‘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 tomorrow, 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.

‘Every picture tells a story’ – a tribute to Kevin Elyot

Kevin ElyotThe writer Kevin Elyot, best known for his Olivier Award-winning 1994 play My Night With Reg, died last weekend. Here, we pay tribute to Kevin’s life and career, with a look back at Kevin’s early years as a writer, a comment from publisher Nick Hern, and an extract from his most famous play.

Kevin Elyot recalls his Birmingham childhood, his first forays into theatre, and the origins of My Night With Reg.

The choir of St Peter’s in Handsworth, the Birmingham suburb where I spent my early years, consisted of a handful of grownups and myself. On certain Sundays we’d process through the streets with the vicar, carrying a cross, swinging incense and singing hymns. I was quite short at the time. Janet, one of the women, was fairly large. She had a childlike face, curly hair, a kind heart and a simple disposition. She’d regularly plonk herself down next to me in the vestry, both of us in cassock and surplus, and say, ‘Every picture tells a story.’ Then she’d laugh, and I’d smile, but I didn’t have a clue what she was talking about.

My parents often took my sister and me to the theatre: variety bills at the Hippodrome, where the number of the act would be displayed at the side of the stage, and pantomimes and plays at the Rep and the Alexandra. We had a family outing to Stratford when I was about ten to see a matinée of Richard the Third with Christopher Plummer and Eric Porter. That was the start of my love affair with the place: I’d do the hour’s journey on top of the 150 from Birmingham, queue for standing tickets and see shows two or three times. I was addicted, but it was St Peter’s that gave me my first fix.

*

For the briefest time I was taken into the confidence of Peggy Ramsay, the revered literary agent. In her office in Goodwin’s Court I perched on the sofa, where I fondly hoped Joe Orton had sat, and listened to the gossip and her occasional barbed opinions, sometimes of her own clients.

Elyot Four Plays cover

The cover to the anthology
Kevin Elyot: Four Plays

She’d taken me on after reading Coming Clean, my first foray into professional writing. From 1976 to 1984 I’d acted in several productions at the Bush Theatre, and Simon Stokes, one of the artistic directors, had casually suggested I try my hand at a play. I presented them with a script entitled Cosy, which was passed on to their literary manager Sebastian Born. He responded favourably and, largely through his support, it finally opened on 3 November 1982 under the title Coming Clean. Cosy had fallen out of favour – a pity, as I’d always liked the pun on the opera which plays such an important part. I came up with the present title as a necessary compromise after what had proved to be quite a bumpy ride from acceptance to premiere.

The Bush was the perfect space for David Hayman’s intensely intimate production, as Tony tried in vain to come to terms with his ‘open’ relationship with Greg. These were hedonistic times, when the worse that might happen, health-wise, was usually sorted by a trip to the clinic, where you’d pretend not to recognise each other, alarmingly aged in the cruel light of day, and when AIDS was a barely credible rumour filtering from across the Atlantic. The play’s final scene has an elegiac quality – in retrospect, almost a sense of foreboding. When Peggy saw it, she was in tears. ‘That’s the saddest thing I’ve ever seen,’ she said, disgorging the contents of her handbag on the floor. From then on, it was downhill.

‘lf you don’t write your next play soon, you’ll never write again,’ she warned. Alarmed, I forced out a piece called A Quick One. ‘Rather than write stuff like this,’ she said, ‘you should take up a hobby, like squash.’ Then I thought I’d try my hand at a radio play, According to Plan, which she insisted she wouldn’t be able to sell. I asked Sebastian Born, by now a literary agent with James Sharkey Associates, if he thought he might be able to sell it, which he did. It was transmitted in 1987 on Radio 4, directed by Pat Trueman, with Sheila Reid, Jean Anderson and Tom Wilkinson. Sebastian became my agent and the manuscript of A Quick One disappeared without trace.

I’ve yet to try my hand at squash.

*

One evening in the summer of 1993, alone in a house outside Todi, I thought, ‘So this is how it ends.’

The malaise had begun during what proved to be my last acting job – ironically, a tour of Molière’s The Hypochondriac. The gloom of fetching up in wintry, wet Worthing, or Swindon, or Poole, week after week in a fairly dismal show, was compounded by private fear as I obsessively weighed myself, wondering why the pounds were slowly shedding. By the summer, still refusing medical advice, I insisted on holidaying with friends in Umbria, where I spent most of the time in bed, high on fever and a diet of paracetamol. I even took some old antibiotics I’d come across, which brought me out in a fearful rash. My friends took me to a dermatologist, who, when he saw it, muttered, ‘Bestiale,’ and told me to take a blood test at the hospital in Todi. This I did with no intention of finding out the result.

The evening in question, I noticed a storm threatening on the horizon. It reached the house, cutting off the electricity, so I went outside to the fuse box, a pointless exercise even if I hadn’t had a fever. Back inside, huddled up on the sofa in the dark, I thought, for the first time in my life, that this was it. It wasn’t, but things would never be quite the same again.

Within days of getting home I was hospitalised with pneumonia. The love of family and friends, and the exceptional skill of Margaret Johnson and her team at the Royal Free, pulled me back from the brink – also, quietly but insistently, My Night with Reg, already scheduled for production the following year. Though I learnt later how close I was to snuffing it, I never once, after diagnosis, believed that I wouldn’t pull through. Since then I’ve clung to projects almost like fetishes to keep together body and soul.

My Night with Reg had been a long time coming. I thought of the title in 1983, but didn’t write it until nearly ten years later. In the meantime it started to emerge: a David Bowie concert I’d been to at Bristol’s Colston Hall in 1973; listening to ‘Every Breath You Take’ on the roof of an apartment block overlooking Central Park; the death of a dear friend and the funeral of another – gradually the pieces began to fall into place. In 1991 it was commissioned by Hampstead Theatre. In 1993 they passed on it and Sebastian submitted it to the Royal Court. He got a swift response, and Stephen Daldry, in the process of taking the reins from Max Stafford-Clark, scheduled it for Easter 1994 in the Theatre Upstairs. He suggested Roger Michell should direct it, and our first meeting took place while I was still in the Royal Free. And so it moved forward, and I was determined to see it through. What seemed at times to be so nearly an ending proved, in fact, a beginning.

[Extract from the Foreword to Kevin Elyot: Four Plays]


Nick Hern, who published Kevin’s play My Night With Reg alongside its 1994 Royal Court premiere, pays tribute to Kevin’s contribution both to British theatre and NHB:

My Night With Reg

The cover to the playtext of My Night With Reg, first published alongside its 1994 Royal Court premiere

‘I’ll always be grateful to Kevin Elyot for two principle reasons. One, as the author of some of the wittiest, most poignantly acerbic plays of the 1990s; and two as the inadvertent saviour of Nick Hern Books, which had not long struggled into independent life when My Night With Reg transferred from the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs to the Criterion in the West End where it ran for seven glorious months before transferring again to the Playhouse. Thanks to the Royal Court, Nick Hern Books was supplying the Criterion with programme/texts, and I remember delivering over 5000 copies a month to the stage door throughout the run, thus generating badly needed income for the fledgling NHB.

‘Kevin in person could be as wittily acerbic as his writing. When I read him the draft blurb for a volume of his collected plays which ended, ‘Kevin lives in London near Hampstead Heath’, with a twinkle in his eye he suggested adding,  ‘But doesn’t go there much anymore.’’


Finally, an extract from the final scene of My Night With Reg, Kevin Elyot’s Olivier Award-winning 1994 play:

DANIEL. I tell you, the Heath was so muddy, it was like an ice rink. I was doing Sonja Henie impersonations all over the shop. And I lost a lens! I walked into at least half-a-dozen trees. Tried to go down on one of them. But you know how you get – sort of cock crazy. It was more like Harrods’ sale. You’ve no idea! Well, maybe more British Home Stores, but who cares? There were plenty of bargains in plenty of basements. And beautiful! Even though it was pissing down. I was moved to do a snatch of Titania at one point until an overweight biker insisted on chewing my nipples off. There was even an encampment of the homeless sitting round a pile of sodden twigs. It was like Act Three of Carmen. [...] But whatever I do, I can’t get rid of him. Not that I want to, in one sense, but trivial reminders are somehow the most melancholic and I don’t want to be sad. Why should I be? We had a great time together.

My Night With Reg is revived at the Donmar Warehouse, London, this summer, opening on 31 July.

 

The Goodale Brothers: the road to Jeeves and Wooster in ‘Perfect Nonsense’

GB1-1A huge success since opening in the West End last year, Jeeves & Wooster in ‘Perfect Nonsense’, the Goodale Brothers’ ingenious play featuring P.G. Wodehouse’s iconic double act, was recently named Best New Comedy at the 2014 Olivier Awards. Here, co-writer Robert Goodale explains how the idea to adapt Wodehouse’s books came about, and the process by which the play came to the stage.

My first taste of P.G. Wodehouse came in my early twenties when my twin brother and a mutual friend of ours used to quote PGW phrases, sentences and extracts back and forth at each other during late night drinking sessions. I was never sure whether it was the whisky, the Wodehouse or a combination of the two that was making me laugh hysterically, but for years my experience of the great man was confined to the blurry hours of the night.

It was only when looking for material for a one-man show that I picked up a Jeeves and Wooster book in the cold light of day and realised what a comic genius Wodehouse really was. I also discovered that some of his best material was being filtered through the mouthpiece of Bertie Wooster. Here was a storyteller, raconteur and Vaudevillian performer who was capable of charming any group of people into submission. Not only was he a perfect front man, but the characters who peopled his world were gloriously eccentric, mad and passionate, all with their bizarre and peculiar obsessions. Twenty pages into Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves and I knew that I had my one-man show.

The idea of indulging in a world where the loss of an objet d’art from your silver collection was perceived as being a matter of life and death could not have been more appealing. So I went ahead and performed a couple of one-man shows based on this material at the Edinburgh Festival and roped in my brother David to direct The Code of The Woosters.

Jeeves and Wooster

The current West End pairing:  Mark Heap as Jeeves and Robert Webb as Wooster

Twenty years later, the two of us were approached by producer Mark Goucher to create another Wodehouse show, but on a larger scale. It dawned on us that if we wanted to keep Bertie as the raconteur we should write a play in which, encouraged by his drinking pals, he would take over a West End theatre and attempt to tell one of his stories in the form of a one-man show. As his loyal valet, Jeeves would naturally accompany Bertie to the theatre and, in the certain knowledge that the show was destined to go horribly wrong, he would have made certain contingency plans. The script almost wrote itself, and we revelled in the idea that the inscrutable and dignified Jeeves might draw on some hidden talents to play a number of the other characters.

We passed ‘Perfect Nonsense’ on to Mark Goucher, did a reading of it for him and in turn the Wodehouse Estate, who gave it their blessing. The wonderfully inventive comedy director Sean Foley was then brought on board, and his inspired suggestions, combined with Alice Power’s brilliant ideas for the set design, helped raise the script to another level.

Although I had absolutely nothing to do with original cast members Stephen Mangan’s or Matthew Macfadyen’s involvement, I was thrilled when they came on board. Having worked with them both at the Royal Shakespeare Company, witnessed their extraordinary comic abilities and observed how well they got on together, there was no question in my mind as to how perfect a pairing they could be.

What was most gratifying about the whole process was that all of the above – along with Mark Hadfield (as Seppings) – were completely in tune with the conceit of the show and a lot of what was discovered in the rehearsal room found its way into the script. A true process of evolution, we like to think.

Jeeves & Wooster cover

Jeeves & Wooster in ‘Perfect Nonsense’, £9.99

Nick Hern Books is proud to publish the hilariously inventive script of Jeeves & Wooster in ‘Perfect Nonsense’, winner of the 2014 Olivier Award for Best New Comedy.

Featuring P.G. Wodehouse’s iconic double act, and written for a cast of three (who play multiple roles), this adaptation will suit any theatre company or drama group looking for a comic play to perform.

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

Sexting in Parliament: insights from the writer and director of Girls Like That

Girls Like That2.inddBack in January, members of West Yorkshire Playhouse’s Youth Theatre travelled to Westminster to perform an extract from the play Girls Like That in Parliament as part of the launch of YoungMinds Vs, a new children’s mental health campaign.

An urgent and explosive play that explores the pressures on young people today in the wake of advancing technology, Girls Like That tells the story of Scarlett, a secondary school pupil. When a naked photograph of her goes viral, she becomes the centre of attention for all the wrong reasons. But while rumours run wild and everyone forms an opinion, Scarlett just stays silent…

Here, Evan Placey, writer of the play, and Gemma Woffinden, Youth Theatre Director at West Yorkshire Playhouse, offer insights into how the play was developed, the positive impact it has had on both performers and audiences, and what it was like performing Girls Like That to an audience of MPs and celebrities in Parliament.


Evan Placey

Evan Placey

EVAN PLACEY, writer of Girls Like That

And why doesn’t someone do something? Why won’t someone do something?

Why won’t Russell say something, stop this?!

Why does he just.

Stand there.

So say the Girls in Girls Like That as they watch as Scarlett is physically attacked, none of them brave enough to be the one to take action. And later having to contemplate how complicit they are for their inaction.

As scenes from the play were performed in Parliament as part of the YoungMinds Vs campaign, I was reminded of this. What are we doing to combat the pressures young people currently face and how are we taking action?

Any time we write a script, we’re hoping in some way people will listen, that our words might have an effect, that they might shake people. So the opportunity to see parts of my play performed in Parliament was a rare chance: to really get politicians to listen and to shake the people in charge. It’s one thing for those making policy to say they’re doing it in the best interests of young people, but it’s quite another to give those young people a voice – to let them tell the adults what it is that needs to change, the obstacles they’re facing, and the realities of being a young person in the UK at the moment.

The campaign seeks to highlight pressures on young people and the effects on their mental health, and so the West Yorkshire Playhouse’s Youth Theatre who performed Girls Like That last year were invited because of the play’s exploration of those same themes. The play explores the fallout when a naked photo is circulated of a teenage girl named Scarlett. But the play also explores her past and that of her group of classmates as we encounter the girls at 5 years old, 8, 11, and 12, piecing together the messages that have been built up in the heads of these young women since they were children and their resulting (lack of) self-esteem. It’s about feminism and empowering young women. It’s about the conversations we’re not having with young people. But ultimately, it’s about collective inaction. The play is told from the perspectives of all the girls around Scarlett. And watching the play in Parliament, the parallel became starkly clear: we, the adults, the politicians, are all as guilty as those girls for what happens to Scarlett.

Watching those young women perform brought home the power of theatre to engage young people. In a time of cuts to the arts, where often work for young people is first to go, I hope it also showed the politicians present the importance of having creative arts for young people’s expression, to ask the questions no one else is asking. And the young people demonstrated such passion and charisma in their performance that I thought we’ll only be so lucky if they turn out to be our future politicians!

It also made me smile that I was responsible for the (first?) discussion of pubic hair in Parliament.

YoungMinds Vs is an important campaign and I’m glad to have played a part in it. And hopefully, in some small way, enabled action.


Gemma Woffinden

Gemma Woffinden

GEMMA WOFFINDEN, Youth Theatre Director at West Yorkshire Playhouse

Formed in September 2012, the West Yorkshire Playhouse Youth Theatre aims to provide a platform for new performance work that responds to the lives of young people and explores the diversity of their experiences, making high-quality work that gives young people a voice and recognises their creative potential and talent.

Combining our commitment to new writing and our desire to respond to the lives of young people, the West Yorkshire Playhouse, in collaboration with the Theatre Royal Plymouth and Birmingham Rep, commissioned Evan Placey to write a new play, a process that consisted of workshops, discussions and improvisation with young people aged 13-16 led by Evan across the three Youth Theatres. Working in this way gave the young casts a real sense of ownership over the play, building a strong working relationship with Evan whilst teasing out universal themes that led to the writing of a relevant and authentic play titled Girls Like That.

I found Girls Like That a gift to direct: lots of roles for female performers, great moments of truth, real tension and clever use of humour. The project allowed Evan to attend several rehearsals and this was a big support to me – as a director it’s so helpful to be able to turn to the playwright and say, ‘do you think the character believes she is doing the right thing?’

Chris Thornton Photography (www.christhorntonphotography.com)

Girls Like That performed by members of West Yorkshire Playhouse’s Youth Theatre
Photo by Chris Thornton

The young people involved in the production engaged with the themes of the play in a way that affected their lives beyond rehearsals. One cast member told me that though she saw the problems that the characters experience in the play all around her, she had never understood that these were issues; she felt that it portrayed ‘normal life and I didn’t believe it could be different’. The play helped her to shape her own opinions about pressures on young women and she believed performing the play would help other people think about the themes too. We had a great response from a range of audience members. Teachers wanted to see the play tour to schools to prompt discussion amongst their students and parents talked to me about how the play had opened up some very important discussions in the car on the way home from the theatre.

YoungMindsElizabeth Neil, from leading UK charity YoungMinds, had been to see Girls Like That with her teenage daughter back in July 2013. YoungMinds is driven by the needs of young people and aims to support their emotional well-being, putting young people at the forefront of leading and delivering campaign objectives to address sexual pressures, bullying, stress at school, unemployment and the lack of access to counselling. Impressed by the quality of the work and moved by the subject matter, Elizabeth contacted Alex Chisholm (WYP’s Literary Director) to discuss how the Youth Theatre could support the charity’s new campaign, YoungMinds Vs, scheduled to be launched on Monday 20th January 2014 at a national parliamentary event in Portcullis House. Elizabeth invited the Youth Theatre to perform at the event and we accepted with great excitement!

It was a challenge to select scenes from the play that best supported the YoungMinds campaign whilst creating a performance that still reflected the full production and presented a true account of Evan’s original narrative. Girls Like That explores a range of pressures felt by young people in today’s society but for the purpose of the campaign launch we focussed on how the play explores the very real sexual pressures felt by young women. I felt a big responsibility, but also felt very proud to be part of this event. It was exciting that the high quality performance work of our Youth Theatre was to be celebrated in such a way that we could support a valuable campaign that acknowledges the challenges faced by young people today.

castonthetrain

Two Girls Like That cast members en route to London

On 20th January our Artistic Director James Brining, Alex Chisholm, Elizabeth Neil, six of the cast members from Girls Like That and I caught the train from Leeds to London. That morning the Fight the Pressure campaign launch was national news, which only added to our excitement and nerves. Once we arrived at Portcullis House that excitement grew further as we spotted a range of celebrities and MPs who were also attending the event, amongst them Ed Miliband (Leader of the Labour Party), Nick Hurd (a Government Minister responsible for Youth Affairs), Sarah Brennan (CEO of YoungMinds), members of Chickenshed Theatre and Frankie Sanford from pop group The Saturdays.

We were last to present and the young people performed with such confidence, pride and professionalism. I was inspired by their ability to stand out amongst so many adults who regularly address big audiences. After the event, I watched the cast talk with passion about their love for making theatre and at one point I overheard some very sophisticated negotiations around a Girls Like That tour (which is unfortunately not realistic without funding). Staff from YoungMinds praised the cast for their enthusiasm for the campaign and described their performance as one of the highlights of the campaign launch.

One of the young people who performed at the event said ‘I think it’s great to have teens share their opinions at Parliament – not only so we can feel heard and listened to, but also because everyone can hear what we have to say about a world which belongs to us just as much as it belongs to adults and politicians’. Taking Girls Like That to a new audience was so rewarding. This thought-provoking play for young people is important on many levels – as well as being a great piece of theatre, it has a gripping story that speaks to today’s generation and forces audiences to sit up and consider the messages that are presented.

Playwright Evan Placey with members of the Girls Like That cast

Nearly a year after its premiere, Girls Like That‘s influence continues to be felt.  I have heard from Youth Theatre members that monologues from the play are being performed at current Drama School auditions and I am still supporting teachers who are keen to use extracts for GCSE and A level exams with their students. We’ve also kept up our link with Evan Placey: last week the Youth Theatre performed his new play Pronoun as part of the National Theatre Connections Festival. Some staff and young activists from YoungMinds came to see the show, so who knows what next…

YoungMinds and the West Yorkshire Playhouse are committed to giving young people a voice, and what better way than through theatre?


Pronoun, £9.99

Nick Hern Books is proud to publish Evan Placey’s urgent and explosive play Girls Like That, as well as his latest play, Pronoun, a moving, funny and unforgettable story about two teenagers dealing with the issue of transgenderism.

To order both of Evan Placey’s plays at a 20% discount – no voucher code required – visit our website here.

YoungMinds is the UK’s leading charity committed to improving the emotional wellbeing and mental health of children and young people. To learn more about their work, visit their website.

Jessica Swale: why the Blue Stockings were ‘the movers and shakers of their age’

Jessica Swale

Now premiering at Shakespeare’s Globe, Jessica Swale’s debut play Blue Stockings depicts the fight of female students at 1890s Cambridge University to be treated equally with their male counterparts. Here, the playwright gives an insight into the historical context of the piece, and the astonishing prejudices the ‘Girton girls’ had to endure.

In the mid-1800s, girls in England were lucky if they got an education at all. Some wealthy young women had governesses, some girls went to secondary school, but the curriculum was often limited to ‘feminine subjects’: needlework, art, maybe French if you were lucky, whilst the girls’ brothers were learning algebra and translating Virgil by the age of eleven.

That began to change when Emily Davies, the pioneering educationalist, led a successful campaign to incorporate serious subjects and examinations into ladies’ education. Then, when she’d conquered the curriculum, she turned her attention to higher education. In 1869 she set up Britain’s first residential college for women at Hitchin, Cambridgeshire. There, in a farmhouse twenty miles from Cambridge (considered to be a safe distance), the first women’s university college was born. There were five students, taught by any lecturers that were willing to risk their reputations and cycle the forty-mile round trip to do so. But it was a beginning.

Blue Stockings production photo

Blue Stockings, Shakespeare’s Globe, 2013
(Photo by Manuel Harlan)

By 1896, the College had moved to Girton, a mere two miles up the hill from Cambridge (a schlep which was quickly christened ‘the Girton grind’.) Yet, though the girls studied identical degrees to the men, when they’d finished their courses they were sent home empty-handed. When the men donned their caps and gowns for graduation, the women were denied their certificates. It was then that Girton’s new Mistress, Elizabeth Welsh, alongside her staff and students, decided to begin the campaign to win the girls the right to graduate. And that is where the play begins.

As for the girls themselves, we tend to associate the Victorian era with stuffiness, modesty and proper manners. The girls at Girton were rebelling against that. Whilst they followed social rules and etiquette, in their passions and ambition they were stretching out of their Victorian corsets, pulling away from their demure mothers and moving rapidly into the twentieth century. They are feisty, they are driven and they are the movers and shakers of their age.

As for the men, it would be easy to assume that those who condemn women’s education with as much vitriol as the renowned psychiatrist Dr. Henry Maudsley, who appears in the play, are heartless misogynists. That’s simply not the case. These men speak the prevailing opinions of the time. They’re not the devils of the piece; they genuinely believed that women’s health and the future of Britain was at stake. As Maudsley says in the play’s opening scene: ‘it may be a pity for women that they are born women, but in running the intellectual race, it’s unlikely they will succeed, and perilous to even try.’ I’d heartily recommend reading Maudsley’s short book Sex in Mind and in Education, on which some of his text, and many of the sentiments of the play, are based, as a place to start.

Blue Stockings

Blue Stockings, £9.99

Nick Hern Books is delighted to publish Blue Stockings, Jessica Swale’s moving, comical and eye-opening debut play that tells the story of four young women fighting for education and self-determination against the larger backdrop of women’s suffrage.

To buy your copy at a 25% discount – no voucher code required – visit the NHB website here.

Blue Stockings is currently premiering at Shakespeare’s Globe, London, until 11 October.

Conor McPherson: A flash, an image, a feeling – the mysterious art of playwriting

McPhersonAs his modern classic The Weir receives its first major UK revival at London’s Donmar Warehouse, playwright Conor McPherson reflects on the creative process, and how hard it all seems to explain.

The best plays come in a flash. An image, a feeling, and that’s it. You know these ideas because they are the undeniable ones that won’t let go. They pull you in and compel you to start scribbling notes. If you are a playwright and you have one of these on the go, you know you have a responsibility. To what? Something that doesn’t exist? But the good ideas feel like they do exist. They’re just beyond view, and you’re trying to capture them with glimpses that may or may not be accurate.

So many things can go wrong along the way between the vision and its presentation on stage – missed beats in the writing (or too many beats), the wrong cast, wrong director, wrong theatre or just the wrong time. Any and all of these may consign your hard work to the ‘Who Cares?’ file. And you know you are playing Russian roulette – it all comes down to those couple of hours on opening night. But you keep the faith and you pull the trigger. What else can you do?

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The Weir is now on at the Donmar Warehouse, London

You start scribbling. Worry, issues of control, and even, ironically, a sense of longing to be free of the process, all propel you to write your first draft. Subsequent drafts can never quite fix all the problems, yet neither can they prompt the same exhilaration. Many playwrights I’ve talked with agree that the best moments are often those tentative notes when the ghosts first present themselves in your mind. They are so insubstantial, yet bear their complete mysterious history within. This is when playwriting is at its most private and, paradoxically, when the play is at its most beautiful. The more real you make it, the less magic it retains. You are aware of this but what can you do? You keep going. Always writing at the very edge of your limitations. And your limitations are not necessarily a bad thing. Your limitations are in fact what give you your unique voice. But it’s hard to view your limitations in a warm light when you’ve just read over your work and it makes you embarrassed.

The truth is nobody really knows how to write a good play. You just do your best to avoid writing a bad one. The rest falls to fate. Joe Penhall once said to me, ‘Who knows if the magic is there and – even if it is – will the bastards see it?’, which I think sums up the car crash of hope, despair and paranoia that accompanies artistic creation.

And the enemy of art is not the pram in the hallway, it is self-consciousness. When you are young you know nothing, least of all yourself. You write plays quickly, perhaps in a matter of days. As you grow older – and if you’ve managed to survive some decades of playwriting – you may gain a little wisdom. But you lose your recklessness. Why? Because, like the ageing stuntman, you know exactly what’s at stake each time you do it. Further, you are no longer new. Everyone knows what you can do and they have certain expectations. So you go the long way round, trying to surprise everyone. But going the long way round kills spontaneity.

And what’s wrong with that? Well, Neil Young’s late producer, David Briggs, said that the best way to record music is the simplest way. You get the mic as close to the sound as you possibly can and just record it as it is. ‘The more you think, the more you stink’ was his mantra. Neil Young’s albums are full of first takes – often the very first time the band have ever played the song – because that’s where the magic is. Neil Young calls it, ‘the spook’. In other words, you’ve got to be careful not to perfect what you are doing to the extent it has no soul left. Perfect is not best. Okay, so he’s talking about rock ’n’ roll, but there’s something in that for playwriting too.

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McPherson Plays: Three, £14.99

So if there’s anything I can see that’s worth passing on, it’s this: it’s as important to forget what you’ve learned as it is to learn.

This piece is an extract from the Foreword to Conor McPherson Plays: Three, a new collection covering a decade of playwriting, which is available now. It includes acclaimed plays such as The Seafarer as well as two previously unpublished works: The Birds and The Dance of Death. To order your copy at a special 25% discount – no voucher code required – just click here.

The Weir is playing at the Donmar Warehouse, London until 8 June (a tie-in edition is available here). It will be followed by a new Conor McPherson play, The Night Alive, which will also be published by Nick Hern Books.