Drama Online: the Netflix of Theatre

DO_On BlackThis week saw the launch of the Nick Hern Books Collection on Drama Online, a groundbreaking new educational resource for reading and studying drama. Here, NHB’s Digital Editor Tim Digby-Bell explains how it works, and how it sheds new light on familiar plays.

Finally, it’s launch week. We’ve been working hard preparing a selection of our plays for Drama Online, the amazing new platform for anyone studying drama. For more than twelve months we’ve been planning, editing, revising, checking, drinking cups of strong coffee, fretting, and then doing some more editing. It’s all been worth it, though. It’s a thing of wonder, and it’s open for business.

Drama Online is a joint venture with other leading theatre publishers including Bloomsbury, Faber and Faber and L.A. Theatre Works, and incorporates archival material from the Victoria and Albert Museum and The American Shakespeare Center. As the name suggests, its focus is very much drama, and the place very much online. It’s essentially a subscription service aimed at schools, universities and libraries, giving instant online access to the best of world drama alongside a range of scholarly works for criticism and context. There is also a range of tools for exploring and analysing plays in new and extremely useful ways (more about those later).

Because it’s all online, students can access the plays they’re studying at any time of the day and night, without having to wait for a copy to become available. Think of it as a theatre-based Netflix. ‘Want to come round to my place for some Drama Online and chill?’ is now an actual thing.


Drama Online – The Deep Blue Sea by Terence Rattigan, from the Nick Hern Books Collection

There are some 1,900 plays already available, with more being added all the time. You’ll find everything from Aeschylus to the present day, with a full range of classic drama, the complete Arden Shakespeare Series, modern classics and the latest work from contemporary playwrights. The Nick Hern Books Collection comprises 400 titles, including classic plays by writers such as Molière, Gogol, Strindberg and Alfred Jarry, the works of Terence Rattigan, modern classics by Caryl Churchill, Conor McPherson, David Edgar and Howard Brenton, and some of the most exciting new writing from the likes of debbie tucker green, Lucy Kirkwood, Jack Thorne, Steve Waters and Enda Walsh. With a Drama Online subscription, you have the whole pantheon of drama in English at your fingertips.

And, as if that’s not enough, you also get some really impressive tools to work with. At a keystroke you can call up Character Grids, Words and Speech graphs and Part Books for any play. For instance, if you want to compare the number of words spoken by different characters in a play, act by act, or even scene by scene, you can quickly and easily generate a table that lays it all out for you. If you’re performing a play, you can call up a Part Book showing just the lines spoken by your character. If you want to see plays set in London, or in nineteenth-century Paris, or written during the Belle Époque or the Spanish Golden Age, you can call up a list, and cross-refer to your heart’s content.


Character Grid for Jerusalem by Jez Butterworth, from the Nick Hern Books Collection


Words and Speeches table for Clybourne Park by Bruce Norris, from the Nick Hern Books Collection

The platform is designed to give you a simple but powerful set of tools to break down any play, making them easier to study. It might all sound a bit Orwellian at first, but start using it and you find it both incredibly useful and really quite addictive. The plays in the collections are all interconnected: every play is connected to other plays via their themes, characters, settings and genres, allowing faster analysis and deeper insights into the works themselves.

Beyond that, the site provides you with every bit of information you could possibly need about each title – including insightful introductions and expert analysis, production history, performing rights information to enquire about staging the plays, and even links to places where you can buy the good old-fashioned print editions (remember them?).

So if you’re studying plays at school, college, drama school or university, you absolutely must have Drama Online. Ask your librarian or resources manager to get a subscription immediately. If they say no, then stage a non-violent protest citing the fact that the first thing any totalitarian regime does when it comes to power is to ban access to the theatre. But do check if you already have a subscription before you do any of that – it could save you some embarrassment.

Having worked on preparing Drama Online for many months I can genuinely say that it’s an exciting new way to read and study plays. It’s the future, right here.

For more information about subscriptions, trials and pricing, visit: www.dramaonlinelibrary.com/pages/how-to-subscribe.

‘The pain of celebrity’: Ian Kelly on Mr Foote’s Other Leg

Kelly, Ian credit Sasha Damianovsky Ian Kelly wrote an award-winning biography of the once-notorious eighteenth-century comedian, Samuel Foote. Now he’s acting in his own stage version of the story alongside Simon Russell Beale in a sold-out production directed by Richard Eyre. Here he explains why his one-legged protagonist, who rose to fame and celebrity only to be toppled in a sensational trial, was such a compelling figure to his contemporaries, and is so clearly recognisable in our own era of troubled celebrities.

Samuel Foote holds an intriguing place in our collective history, not just the theatre’s. Why should a man once famous enough to be represented by a simple icon – a foot – be forgotten now? It’s a question that both my original book and the play seek to explain. A coiner of comedies for one-legged actors and the original celebrity-impressionist, Foote must take some of the responsibility for his own obscurity. Added to this, Foote’s famous name became a whispered one in the immediate aftermath of the trial for buggery that ended his career. Neither, it should be said, are his plays very stageworthy any more. His thirty-odd comedy ‘afterpieces’ relied heavily on topical jokes and the inwit of a celebrity-impressionist, and only a few remained popular into the nineteenth century. If his ribaldry sings out still in the names of his creations – Sir Archy McSarcasm, the priapic Harry Humper or one-legged Sir Luke Limp – their lines, regrettably, now ring hollow. To me anyway. There are many real Foote lines in the play, but they are generally not from his plays.

Samuel Foote, portrait by Jean-François Gilles Colson

Samuel Foote, portrait by Jean-François Gilles Colson

The play, like the book, is instead an attempted exploration of mid-eighteenth-century London’s fascination with the theatre, viewed from the unique vantage point of a troubled, one-legged master of ceremonies, a man of breathtakingly catholic experience and larrikin wit; a tale told by an actor. How Samuel Foote lost his leg and thereby gained a royal licence for a theatre – one of only three such Theatres Royal in the whole history of the London stage – is one subject of the play. How a man of such singular anatomy could be at the centre of one of the most sensational buggery trials in British history – a subject of hilarious conjecture at the time, wiping the American Declaration of Independence off the London papers for many months – turns out to be a story less of perplexing balance than of shocking brutality and prejudice.

But it is also the story of a comic, and the play even more than the book seeks to reflect that, and pay tribute to Foote with the sound he most favoured in his theatre, that of laughter. Foote’s story has, of course, some resonance with the scandal that ended Oscar Wilde’s career: his fame, personality and tragic trajectory illuminating uncomfortable truths about his era, and his posthumous allure inextricably linked to his downfall. But it is the question of why Londoners should turn their attention to scandal, celebrity and laughter through 1776, when they might have paid closer attention to events in America, that also fascinates, as well as forging both backdrop and cacophonous noises-off to Foote’s tragicomedy. Appropriately enough then this is the story also of the man who seemingly coined the phrase ‘Tea Party’ – a rallying cry at Boston harbour in 1773 – though Foote used it as an irreverent circumvention of the London censors: he sold tickets for tea, and added a scurrilous satire on the side. So now, finally, he is having the last laugh, as the unexpected godfather of an American reactionary movement, which, given his other reputation as sexual deviant and reckless transvestite satirist, would surely give him cause to smirk.

Mr Foote's Other Leg at Hampstead Theatre. Simon Russell Beale (Samuel Foote), Ian Kelly (Prince George), Jenny Galloway (Mrs Garner), Dervla Kirwan (Peg Woffington), Joseph Millson (David Garrick) and Micah Balfour (Frank Barber) © Nobby Clark

Mr Foote’s Other Leg at Hampstead Theatre. Simon Russell Beale (Samuel Foote), Ian Kelly (Prince George), Jenny Galloway (Mrs Garner), Dervla Kirwan (Peg Woffington), Joseph Millson (David Garrick) and Micah Balfour (Frank Barber). Photo © Nobby Clark

From his Westminster grave, Foote may or may not relish his reputation as a sort of gay martyr. Only here and there, in his attacks on Methodism, nabobs and the medical establishment, did his comedy pack political punch, and it would be wildly anachronistic to have him enunciate a fully modern understanding of sexual tolerance or (trans) gender politics. And yet his triumphs, though personal, are not without their political significance. Whatever the odds stacked against him, and there were many even before the amputation and its effect upon his mental health, Foote turned things to his own account and to comedy. His daring, his refusal to bow to convention and to domestic or artistic safety, make him still commanding of our attention.

More than this, both book and play represent an exploration of Samuel Foote the ‘celebrity’ in an age and in a city where the idea, it is argued, originates. Spectators in Georgian London became enchanted with performers: Peg Woffington and Kitty Clive, Garrick and Foote, all of them painted by the new celebrity portraitists and all of them beginning to manipulate anecdotes about their private lives that helped create an aura of availability, not just sexual, allowing audience and readership a fantastical journey into imagined lives. Samuel Foote launched himself with a tale of horrific murder from the unique position of a family member [he wrote and published a sensational account of the murder of one of his uncles, baronet Sir John Dineley Goodere, 2nd Baronet, by another uncle, Captain Samuel Goodere]. People thought they knew him because they knew of him, even before they saw him on stage.

Joseph Millson (David Garrick), Simon Russell Beale (Samuel Foote) and Dervla Kirwan (Peg Woffington) © Nobby Clark

Joseph Millson (David Garrick), Simon Russell Beale (Samuel Foote) and Dervla Kirwan (Peg Woffington). Photo © Nobby Clark

The loss of his leg, and the projection therefore of a despoiled masculinity, as a limping icon of pain and accident – two key ingredients in comedy – made him all the more fascinating as a star, caught, as it were, in the act of falling. Finally there was the scandal-palled demise, when, for reasons possibly related to his mental health, he pushed too hard against the establishment, or picked, in Elizabeth Chudleigh and ‘Roger’ Sangster, the wrong foes, and became an object of widespread opprobrium and, for some, ‘the opposite of a man’. If anything is instantly recognisable in the story of Sam Foote, it is the creation of the modern trope of the celebrity destroyed, the star trammeled in the mud, who then, ideally, has some comeback either in life, or after death – though Foote, of course, did not. For some, the attacks upon a famous actor, with charges of homosexuality and of sexual assault, make Foote a sort of martyr irrespective of the veracity of either ‘charge’. For us still, in thrall to the evolving culture of the famous, he is uniquely placed in the tragicomic business of stardom and at its birth: a body of evidence, in and of himself, that we are as drawn to the pain of celebrity as to its glister.


Extracted from the Introduction to the published playscript of Mr Foote’s Other Leg, £9.99 paperback, available now from Nick Hern Books for just £7.99 plus postage and packing.

Mr Foote’s Other Leg is in production at Hampstead Theatre until 17 October.

Author photo © Sasha Damianovsky.

Edinburgh Fringe Report 2015 Part I: cutting it at the fringe

Taking a show to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe can be daunting, exhausting, and about as financially sound as betting on the Chinese stock market. But it can also be a hugely rewarding experience for cast and crew, and even for audiences. Plus, if you’re really on top of your game, there’s a chance it might launch your career. In this first part of our Edinburgh Fringe Report 2015, four amateur companies performing plays licensed by Nick Hern Books give us a sneak preview as they prepare to take the plunge…

pp posterPassing Places by Stephen Greenhorn
Great Child Productions
Greenside at Nicholson Square, 10–15 August

A schizophrenic Motherwell gangster on a motorbike vs. two idiots in a Citroën Saxo en route to Thurso to flog a surfboard. Sounds ridiculous, huh? Well it has to be seen to be believed! Passing Places follows Alex and Brian on their journey through Scotland, meeting the real characters of Caledonia and beyond…

It’s truly the best play you could ever be involved in. I’m the show’s director and I still find it funny. Rehearsals have really differed from ones I’ve had in the past – we’ve improvised around the script and we’ve made lots of mistakes along the way, but it’s always been funny and fresh.

Passing Places by Stephen Greenhorn, performed by Great Child Productions

Passing Places by Stephen Greenhorn, performed by Great Child Productions

Despite the absurdity of the story and all the goofy action, it’s the characters that really stand out – and they’re brilliantly believable. Relationships are the real heart of the show, and Stephen Greenhorn has managed to make them genuinely touching. We’re a company of young adults so we feel a natural connection with the young characters in the play and their predicaments – and we’re looking forward to sharing that with audiences on the Fringe.

Plus, having a real car as part of the set is going to be exciting!

– Tom Sergeant, CEO of Great Child Productions

2015STRAWBE-ZR-300Strawberries in January by Evelyne de la Chenelière, in a version by Rona Munro
Gone Rogue Productions
C nova, 16–31 August

Strawberries in January seemed to us the perfect chance to stand out at the Fringe among the droves of dark, depressing student productions. Sitting just on the line between heartwarming and (dare I say it?) twee, Rona Munro’s adaptation of this brilliant romantic comedy has been a genuine joy to rehearse, and we hope that audiences feel the same way when they watch it in Edinburgh.

With a cast of just four (including me), plus a pair of directors, it means working together in a pretty intense way. It’s been a treat to be able to take the time to focus on details that might be missed in a larger-scale production. It’s had its challenges too – we’ve each got a lot of lines to learn, and I’d completely fallen out of the habit. Still, we’re getting there!

Strawberries in January by Evelyne de la Chenelière, in a version by Rona Munro, in rehearsal with Gone Rogue Productions

Strawberries in January by Evelyne de la Chenelière, in a version by Rona Munro, in rehearsal with Gone Rogue Productions

The show is completely driven by the characters’ relationships, so we’ve spent a lot of time workshopping and developing the all-important chemistry between us. We even played several rounds of the Newlywed Game in character to get to know each other’s characters better, and develop their relationships and the vocabulary they share.

We’ve just finished our preview season on campus, and audiences have told us they thoroughly enjoyed the show. Now we’re just tightening it up in a few places before we launch it on the Fringe!

– Caitlin Hobbs, co-producer and cast member

ff-posterprintresFoxfinder by Dawn King
Master of None
Bedlam Theatre, 5–30 August

“They want nothing more than our complete annihilation… Without Man, the Fox will rule.”

So states William Bloor, the Foxfinder after whom Dawn King’s dystopian parable takes its name. Reading the play for the first time, it was the impact of lines like these that made the play so irresistibly compelling. Replace ‘the Fox’ with any number of other supposed national threats within our own society, and the statement becomes an eerily familiar sentiment; one that could perhaps have been uttered by certain members of our own political class. Combine this parallel with the recent prospect of a repeal of the Hunting Act, and Foxfinder, along with the world of fear, blame and suspicion it presents, feels more relevant and exciting than ever.

As we would soon discover, this play is a big beast! However, we all recognised that staging it would be a worthwhile challenge, and as such our rehearsal process came in two distinct legs, separated by 4 weeks, 400 miles and 1 national border.

Foxfinder by Dawn King, in rehearsal with Master of None

Foxfinder by Dawn King, in rehearsal with Master of None

Our rehearsals began in London in June, when our main focus was to create a shared sense of what the England of Foxfinder is actually like. We were helped in this by considering dystopian civilizations within other works of fiction, such as Orwell’s 1984, along with comparably despotic and ideologically zealous regimes throughout history, such as those of Stalin’s Russia and modern-day North Korea.

However, the real crafting of the play’s action began in Edinburgh, two weeks before the Fringe began. We were able to rehearse at our venue, Bedlam Theatre, where it was full steam ahead with scene work, blocking and tweaking of characterisation. All the different elements of our production started to combine – our actors, original score, hand-crafted set and lighting design – as we sought to create the tense, paranoid and claustrophobic atmosphere of the play, and prepare ourselves for the month to come!

– Hugo Nicholson & Alexander Stutt, cast members

PentagonForever House by Glenn Waldron
Pentagon Theatre
Greenside @ Infirmary Street, 17–29 August

Pentagon Theatre is a theatre company based in the South West, so Glenn Waldron’s Forever House – which is set in Plymouth – seemed a natural choice for us. And it’s a fantastic, pitch-black comedy full of twists and turns, about three different sets of characters who unearth buried secrets just as they try to negotiate a fresh start to their lives. We’re very excited to be bringing the play up to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe!

We had an intense first four weeks getting the piece ready for Arts on The Move Festival in Exeter back in June. The performances took place in Poltimore House, a disused stately home and grounds which provided the perfect backdrop for our first showing of the play. As I write this, we are busy getting ready for our second round of performances, at the Old Red Lion Theatre in London on 29 July.

Screenshot (4)

Forever House by Glenn Waldron – a visit to the National Marine Aquarium, Plymouth, with Pentagon Theatre

Our favourite part of the preparations so far has been visiting some of the play’s locations in Plymouth, including the amazing Aquarium. It really helped the cast get a feel for the play’s natural setting. The excitement is definitely building now for Edinburgh. Many of our team have never performed at the Fringe before, so this is an amazing experience for them and we can’t wait to get up there and get started!

– James Bowen, director

Pentagon Theatre perform Forever House by Glenn Waldron

Pentagon Theatre perform Forever House by Glenn Waldron


1143114837LOGO_ORANGE[1]Look out for Part II of our Edinburgh Fringe Report next month, when we find out how our four companies fared on the Fringe.

And don’t forget to check out the exciting new plays we’re publishing alongside their Edinburgh premieres this year. Click here for all the details, plus a special discount code you can use to buy any of the playtexts.

Edinburgh Fringe 2015_website banner

See you in Edinburgh!

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.

‘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.

‘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.