To work with Sean Holmes again and again, a substantial ten-year relationship. A fifteen-year relationship with Sarah Frankcom as well as the rockstar directors like Katie Mitchell, Ivo van Hove and Sebastian Nübling… It’s completely thrilling.”

There’s nothing smug about the way Simon Stephens says that, just a thankful recognition that he has done incredibly well.

I say I think his writing is often desolate but never without heart. In these uncertain times, how important is optimism? “I think Heisenberg is infused with the possibility of optimism and I think that is important. The only response to a world in peril is to be optimistic – I think pessimism is the last resort of the privileged,” he says, tucking into his artichoke soup.

“There is a difference between optimism and naivety – between optimism and jolliness. Real optimism has to consider real peril, real despair, real fear and real isolation. To deny those is just naïve but it’s about acknowledging those and finding the determination to persist.”

Rather brilliantly, there are 30,000 tickets for Heisenberg available for under £20. Delivering work to audiences at an affordable price is important to Stephens. “I’ve been a teacher all my life,” he nods. “There is nothing more important to me than the notion that theatre is not an elitist art form but that it is a democratic art form. You can make it cheaper than a lot of cinemas. You can make it cheaper than a football match. This is like watching a Champion League Football match at the cost of watching a match in the Ryman Conference.”

Heisenberg isn’t the only play keeping him occupied. Stephens’ adaptation of Chekhov’s The Seagull opens at the Lyric Hammersmith the day after and he has come from rehearsals to meet me. “I’m more nervous, weirdly, about The Seagull,” he admits. “I really like writing versions – it’s thrilling for me. It’s simple, it doesn’t take a massive amount of time and it’s different from play to play to play. 10 years ago, when I was working on Harper Regan and Lesley Sharp asked me to write a version of The Seagull, I knew I wasn’t able to at that time in my career. Because in my opinion, Chekhov is the best writer in the history of the world. For me, he is my tower. Do you know the Leonard Cohen song ‘Tower of Song’?” he asks.

I tell him I don’t.

“It’s a really beautiful, beautiful song. In it Cohen sings about the Tower of Song – a tower that all songwriters live in and there’s a beautiful line about Hank Williams.” Stephens quotes: “‘I said to Hank Williams: “How lonely does it get?” Hank Williams hasn’t answered yet. But I hear him laughing all night long. Oh, a hundred floors above me in the Tower of Song’.”

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He continues, “I think writers position themselves at the foot of towers and they are very specific about which towers they position themselves at the foot of. I’m sitting on ground floor of Chekhov’s Tower and he’s a hundred floors above me, laughing all night long,”

It would be easy to pin him down as a tortured artist. How does he manage ego? “I find it really confusing because there’s part of me that still thinks I’m desperately trying to hack away, trying to get it right. As I look at my career now, objectively – if I separate myself from the experience of my career – I think you’d look at it and say that it is probably the career of a successful playwright. But I don’t experience myself as being a successful playwright,” he admits, modestly.

“I think the only thing you can do is, you stay present tense and concern yourself with the work and just get the work right. This is not just for successful playwrights, I think it’s true of all playwrights,” he continues. “I think it’s actually more perilous for writers at the start of their career because they are so worried about career that they can stop worrying about the work. I can’t change anything… It took me about 10 years to get over the notion of linear improvement. All I really want to do is write a play that is different to the last one. If ever it comes close to me taking myself too seriously then my children and my wife will just take the piss out of me – so brilliantly and precisely that it’s just impossible.”

I shift the conversation to critics, specifically, Michael Billington, who we both agree gets a lot of stick from the blogosphere. “If you’re working in theatre and you can’t distinguish between Michael Billington and Quentin Letts say- or Michael Billington and Dominic Cavendish, then you’re a fucking idiot,” he says, smiling. “If you can’t acknowledge that Michael Billington is one of the most consistently thoughtful, economic, searching, knowledgeable and serious writers about theatre.”

Stephens is Artistic Associate at the Lyric Theatre and Associate Playwright at the Royal Court. Does he think there are issues with the way new work is being commissioned that need addressing in order for the next generation of playwrights to break through? “I think there are perhaps some structural issues. But the structural issues are really complicated,” he says.

“I’m old enough to remember the year 2000 and the early years of the Blair government – and the remarkable energy for the arts that that government had and the extraordinary investment that that government brought about,” he explains. “I forget the name of the report in 2000 celebrating the agency of new writing and instigating a cash injection into new writing. But within five or ten years there were more playwrights than there had ever been and they were funded and supported. There new writing groups and young writing schemes all over the country. Eight years later there was an economic collapse that we’re still reeling from and the consequences of that is a massive withdrawal of money from the arts.”

“So, we have this situation where there are four times as many playwrights and less money to inject into the productions of their plays. That’s really tricky for the well-intentioned artistic directors who have to let people down. They will, and have rejected major significant playwrights and that’s an ongoing thing. I don’t know what to do about it because we are unfortunately not governed by a government that believes in the arts. The nature of Conservatism is that it has an impulse to conserve and the one thing the arts are not interested in ever – or should never be interested in –  is conserving,” says Stephens.

Julian Fellowes is the only playwright in the world who has any vested interest in things staying the way that they are and that’s why he is a…”

Just in time his phone beeps. “That’s my timer,” he sighs. “I need to be thinking about making a move.” Another rehearsal to get to?

No, he laughs, and heads off down Dean Street to pick up his daughter from school.

Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle runs at Wyndham’s Theatre from 9 October to 6 January, with previews from 3 October.

The Seagull will run at the Lyric Hammersmith from 10 October to 4 November, with previews from 3 October.

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A chat under a bridge with Howard Brenton and Sam Hodges

The Shadow Factory is set in the autumn of 1940 during the Battle of Britain and is about the devastation reigned on Southampton, the home of the Spitfire. The play is written by theatre giant Howard Brenton and directed by the ambitious director Samuel Hodges.

The NST City is part of Studio 144, a new £28m venue in Southampton’s city centre. The building will include a 450 seat main house and a 135 seat studio, as well as screening facilities, rehearsal and workshop spaces.

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Howard Brenton and Samuel Hodges (obvs)

I went along to a have a chat with director of NST Samuel Hodges and playwright Howard Brenton on  a ramp in Southampton under the Itchen Bridge for the launch of the play.

Here is what we discussed.

Me: Hello! Are you both happy with how today has gone? 

Sam: I think it’s terrific – this is the perfect place for it. It’s beautiful and historic. It feels exiting; It’s suddenly got real.

Howard: It’s amazing to see this ramp we are standing on, they built sea planes in the 20’s and 30’s here and they rolled off this ramp.

Me: How would you describe your state of mind, Mr Hodges?

Sam: My state of mind is one of cautious excitement – I think it’s always that way with any new play at this point where you’re between a final draft and beginning of rehearsals and it’s all starting to shape up. On the other hand, we are desperate to get into this new building and start playing. I suppose there are quite a few unknowns: to go into a brand-new theatre and make a piece of brand new theatre is double unknown.

Howard: Well it’s great standing on this spot – I remember in the beginning I said yes to writing this play in a pub not far from here… Now we are standing on the actual site with the thing written and we are all ready to go.

Me: Is that how you get all your commissions, Sam? In the pub?

Sam: Yes. Absolutely.

Me: How would you describe The Shadow Factory in a nutshell?

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Sam: It’s a story about the community, it’s a story about the city and it’s a story that they will not have heard. I think as a theatre experience what they will get is something very unusual. Something with lots of design ,with projection, with flying bits ,with big community chorus, with movement and with music. I would hope it feel like something almost immersive.

Howard: I hope they will be entertained. This is a story of local people, a story that is not widely known, as Sam says. Shadow Factory is about people who did something extraordinary. It’s not to be sentimental about it because this is a very, very tough time. A lot of people thought they were going to lose the war. Nevertheless, they achieved this; 6 weeks from the factory being bombed – planes were being made in bits in the back streets. So, if people could do that 70 years ago, if we have to face a crisis in this country, and God knows we may well. What can we do? It can surprise us what we could do. I’d like people to take that thought out of the theatre.

Me: Is there anything that either of you would like to add?

Sam: Um. No. That’s’ fine.

The Shadow Factory runs at the NST City, Southampton from 16 February to 2 March.

 

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Playwright Chris Thompson Interview: “If you’re brave enough you can do anything.”

Chris Thompson is an award winning playwright based in London and New York. He is currently under commission by the National Theatre and The Royal Court Theatre. He was the Channel 4 Playwright in Residence at the Finborough Theatre in 2014, and currently has two television series in development with Euston Film and TV. Amazing.

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Playwright Chris Thompson

His plays capture and make sense of the outsider spirit, while being as unswerving and true in his writing as he is in conversation. There seems to be simultaneously more and less to him than meets the eye. What I most got out of my chat with Chris was that he has found a way to sidestep the egotistic pitfalls that snare most writers while also explaining personal accounts of love, identity, culture and gay life.

Many of Thompson’s contemporaries have succeeded via privileged upbringings. Not Thompson. After working as a social worker for twelve years, he quit to focus on writing. Is he fed up of being asked about his previous career, I ask. “I’m very proud of it. I think the further away that change gets from me now the clearer it becomes,” he says.

“I sometimes wonder if I’m making up the reasons retrospectively… You’re not really sure at the time. I’ve got my version of events. I knew I was doing good but I wasn’t sure if I was doing me good. I’m a very conscientious and care-giving individual – I felt very privileged to be doing that kind of work.”

Now though, Of Kith and Kin opens at the Sheffield Theatre and is directed by Robert Hastie. Hastie directed Thompson’s debut play Carthage in 2014 and that was a breakthrough for him. “Carthage got me a lot of meetings and was produced at the Finborough theatre. Suddenly my scripts rose to the top of the scripts submission pile. It was a gamble and it was very exposing thing to do; putting myself out there.”

In which case, what is Of Kith and Kin about? “Of Kith and Kin starts with a set of circumstances and becomes a play about who’s in charge, changing your mind and love is not enough,” he explains. “It is much more of a gay play than you might think.”

“Above all it ‘puts a pin in gay relationships now.’ He explains his relationship to the watershed of gay marriage and civil partnerships. “I was born in the year that Thatcher came into power and I lived in the shadow of shame; all the laws and legislation of that came from a position of disgust.”

Britain’s LGBT+ community has made positive shifts in recent years. We have an equal age of consent, employment rights and legal protections that we didn’t have a decade ago. Thompson hits the nail on the head when discussing the modern politics of gay culture. “There is now a constituency of gay men who find intimacy harmful and find it hard to not punish the person they love for making them have those feelings. I’m very interested in masculinity, how men are represented. I love peek through your fingers, gritted teeth kind of humour,” he says.

Is he a kind person? “I think my friends would describe me as kind. I think I have a lot of compassion. To write good characters you have to have to have a lot of humanity.”

I ask which life event he thinks is most responsible for the person that he is today. “I don’t think it’s possible that it could be one event for any person,” he says. “I know that my life has changed beyond recognition in the last 3 years… I’ve had some life events that have changed the path of my life; the most recent, in the most basic terms, was leaving my job. I left my relationship of a decade, I left my home. I had a nervous breakdown and ran off to New York to do it in style,” he laughs. 

Thompson speaks honestly and openly about the human condition. “I found myself in a position I did not expect to find myself in that time. I did make a promise to myself which is live bravely and speak without fear; change is good. We have one life. If you’re brave enough you can do anything,” he says, adamantly.

We chat about critics and reviews. Rather interestingly he has put all the reviews of his shows up  on his website– good and bad. He says that, on some occasions. “Even though it’s sometimes bruising to have negative reviews I don’t care if critics write negative things about my play as long as they stick to rigorous critical analysis.”

“Some critics aren’t able to resist the opportunity to showboat and the story then becomes about the review itself rather the work, (see: COMMON), and then when they’re called on it, they deny doing it. When I talk about it being a dialogue, I see reviews as a starting point of a conversation between critics and audiences, less so between the play and critics,” he says, freely admitting mixed feelings of his own.

“Ultimately, people remember the plays not the reviews…”

Of Kith and Kin is at Sheffield Theatres until 7 Oct. Box Office: 0114 249 6000.

Bush Theatre, London from 18 October until 25 November. Box Office: 020 8743 3584.

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Luke Barnes Interview: ‘There are some writers who write two or three plays for big stages each year and they say fucking nothing.’

Luke Barnes, aka one of the most important theatre voices of his generation. Read on please.

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Luke Barnes

A man who’s not afraid to talk openly and honestly about real issues –  success,  failure, this fuck up of a government etc – while also knocking out high-quality writing.

Basically, okay, Middle Child is a company based in Hull and they cooked up All We Ever Wanted Was Everything for the UK City of Culture programme. The remarkable show was part of the Edinburgh Paines Plough’s Roundabout season at Summerhall. Think of it as a melding-together of a play (written by Luke) and a gig (with music composed by James Frewer). All We Ever Wanted charts Thatcher’s reign, through the Blair era and right up to the present day. The subject matter is a scorching dissection of consumerism. Really great.

We are talking at the Fringe, the day after I have seen the 75-minute spectacle.

It feels like a very 2017 show, I say. “I set out to make something that was quintessentially for our generation. Something that is made in a way that our generation can consume. The response has been what we’d hoped it would be, we’re really happy with it,” he smiles.

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He describes the lessons that he learned when writing the story. “The most important thing I have learned from making this show is: Hull Capital Culture. Hull, pre-this, was a city living in a shadow of itself, you’d go to there and everybody would be like ‘it’s shit but we love it’,” he says. “Invest money and time into a city like that and you’ve suddenly got an active community and a model you’ve given artists licence to be themselves and make work with breadth and scope.”

“It goes to show Arts Council England moving money out into the regions pays dividends. We can’t sustain a culture of artists having to go to London and needing their work seen there to make it. It’s about telling stories and finding partners to tell those stories,” he says.

Does he think enough writers speak up about politics? “Politics for James Graham means something very different than politics to Rachel De-lahay. What I try to do is articulate how politics affect everyday lives and our actual tangible existence,” says Barnes.

“I read something by Edward Bond recently where he says that a playwright’s duty is to record this moment in time, how this moment feels.” He continues. “A lot of playwrights of my generation try to write plays that are abject of time in the hope that they’ll be revived in the future or have life in Germany. For me, that’s not enough,” he shrugs.

‘FYI’ Barnes spent several years acting in the biggest television show on the planet: Game of Thrones.

So how does he handle success and failure ? “I think the lesson I learned was to surround myself with people who don’t necessarily work in theatre,” he declares.

“My mates all do normal jobs. It wasn’t until I left the show I realised that everyone had gone. It’s really fun having highs and lows but what you want is constant middles that are always going to be there.”

So what is next, post Edinburgh? “My play called ‘No One Will Tell Me How To Start A Revolution’ is on at the Hampstead Theatre, Downstairs. We’ve started rehearsals and I’m really excited…. It’s sort of like an archaic storytelling piece about a family that move to a new money town, being a teenager and fighting for acceptance; irrespective of your background,” he says.

CLICK HERE TO BUY YOUR COPY OF ‘ALL WE EVER WANTED’ SCRIPT

“There’s a finite number of theatres in England. You can’t hit all those theatres over five years”, he announces. “There are some writers who write two or three plays for big stages each year and they say fucking nothing; if you don’t live a normal life how can you engage the world?”

No One Will Tell Me How To Start A Revolution is on at Hampstead theatre, Downstairs, London, until 21 Oct.

Box office: 020-7722 9301.

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Howard Brenton, Interview: ‘Rome had crazed emperors, now America has one as it declines towards its fall.’

As the great Howard Brenton’s new play The Blinding Light arrives in the West End, we had a chat about age, Trump, being a writer and Strindberg.

At a British theatre-lover’s dream dinner party, Howard Brenton should be the first guest on the list. His dozens of plays include Epsom Downs, The Romans in Britain, In Extremis and Laurence After Arabia. Brenton has also published a novel and written for TV, including Spooks. He is one of theatre’s best people.

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Howard Brenton in rehearsals

We are talking during a week of rehearsals for The Blinding Light. Brenton gives no hint of anything readily except the sharpest mind and an unwavering honesty.

How is 2017 treating him, I ask? “Very well,” he says. “Though I’ve got old-man-in-a-hurry-itis – mid-seventies, so much I want to write, a sense of time running out.”

The Blinding Light is a 90-minute thriller about Strindberg’s Inferno period and charts Strindberg’s notorious breakdown in Paris in 1896, known as his ‘Inferno period’. The production is the first play of Tom Littler’s debut season at Jermyn St Theatre and a world premiere.

What does he like about Jermyn St Theatre? “It’s a very romantic theatre, tiny but in the middle of the West End. It has a great potential to radiate out invention and new work, says Brenton. “It’s also just about the same size as Strindberg’s Intimate Theatre in Stockholm – and look what that achieved!”

Who, I wonder, inspires him? “The conductor Daniel Barenboim. He’s a great musician – his first recording of Beethoven’s piano sonatas, made in his twenties, is an evergreen classic and he’s become the greatest living Wagner conductor,” he says quickly. “He’s Jewish and, with the Palestinian activist and scholar Edward Said, he founded the wonderful East-West Divan orchestra, made up of young Palestinian and Israeli musicians. Some may call him naive but I love his big heartedness, his faith that art can heal.”

Stindberg laid the foundations for modern drama and Brenton speaks with authority on the Scandinavian master. A born theatre-buff – he reels off a concise history of the Swedish dramatist. “Strindberg gave us two traditions, often at war with each other. His work is, roughly speaking, in two periods, either side of his notorious breakdown in Paris in 1896, his ‘Inferno period’ – the subject of The Blinding Light’,” he explains.

“Before that crisis he developed an intense naturalism in plays like ‘The Father’, ‘Creditors’ and, most famously, ‘Miss Julie’. Then, having abandoned the theatre for four years, he began a series of fantastical plays which founded modern expressionism – the great examples are ‘A Dream Play’, ‘The Ghost Sonata’ and the magnificent, all but unstageable, ‘To Damascus’. He went from one extreme to another – which was typical of him,” he goes on, “but he always wanted to make the theatre more real, at first by being true to the minutiae of everyday life – the famous cooking on stage in ‘Miss Julie’– then by trying to stage psychological states so vividly you think you are dreaming wide awake.  By ‘realist’ or ‘expressionist’ means he wanted audiences to see the world in a new light …  the Strindberg Project.”

His mood is serious, too, when we talk about Donald Trump; this is the week that the president’s business panel resigned. Then the arts and humanities. Then he sacked the lot. “Rome had crazed emperors, now America has one as it declines towards its fall. We’ll get dragged down with it unless we do something radical.”

What next for this remarkable playwright? “I’ve two big new plays going on in the new year, one at Hampstead Theatre and the other opening the new Nuffield Theatre Southampton. So, alongside The Blinding Light this is a hectic Summer of discussions with directors, rewrites and casting. I’m a very lucky playwright.”

Is it easy being a writer, I ask. “Yes,” he smiles. “The stress will, I’m sure, finally do me in but I love it so.”

The Blinding Light runs at Jermyn Street theatre, London, until 14 October.

 

Box office: 020-7287 2875.