‘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?

The Weir 2013-2A.indd

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.

McPhersonPlays3.indd

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.

Janice Okoh: Three Birds in rehearsal – the evolution of a Bruntwood Prize winner

Janice Okoh photoJanice Okoh’s Three Birds – her startling and darkly comic play that won the 2011 Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting - premieres at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester later this month. In this piece, the playwright talks about how the script has continued to evolve throughout pre-production, and the importance of the relationship between collaborators.

When I sent Three Birds in to the competition, I was on my third draft. Although I was happy with it, I felt that it was still far from whole. What’s attractive about the Bruntwood Prize is the fact that it offers a year developing the winning plays, so it was really exciting when I actually won one of the prizes.

I met Suzanne Bell, my dramaturg, and Sarah Frankcom, the director, several times over the year and each time we discussed how we should go about improving the play. We decided that I needed to write an additional scene in order to develop one of my characters, work out a suitable time frame for the play and bring some of the drama that happened offstage on. Suzanne and Sarah also encouraged me to experiment and ‘go bonkers’ with the play so a lot of my drafting involved taking things out in one draft only to find that I would put them back into a later draft or conversely binning stuff that took the play in a completely different direction.

Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester (photo)

Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester

I really enjoyed the process. Sarah and Suzanne were able to climb right inside my head and voice the thoughts that I would be thinking. It really felt like they got the play. However, it was still really hard work trying to make sure everything fitted together in order to create something I was happy with and, ultimately, proud of. But it’s been wonderful having a dramaturg and director working hard at making the process work for me. They organised a reading when I wanted one, moved deadlines to accommodate my other writing commitments, and, most importantly, reassured me when I voiced my fears at the thought of Three Birds going into production before it was ready. But the thing is, and I guess a lot of writers would concur, I don’t think my play will ever be ready and, as I prepare to send Three Birds to the publishers Nick Hern Books, I’m tweaking and adjusting, always trying to make it just that bit better. But there has to be a cut-off point which is probably when the actors need to start learning their lines!

Listen to a conversation between playwright Janice Okoh and Three Birds director Sarah Frankcom, discussing the writer-director relationship:

Three Birds (jacket)

Three Birds, £9.99

Nick Hern Books are proud to publish Janice Okoh’s new play Three Birds. To order your copy, click here.

Three Birds premieres at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester from 27 February, before transferring to the Bush Theatre, London in March. For more information, and to book tickets, click here.

The 2013 Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting is now open. To help you get inspired for your own entry, we’re offering free UK P&P on all NHB-published, Bruntwood Prize-winning plays – including Three Birds - bought through our website, on top of our standard 25% anniversary discount. Just enter the code BRUNT13 at checkout. The offer is valid until 3 June. For more information, including details of the plays included, click here.

[This piece has been reproduced from the Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting blog, published on their website. Many thanks to all at the Prize for their kind permission.]

Steve Waters: Stepping back from the end-game – the story of Ignorance/Jahiliyyah

Steve Waters author photo

As the Middle East seemingly teeters once more on the precipice of war and the excitement of the Arab Spring gives way to a new, uncertain reality, playwright Steve Waters explains the process behind Ignorance/Jahiliyyah, his timely new drama for Hampstead Theatre which delves into the life and legacy of the influential author, thinker and Muslim Brotherhood member Sayyid Qutb.

Contemporary political reality can fill you with despair.  Israeli rockets slaughtering children in Gaza, the ongoing bloody impasse in Syria, the intractable agonies of the Eurozone, our own ignorant little coalition/junta dismantling the things that make life in this country tolerable – such a list, however glib, seems to give the lie to the idea that any form of politicised art can offer any insight or relief from the world’s dreadful in-tray.  Into such a world comes my new play Ignorance/Jahiliyyah, which just opened at Hampstead Theatre Downstairs.

The play concerns the experiences of Egyptian writer Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966) in America during the late 1940s and the ways in which his subsequent writings have shaped the tenor of relations between the West and radical Islamist politics.  Such a summary hints that you are not in for an easy night at the theatre, or the ‘laugh hit of two continents’, as Waiting for Godot was once described.  Some might also argue in a reality of political violence, in the form of war, torture and economic meltdown, a play of ideas, of debate, of words, is a somewhat depleted form of engagement.

Nasir/Qutb (Jude Akuwudike) in rehearsal
Courtesy of Hampstead Theatre

Yet what drew me to this haunting tale of a stranger in a strange land was that it might offer a way to step back from the current end-game of political reality, the sickening predictability of regimes in bloody retrenchment.  Hamas, who are on the receiving end of so much Israeli ferocity, and of course who have dealt out mayhem of their own, have a long heritage, a history that can be traced to the very Muslim Brotherhood that Qutb was so influential towards in the 1960s; indeed even Bashar al Assad’s paranoid violence in Syria bears the ancestral traces of his father’s ferocious repression of the Brotherhood in Hama back in the early 1980s.  Violence may be the outcome, but ideas and words fuel and inform that violence.  When I started my play the Brotherhood were an outlawed and repressed force in Egyptian politics; now, in the form of the Freedom and Justice Party, they make up the dominant bloc.  A play that started out as an attempt to excavate the ideological roots of Terror has become about the pre-history of one of the key mobilising ideas of our time.

I don’t want to give the wrong impression.  At its worst, political theatre is often little more than an index of the passions that inform it; my job is to find and illuminate people, characters, to find a story that is not a mechanism for smuggling in messages but a moving entity in its own right.  In fact I bring little polemical intent to this play; rather I wanted to bear witness to the tragic encounter between the culture of Islam and the West (wherever that is).  Most of all I wanted to examine the pertinence of the challenge of radical Islam.  What were my credentials?  Other than some patchy travel in Israel/Palestine and Egypt, very little.  But I felt there was something in this I could imagine; and something I couldn’t let go of.

Photo of Sayyid Qutb

Sayyid Qutb in prison, 1965

My first encounter with the historical figure of Qutb was in Paul Berman’s incendiary yet eloquent tract ‘Terror and Liberalism’, wherein the New York Times journalist, attempting to locate an intellectual heritage for al-Qaeda, turned to Qutb, painting him as a prophet of a fascist Islamic utopia.  For all the hyperbole of Berman’s account (a doomed attempt to justify the War on Terror from the left), he insightfully identified Qutb as a kind of Islamic Existentialist who offers an acute analysis of the alienation of modern life, which, in Berman’s words, ‘pulls us this way and that’.

So I looked closer at the now almost mythical details of Qutb’s time in the America of 1948-49;  time spent travelling, staying in New York and Washington, auditing courses in obscure universities such as that in Greeley, Colorado, where in part my play is set. When I looked closer, the truth of Berman’s observation became apparent.  Qutb’s visceral reaction against American life – the centrality of technology, the violence, the hollowness of its values, most of all the sexualisation – was a potent mixture of the sort of cultural critique that also came from European émigrés in the US of the time, be they Brecht, Adorno or even Evelyn Waugh, coupled with the insights of a post-colonial outsider.  Yet Qutb’s observations are also marked by a strange paranoia that seems hard to take at face value. Was he really visited by women in the night sent to recruit him?  Did New Yorkers really laugh and shout for joy in the street at the assassination of Hassan al Banna, the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood?  What was myth and what was truth?  This was an America bedevilled by McCarthyism and Jim Crow racism, and Qutb, in his suit and with his scholarly demeanour, was surely on the receiving end of that. But who was the woman he mentions at Greeley who brags of the ‘biological nature of sex’? What did he make of the Kinsey Reports into Human Sexuality? And what led him to publish an obscure allegory called ‘The World is an Undutiful Boy’ in the college journal?  Such questions seem impossible to answer beyond fiction.

This may all seem a long way from Gaza and the Arab Spring. Qutb’s animus against the West was not widely shared in the Muslim Brotherhood of the day; after all America was then deemed out of the colonial debacle.  And in no way do I attempt to suggest that what happened during that lost year was more fundamental in shaping Qutb’s ideas, as expressed in Milestones and other incendiary works, than what followed: ten years on and off in Nasser’s gaols, torture, and ultimately execution.  Yet those American experiences surely promoted Qutb’s notion that the way forward for the Islamic world was to extirpate any traces of western corruption, expressed in his blanket critique of the contemporary state of ‘jahiliyyah’, or ignorance of true Godly values, that he claimed prevailed everywhere in the world and which he suggested necessitated ‘jihad’ – a duty to struggle, possibly violently.  That dangerously accommodating word certainly went on to inform some of the frenzied violence in Algeria in the 1990s and then across the world thereafter.  But what do the man and his ideas mean now in a world poised between deep change and the fall-out of the disastrous response to 9/11?

Layla Ahmad (Laila Alj) in rehearsal
Courtesy of Hampstead Theatre

Hence the final element of the play – the encounter between Philip Mitchell, an English academic writing on Qutb, and his student Layla Ahmad, who accounts herself the guardian of the memory of a man who died decades before her birth. I wanted to examine the fall-out of Qutb’s ideas as they manifest themselves in the grassroots Islamisation of Egyptian society, a process that the January uprisings seemed only to have accelerated.  Visiting Cairo in 2010, the sense of a world on the brink of massive change, slipping into a non-violent but nevertheless pervasive form of Islamicised institutions, was unmistakeable and for me discomforting.  But what was it that was so unsettling – what was under threat?  What sort of appeal might these changes have for a moral, intelligent, passionate young woman?

It’s a commonplace now that the West’s repressions have conjured Islamism into life, and Egypt’s ex-Brotherhood leader President Morsi walks a delicate line between mobilising such forces (and the even more extreme forms they might take in Salafi groups) while at the same time keeping Egypt in dialogue with the West. Yet every time Israel humiliates Gaza, every time the West makes the wrong call in the fight for democracy in the region, that attempt to achieve dialogue becomes more endangered. I think in a modest way my play tries to weigh the risks and appeal of political Islam and audit why liberalism seems so tainted to those to whom we fondly imagine it appeals.

Cover for Ignorance/Jahiliyyah

Ignorance/Jahiliyyah (£9.99)

Nick Hern Books are proud to publish Steve Waters’ new play Ignorance/Jahiliyyah. To order your copy with 20% off – no voucher code required – click here.

Ignorance/Jahiliyyah is currently premiering at Hampstead Theatre Downstairs, in association with the Peter Wolff Trust. For more information, and to book tickets, click here.

Howard Brenton: A forgotten revolution – the historical context to 55 Days

As his fascinating new play 55 Days opens at Hampstead Theatre, starring Mark Gatiss as King Charles I and Douglas Henshall as Oliver Cromwell, playwright Howard Brenton provides an insight into the pivotal, tumultuous historical background to the drama, and the men who embodied it…

A LOST HISTORY

Recently I met a Frenchman in London and we fell to talking about the high drama of the climax of the French Revolution: the struggle between Danton and Robespierre.  ‘In this country you don’t remember you also had a revolution,’ he said, adding, rather waspishly, ‘and you don’t realise you still live with the consequences’.

He was right.  The heroic, horrific story of our revolution, the Civil War that began in 1642 and resulted in the execution of King Charles I in 1649, is not part of our national consciousness.  Only a vague impression of flamboyant Royalists in frilly costumes (goodies) and grim Puritans in round helmets (baddies) persists.

But the struggle between Parliament and Charles I founded this country.  Although we were a republic – of a kind – for only eleven years, when the monarchy was restored in 1660 its authoritarian, medieval power was broken forever.  Nearly all the demands of the Parliamentary rebels became the democratic furniture we now take for granted.  Mind you, it took time: Doug Henshall, who plays Oliver Cromwell, pointed out in rehearsal that universal male suffrage, one of the principle demands of John Lilburne and the Levellers, only became law in 1918.

PARLIAMENT VERSUS KING

The cause of the war was a lethal cocktail of money and religion.  It was a long time being stirred.  Traditionally it was Parliament’s duty to impose taxes and grant the money to the King.  But, from the time of Henry VIII’s break with Rome by marrying Anne Boleyn in 1533, MPs were entering Parliament from a new middle class.  They were non-conformist, virulently hostile to Catholicism and suspicious of the bells and smells of the Church of England, of which, of course, the Monarch was head.

Parliament began to realise its one great power: the threat to withhold money.  A dangerous question began to be whispered in Westminster corridors: which was sovereign, Monarchy or Parliament?

Elizabeth I, a brilliant political obfuscator, papered over the problem by flattering MPs and calling herself  ‘sovereign in Parliament’.  But her successor, James I, had none of it.  He believed in the Divine Right of Kings, anointed by God to rule.  MPs should do what they were told, particularly when God’s anointed was broke.  In 1611 he finally lost his temper and closed his fractious Parliament down, ruling for ten years by scraping money together selling privileges and Dukedoms to his friends.

In 1621 he recalled MPs to give approval to a future marriage between his son, Charles, and a Spanish, and therefore Catholic, Princess.  The non-conformists were outraged.  The marriage never took place but the suspicion that the Stuarts were secret Catholics was fatally lodged in Parliamentary minds.

Mark Gatiss as King Charles I – Photograph by Catherine Ashmore

Charles I came to the throne in 1625.  He repeated his father’s political follies but on a grander scale.  He married a devout Catholic, Henrietta Maria of France.  In 1629 he locked MPs out of Westminster.  The Eleven Years’ Tyranny began.  Rich men were forced to buy titles; if they refused they were heavily fined by the Court of Star Chamber.  In 1635 he imposed a universal tax: ‘Ship money’.  An ex-MP, John Hampden, refused to pay and was convicted but many followed his example.

Then in 1639 he imposed a new, high Anglican prayer book on Calvinist, Presbyterian Scotland.  The Scots rebelled.  Charles was forced to recall Parliament to ask for money.  They granted it but on two conditions: the closing down of the Star Chamber and the arrest of the Earl of Stafford, the King’s hated advisor.  Stafford was executed.

For Charles it was the last straw.  In 1642 he went to the House of Commons with three hundred soldiers to arrest five MPs.  They were warned beforehand and fled.  Six days later Charles left London to gather an Army to fight Parliament for control of England.  He raised the Royalist standard at Nottingham on August 22nd.

THE WAR

It was a terrible conflict. Cities, towns, villages, families divided all across the country.  The economy was ruined.  It is estimated that 190,000 people were killed out of a population of five million.

The first major battle was at Edge Hill, near Stratford-upon-Avon.  It was a ferocious stalemate; so many died or were wounded that both sides felt there was no going back.

Many inconclusive engagements followed in 1643.  But the MP for Cambridge and previously for Huntingdon, Oliver Cromwell, was proving himself a military leader of genius and he had a plan for radically retraining and re-equipping Parliament’s forces.

In 1644 Charles lost control of the North of England when he was defeated at the battle of Marston Moor by combined Parliamentary and Scottish forces.

Then, in June 1645, Cromwell’s ‘New Model Army’ defeated him decisively at the battle of Naseby.  The Royalist cause was lost.

But Charles was slippery.  In 1646 he surrendered to the Scots rather than to Parliament, hoping the always unstable alliance between them would collapse.  It didn’t work out: the Scots sold him to Parliament in January 1647 for £400,000.

At first Parliament did not know what to do with the King.  But, typically, he engineered his own downfall.  He entered into secret negotiations with Scottish Presbyterians promising them religious reforms in England if they invaded.  He then escaped to Carisbrooke Castle on the Isle of Wight.

The Scots invaded in 1648, joining with Royalist forces in the brief ‘Second Civil War’.  Cromwell defeated them at the Battle of Preston.  Parliament turned Carisbrooke into Charles’s prison.

55 Days (£9.99)

THE ARMY TURNS ON PARLIAMENT

Parliament had created an Army to defend it.  But now the Army had its own mind, the years of fighting had radicalised it.  On December 6th 1648 Presbyterians in Parliament voted down a motion calling for the King’s trial. The Army moved against the institution that gave it birth.  It was the first, and only, military purge of Parliament in our history.

It is at this moment 55 Days begins.

TWO RELIGIOUS MEN

Oliver Cromwell and Charles Stuart were very different men but both were complex and difficult, with strange inner lives.  Cromwell was trying to bring a new kind of England into existence which he could not easily describe (we call it a ‘constitutional monarchy’).  Charles, by his lights, was defending a traditional England centuries old.  One was fighting for a future he struggled to imagine, the other for a past that was a fantasy.  You could say both lost but the country won.

CROMWELL

Douglas Henshall as Oliver Cromwell – Photograph by Catherine Ashmore

…suffered episodes of depression.  He would prevaricate, delay, wracked with self-doubt.  Then he would act decisively in a whirlwind of politicking.  He had no formal position as leader of the rebels.  He was an MP but his faction, the Independents, was just one of many.  He was second-in-command of the Army, not its commander.

But all, from the radical Lilburne to the moderate Lord Fairfax, deferred to the ‘chief amongst men’.  This personal power, that mesmerized people around him, came first from his brilliance and courage in combat.  But it also came from his belief that Parliament’s rebellion was God’s ‘providence’, a divine intervention in humanity’s activity.  His inner torment was a continuous self-questioning: how could he be certain that he was acting by that providence?

But when he was certain his ferocious conviction would carry people with him.   And, indeed, many did believe that Oliver Cromwell had direct contact with the divine will.

Actually he was improvising.  For all his public ferocity he was a moderate, a knocker-together of heads, forever seeking agreement between the various factions amongst the rebels.  Until the last moment he sought an accommodation with the King.  Deep down he wanted to return to his farm, to sit by the hearth and let his mind at last be still.  Whereas  …

CHARLES

…had no sense of moderation.  He was sickly as a child and hero-worshipped his elder brother, Henry, the heir apparent.  But Henry died when Charles was 12 and the formidable training of a future monarch fell upon a neurotic boy.

There is something ‘encased’ about his psychology.  In modern terms he was aware that he was in a gigantic, unique existential predicament: that of a king appointed by God.  I see him as having a bright inner mirror, with an image of himself that he was forever trying to live up to, that of a king alone.  ‘Kings are not bound to give accounts of their actions but to God alone.’  This made him impossible to negotiate with.  He had no compunction about lying or breaking agreements, he guarded himself against any emotion when confronted with the deaths of so many of his subjects.  He had to be cold, for God.  He knew he must never cry.

Photograph by Catherine Ashmore

He was not, despite his marriage, a Roman Catholic.  He believed that the Church of England maintained the true catholic tradition.  He saw himself as a protector of the vision of a sunlit ‘merrie England’ at peace with its monarch, a past to which he would return the country.

Charles and Oliver did not meet during the trial, as they do in the play.

But they did meet once, before the Civil War.  Cromwell was in a Parliamentary group that went to Charles with a petition.  Charles gave them short shrift and did not remember the occasion.  Cromwell did, bitterly.

A note: I wrote this for the programme of the Hampstead Theatre production of 55 Days, which plays until November 24. 

NHB are delighted to publish Howard Brenton’s play 55 Days. To order your copy with 20% off – no voucher code required – just click here.

55 Days is currently premiering at Hampstead Theatre, starring Mark Gatiss as King Charles I and Douglas Henshall as Oliver Cromwell. For more information, and to book tickets, click here.

Here’s a few words from NHB’s Performing Rights Manager, Tamara von Werthern…

Tamara von Werthern

“This is a great costume drama (although it can also be staged in a mix of period and contemporary costumes, as with the production at Hampstead Theatre, or in modern dress) from the author of Anne Boleyn, for a cast of thirteen men and two women, requiring two strong male actors for the lead roles. It is a vivid and deft debate play that truly evokes the past and brings a human scale to cataclysmic events. Anne Boleyn has rapidly joined the ranks of our Top Ten most performed plays – Howard Brenton is definitely a playwright to keep an eye on if you are interested in large-scale historical plays.”

Sandi Toksvig: Why I Wrote Bully Boy

As her play, Bully Boy, opens at the all-new St. James Theatre in London, Sandi Toksvig explains how her own sense of rage led her to write about the impact of a contemporary military occupation on the mental health of serving soldiers…

For someone who thinks of themselves as a pacifist I have written a lot about war lately. Perhaps it is not so surprising. We are all subjected to images of conflict every day as one faction or another shoots it out in Syria or Iraq or Afghanistan or Sudan or any number of other distant places which come home to us through the television. At first my interest was mostly academic. I was working on my new novel, Valentine Grey. It concerns a young Victorian woman who, in 1899, decides to escape the confines of the drawing room by disguising herself as a man and going to serve in the second Anglo-Boer War. The war is interesting on many fronts, not least the fact that it was one of the first where the average soldier was literate. As a consequence, there are many contemporary diaries and I found I was able to march with the men as they battled across the veld. The stories were personal as some began to question what they were doing so many miles from home. As I studied the conflict, I realised that the war was not about morals or freedom but about money and influence, and it made me think how little has changed.

Photograph by Mike Eddowes

The Honourable Artillery Company in London provided many Boer War volunteers and my research there led to my being invited to a regimental dinner. As I sat chatting with soldiers serving today, my thinking turned from whole regiments in battle to individuals. Meanwhile, my partner, a psychotherapist, was dealing with a number of returned veterans in a private mental-health facility. She was enraged by their treatment and came home each day in a state of distress.

I began to read about the effect of war on the individual. In particular, Dave Grossman’s book On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society, which had a huge effect on me. Some of the facts were astonishing. In Vietnam, it took an average of 50,000 rounds of ammunition to kill one enemy soldier. The truth is if the Americans had really wanted to be efficient on the battlefield, they would have been better off with bows and arrows. The US troops, it seems, were reluctant to kill anyone, and when they returned home anywhere between 400,000 and 1.5 million veterans of that war suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. I read about every war’s legacy amongst combatants of all nations – divorce, marital problems, tranquiliser use, alcoholism, joblessness, heart disease, high blood pressure, ulcers and of course, tragically, suicide.

Photograph by Mike Eddowes

I was already appalled by the Bush/Cheney strategy of ‘All-them-ragheads-look-alike-to-me’ which conflated 9/11 and Iraq; of the average member of the public’s inability to distinguish between Afghanistan and Iraq, and my rage grew. I thought about the young men I had met who had been sent to do an incomprehensibly difficult job by their nation and who, in many instances, had not been cared for properly when they returned home, broken inside. I wondered where the movies might be which celebrate the returning veteran and yet explain his vulnerable emotional state? I had so many questions. How is it possible that one in ten prisoners in England and Wales once served in the armed forces? What has gone wrong that half of all GPs are unaware of official guidelines on how to diagnose mental-health trauma because of battle scars from the front line?

When Patrick Sandford, artistic director of the Nuffield Theatre in Southampton, said he wanted to commission a play from me it was as if Bully Boy poured out of my head. Part of the problem with an issue as complex and distressing as soldiers’ mental health is getting people to engage with it. I have always believed that the theatre is a wonderful forum for confronting difficult subjects. ‘Theatre’ comes from the Greek word ‘theatron’ meaning ‘place for seeing’. It is a communal place where we come together for an exchange of ideas; where we can explore experiences which may have nothing to do with our daily lives but which touch our humanity.

There is much more to say than can be covered in a single play. In the end, I focused on a tale of just two men, but I am not unaware of the stories that remain untold. The truth is most Iraqi children now suffer from psychological symptoms. According to a study of 10,000 primary-school students in the Shaab section of North Baghdad, seventy per cent of children are suffering from trauma-related issues.

Bully Boy (£9.99)

I remain full of rage on behalf of the young men who have been sent to do older men’s political bidding. I am appalled that George Bush and Tony Blair colluded in misinformation to the public. Bush quit drinking – it would have been better if he had quit lying. Meanwhile, Tony Blair ended up fantastically rich and, irony of ironies, a peace envoy.

I am thrilled to have penned this piece for Southampton, and that it has gone on to a new life in Northampton and become the opening production at the new St. James Theatre in London. North, south, I need people to pay attention – not to me but to the men whose voices deserve to be heard.

NHB are very excited to be publishing Sandi Toksvig’s play Bully Boy. To order your copy with 20% off click here – no voucher code required.

Bully Boy is currently playing at the brand new St James Theatre as the opening play in their first ever season. Click here to buy your tickets.

Tamara von Werthern

Here’s a few words from NHB’s Performing Rights Manager, Tamara von Werthern…

“This is a great play for two strong male performers, one in his forties to mid-fifties, and one in his early twenties, who will both be on stage throughout the piece. It’s a moving story about the damage war does to anyone who participates in it, in whatever capacity, and deserves to be seen widely, so please pick it up and put it on, if you can!”

I Am Shakespeare: by Mark Rylance

Mark Rylance

photo: Simon Annand

As actor Mark Rylance returns to Shakespeare’s Globe to play the title part in Richard III and Olivia in Twelfth Night, he reveals how his interest in the controversial Shakespeare authorship debate – the subject of his first play I Am Shakespeare, published this month by Nick Hern Books – led to the charge that he had betrayed Shakespeare. Nothing could be further from the truth, he argues in an introduction to the play, together with an extract presenting the case for one of the leading contenders.

The Big Secret Live ‘I Am Shakespeare’ Webcam Daytime Chatroom Show was created in the summer of 2007 for the Chichester Festival Theatre. Greg Ripley-Duggan produced the play, and subsequent to our run in Chichester, organised a brief tour to Warwickshire, Oxford and Cambridge University, amongst other places. This was not unlike taking a play that questioned Robert Burns’s identity as a poet, to Scotland. But, for some reason, the Shakespeare authorship controversy pierces deep to the heart of identity for some people, wherever you play. It was the extreme reaction of otherwise reasonable people that inspired this play. Their efforts to repress my curiosity, and frighten others away from the mystery, were funny in retrospect but extremely trying at the time, especially when I was Artistic Director of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London between 1995 and 2005.

I say that the play was ‘created’, as I had only written the first act and some of the second when the cast gathered in the Soho Laundry to begin rehearsals that summer. Under Matthew Warchus’s excellent direction, which included many improvements and developments of the script and idea, we then created the play. All of the original cast, especially Sean Foley who played Barry, improvised lines and situations, which I later included in the text. I am indebted to this spirit of adventure and collaboration, which, by the way, has always been my image of an aspect of the creation of the Shakespeare plays as well.

I Am Shakespeare (jacket)

Needless to say, I love Shakespeare – the work and the author – more than any other human art I have ever encountered. I have made my living, in many more ways than an actor’s pay check, on Shakespeare, since I was sixteen years old (which was thirty years ago at the time I wrote this play). I do not believe, as was charged against me at the Globe, that I am biting the hand that fed me. I am attempting to shake it. The fact that Shakespeare’s work will all disappear from the universe one day is more awe-inspiring to me than my own death.

Extract from I Am Shakespeare…

Act One Scene Three

The First Guest Ever: William Shakespeare

[Frank, a schoolteacher aged around fifty, has just begun the weekly broadcast of his chat-show about the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays, which goes out live via webcam from his garage in Maidstone.] There are two knocks on the door.

FRANK. Who’s there?

SHAKSPAR. Frank.

FRANK. Who is it?

WILLIAM SHAKSPAR enters.

SHAKSPAR. Hello, Frank.

FRANK. Who are you?

SHAKSPAR. Who do you think I am?

FRANK. Who do you think you are?

SHAKSPAR. No, who do you think I am? And more to the point, why do you think I am anyone other than who I actually am?

FRANK. What?

SHAKSPAR. Why do you do it, Frank?

FRANK. Why do I do what?

SHAKSPAR. Why do you get yourself in such a twist about who I am? Haven’t you got better things to do? You don’t need this to make you special. You should be proud of being just an ordinary good old teacher like your father, Tom.

FRANK. How do you know I’m a teacher? How do you know my father’s name?

SHAKSPAR. So what’s this all about? Books, books, books. Do you know there are more books about my play Hamlet than there are about the Bible? But then, I had a head start. There wasn’t an English Bible until a few years after Hamlet.

FRANK. Have you been sent here by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust?

SHAKSPAR. No.

FRANK. The Shakespeare Institute?

SHAKSPAR. No.

FRANK begins to speak.

No.

FRANK. Is this some sort of joke?

SHAKSPAR. You can’t fathom me, can you? Do you really think people have to be extraordinary themselves to do extraordinary things? I lived a thousand extraordinary lives in my writing – so many kings, lovers, murderers. They tired me out, Frank. But that’s not who I am.

FRANK. You dress up as William Shakespeare, break into my studio, hijack my show and then…

SHAKSPAR. It’s time you stopped, Frank. Please. Let it go. I don’t want to be man of the millennium. I just want a good millennium sleep. Every time you challenge me, some fool starts another penetrating biography: ‘Closer to Shakespeare’, ‘Shakespeare, The Player’, ‘Shakespeare, The Lost Years’, ‘Shakespeare for All Time’. Each one’s like an electric shock in my sleep, waking me up again. If I had known what it’s like to be a ghost, I never would have given them such small parts.

We see BARRY [Frank’s neighbour, age 35-45, a pop star who once had a top-twenty hit entitled ‘I’m a Sputnik Love God’] running round the outside of the garage.

FRANK. You think you can come in here, pretending to be William Shakespeare, sabotage my show…

BARRY rushes in.

Scene Four

The Interruption of the Neighbour’s Musical Genius

SHAKSPAR looks at the books.

BARRY enters, making sure he doesn’t forget a song he’s just composed in his head.

BARRY. I’ve got a song, Frank. After I rang you I went out with the guttering and BAM! I’VE GOT IT! After twenty-two years, my follow-up! ‘Long Green Summer Grass’. It’s got it all. Love in the afternoon. The great flood. It’s like a green love anthem. Sort of Al Gore meets Barry White!

SHAKSPAR. Hello, Barry.

BARRY sees SHAKSPAR.

BARRY. What are you doing?

FRANK. What are you doing?

BARRY. Who’s that?

FRANK. Yes. Who’s that?

BARRY. Why?

FRANK. Why what?

BARRY. What?

FRANK. Why?

BARRY. Why do something like this without telling me? Hiring a lookalike. I don’t think that’s very professional, you know, to keep secrets from your musical director. I thought we were working together on this. Oh, fuck it! Fuck it! I’ve forgotten the fucking song! I’ve forgotten the fucking tune! Look what you’ve done. I can’t remember it. It’s gone.

SHAKSPAR (singing).

Come on, baby, come on, baby, don’t say maybe,
When you’re way down, let me lay down –

BARRY. That’s my song!

SHAKSPAR (singing).

Lay down with you in the summer grass,
In the long green summer grass.

BARRY. That’s the song I just made up!

SHAKSPAR (singing).

I’m changing my drains down,
So, baby, when it rains down,
Ain’t no summer hose ban’s gonna turn,
Gonna burn, my long green summer grass to brown.

I thought the repeats helped the rhythm.

BARRY. Who is this guy, Frank?

FRANK. Why don’t you both just stop pretending. Get out. Go on, get out, the both of you.

BARRY. I never met the man before in my life! I swear on Brian May’s plectrum!

Scene Five

The First Interview Ever with William Shakespeare

SHAKSPAR. May I just finish this before I go?

BARRY. Do you know any more of my songs?

SHAKSPAR. Yes, but what I like best is that children’s book you’re working on.

FRANK. You never told me you were working on a children’s book.

BARRY. I never told anyone about Teddy and the Philosopher’s Guitar. What are you, like, a professional mind-reader? Is that your act?

SHAKSPAR. In a way, I suppose I always was, but since I died…

FRANK. Listen, you Shakespeare Kissogram, lookalike fake, bald-headed bladder-faced Midlands Pranny…

BARRY. Hey, Frank, why don’t you give him a chance to explain himself.

SHAKSPAR. Because his mind is closed, Barry. He doesn’t want to know who wrote the plays. He wants to know he’s right. And I think he’s probably got some kind of hang-up about common people creating great works of art.

SHAKSPAR gets up to go.

BARRY. Now you’re talking.

FRANK. No I haven’t.

SHAKSPAR. I’m off now. (Speaking into the camera.) May I just say thank you to everyone, actors and audiences everywhere, for making my plays the big success they are. I never imagined they would last so long.

FRANK (also into the camera). Because he never imagined them in the first place.

SHAKSPAR. I think I might go up to Stratford-upon-Avon and visit the Birthplace Trust. What’s the best way to get there?

BARRY. How did you get here?

SHAKSPAR. I don’t know… something to do with the internet and the weather? Look, I’ve written something for you, Frank. Just to show you there’s no hard feelings. One of your favourite sonnets. You wouldn’t believe the money you can get for any old document connected to me nowadays.

SHAKSPAR puts it on the desk.

FRANK. Oh, very impressive. Phoney Elizabethan writing. You’ve been up all night rehearsing this.

SHAKSPAR. Don’t you want a handwritten sonnet?

FRANK. No, I don’t want your lousy homework.

FRANK tears it up and throws it in his face. Sniffs him.

By the way, I don’t know if your friends have told you, but you have got severe hygiene issues.

SHAKSPAR. I’ll make my own way. Fare thee well, Barry.

BARRY. Fare thee well, Will.

SHAKSPAR. I’m retired; I just want to be left alone, like Prospero. Let your indulgence set me free.

FRANK. If Shakespeare’s so like Prospero, why didn’t he educate his daughters?

SHAKSPAR. They didn’t want to be educated.

FRANK. Why didn’t he write or receive any letters?

SHAKSPAR. I conducted my business in person.

FRANK. Why did Shakespeare never write about his home town, Stratford?

SHAKSPAR. Which would you rather go and hear: The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, or The Slightly Embarrassing Day in the Life of John, Glove Maker of Stratford?

He goes out and they carry on talking around and out in front of the garage.

FRANK. People in Stratford had no idea he was a playwright?

SHAKSPAR. I kept myself to myself.

FRANK. Then, why was he so litigious?

SHAKSPAR. What’s any of this got to do with my work?

FRANK. That’s exactly my question.

BARRY. Will, you know you can see inside my head, can you see inside Frank’s?

SHAKSPAR. When? In the past, present or future? Once you die, your existence is not bound by time or space.

BARRY. What was Frank doing last Tuesday at, say, 11:37 in the morning?

SHAKSPAR. He was in a classroom, teaching my play, Romeo and Juliet, and he was just about to confiscate a mobile telephone from a young student named James who was texting a friend beneath his desk.

BARRY. What did the text say?

FRANK. It doesn’t matter.

SHAKSPAR. ‘Tosser Charlton is a dickhead.’ In the First Folio collection of my plays, Ben Jonson refers to the author as the ‘Sweet Swan of Avon’; there’s a reference to the author’s ‘Stratford Monument’, in Stratford-upon-Avon; and, my fellow actors, Heminges and Condell, also refer to me as the author. How do you explain all that? Why? If I wasn’t the author, why? Until you can answer that, you haven’t got an answer, you haven’t even got a question!

SHAKSPAR goes out into the evening.

NHB are proud to publish Mark Rylance’s debut play, I Am Shakespeare. To order your copy at the special price of £7.99 (rrp £9.99) with free UK P&P click here and add ‘Blog Offer’ in the promo code box at checkout.

Tamara von WerthernA few words from NHB’s Performing Rights Manager, Tamara von Werthern…

“This is a lively and very funny play anchored in the present but exploring the secrets of the past. It’s great for companies who have a number of strong male performers and enjoy performing in costume. It’s a light-hearted piece that asks fundamental questions about identity and the nature of genius, and will be enjoyed by all audiences, particularly those with some knowledge of Shakespeare’s work (though, as the extract above shows, it wears its considerable learning lightly). And those of you who have seen or performed Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem will more than likely want to read a stage play by the actor who was the original Johnny ‘Rooster’ Byron.”