John Hollingworth on writing – and rewriting – his first play, Multitudes

John HollingworthWhen actor John Hollingworth started writing his first full-length play, he had little idea it would take so long to reach the stage. No bad thing, though, when the result is Multitudes, currently at the Tricycle Theatre – and ‘as urgent and immediate as the morning headlines’ (Guardian). How did he do it? In this interview, first published by IdeasTap, he explains how plays can benefit from the development process without losing any of their impact or relevance…

How did the commissioning process work with Multitudes?

I’ve been lucky. The process started at the National Theatre Studio in 2010 when the ever-generous Purni Morell [then head of the NT Studio, now Artistic Director of the Unicorn Theatre] offered me some space. I fashioned a very early draft from this writing time, tried it out on some friends and was rewarded by Purni with a two-day workshop slot. I approached Indhu Rubasingham [theatre director, now Artistic Theatre of the Tricycle Theatre] to direct it, having worked with her as an actor on Women, Power and Politics [a season of short plays staged at the Tricycle in 2010].

The script turned out to be mortifyingly underwritten and she released the actors for the first afternoon while she and I talked through the structure and what wasn’t working. I went home, drank a silly amount of coffee and stayed up until I had two new opening scenes.

When Indhu later took over at the Tricycle she said she wanted to support the project. A seed commission – where a few hundred pounds is paid to a writer as gesture of professional interest – led to a full commission – where an amount you can live off for a few months is advanced – and then confirmation of full production. All in all I’d say that the process took four years.

Do you have any advice for writers on getting their first full-length play commissioned?

Get your writing out there. I was fortunate: some of my short plays were performed at Miniaturists at the Arcola, a shorts night at Soho Theatre and at a Midnight Matinee at The Tristan Bates Theatre. None of these experiences led directly to a commission but the experience of testing and improving work through rehearsal and performance improved my writing. I sent plays to the Bush and the Royal Court and received rejections that spurred me on to better my work.

Multitudes is a play about a clash of values in multicultural Britain, focussing on a Muslim family in Bradford. How did you research the play?

Multitudes

Multitudes at the Tricycle Theatre – photo by Mark Douet

I was working with David Hare when I started writing the play. I was inspired by his wrought verbatim method of taking things people have said and bending, hammering and bettering them into a sculpture that was definitively his.

I went back to Bradford, where I was at school, toting my dictaphone and door-stopped people. I had some interesting conversations but I was mostly just daunted and cold. Hunting down real things that people say was great ear-tuning for characters but I realised that I wanted to write a piece of fiction.

I began interviewing friends who are Muslim. The first person I sat down with was Asif Khan who has ended up being in the show. I got all my stupid questions out of the way and graduated from this to speaking to a couple of imams on increasingly-frequent trips back to Bradford.

I then went on to the tricky process of tracking down women who had accepted Islam. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this proved difficult. I met with two women in person and spoke with a third on the phone but many women were suspicious of my motives – what I might say about them and their personal, private decision.

Perhaps the best resource was Narratives of Conversion to Islam in Britain: Female Perspectives [a report published by the Centre of Islamic Studies at the University of Cambridge in May 2013]. It’s brilliantly readable and can be downloaded for free. That and other books – the Qur’an most obviously – helped me to further understand the journey these female converts had been on. This understanding was deepened further by spending a day with new Muslims at the Islamic Cultural Centre at London Central Mosque.

Were you ever worried about writing about a non-white family?

Multitudes at the Tricycle Theatre

Multitudes at the Tricycle Theatre – photo by Mark Douet

I was anxious to begin with and I think that is entirely appropriate – if you’re putting words in people’s mouths then you have a duty of care that they are believable. The long development time on the play has allowed five workshops with different sets of actors – six including the cast – and each one provided a frank and invaluable forum to interrogate the play and identify what wasn’t credible or accurate. I’m grateful to the British Asian actors in those workshops – they corrected what was wrong and shared personal stories that went on to influence the play.

If writers like me – pink-white, middle class, university educated – write about pink-white people doing pink-white things then the dominant discourse of the last few hundred years inches inexorably onwards. It’s time to change that discourse.

Multitudes is set on the eve of a Tory Party Conference. Why?

The conference gives high stakes and a short, defined timeframe, which is useful. My brother-in-law has been a political advisor to various Conservative MPs for the past few years and that has afforded me a valuable insight into that world. Given that the Tories are the Establishment party and the play looks at notions of Britishness, there was a natural fit there too and I wanted to make Natalie – the female convert at the heart of the play – the daughter of the local Tory party chairman.

What was the hardest scene in the play to write? Why? And how did you overcome those challenges?

Technically the hardest scene to write has been the one right before the interval. It’s long and involved and combative and riddled with interruption points and I feel spoilt to have a fantastically-capable cast who have reacted so enthusiastically to my changes. There were a lot of rewrites, late nights and cold coffee at midnight, but to see the play come to life in the hands of such a great bunch of actors has been a gift well worth losing sleep for.


MultitudesThis interview was first published by IdeasTap.

Multitudes by John Hollingworth is out now from Nick Hern Books. To buy your copy at a 20% discount – no voucher code required – click here.

The play is at the Tricycle Theatre, London, until 21 March.

Author photo by Mark Douet.

West End Producer: ‘Traditions and superstitions’

WEP_6717_mattcrockettThough they’re perfectly sensible, sane and rational in every other possible way, theatre folk are a rather superstitious lot. So to mark this Friday 13th, theatre impresario and masked Twitter phenomenon West End Producer – who was himself born onstage during a performance of Titus Andronicus - delves into the murky, sometimes confusing world of theatrical traditions and superstitions, and tells you everything you should (and shouldn’t) do…

 

The Green Room
The green room is the place where actors and stage management sit, bitch and drink. It is a place of sanctity that offers a change of scenery from the stage and dressing rooms. Of course, most green rooms carry a ‘public health warning’ as they are never cleaned. But they are very important places and usually have a TV, microwave and kettle. Indeed, some green rooms even have a selection of magazines to keep people occupied. Magazines that comprise mostly of porn. Which is a sure way of keeping actors quiet during the interval.

GreenRoom

‘The green room – where actors and stage management sit, bitch and drink.’

There are many thoughts and theories about where the term ‘green room’ originated, but here is my favourite. In Restoration theatre – in the late seventeenth century – costumes were elaborate and very expensive. And they were never washed. So actors had to be extremely diligent in keeping their costumes clean. This is why Restoration plays are traditionally performed in specific poses and stances – with the arms outstretched and legs apart – so that costumes do not touch and rub, and get dirty. However, theatres are filthy places, and the very nature of performing in them resulted in costumes and actors getting dirty and sweaty. The task of keeping costumes clean was particularly difficult when a character was expected to ‘die’ on stage. The thought of having an elaborate ‘writhing around on the floor death’ used to terrify Restoration actors as it was a sure way of getting their costumes dirty. This is where the green room came in. The green room was used to store a lot of green material (rather like the baize on a snooker table) – and at the precise moment an actor had to die, someone would run on stage and lay down a piece of this material so the death could happen without the costume getting filthy. Because lots of these strips of green material were left in a room near the stage it became known as the ‘green room’.

The other reason it is called the green room is because if you are an actor who spends a lot of time in there you will be ‘green with envy’ that you aren’t spending more time on stage playing a bigger part, dear.

No Whistling On Stage
You should avoid whistling on stage – or indeed offstage – for fear of things being dropped on your head. This dates back to when the people who used to build sets and help with rigging were hired from ships and boats in port. And as anyone who has worked backstage will know, crew members delight in showing off all the different knots they know – knots which were passed down and learnt from sailors.

On ships, the sailors would communicate by whistling certain calls and tunes which meant particular things (like ‘drop the sail’) – and this is how sailors also communicated in theatres. So if an actor whistled on stage he could accidentally be instructing a sailor/crew member to drop in a piece of scenery.

However, there are times when this tradition can be rather useful – particularly if you are understudying someone and fancy a go at the role. Simply do a lot of whistling at the appropriate moment and hope that a sailor drops a nice bit of heavy scenery onto their head. Naughty, dear.

Macbeth
The play Macbeth is apparently cursed, and if anyone says the name aloud in a theatre it is thought to bring bad luck. To get around this, people call it ‘The Scottish Play’.

450px-FirstFolioMacbeth

Don’t say it!

It is cursed because apparently the witches’ spells are actual spells that Shakespeare copied down and used in the play. I find this rather hard to believe, and haven’t seen any actual evidence – unless, of course, the spell is to make the actors playing Macbeth and Lady Macbeth have an affair. In which case the spell definitely works, dear.

Another reason for this superstition is that Macbeth contains more sword fights than any other Shakespearean play – so there is more chance of an accident. It is also believed that shortly after the first production of the play, the actor playing Macbeth died. I have subsequently seen many actors playing Macbeth who looked like they were dying on stage night after night. Bless them.

Traditionally, if an actor says ‘Macbeth’ in a theatre they have to leave the building, do a 10K run, down two pints of cider, sing ‘The Circle of Life’ backwards, rub a copy of the Complete Works of Shakespeare all over their naughty region, and defecate on a recently graduated drama student.

Pantomime Superstitions
In a pantomime it is considered bad luck to perform the whole piece without an audience – which means that it should never be fully performed before opening night. This can be something of a problem during dress rehearsals – when it is vital to do a full run. The way superstitious directors get around this is by not allowing the actors to say the final two lines of the show (which are traditionally rhyming couplets) until the opening night. This is fine if those two lines are easy, but a bloody nightmare if they’re not.

There is also the belief that the ‘good’ characters (Fairy Godmother/Genie) should only enter stage-right, and the ‘bad’ characters (Abanazar/King Rat) should enter stage-left. This is because in old theatres the baddie would make their first entrance rising from a trapdoor that was always on the left side of the stage. Also, in folklore, the ‘good’ side is always the right side – which explains why Ant is always on the left, and Dec is on the right, dear.

The Dress Rehearsal
There is a silly superstition that if you have a bad dress rehearsal you will have an excellent opening night. I understand the idea – that if the dress is a complete failure then nerves, energy and a desire to make it work will empower you to have a marvellous first show. Personally, though, I much prefer it if the dress rehearsal is a success. For one thing there is usually a photographer present, taking photos for front-of-house and marketing purposes – and we don’t want bad photos going front-of-house, otherwise what will the box office staff think? And secondly, I often invite industry friends to see the dress rehearsal – or ‘open dress’ as it is known – alongside colleagues, friends and theatre staff. It is a marvellous way of getting a true audience reaction – which is invaluable for the actors. It also provides the perfect opportunity for me to show off in front of all my friends, dear.

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Did you know ‘break a leg’ means ‘take a bow’?

‘Break a Leg’
The term ‘break a leg’ is said to actors so that people can avoid saying ‘good luck’ (which is considered bad luck).

The term itself refers to bowing, because when you bow you bend at the knees and ‘break’ the line of your leg. Hence ‘break a leg’ means ‘take a bow’.

It also refers to when audience members used to throw money onto the stage during the curtain call – causing actors to break the line of their leg by kneeling to pick up the money. I always think it such a shame that this tradition no longer happens – as most actors I know love getting on their knees for money.

It is also bad luck for actors to bow if they feel they haven’t performed well and don’t ‘deserve’ it. However, if this rule was followed properly there would be a lot of actors out there who would never bow at all. You know who you are…

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Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Acting – £10.99

The above is an edited extract from West End Producer’s hilarious book Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Acting (But Were Afraid To Ask, Dear). Packed with wit and marvellous indiscretion, full of gossip and insider knowledge, and with enough savvy advice to kickstart a career, it’s a practical – and sometimes deliciously impractical! – guide to everything you need to know about showbusiness.

To get your copy at a 20% discount – no voucher code required – click here.

Dymphna Callery: we need a more playful approach to staging plays

Dymphna CalleryDymphna Callery’s Through the Body: A practical guide to physical theatre is beloved of a generation of drama students. But have we ghetto-ised ‘physical theatre’ in an unhelpful way? In her new book published today, The Active Text, she looks at how physical theatre techniques can be used to unlock scripted plays, and inject new life into even the most familiar of texts…

 

Recently, several productions drawing rave reviews have challenged notions of naturalism, or at least received ideas about naturalistic plays. The Flemish director Ivo van Hove’s extraordinary staging of Arthur Miller’s A View From the Bridge is a case in point – it transfers to the West End this spring after a sell-out run at the Young Vic. In this production barefoot actors move within a minimalist black box set, perch on its edges rather than on chairs round a table in the Carbone apartment; the action is virtually underscored by Fauré’s Requiem with tension ratcheted up during family dinners by the ticks of a metronome. Van Hove has turned the play inside out; his streamlined aesthetic makes the words spoken more vibrant, the action more vital, the acting more resonant.

Luke Norris, Emun Elliott, Phoebe Fox and Mark Strong in A View from the Bridge. Photo by Jan Versweyveld

Luke Norris, Emun Elliott, Phoebe Fox and Mark Strong in A View from the Bridge. Photo by Jan Versweyveld

It would be perverse to refer to van Hove’s production as ‘physical theatre’, yet it is clearly non-naturalistic. Or rather, is not naturalism as we tend to think of it. All the trappings of our received ideas about naturalistic style have been stripped away. Miller’s stage directions for the design that seem so integral to the play in reading do not feature; costumes do not reflect the 1950s when the play is set. And the tragic story and its brutal outcome are all the more powerful and poignant.

So is there a label to suit such a production style? Labels, rather like comparisons, can be odious – though attaching labels to distinguish styles is often considered important. They provide some kind of certainty, a sort of comfort blanket that tells us what kind of play we are considering. Uncertainty makes us feel uncomfortable. But methods of judging and defining style can be problematic, the criteria used debateable. And labels can certainly outlive their currency. Frantic Assembly get frustrated at being labelled physical theatre, for example. They prefer to describe their work as ‘exciting contemporary theatre for new audiences’.

A View from the Bridge: Phoebe Fox (Catherine), Mark Strong (Eddie) and Nicola Walker (Beatrice). Photo by Jan Versweyveld

A View from the Bridge: Phoebe Fox (Catherine), Mark Strong (Eddie) and Nicola Walker (Beatrice). Photo by Jan Versweyveld

Physical theatre is frequently considered distinct from text-based theatre. Yet many companies bracketed as physical theatre produce plays. Frantic Assembly, Kneehigh and Complicite are examples of companies who work with playwrights, use scripted texts and create work that tests the boundaries of stylistic conventions. However, their process depends on working collaboratively using strategies associated with devising rather than following the traditional routes associated with text work. And it is this way of working that underpins my new book The Active Text, an approach more akin to collective storytelling, rooted in an imaginative use of space and the kind of physical listening between players that means their attention is focused outwards.

We meet a play on the page largely through dialogue, and performance seems to rest on how we flesh out the words. Those words are often the starting point – picked over at a desk or sitting on chairs round a table. Character behaviour is analysed and conclusions drawn about them. Then the words they speak get fleshed out by adding actions once everyone pushes back their chair. Yet dialogue is what David Mamet calls ‘sprinkles on the ice-cone’. It is the dynamic and kinaesthetic signals embedded in the text that bring it to life, its image structure in performance is as powerful as the words spoken. A play should be an experience for the senses and the minds of an audience. Unearthing the fabric of actions and images that determine what happens – and what an audience will see – is where it begins. And in my experience that doesn’t start with a read-through or sitting in a chair.

A traditional read-through is not the automatic recourse of early rehearsals for many directors, and even when it happens, actors don’t necessarily read the part they’ve been cast. Many contemporary directors start with anything but the text. Actors who have developed a capacity for play thrive in this context. And ‘play’ is at the heart of the improvisatory channels to discovering the style of a play, one which may challenge received ideas about what a play is supposed to look like in performance.

When teaching acting and directing for scripted texts I find applying principles of ‘play’ produces far more energised and vital results than following the conventional path of studying characters and what they say. Using improvisation and games to dig into a play before dealing with dialogue, and searching out physical means of expressing any subtext takes players to a more vital level and elicits more energised performances. And everyone feels they are having fun even when the text under scrutiny is serious.

Through the Body: A practical guide to physical theatre

Through the Body: A practical guide to physical theatre

How do you start using the approach I’m talking about? The notion of unlocking text via playful means is what underpins the approaches to working with text that form the body of The Active Text. Those familiar with my previous book Through the Body will find the exercises framed in similar terms, addressing a group rather than an individual actor or director, with an open stage/spectator relationship in operation which both prepares actors for an eventual audience and provides opportunities for learning through watching.

There are thirteen plays referred to throughout for illustration purposes, including A View from the Bridge, Woyzeck and Antigone - plays readers may already be familiar with. They are all plays I’ve used in studio or workshop contexts, or directed, so the exercises have been tested out. There are references to productions that embody some of the ideas behind or have influenced the approaches suggested, and also references to playwrights, practitioners, directors and actors whose words offer valuable insights into the rehearsal process. Putting their ideas into practice has invigorated my rehearsals and workshops – and there’s nothing more rewarding than the surprise of discovering something new or different about a play you thought you knew.


FormattedThe Active Text: Unlocking Plays Through Physical Theatre by Dymphna Callery is out now, published by Nick Hern Books.

To buy your copy at a 20% discount – no voucher code required – click here.

Visit www.dymphnacallery.co.uk for more details about her work.

West End Producer: ‘Let’s talk about panto’

WEP_6717_mattcrockettHo ho ho, dears, ho ho ho. Taken from his book Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Acting, theatre impresario and Twitter phenomenon West End Producer gives you the lowdown on the festive theatrical staple that is pantomime, and tells you how to survive one…

Once a year a great theatrical tradition is practised in most theatres around the country. It is an event that has been passed down from father to child, from mother to milkman, from cross-dresser to giant. It is a marvellous, magical time when theatres actually make money. It is, of course, the Christmas pantomime.

Pantomimes are a hugely important event in a theatre’s diary. They are the show that sells far more than any other, and in many instances it is the success of the panto that allows the theatre to survive for the rest of the year.

Sadly, many people in the business look down on panto as an inferior form of theatre. It is not in the slightest. These people have just not seen a good one, or don’t really understand the joy of pantomime. Most people’s first venture into a theatre is to see a panto with their family at Christmas. Children have a wonderful time, and leave the theatre amazed by all the colours, effects and good honest fun – unless the panto has got Jim Davidson in it. In which case the child is put off theatre for life.

A panto is one of the hardest acting jobs it is possible to do. It will often involve more than twenty shows a week, living in the theatre, and cross-dressing on a daily basis. This can be a heavy burden on your voice, your physical stamina and your sex life. Many actors find that, after performing twenty shows a week, the last thing they want to do is an extra performance in bed. In fact, the best example of ‘suffering for your art’ is a pantomime at 10 a.m., dear.

Never trust a Buttons who is over the age of thirty-five. Many older actors who first played Buttons when they were eighteen are now still playing him at the age of sixty – which makes no sense whatsoever. It is very uncomfortable when the OAP Buttons tells the twenty-two-year-old Cinderella that he loves her. Unless, of course, the panto is being produced by the BBC – where this kind of thing is normal, dear.

When playing Snow White, never be fooled by your seven dwarfs. I have heard countless stories where the dwarfs convinced Snow White that she should sleep with them so they could all be truly close and comfortable. Never, ever do this. Unless you want to witness Grumpy feeling Happy.

Another ingredient of a successful panto are the ‘babes’. To be honest, I find the term ‘babes’ a little wrong, as the ‘babes’ are the young children who are brought in from the local dance school, and not the women who work in the local strip joint. I always feel uneasy calling these kids ‘babe’ and instead I call them the ‘little dears’. This term is useful, as it sounds both affectionate and condescending all at the same time. Whenever the ‘little dears’ are in or around the theatre they will be followed by some large ladies who have an abundance of facial hair. These are the kids’ chaperones. These ladies (and men) have the difficult task of keeping an eye on the children at all times and making sure no one goes within two metres of them. Naturally, it is very important that these children are protected and cared for in the theatre – particularly when there are men dressed as women, women dressed as men, and people called Dick. And because of this, the chaperone has to remind the children constantly that they are in a theatre – and it is not real life. They also have the important job of making sure that the adults keep their distance – and it is usual that in order to speak to the ‘little dears’ you have to send a letter, get it approved, be CRB-checked, sanitise your hands, go in front of the local council, and promise not to talk about burgers, chips or One Direction.

SantaWEP

‘Have a Merry Christmas, dear.’

A hugely important tradition at Christmas time is Secret Santa – where every member of the company buys a present for someone else anonymously. It is a lovely festive game that reveals what everyone thinks about their colleagues. There is usually a budget set of around £5 – although sometimes people spend a lot more or a lot less. People who spend less are the cheapskates of the company, and people who spend more are the show-offs. But, of course, if you are the lead in the show, you are legally obliged to spend at least three times the set amount.

The aim of Secret Santa is to offend as many people as possible. This can be done by buying inappropriate gifts, cheap gifts, or gifts that you were given the year before. I have seen many companies reduced to tears as a result of the Secret Santa gifts. It really is quite funny, and something which I always aim to witness. There are no real rules to it either – apart from making sure that everyone gets a present. There is nothing worse than a gift-less performer screaming and sobbing in the corner.

In approximately the second week of January most pantomimes finish – and many tired, withered, alcohol-sodden actors head back home. It is a sad time when frocks are hung up, greasepaint is packed away, and gurning is forgotten about for nine months. If you ever see one of these ex-panto actors wandering the streets, please do your bit and buy them a biscuit, a cake, or simply give them a smile. It’s not easy being an actor. And it’s even less easy being an unemployed actor in January.

Actors resign themselves to the fact that they won’t get any auditions during January – as this is the time when casting directors and directors sit at home watching DVD box sets whilst playing with themselves. And why not? We all need to do that once in a while.

When actors finish a show, it can be very hard returning to normal life. Particularly after you’ve been busting your gut for three months entertaining families across the country. Suddenly coming back to nothing can be very disheartening indeed, and is, in many respects, the hardest part of being an actor. I have seen it first hand, when ex-partners of mine took weeks to get over their post-show depression. And that is what it is – a form of depression, as you attempt to move on from the life you have been living.

I am always upset when I see unemployed friends of mine wandering aimlessly around London at the start of a new year. It saddens me deeply, so I do my bit and buy them a sausage roll. Actors love a bit of cheap meat in flaky pastry, dear.

WEP book

Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Acting – £10.99

The above is an edited extract from West End Producer’s hilarious book Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Acting (But Were Afraid To Ask, Dear). Packed with wit and marvellous indiscretion, full of gossip and insider knowledge, and with enough savvy advice to kickstart a career, it’s a practical – and sometimes deliciously impractical! – guide to everything you need to know about showbusiness.

To get your copy at a 20% discount – no voucher code required – click here.

Merry Christmas from all of us here at Nick Hern Books!

Ayub Khan Din: my family in East is East – and other stories

Din, Ayub KhantActor-turned-playwright Ayub Khan Din is currently playing the role inspired by his own father in a West End revival of his play East is East. Here he reveals how all the plays in a new collection of his work have drawn on his own experience and his turbulent relationship with his family…

I began writing East is East in 1982 in my first year in drama school. It had never occurred to me that I might end up becoming a playwright – but realising early on that there were so few parts for Asian actors, plus a dramatic turn of events at home, pushed me to start writing what eventually would become East is East.

Jobs for Asian actors at that time were few and far between and mostly consisted of race-crime victims and corner-shop owners, even then only as backdrops to the main event. The only real storylines that interested the programme-makers always centred on arranged marriages, where the girl was being forced into a relationship not of her choosing. Though this was an important issue, and still is today, in my case it was my brothers who were the victims and the perpetrator was my father, who himself had chosen to marry an Englishwoman.

The dramatic event on the home front was that my mother had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s at the age of fifty-five. It seemed that every time I returned home to Salford, the disease had progressed and huge chunks of our lives were being eaten away and lost for ever. She was the only common denominator between my father and his estranged children, so even more reason to start writing things down before it was too late. I don’t think I ever asked either of my parents any pertinent questions about their relationship. Why they did the things they did? Why they married? Why did he decide to marry an Englishwoman, even though he already had a wife and two daughters in Pakistan, whom he always considered his family?

East is East - the new edition published alongside the revival at Trafalgar Studios

East is East – new edition published alongside the revival at Trafalgar Studios

A million questions any writer should have asked for research. But I didn’t. It’s not what we talked about in my family. In fact, we really didn’t talk about anything. We never questioned my father or any of the decisions he made. The TV blared loudly in the corner, and we did as we were told.

As my older siblings decided that my father’s way of life wasn’t the life they wanted, there would be conflicts and banishments. My mother always defended our right to make choices and would be on the receiving end of my father’s physical abuse, all of which I witnessed. It wasn’t all doom and gloom: you learn to live the life you have, because it’s the only life you know and it’s actually perfectly normal to you. We knew what buttons not to press with my father, but inevitably they did get pressed.

Writing East is East took place over a number of years, through drama school and my first acting job with the Tara Arts Theatre Company, an Asian theatre group, where I spent some of my most formative years as an actor. Tara was an ensemble group that devised all its own shows, then toured them up and down the country, playing to diverse audiences. I didn’t know it but I was learning my craft, and how to formulate arguments and develop characters, all of which would add to East is East. It went through a couple of drafts and then got slung in the back of a drawer. I was too busy being a celluloid tart to think about writing.

It was always something I did as a hobby in between acting jobs. Never ever something I showed to anybody. It had a play-reading in 1986 at the Albany Empire purely because I was taking part in a playwriting competition as an actor. I mentioned it to the director and he got me to bring it in. When I got the title role in Sammy and Rosie Get Laid by Hanif Kureishi, which was being directed by Stephen Frears, once again my whore’s eyes turned to dreams of Hollywood and stardom. East is East went back in the drawer.

East is East - the original edition, with Linda Bassett as Ella Khan

East is East – the original edition, with Linda Bassett as Ella Khan

Cut to: 1995 and my friends had set up Tamasha Theatre. Sudha Bhuchar and Kristine Langdon-Smith had been approached by the Royal Court to do a joint production. Kristine and Sudha suggested a two-week workshop to look for and develop new Asian writers. Sudha asked me if I still had East is East.

I did. We did the workshop. I fell in love with writing. The play was chosen. It opened at Birmingham Repertory studio on the 8th October 1996 and the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs on the 19th November 1996. Eventually we were allowed downstairs at the Royal Court in March 1997.

[East is East is revived at the Trafalgar Studios in the West End in a production starring Jane Horrocks as Ella Khan and Ayub Khan Din as George Khan. The production runs until 3 January 2015]

Notes on Falling Leaves

I don’t know why I choose the subjects I write about, I think they choose me. I never set out to write plays with messages, I’m not interested in telling an audience what to think. I prefer my characters to present the truth according to the world they inhabit. I don’t always agree with what they say, but it’s important that they say it. Sometimes they may say things we’d rather not hear, that may be offensive to some, but that’s life. For me the most enjoyable drama should attempt to stimulate argument, thought and debate.

Notes on Falling Leaves - published alongside the Royal Court premiere starring Pam Ferris and Ralf Little

Notes on Falling Leaves – published alongside the Royal Court premiere starring Pam Ferris and Ralf Little

Notes on Falling Leaves [first performed at the Royal Court Theatre Downstairs in February 2004] took me out of my comfort zone. It became a much more abstract play than I had originally intended. As I mentioned earlier, my mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s at an early age and eventually the disease claimed her life after three years. I always found it difficult during the family visits to see her. In my mind, I was never quite sure what it was I was actually visiting… It sounds a harsh and unfeeling statement, but it was made from a place of safety, that I could observe from. I never saw any sign of recognition and really didn’t want to be around her, as I found it too upsetting. I didn’t know how to engage with her on this level.

The first draft of the play started in a very conventional manner. Set on a ward similar to my mother’s, about a group of women all suffering from Alzheimer’s. What struck me about the ward was that the women had led full and active lives. One had been a concert pianist, another a high-ranking official in the Salvation Army, and one woman had been head of Manchester libraries. Then, of course, there was my mother and all she had been through in her life (see East is East).

The idea was always to discover what happened to the women they were. Was there anything left of their personalities? I had the idea that they came alive at night, when no one was around. A magic hour when they became themselves once again. The pianist would play, the Salvation Army officer would talk about God and her faith, the librarian would read, and my mother – my mother would make tea and talk about her children.

It was all very nice and lovely and magical. But it was also a lie. It said nothing of what they were going through and felt totally dishonest about the disease that was slowly destroying them. After about thirty pages of this Hans Christian Alzheimer’s nonsense, I frustratedly deleted it – but was left with a small passage of dialogue. The dialogue was the character of the Mother. There was something in what she said that struck home. I felt that she suddenly had a voice that had expression from wherever her personality had retreated to.

Here was a woman who still had feeling, who was still being affected by the world that was increasingly fading around her, striving to communicate. From that point on I realised that it could be only about her. Her understanding of the world she lived in and what was happening to her through what was left of her personality. And me. About my feelings towards her. About a journey we took together, that altered both our lives for ever.

The play had to be raw, ugly and visceral. I remembered that journey we took. To the doctor’s, when we were told she had Alzheimer’s. How our world suddenly changed. The tables turned and I wasn’t a child any more. She was asked to wait outside. And then they told me. I was nineteen and felt completely useless, alone with this awful knowledge. Outside the world was light and sunny, but the walk back home was dark and would continue to get darker.

In the play, the Mother and son make the same journey, which is seared into both their minds. And heard from both their perspectives. For the Man, it becomes a journey he recreates, the night he returns to the family home for the last time, with a girlfriend he barely knows. Back to a house that is completely familiar to him, nothing changed, everything in its place. But untouched, it sits empty in the shadows, silently waiting the return of the family that will never return.

All the Way Home

photo adjusted

The Din family in Salford (Ayub’s elder brother in his father’s arms)

Yet another piece inspired by family tragedy!

My eldest brother had been diagnosed with cancer and was dying. In his last months we’d all try to make it back to Salford to visit him. It was strange, as it was the first time all ten siblings had been together since childhood. Some of us had been estranged for many years. The Salford we knew had changed. The last bits we recognised were literally being pulled down around our ears. It was no longer the place we grew up in, and, for most of us, escaped from. I say escape, because that is what it felt like. It didn’t mean that we hated Salford, quite the opposite, we all carry a certain nostalgia for the time we lived there. But it would be wrong to think we have the same kind of relationship now. We all change and look at things differently. Particularly with the relationships we have with our past. The Salford we knew was gone, particularly so for the people who left. Not so for the people who stayed behind.

There was such a sense of heightened reality at this time. Everything seemed so vivid, to me. Colours, what people said and the way that they said it. The clichés of death and dying that haunted that environment. The wet dreary weather, the endless stillness as I stood and watched the gush of water from a tap that overflowed into the kettle. The sound of a washing machine, as it filled the silences of a sombre conversation. I felt that I was waiting, not for a death, but a judgement. People asked if I’d spoken to my brother, as if he were going to impart some great critique of my life to date. Had something happened that I wasn’t aware of? Had I said something untoward? Even complete strangers were looking at me knowingly, as if saying, ‘You’d better go and get it off your chest.’

One man had the gall to tell me he hadn’t spoken to my brother, his best friend, since they fell out over East is East! He said it in such a way that it was obvious he held me responsible for this rift. The accusation was left hanging in the air between us. Time stood still, yet again, as I registered the fresh shaving-cut on his chin, the smell of tobacco on his breath and the death’s-head earring hanging from a hairy lobe. The mind boggles as to what their argument was about. Nonetheless, he stood there taking the moral high ground, idiot-like in his expectation, waiting for some kind of apology. Now, here was his big chance to face the creator of the film that initiated the argument, that had destroyed an obviously much-cherished friendship.

‘Oh,’ I said, ‘that was a bit fucking stupid,’ and walked away.

I can only hope that brought him some kind of closure.

All the Way Home [first performed at the Lowry, Salford, in September 2011] is about the clash of the past and present. How the past is always a major contributor to our present and our future. How it informs who we are, the paths we choose to follow and the mistakes we make. It’s a play about a family and their struggle to come to terms with each other. How, inevitably, while facing the death of one of their own, they are compelled to confront their own lives and those of their siblings. Forced to evaluate each other through their own disappointments. What is it that brings them together? What are the things that remain unsaid, boiling below the surface, as they move through the rituals of death? What is it that makes these things eventually erupt?

To Sir, With Love

I was asked, quite by chance, if I’d be interested in adapting this wonderful book [the autobiographical novel by E.R. Braithwaite]. What really resonated for me was the subject of education, of how we teach our children – not just the basics of reading and writing, but how we send them out into the world to become part of society. Something I believe is sadly lacking in today’s world. So many of the theories we have about education today can trace their DNA back to the work of Alex Bloom, the Headmaster of St George-in-the-East, the school on which To Sir, With Love is based.

Some of Bloom’s ideas were revolutionary, but, like most geniuses, Alex Bloom was largely ignored by his own education authorities. However, many of his theories were put into practice by educationalists across post-war Europe.

To Sir, With Love - published alongside the 2013 production

To Sir, With Love – published alongside the 2013 production

To Sir, With Love [first performed at Royal & Derngate, Northampton, in September 2013] is also about our history, the history of Empire and Commonwealth, subjects so many of our young people know little about. It’s the key to understanding who we are and what our place is in today’s Britain.

E.R. Braithwaite understands this: it’s why his story has such relevance to young people of immigrant backgrounds at a time when the Government is telling us how to be British citizens.

It’s important for young white Britain to know that black and Asian Britain has been part of the make-up of this country for centuries. That we are descendants of races who have fought and died for the freedoms that this country now enjoys. We are an essential part of British history and an indivisible part of the fabric of her society, not just as former subjects from across the seas, but as active participants of this nation’s history.

This is one of the lessons Braithwaite used to fight the racism he found in the classroom and which was levelled at him. It was important for him that his kids knew they had a useful place in society, and that their participation in that society was imperative if it was to continue to grow and flourish.

We all have to understand each other’s histories and stories, because it’s only when we do, that we discover that there is so much more that binds us than divides us.


The above is taken from the Foreword to Ayub Khan Din Plays: One, out now from Nick Hern Books. The volume contains the plays East is East, Notes on Falling Leaves, All the Way Home and To Sir, With Love.

To buy your copy now at a 20% discount – no voucher code required – click here.

‘A dark twisting of nostalgia': Enda Walsh on his recent plays, from The Walworth Farce to Ballyturk

Enda Walsh photo by Patrick RedmondAs a new collection of his plays is published alongside the UK premiere of his latest play Ballyturk at the National Theatre, the London-based Irish playwright reflects on new directions in his work…

When we moved from Cork to London – about ten years ago now – we rented a house off the Old Kent Road. My wife Jo got a job at the Independent newspaper and I acquisitioned a box bedroom to write some plays in. I didn’t know many people in London back then – and those I first got to know were working the cash registers in my local Tesco.

On the bus on the way into the city I would pass the roundabout on the Elephant and Castle. Inevitably the bus would stop in heavy traffic and I remember deciding I would write a play about that very spot and about that feeling of being trapped and churned by your environment.

The play – The Walworth Farce – formed itself as a high-octane farce, which was a real surprise as we have no history of that style of performance back in Ireland. I had that image of farce seeping out of the West End and tunnelling under the Thames and finding its way to a tower block – and into the unfortunate lives of these Irishmen who really should be building Britain.

The play quickly wrote in three weeks and as I was writing it I had already decided to write a companion piece called The New Electric Ballroom. Both plays I think of as very Irish – plays about a shared family story where a person visiting will somehow force the truth out of that uncertain history. The New Electric Ballroom was quieter – more elegiac – but again it became about the pressures of the environment on these isolated characters.

Ballyturk Cillian Murphy, Mikel Murfi pic Patrick Redmond

Mikel Murfi in Ballyturk (with Cillian Murphy behind). Photo by Patrick Redmond

Both plays kickstarted my collaboration with Mikel Murfi. I was a huge fan of his work as a director and actor when I saw him in Dublin. He signed up to direct The Walworth Farce for Druid in Ireland, came over to London where we sat in my attic drinking tea and performing the Farce to one another – our combined energy could have powered a small city. Mikel went on to perform as Patsy in The New Electric Ballroom – both plays toured around the world for a few years and their dark twisting of nostalgia seemed to strike a chord – particularly in America.

I’m always surprised how my British contemporaries often write plays directly about the world around them – like theatre is there to dramatise what we see in the news or talk about at dinner parties. It’s very peculiar and at its best it can be powerful and feel vital, I suppose. My one attempt to talk specifically about ‘something that was actually happening’ was in the play Penelope.

Penelope published by Nick Hern Books

Penelope published by Nick Hern Books

When the crash in 2008 decimated the fantasy that Ireland had created for itself, a German theatre in Oberhausen had already approached me and four other European playwrights to each take a section of the Odyssey to adapt. I was reading a lot about Irish bankers and financiers who were either killing themselves or being publicly vilified. I decided to write a play about Penelope’s suitors as they await their collective murder. It became part-situation-comedy, part-existential-scratching – scored by Herb Alpert. Not exactly social commentary then but it was what it was. Mikel directed the English-language premiere and the work I could tell was becoming more visual – a little more abstracted than before.

Two short plays followed – My Friend Duplicity and Room 303. Together – and I can only see it now – the themes of both plays had an effect on my most recent play, Ballyturk.

While the early plays – those in the first volume of my collected plays – were driven by language, I think – the new volume is concerned more with a play’s shape. The Walworth Farce locked the characters in a very mathematical form – shifting them about to the tight rhythms and rules of farce.

Ballyturk production image of Cillian Murphy, photographer Patrick Redmond

Cillian Murphy in Ballyturk. Photo by Patrick Redmond

In Ballyturk, the play is guided by an outside force too. Like the characters, the play feels directionless and lost – thrown from one atmosphere to another. The question of what an audience takes home – what they experience – kept being asked. With Ballyturk we would tell a story – but more significantly we wanted an audience to experience form shifting radically.

Though I’m loath to define it for myself, the work in recent years is changing in other ways too. The process remains the same from when I was in my early twenties – I trust my instincts – the play will find its own shape, its own way.


FormattedThe above is taken from the Foreword to Enda Walsh Plays: Two, out now from Nick Hern Books. The volume contains the plays The Walworth Farce, The New Electric Ballroom, Penelope, Ballyturk and two short plays, My Friend Duplicity and Room 303.

To buy your copy now at a 20% discount – no voucher code required – click here.

Enda Walsh discusses his new play Ballyturk in a National Theatre Platform tonight, Friday 19 September. This event will be followed by a booksigning. For more information, click here.

Geoffrey Beevers: ‘bringing Eliot alive’ – adapting Middlemarch

Beevers, GeoffreyIn addition to his highly successful career as an actor, Geoffrey Beevers is also a writer and director. He has a particular love for George Eliot’s work, having adapted a number of her novels for the stage – most recently Middlemarch, which premiered at the Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond, in 2013. Here, Geoffrey discusses why he was drawn to the project, and how he approached the task of putting this long and multi-faceted story on stage.

I had always been fascinated by the challenge of adapting Middlemarch, and to discover whether it could work on stage. The characters are so rich and their problems so close to our own, in spite of the difference in time – misguided relationships and money worries, future expectations raised and dashed – and it seemed to me to carry a detail of original observation not often portrayed in theatre.

I was also inspired by the thought of bringing Eliot’s language alive for a live audience. On the page, one’s eye can glide over the sentences, and sometimes miss her subtlety and, above all, her sense of humour. People sometimes confess to giving up on George Eliot because they find it ‘heavy’. But, like Shakespeare, her dialogue reveals so much more when spoken aloud and shared; her language dense, but very speakable. And I wanted to include her own distinctive voice, shared by the cast, and her ironic comments on the action as it unfolds.

DOROTHEA. Come and look at my plans for some workers’ cottages. I shall think I’m a great architect!

Dorothea was remarkably clever.

CELIA. But Celia was spoken of as having more common sense.

DOROTHEA. Dorothea was enamoured of intensity and greatness.

BROOKE. She was not yet twenty.

I’ve tried to use only her words throughout.

I’ve always loved the challenge of huge themes in intimate spaces, where the principle must be, not: ‘What can we do with this?’ but: ‘What can we do without? How can we tell this story, as simply as possible, so the story will shine through?’ I wanted to use only a few actors and a minimum of setting, and leave as much as possible to the audience’s imagination.

Scene Four

BROOKE (as he changes into SIR JAMES’S DRIVER). One day,
Dorothea and Celia had been to see the building site for the
new cottages on Sir James’s estate, and were being
driven home.

The table has become an open carriage, a chair the driver’s seat. A cold day. They bump along.

I also believe audiences enjoy the versatility of actors. I relished doubling characters that have dramatic similarities but are, in fact, very different – the indulgent Vincy parents could double with the stricter Garths; the introverted Casaubon with the extrovert Featherstone; the vague Brooke with the focused Bulstrode; Will, who has so much pride, with Fred, who has so little.

Middlemarch Doctor's Story prod shot

The Doctor’s Story, performed at Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond in 2013
Photograph by Robert Day

The shape of the trilogy emerged as I worked on it. I took the three main strands from the book – Dorothea’s story, the Doctor’s story and Fred and Mary’s story (county, town and country) – to make three self-contained plays, each in its own social sphere, with differing attitudes to status and money. I knew I would need certain scenes repeated from one play to the next, as the stories overlapped, but enjoyed the fact that these scenes could be angled differently to meet a different perspective. I also became interested in the structural similarities between the stories. It’s obvious that each is based on a marriage, or a potential marriage, and at least the hint of an ‘eternal triangle’; but each play also has, at its centre, an onstage death which has unexpected repercussions on everything that follows. And it became clear that the third play (a strand sometimes considered more of a lighter subplot in the novel) answers the first two plays, and provides solutions to the problems the protagonists face. Dorothea impulsively leaps into her first marriage, Lydgate drifts into his, both with disastrous results. Each expects something from their partners that they are unable to give, because they have opposite ways of thinking. But Mary waits for Fred until he has found his feet, and they both know each other well enough so they can truly share the same values.

Of course, a trilogy can be no substitute for a great novel. For a start, there is little place in drama for description or philosophical digression. But every examination of a classic should throw up something of interest, if attempted honestly. My aim was to reach, as simply and directly as possible, the dramatic heart of the book, where the characters are tested by their actions; and above all to share with a live audience the compassion, the wit and the irony of George Eliot’s incomparable mind.

The plays in The Middlemarch Trilogy premiered at the Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond, from October 2013, to critical acclaim:

★★★★ – ‘a delight from beginning to end… one of the most captivating literary dramatisations I’ve ever encountered, as rich as a Christmas pudding’ Telegraph

★★★★ – ‘inspired… a terrific achievement’ Evening Standard

★★★★ – ”it has an elegance and wit, and, above all, it’s eminently digestible’ The Times


Tamara von Werthern

Here are a few words from our Performing Rights Manager, Tamara von Werthern:

Dorothea marrying dry old academic Casaubon, despite being better suited to his young cousin Will; Dr Lydgate’s disastrous marriage to beautiful but self-centred Rosamond and childhood sweethearts Fred and Mary whose union is threatened by Fred’s dependance on an as yet unsecured inheritance. From whichever angle you approach this magnificent novel, there’s plenty of drama and wonderfully conflicted characters within it. Each of these three plays can be treated as a complete stand-alone play and offer a unique perspective on the great Middlemarch story. But perform them as a trilogy, and you end up with a multi-faceted masterpiece.

The play can be fluidly and very simply staged, with as little furniture as two chairs, one table and a chaise longue by a cast of at least five women and six men (although there are fifty speaking parts throughout). There are incredibly helpful production notes with the published play trilogy, but in case you need only one of the plays, we are also happy to supply you with print-on-demand scripts for the single play.

FormattedThe performing rights are £69 plus VAT for each stand-alone piece, or £150 plus VAT for the whole trilogy – do apply before rehearsals begin!

We’re delighted to publish the script to Geoffrey Beevers’ The Middlemarch Trilogy, a masterfully realised adaptation of Eliot’s classic novel.

To buy your copy now at a 20% discount – no voucher code required – click here.