‘Theatre in its purest form’: Cheryl Henson on the power of puppetry in an increasingly digital world

Puppetry is an artform with ancient roots, but contemporary applications – and the international success of shows like National Theatre hit War Horse proves that it has lost none of its magic.

Here, Cheryl Henson, President of the Jim Henson Foundation, reflects on how that ‘magic’ happens, and pays tribute to director and puppeteer Mervyn Millar, author of a new book, Puppetry: How to Do It

The magic of bringing a puppet to life fascinates me. The precision of gesture that conveys a puppet’s inner life can be breathtaking, immediately taking me out of everyday reality and into a world where anything is possible.

As the President of the Jim Henson Foundation, a grant-making organisation that supports puppetry, I have had the opportunity to meet a wide range of artists. In addition to supporting American puppeteers, our foundation produced an International Festival of Puppet Theater for a decade, presenting more than 120 shows from almost thirty countries in five festivals. We were the first in the United States to present Handspring Puppet Company, as well as many other extraordinary troupes.

A number of years later, I had the pleasure of meeting Mervyn Millar when he worked with Handspring on the National Theatre’s production of War Horse. The puppeteers in this show brought full-size horse puppets to life and interacted as real horses with human actors. The horses were extraordinarily lifelike. Although the puppeteers were in full view, the audience readily accepted the puppets as horses. With the success of War Horse, Mervyn travelled internationally to train new performers to do these roles. He worked with actors, dancers and movement performers to give them the skills they would need to be good puppeteers.

The cast of War Horse in rehearsals

‘The horses were extraordinarily lifelike’ – the cast of War Horse in rehearsals

Puppetry is an ancient theatre form rooted in various cultures throughout the globe. Yet, it is also a contemporary art form embraced by innovative theatre artists creating new styles and techniques. That combination of old and new brings a particular dynamism to puppetry.

A simple puppet can be surprisingly appealing in today’s technologically complex culture. The prevalence of digital media and the easy manipulation of perceived reality is commonplace these days. When what is real in our everyday world becomes questionable, ‘realism’ can feel untrustworthy. In contrast, puppetry can be very straightforward. The magic feels real because you can see exactly how it is done and still choose to believe in it.

Puppetry invites the audience to participate in the theatrical experience. The puppet is not alive. No matter how well it is manipulated, everyone knows that it is not alive. It is an object that appears to breathe, to see, to think, to react – to be an emotionally whole being with an unknowable inner life, just like us. But we understand that a puppet is doing none of these things. It is an illusion that the audience agrees to go along with. It is theatre in its purest form. The puppeteer cannot force the audience to believe. The puppeteer must cajole, convince and carry the audience into the shared illusion of believing in the life of the puppet. As Mervyn puts it in his new book, Puppetry: How to Do It:

‘Something is happening when the audience believes in the puppet, and invests in it emotionally, that they recognise as being close to religious or ritual action. But we should remember that it also has the opposite energy – of playfulness and irreverence. The puppet is like a little god, or a little miracle, but also “just” a toy. It reminds us of being a child – when we imagine our toys into vivid life. I hope that the emphasis in this book on the active part the audience play in imagining the character helps to reveal how it is they who are making this connection…’

Of course, this connection to the audience does not happen if the puppet is not believably performed. The manipulation of the puppet is everything. How one trains to manipulate a puppet can vary immensely, but the fundamental principles remain the same.

I had the pleasure of observing Mervyn Millar teach puppet manipulation using the techniques in the book when he came to the National Puppetry Conference at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Connecticut, an annual gathering of international puppeteers that brings professionals and trainees together for an intense ten-day period of creative development. At this conference, I watched as Mervyn encouraged and inspired the participants to experiment with their choices, to pick up odd objects and combine them to create characters and give them movement: an old watering can and a wrench, a piece of hose and a bucket, a brass bell and some paper. All of them came to life before our eyes in new and unexpected ways. The atmosphere was calm and supportive, and the participants worked together to create unique characters.

Based on the workshops he developed for training performers for War Horse, as well as workshops like the one at the National Puppetry Conference, Mervyn has written his book to share his craft. With care and dexterity, he takes us through a basic training technique that uses simple materials like sticks and brown paper to focus attention on the movement that gives these objects the appearance of life. The exercises in the book are clear and easily reproducible for many different types of participants.

‘Giving these objects the appearance of life’ – one of Mervyn Millar’s workshops covered in his book
Puppetry: How to Do It (photo by Nick Arthur Daniel)

Although Mervyn’s book is aimed at training performers for live theatre, creating the illusion of life is a skill that can be used in the digital world as well. Digital media – video games, virtual reality, television, film, even social media – all contain manufactured reality in varying degrees. Creatures and characters within those realities can be brought to life by defined gesture and movement, just as puppets are. Whether through digital puppetry or motion capture, the human body and the human hand is still better at conveying movement that reads as life than any computer algorithm. Not only is the training outlined in this book beneficial for a range of performers, it could provide important skills for all sorts of jobs not yet invented in the creation of believable life in alternate realities.

By writing Puppetry: How to Do It and sharing the teaching techniques that he has mastered over many years, Mervyn has offered a wonderful gift to the field of puppetry. I hope that it will be used widely to introduce adventurous spirits to this dynamic art form.

The above is taken from the Foreword to Puppetry: How to Do It by Mervyn Millar.  Written by an experienced theatre and puppetry director, the book is a practical, accessible and inspiring guide to using puppetry in theatre – the perfect entry point for anyone looking to use puppets in their productions, to explore what puppets can do, or to develop their puppetry skills.

Get your copy of Puppetry: How to Do It for just £11.24 (that’s 25% off) – enter code PUPPETRYBLOG25 when ordering online here.

Cheryl Henson is the President of The Jim Henson Foundation and a member of the Board of Directors of The Jim Henson Company. The Jim Henson Foundation supports the creation of innovation contemporary puppet theater through grants to puppet artists and presenters. The foundation has given over 800 grants to over 350 artists.

From 1991-2000, Cheryl executive produced the award-winning biennial Henson International Festival of Puppet Theater.  These five festivals presented 136 different productions from 31 counties in 14 theatres throughout New York City. During this time, Cheryl also worked for The Jim Henson Company as their liaison with Sesame Street and Sesame Workshop, co-wrote the book Muppets Make Puppets and worked on a range of other projects. In 2005, she edited a book of her father’s philosophy for Hyperion, It’s Not Easy Being Green and Other Things to Consider. While her father was alive, Cheryl was a puppet builder and designer and worked on many productions including The Dark Crystal, Labyrinth, The Muppet Show, The Storyteller, Bunny Picnic and Song of the Cloud Forest. Cheryl is a graduate of Yale and has a degree in textile design from F.I.T.  

Photograph of Cheryl Henson by Richard Termine.

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Lucy Kirkwood (The Nick Hern Books Anniversary Interviews)

Lucy Kirkwood is a leading playwright whose plays include the hugely acclaimed Chimerica. She spoke to theatre journalist Al Senter as part of our interview series celebrating the thirtieth anniversary of Nick Hern Books in 2018

Lucy Kirkwood has come a great distance in a remarkably short period of time. In the ten years since her debut play Tinderbox, a dystopian farce in which England is quite literally disappearing beneath the waves, premiered at the Bush Theatre, she has established herself as one of the leading voices of her generation. Her major breakthrough came in 2013 with Chimerica, her extraordinarily bold and gripping dissection of global geopolitics and Chinese-American relations, which transferred directly from the Almeida Theatre to the West End, with a major four-part TV series now on the way from Channel 4. And then two plays focussing, in quite different ways, on the moral responsibilities of contemporary scientists: The Children,  which premiered at the Royal Court in 2016; and Mosquitoes, at the National Theatre in 2017, starring Olivia Colman and Olivia Williams as rival sisters who have followed very different paths in life.

Lucy Kirkwood’s Tinderbox, published by Nick Hern Books in 2008

As a playwright, she has never backed away from tackling the most pressing issues of our times, and her work has been garlanded with awards. Yet she is wary of the slippery concept of success. Before turning to writing, she had done a smidgeon of acting and tried her hand at directing, but found neither fitted her particular talents. She credits her agent, Mel Kenyon at Casarotto Ramsay & Associates, with giving her the confidence to start writing. ‘She invited me in for a cup of tea and when she offered to take me on as a client, I felt galvanised,’ explains Lucy. ‘I’d always written and I’d always been attracted to the theatre. I love the medium – there’s something about the liveness of it which excites me. And I love the process, which you don’t get in any other medium. Here is a group of people gathered together in a room – in a rehearsal room – to interrogate, to ask questions of the play, of the director, of each other, until something unexpected emerges. And I find that very sustaining and often very beautiful.’

Francesca Annis and Deborah Findlay in Lucy Kirkwood’s The Children at the Royal Court Theatre in 2016 (photo by Johan Persson)

She draws a pointed contrast with the world of TV and film, where she also has considerable experience: she was a lead writer on Skins, created fire-fighting drama series The Smoke for Sky 1, and is exec-producing Channel 4’s Chimerica. ‘When you are working on a film or a television drama, the time I need as a writer is at a premium. Television people may pay you more money, but getting an agreement or a green light out of them is very hard, mainly because they won’t take the risk of getting it wrong and ending everybody’s career.’

Is the screen more competitive than theatre – or more hostile, perhaps, to writers?

‘I tend to pick my battles at the right time and in the right area. Since I am the person who mostly sits on a chair, having relatively little to do by that stage, they’ll tend to agree with me when I point out something to the team. It may only be a tiny detail but they’ll agree to do whatever it is with an “of course”.’

In her plays, she writes unsparingly about the tensions between women, either as workplace competitors (NSFW, at the Royal Court in 2012), or as rival siblings (Mosquitoes). Lucy is patently not afraid of breaching female solidarity, pointing out that ‘if they are not in conflict with one another, where’s the play? That’s the whole point.’

Olivia Colman and Olivia Williams in Lucy Kirkwood’s Mosquitoes at the National Theatre in 2017 (photo by Brinkhoff Mogenburg)

Lucy is careful not to sound triumphalist when her ‘success’ is discussed. She prefers to reference Samuel Beckett: ‘I feel very lucky that with every bit of work I do, I think that I fail better. My one ambition is to write a play as good as Far Away by Caryl Churchill, and I don’t have a lot of confidence about whether or not I’ll be good enough. I tend to write my plays at night; there’s something almost clandestine about it. And seeing my plays in performance is very nerve-wracking. I always sit at the back of the auditorium, ready to make a quick getaway if necessary. I find the audience very strange. It’s as if here is a group of people who have been invited to watch me peel away layers of my own skin. And I find it impossible to predict how an audience will take to a play: which lines get laughs one night, and which are greeted with silence the next. Yet the moment you think you can predict how an audience will react, the work begins to suffer.’

Success, then, she defines as ‘just writing something which you think is good’. As a salutary warning, Lucy mentions the figure of the late Arnold Wesker, whose early success with plays such as Chicken Soup with Barley and Roots, which both came to the Royal Court after premiering at the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry in the late-50s, gave way to neglect when his work later fell out of fashion. Why does Wesker appeal to her?

‘His work is beautifully written, with well-crafted ideas given robust expression with political passion and understanding. All you can hope for in the theatre is that people will continue to want to direct your work and that you avoid writing plays that are inward-looking.’

Benedict Wong in Lucy Kirkwood’s Chimerica at the Almeida Theatre in 2013 (photo by Es Devlin)

There is no shortage of new plays being written, and in the jostling for exposure, new plays can lose out when they are denied further productions, especially outside the metropolis. Lucy feels drawn in two opposing directions on this subject.

‘I tend to get bored listening to my voice, and I often feel I’d rather be watching a new play written by somebody else rather than a revival of my own work that is too familiar. I think that a lot of writers secretly have their favourites among their plays, and it varies from day to day which they like the most.’

She stresses the importance of having her plays published. ‘My publisher Nick Hern is one of the first people to read a new play of mine, and the email which he sends me after he has read it is one of the highlights of the production process, like the conversation we’ll have about the design of the book covers, for example. I feel that the people involved in the publication process are just as important as the individuals contributing to the production. In a sense, the published text is a valuable record of what went on in the rehearsal room. It’s part of stating that the play has arrived.’


Lucy Kirkwood’s plays are published by Nick Hern Books, including the collection Plays: One, which contains Chimerica as well as four other plays.

Other Nick Hern Books Anniversary Interviewees include Harriet Walter and Rona Munro. Catch up with them all here.

Rona Munro (The Nick Hern Books Anniversary Interviews)

Continuing our series of interviews with our leading authors and playwrights, commissioned to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of Nick Hern Books in 2018, theatre journalist Al Senter talks to playwright and screenwriter Rona Munro…

Born and raised in Aberdeen, Scotland’s venerable Granite City, writer Rona Munro has recently transported herself to the other end of Scotland. She now lives in the Scottish Borders, a land that was once home to Sir Walter Scott ­– and, like Scott, Rona seems to draw inspiration from an extraordinarily diverse range of sources.

There cannot be many writers whose work is as wildly heterogeneous as hers. Her breakthrough 1990 play Bold Girls (revived at Glasgow’s Citizens Theatre earlier this year, and again at Keswick’s Theatre by the Lake later this month) is set in Belfast at the height of the Troubles, and features a raucous girls’ night out. Then there’s a comically sinister whodunnit (Your Turn to Clean the Stair); a wild and fantastical tale set in nineteenth-century Scotland (The Maiden Stone); a sweet theatrical rom-com set in Montréal (Strawberries in January, based on a play by French-Canadian playwright Evelyne de la Chenelière); and an intense psychological drama set in a women’s prison (Iron). She’s written about obsessive mountaineers (Long Time Dead), the Soviet space programme (Little Eagles), the last woman to be executed for witchcraft in Scotland (The Last Witch) and the youth gangs of nineteenth-century Manchester (Scuttlers). She’s adapted Lorca and Elizabeth Gaskell, and even turned Shakespeare inside out (in The Indian Boy). Her adaptation of Elizabeth Strout’s novel My Name is Lucy Barton is now playing at the Bridge Theatre, London, in a production directed by Richard Eyre and starring Laura Linney. And, in a major coup for fans of Ian Rankin’s morose Edinburgh detective John Rebus, it was recently announced that she has been working with Rankin on a new Rebus story, written exclusively for the stage. Rebus: Long Shadows premieres at Birmingham Repertory Theatre in September.

Bold Girls by Rona Munro at Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, January 2018 (photo by Tim Morozzo)

She has worked widely in radio, film and television, too. She is, according to those who study these things, the only writer to connect the ‘classic’ Doctor Who years with the rebooted version of life in the TARDIS.

Rona is now perhaps best known as the author of the astonishingly ambitious historical trilogy The James Plays, which premiered at the Edinburgh International Festival in 2014 before transferring to the National Theatre in London. An epic cycle chronicling three generations of Stewart kings who ruled Scotland in the fifteenth century, the plays succeeded in finding a Scottish equivalent to Shakespeare’s history plays. Undaunted by the obscurity of her material, Rona blew the dust off this turbulent and tumultuous period of Scottish history, finding modern resonances in the lives of her medieval kings and – notably – their resourceful wives and mothers. ‘The scope is Shakespearean,’ proclaimed The Times, ‘yet Munro applies a contemporary sensibility to her medieval characters, who talk and swear in modern tongue.’

The James Plays by Rona Munro, National Theatre of Scotland, 2014 (photo by Manuel Harlan)

Rona, it seems, has an urgent appetite for stories. When quizzed about her seemingly boundless versatility, she downplays her protean character. It is all down to ‘cashflow’, she says, a simple matter of the need to make a living. Yet there are a number of other reasons to accept the challenge of a commission. It is clear that she is a highly sociable writer who values the personal relationships she has developed with certain directors down the years. She gives a roll call of some of her favourite collaborators, from the Birmingham Rep’s Roxana Silbert to Sarah Frankcom at the Manchester Royal Exchange and Laurie Sansom, the former Artistic Director of the National Theatre of Scotland.

Do these people have anything in common?

‘If you’re going to work intensively with someone on a project for six months but you’re not going to enjoy it on a personal level, what’s the point of doing it in the first place?’ asks Rona. ‘I shall always be interested if I have an established relationship with a director and a kind of shorthand has developed between us. I suppose you develop an understanding with them, and so they get what you are trying to do. The people I enjoy working with are the ones who are also very good at spotting where you haven’t served your script to its best advantage, and they’re not afraid to say that what you’ve come up with is shite.’

Has she ever had a bad experience with a director? ‘Oddly enough, I am always being asked about directors ‘sullying’ my work. However, I have never come across such people, apart from the occasional snob who is snooty about pantomime, for instance. Nobody is trying to ‘destroy’ my work.’

Oranges and Sunshine, dir. Jim Loach, wr. Rona Munro

Unusually, she has worked with both Ken Loach (she wrote the screenplay for his 1994 film Ladybird Ladybird, about a woman’s fight with Social Services over the care of her children) and his son Jim Loach (for whom she wrote the screenplay to Oranges and Sunshine, about a social worker who holds the British government accountable for child migration schemes). ‘These were wonderful experiences,’ she says. ‘Ken effectively taught me how to write for the screen.’

Her high level of productivity is partly practical. ‘Any writer who wants to make a living needs to be prolific, and you need to have as many other strings to your bow as possible. Sometimes I think that I haven’t been as successful in established television series as I could have been because I find it hard to blend into the background. I’m too much of an individual, perhaps, and I don’t enjoy pitching ideas for long-running series.’

Rona refers frequently to luck as an active force in her career. ‘There have been times in my career when I’ve been extremely broke, but I’ve also been very lucky and I haven’t needed to take on work simply to pay the bills.’

She is refreshingly down to earth about her work, with no trace of ego. She is serious, yes, but grand never. ‘Iron is one of the most successful of my plays,’ she says, ‘And if anybody knows why it has done so well, can they please tell me? Then I could write another one like it.’

Iron by Rona Munro at New Venture Theatre, Brighton, 2011 (photo and set design by Strat Mastoris)

Even if she has experienced quieter moments in her career, Rona seems never to have had any doubts about her vocation. A cousin of her mother’s, the writer Angus McVicar, was a shining example of the literary life, and Rona also praises a series of inspirational English teachers. ‘Uncle Angus was simply a fantastic story-teller, and I decided at the age of eight that I wanted to be a writer too. My parents were also very encouraging. Nobody told me not to bother.’

Rona is relishing her return to her native soil. Scottish theatre is in a good place at the moment, she feels, with a healthy climate for new plays in particular. ‘The nice thing about having a Scottish base again is that you have the support of your friends and peers. There is a great support system between writers which transcends any natural tendency to jealousy. Two of my closest friends are the writers Linda McLean and Stephen Greenhorn, and we wouldn’t stab each other in the back. We enjoy a drink and a blether, and there is no sense of rivalry between us. Nor is it compulsory to live in London. People don’t generally realise that you have left London, as long as you turn up for meetings.’

Rona Munro and cast member Lucianne McEvoy in rehearsal for Bold Girls at Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, 2018 (photo by Tim Morozzo)

She pays a warm tribute to the publisher of her plays, Nick Hern. ‘Nick came into my career very early, and it is thanks to him that I was able to experience the thrill of seeing my name in print. He is really quite an inspirational person who has often persuaded me to publish plays which I felt would not sell, and yet he was always right. By pioneering the programme/text, where the playtext is reproduced inside the programme that is sold alongside performances of the play, Nick has made a real difference to the career of every playwright based in the UK. The programme/text has proved itself to be a kind of public service for new writers. It’s been an absolute gift. It enables you to hand over a copy of your play, and when you present it to people, they look at you with increased respect. It’s a kind of calling card, I suppose. Thank you, Nick.’


Rona Munro’s plays are published by Nick Hern Books, including a new edition of Bold Girls, published this month alongside the revival at Keswick’s Theatre by the Lake (21 June – 24 October).

To buy a copy of Bold Girls for just £7.99 (20% off the RRP), visit our website.

Read all our Anniversary Interviews, including one with actor Harriet Walter, available here.

Photograph of Rona Munro by Colin Hattersley.

‘Reaching out for life in a new country’: Winsome Pinnock on her play Leave Taking

Winsome Pinnock’s play Leave Taking, about a Caribbean family living in North London, is as powerful today as it was when it was first performed in 1987. As a major new production opens at the Bush Theatre in London, the author reveals how she came to write it, and how it was inspired by her own family story…

I hadn’t read Leave Taking for several years when Madani Younis, Artistic Director of the Bush Theatre, told me that he wanted to revive the play as part of the theatre’s 2018 season. He said that he and the Bush’s creative team considered the play a classic in the canon of work by black British playwrights and that they felt that it remained relevant: Enid’s predicament – the plight of many immigrants regardless of where they come from, caught between worlds – reaching out for life in a new country, haunted by memories of what she has left behind.

On the first day of rehearsals at the Bush I was asked to talk to the cast about how I came to write the play, the first full-length play I had ever written. I found it difficult to answer the question. Engaging with the text again had put me in conversation with my younger self, who I felt was a presence in the rehearsal room. I wished that she could answer for me.

Seraphina Beh in rehearsals for Leave Taking at the Bush Theatre, 2018 (photo © Helen Murray)

I developed a passion for theatre and performance as a child of around twelve years old when, with generous grants from the GLC (Greater London Council), our school took us on visits to the theatre. I wouldn’t have gone otherwise. There wasn’t enough money in our household to afford such trips and there wasn’t enough time either. The interest was awoken, and, along with my younger sister, I became part of a group of young people who became regular theatregoers. We were given the resources (by our school, youth theatres and drama clubs) to dance, act and write. My mother offered quiet encouragement. When I doubted myself, she reminded me that success was usually a matter of holding on, of seeing things through to the end. When I expressed a desire to play the piano I came home from school one day to discover that she had purchased a piano so old it had a few missing keys, but it was functional. She found me a teacher: Miss Wright who lived off the Holloway Road and taught local kids to play at 15p a lesson. My mother and siblings listened tirelessly to the stories I wrote as a child; I was the acknowledged writer of the family.

My mother migrated from Jamaica to the United Kingdom in 1959, following her husband-to-be who, like Enid’s spouse in Leave Taking, saved his salary for a whole year before he was able to afford the money to buy a ticket for her passage over. The shock and disappointment of those who migrated to the UK at that time is well documented. My parents’ generation had been indoctrinated by a colonialist education that lionised all things British. They celebrated Empire Day (24th May) when their schools distributed British flags and lollipops. Despite their disappointment on entering a country whose environment was often hostile (‘No blacks, no dogs, no Irish!’), they didn’t complain and rarely discussed the hardships. After all, they had grown up on plantation villages where the legacy of enslavement was still evident in the wretched poverty they endured. Jamaica achieved independence the year that my youngest sibling was born. My parents’ marriage disintegrated a few years later, and my mother became a single parent to four young children at a time when there was still stigma attached to divorce.

Sarah Niles and Wil Johnson in rehearsals for Leave Taking at the Bush Theatre, 2018 (photo © Helen Murray)

Writers are given their preoccupations at birth. I am the descendant of enslaved Africans who were forcibly denied the right to the written word, or to express themselves through art or song and yet held on to aspects of their African heritage in both. Traces of African spiritual rituals were preserved by clandestine practices like obeah, which was made illegal in Jamaica in 1898, a law that remains on the statute books. Despite its illegality, my mother and some of her peers retained an interest in obeah, consulting obeah men and women in times of crisis for advice and healing.

As a schoolgirl I thought I was going to be an actress. I idolised Glenda Jackson and longed to follow in her footsteps. When I left school, the headmistress predicted that I had a future in the industry. At university I was told that, although I was considered a talented actress, I probably wouldn’t be cast in many productions because I was black. I focused on my writing. I had started writing a play (a sketch really) about two girls getting ready to go out but never managing to leave their bedroom. I sent it to the Royal Court Young Writers’ Group and was invited to join. It was there that I wrote Leave Taking, my first full-length play, when I was twenty-three years old. I wanted to make Enid the heroine of the play because I couldn’t recall ever seeing such a character – a hospital cleaner – as the lead in a British play. I specifically wanted to write about the black British experience as distinct from African American culture because producers often seemed to think that they are interchangeable. I submitted the play to the Royal Court’s literary department who sent me an encouraging rejection letter.

I knuckled down to write another play – A Hero’s Welcome – which received a rehearsed reading at the Royal Court. As a result of the reading I was commissioned by the Liverpool Playhouse Studio and dusted off Leave Taking, restructuring and rewriting to their financial requirements – the budget would only allow for five characters and two sets, so I cut characters and locations. This meant that I could focus more on Enid’s relationship with her daughters, Del and Viv. I was a young feminist. At consciousness-raising groups the mantra ‘the personal is political’ was drummed into me. Similarly, at the Royal Court Young Writers’ Group we were encouraged by workshop leaders Hanif Kureishi and Stephen Wakelam to ‘write what you know’. I now understand that you write what you come to know. Writing is an exploration, the pursuit of the answer to an unanswerable question. I started out wanting to write about the daughters – this new breed of black British woman – but ended up fascinated by Enid and the complexity of her relationship with England, her daughters, and herself, as well as her long-standing friendship with Brod whom she has known since childhood. Brod and Enid have travelled a great distance, both physically and psychologically. They would not have survived without each other. Mai is an enigmatic figure, especially for Viv and Del who have no direct connection with the culture she represents, but she comes to have a powerful influence on all of them.

Adjoa Andoh and Seraphina Beh in rehearsals for Leave Taking at the Bush Theatre, 2018 (photo © Helen Murray)

Leave Taking has been produced four times (the 2018 Bush production will be its fifth production) since 1987. Years after the play was produced at the National Theatre (1994) I was told that it was the first play written by a black British woman to have been produced there. I also learned that it was the first time that a black woman writer and director (Paulette Randall) had worked together at the venue. After the first performances of the play at the Liverpool Playhouse Studio women from different cultural backgrounds collared me to say: ‘That’s my story. I’m Enid’ or ‘That’s my mam. She’s just like Enid.’

The young woman who wrote Leave Taking had no idea that a generation who were very young children or who hadn’t been born when it was first produced would feel that the play still speaks to their experience. I hope it will connect with new audiences in the same way. Some of the speeches feel as though they were written recently: Brod’s words about having to seek naturalisation after thinking of himself as a British citizen for his whole life echo words spoken thirty years later by victims of the 2018 Windrush scandal (a misnomer considering it involves immigrants from diverse backgrounds and not just the Caribbean).

When I was a child my mother told me that she thought that I might have a gift for clairvoyance. I understand now that she had always instinctively known that I was a writer. It’s not that writers are necromancers, but when I read the play I raise again the spirits of those characters. I hear their voices very clearly; I see my younger self consulting with my mother, asking her how you make chocolate tea, and hear her ribbing me all over again about the royalties I owe her or joking that I should credit her as co-writer. I experience again the writing of the scene where Enid breaks down. I know what that feels like now because I have lived through it. I want to ask that young woman if, when she wrote the play, she would ever have imagined that she too would one day howl with grief into a rainy London night after witnessing her mother take her last breath just as Enid howls for a mother she will never hold again.


Reproduced from the new edition of Leave Taking by Winsome Pinnock, published on 24 May 2018 by Nick Hern Books.

To buy your copy for just £7.99 (20% off the RRP), visit the Nick Hern Books website here.

Leave Taking is revived at the Bush Theatre, London, 24 May – 30 June 2018. To book tickets, visit the Bush Theatre website.

Author photo by Bronwen Sharp.

Harriet Walter (The Nick Hern Books Anniversary Interviews)

Nick Hern Books is celebrating its thirtieth anniversary in 2018. To mark the occasion, we’ve commissioned interviews with some of our leading authors and playwrights. First up, theatre journalist Al Senter talks to Dame Harriet Walter…

Actor Harriet Walter has enjoyed a long and distinguished career, including playing almost all of Shakespeare’s heroines on the stage. As she ruefully points out in her latest book, Brutus and Other Heroines: Playing Shakespeare’s Roles for Women, she has reached a point in her career where she has exhausted the supply of mature female roles in the Shakespeare canon. Where, she asks, does an actress go after playing Cleopatra’s magnificent death?

Then, as she recounts in the book, the director Phyllida Lloyd came to her with the idea of an all-female Shakespeare season at the Donmar Warehouse. Committing herself to this experiment, Harriet played Brutus in Lloyd’s production of Julius Caesar in 2012, followed by the title role in Henry IV (a condensed version combining both parts, which opened at the Donmar in 2014), and then Prospero in The Tempest in 2016.

It was a journey into previously uncharted territory, but it clearly paid off when the three plays, performed together as the Shakespeare Trilogy at the Donmar’s temporary theatre in King’s Cross in 2016, was met with resounding critical acclaim, hailed by the Observer’s critic as ‘one of the most important theatrical events of the past twenty years’.

Harriet Walter as Brutus in Julius Caesar, Donmar Warehouse, 2012 (photo by Helen Maybanks)

Did such a positive response from the public and the profession surprise her? ‘Definitely,’ replies Harriet. ‘I initially expected a lot more hostility – even ridicule. But from the kick-off, we received wonderful reactions. If there were some dissenters back in 2012, by the time we moved on to the second and third play, we had built up a great following. And certainly among younger people, men and women, there was a feeling of “Women playing men? What’s the problem?”‘.

‘Most of the people I have heard from have said that they felt inspired and liberated by our productions,’ Harriet continues. ‘They told me that they had seen the plays in a completely fresh light and that there was a great significance to the work, beyond providing an evening’s entertainment. They also felt that the shows had marked a huge cultural shift in the world at large. I hope that doesn’t sound over-reaching.’

Naturally not everybody was sympathetic to what Harriet, Lloyd and the other members of the company were trying to achieve.

‘There are people, of course, who simply hate the idea of women playing men; but they mostly didn’t come to see the productions,’ reports Harriet. ‘Those that did come grudgingly at first often said that they were pleasantly surprised. I know that we usually only hear from people who have enjoyed the play. Those who haven’t liked it tend not to say anything, so I am well aware that we didn’t convert everybody. However, I’d argue that the strength of the reaction from young people outweighs the more negative reactions.’

Harriet Walter as King Henry IV in Henry IV, Donmar Warehouse, 2014 (photo by Helen Maybanks)

It could be argued that such experiments in gender-blind casting work best in period plays with a historical setting, where the characters, the language and locations are already at one remove from our own. Can a non-naturalistic approach to gender in casting work just as well in the staging of contemporary plays as it has done in Shakespeare?

‘This I am not so sure about,’ replies Harriet. ‘I think that it is more important to get new writers to create 360-degree female characters in new plays. The nature of Shakespeare’s plays depends more on the actors’ ability to live through language and communicate some universal truths that have not changed since Shakespeare’s day and don’t depend on naturalistic casting. The modern classics – the plays of Pinter and Beckett – belong in very specific worlds, created in the imaginations of those playwrights, and there would be complex arguments about the pros and cons of altering the gender of any of the characters. Change one brick and a lot of the meaning comes tumbling down. People need to be very clear on the reasons for changing the gender of a role – or the gender of the actor playing it. The important thing is that each production has a coherent motive for its casting scheme and that things are not done just for the sake of being trendy or different. It is important not to confuse an audience. If the casting lacks coherence, audiences can sniff it out and become alienated very quickly.’

Given her long association with the Royal Shakespeare Company and a working life steeped in Shakespeare, Harriet must feel a certain kinship with the playwright. Does she sense that he liked women?

‘It’s hard to be sure. I think that in general he loved them and was fascinated by them. He gave them many of the best insights – the most witty and wise arguments. But he also had some of the main characters express the sexist prejudices of the age – that women were fickle, vengeful or feeble. Whether he himself agreed with those voices is hard to say. He was human and he lived at a particular time.’

Harriet Walter at Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra, Royal Shakespeare Company, 2006 (photo by Pascal Molliere, © RSC)

For the moment, Harriet has a busy schedule, meeting her various film and television commitments, and you get the feeling that it will take something special to tempt her back to the stage.

‘At the moment, I’m very happy being in the audience watching things that I wouldn’t necessarily want to do myself. I want to do work that will break boundaries, and I want to keep going and be permanently challenged in what I do.’

In her professional life, Harriet has a fear of becoming stuck, like a musical instrument that plays the same notes over and over again. In a sense, her ground-breaking work with Phyllida Lloyd enabled her to find a different tune. But she has also challenged herself repeatedly as an author: her book Other People’s Shoes is an elegant analysis of what an actor is and does, while Facing It is a series of reflections on images of older women whose faces and lives have inspired her.

Actors, self-evidently, have other people’s words with which to go to war, so it must be a daunting task to have to invent your own.

‘I’m not saying that acting is easy, compared with writing, but you do develop a skill that reminds you that you know how to do it. And after you have reached the age of fifty, you feel the need to challenge yourself. I think we can all get a bit complacent at that age.’

Has she any further writing plans?

‘I enjoy writing but I think I need a break from writing about work,’ she reveals. ‘Perhaps I should try fiction. I have less reason to think I could do that, but I’m tempted to try.’

You heard it here first!


Harriet Walter’s Brutus and Other Heroines: Playing Shakespeare’s Roles for Women is published by Nick Hern Books in paperback and ebook formats.

To buy a copy for just £10.39 (RRP £12.99), visit the Nick Hern Books website.

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Author photograph by Georgia Oetker.

 

Understanding the Mad King: Antony Sher on rehearsing King Lear

Leading actor Antony Sher’s new book Year of the Mad King: The Lear Diaries provides an intimate, first-hand account of his process researching, rehearsing and performing arguably Shakespeare’s most challenging role, Lear, in the acclaimed 2016 Royal Shakespeare Company production.

This extract, written during rehearsals only a few weeks before the production opened, takes us behind the scenes of the RSC, offering a window on director Gregory Doran and the cast’s sharp, insightful interrogation of the text – and how events occurring in the world outside fed into the production. Also included are a selection of Sher’s magnificent illustrations, which feature throughout the book.

Thursday 7 July 2016

When I walk into the rehearsal room this morning, I find one wall transformed. Covered with sheets of paper: some with images, some with text. It’s the research that Anna [Girvan, assistant director] has led, about the homeless in Shakespeare’s time. Much of it is from two books by Gamini Salgado: The Elizabethan Underworld and Cony-catchers and Bawdy Baskets.

Reading the extracts, I learn that the failure of harvests in the 1590s, and subsequent shortage of food, led to the Enclosure Acts, where people were thrown off common land and deprived of their livelihoods. Some turned to petty crime, while others took to roaming the countryside.

This is the population that Greg [Doran, director of King Lear and Artistic Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company] wants to represent, as a kind of chorus, in the production.

Prince Philip’s Lear

I go over to my bag, find a picture, and stick it up among the others on the wall. It’s the one of Prince Philip which I sketched about a year ago – showing him in some kind of discomfort during an official ceremony.

Good. Now the display shows both sides of the world we’re trying to create. The poor naked wretches and the burden of monarchy.

Oddly, both sides represent the Dispossessed.

Odder still, Lear has brought it on himself.

In rehearsals of the storm scenes, I confessed that I didn’t know what to do with ‘Blow winds’. I said, ‘Let’s take the reality. A man is shouting in a storm. You wouldn’t be able to hear him. He probably wouldn’t be able to hear himself. We’ve solved how to do it in performance – we’ll be using mics – but how do we rehearse? I can’t just stand here, yelling. I’ll strain my voice.’

Derek Jacobi as Lear

I mentioned the brilliant solution which Michael Grandage and Derek Jacobi found in their 2010 Donmar production. When you first saw Lear in the storm, you heard the full cacophony of it. But as he lifted his head to speak, all the sound was abruptly cut, and he whispered the speech: ‘Blow winds…’ It was, as Lear describes in his next scene, ‘The tempest in my mind’.

‘Couldn’t we borrow that?’ I suggested tentatively.

‘Absolutely not,’ said Greg; ‘Much too recent. And anyway, that was a chamber-piece production and that was a chamber-piece solution, and we’re not doing a chamber-piece.’

He then came up with his own, striking scenario for the scene. He suggested that maybe the winds aren’t blowing – yet – and the speech is a desperate plea (‘Blow winds, I beg you!’), not simply a description of what’s already happening (‘Yeah, go on winds, blow!’)…

…And so we created a narrative to the speech:

  • A subsidence in the storm prompts, ‘Blow winds…’
  • A flash of lightning prompts, ‘You sulphurous and thought-executing fires…’
  • A crash of thunder prompts, ‘And thou, all-shaking thunder…’

We can put these cues into rehearsals, we can create the other character in the scene – the storm – for me to play against.

Stage management made precise notes: they’ll find some recordings from stock (for now) to play when we next rehearse the scene.

For me this was, potentially, a solution to the hardest part of the role.

Olly as Edgar as Poor Tom

Then we moved onto the first Poor Tom scene. Oliver Johnstone [playing Edgar] really went for the mad tumble of language in his speeches. (It’s not just Beckett who owes a debt to Shakespeare, it’s James Joyce too.) I was also intrigued to note that Olly had a new range of movements – some of them twisted and jerky, almost like cerebral palsy – and new sounds too: mumblings and stutters. This was all from his ‘secret’ rehearsals with Greg. Which is a technique Greg used with the witches in Macbeth. He’d work with them privately, so that we, the rest of the cast, never knew what they were thinking or what motivated them. It made them more mysterious, more powerful.

I think, in fact, it’s originally a Mike Leigh method. I experienced it when I did his stage play Goose-Pimples (1980, Hampstead and Garrick). Each of the characters was developed separately, in one-to-ones with Mike, so that when he started to bring us together and create a storyline, we encountered one another as strangers. After all, in real life you know little or nothing about people you meet for the first time.

The Minimalist (Richard Wilson directing)

I remember that the long Goose-Pimples improvisations, and later the equally long Auschwitz exercises that Richard Wilson devised to rehearse Primo (2004, National Theatre and Broadway) can make your head go to a very funny place. I was angry with both Mike and Richard after the sessions – because of where they’d taken me – yet my anger was totally unjustified: I could’ve stopped at any point, and walked away. Except I couldn’t, really – it becomes a kind of self-hypnosis.

Today, I wondered how much Edgar loses himself in the Poor Tom disguise? But, of course, I wasn’t allowed to ask.

Olly had a question for me though, in the mock-trial scene: had Lear been planning this cross-examination for a while, ever since his daughters turned against him after the abdication?

‘That’s an interesting thought,’ I said; ‘There must’ve been people yesterday…’ (when the Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraq War was published) ‘…who’ve become obsessed with the idea that Tony Blair should be put on trial for… what’s it called?… humanity… what’s the phrase?’

Someone suggested, ‘Crimes against humanity?’

‘Exactly!’ I cried; ‘That’s what Lear has been obsessing about. Except in his case, it’s crimes against the king!’


This is an edited extract from Year of the Mad King: The Lear Diaries by Antony Sher, published by Nick Hern Books.

Get your copy of the book for just £12.74 – that’s 25% off the RRP – by entering code SHER25 at checkout when you order via our website.

The RSC’s production of King Lear transfers to BAM, New York, from 7-29 April, before returning to Stratford-upon-Avon from 23 May – 9 June.

Illustrations by Antony Sher, photographed by Stewart Hemley. Author photo by Paul Stuart.

‘Authenticity guaranteed’: Robin Belfield on why verbatim theatre is so important right now

Verbatim theatre, fashioned from the actual words spoken by real people, is the perfect antidote to our troubled times, argues Robin Belfield, whose new book Telling the Truth: How to Make Verbatim Theatre is an essential guide for theatre-makers, artists, students and teachers.

If ever there was a time for verbatim theatre, it’s now.

We live in a world that sometimes feels like it’s being overrun by information outlets – television, newspapers, bloggers, social media platforms, the list goes on… I don’t suppose there’s more news, just more channels clamouring for attention. And how much of it can we trust?

There’s been a long-running debate about ‘truth’ in the news. Do we – should we – believe everything we see, read or hear in the news, or via our Facebook feed? In the current climate of ‘fake news’, that debate is hotter than ever. The line between ‘reporting’ and ‘opinion’ is not so much fuzzy as invisible.

I’ve come to believe that verbatim theatre offers the perfect antidote.

Hamlet famously advises the actors that the very purpose of playing “was and is, to hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature”. And arguably that has always been the theatremaker’s gift – to offer up a reflection of the world to their audience. But in the majority of cases it’s the playwright’s truth that is being reflected: truth filtered through their imagination, metaphor and craft. Of course the best playwrights offer a kind of truth: the accuracy of an impeccably researched historical drama, say; or the emotional or psychological truth laid bare in the behaviour of their fictional characters.

But verbatim theatre is different. By giving actors only the actual words of real people, verbatim theatre is the closest that theatre can get to objective truth – no dramatic licence required. It is neither imagined nor invented; its authenticity is guaranteed because it presents the testimony of those with first-hand experience.

Henry Wyrley-Birch as Neil in a 2015 production of Walking the Chains, commissioned to celebrate the 150th birthday of Clifton Suspension Bridge, written by ACH Smith and directed by Robin Belfield

It would be naïve to think, and wrong of me to suggest, that verbatim theatre is completely free of a ‘filter’. With this kind of theatre, the playwright usually serves as researcher, editor and dramaturg all at once; and in all three roles they are required to make active choices. As researcher, they are often responsible for gathering the material, choosing who to interview and what questions to ask. As editor, they make selections, choosing what to keep in and what to leave out. And as dramaturg, they give the material its shape, choosing what form to present it in, what story to tell.

The verbatim theatre practitioner is mouthpiece and censor all at once. And this is the beautiful challenge.

Little Revolution, Alecky Blythe’s recorded delivery play about the 2011 London Riots

I’ve worked with other people’s words for a long time, and had the privilege of watching and talking to others who have done the same. During that time I realised that, while there are some pretty firm rules which define verbatim theatre, there are many different ways of processing and shaping the raw material from which it is formed. In my book, Telling the Truth, I lift the lid on some of the key verbatim theatre practices, from Alecky Blythe’s ‘recorded delivery‘ method – where actors are fed the verbatim material ‘live’ via an earpiece – to the process developed by Ivan Cutting, whose work with Eastern Angles fuses verbatim testimony with fictional dramatic material.

I love working with artists and students who are new to this work, and over the past few years I’ve developed a number of activities to guide newcomers through the process of working with verbatim material. My book, Telling the Truth, is the realisation of all that work, combining my own experience with an exploration of recent verbatim theatre productions. The book also includes interviews from a number of different practitioners – actors, writers, directors and designers – all offering their insights into the rewards and the responsibilities of handling other people’s words.

Theatre will never entirely rid itself of ‘opinion’ or ‘agenda’. And why would it want to? Theatre of any kind, even verbatim theatre, is an art rather than a science. But at a time when we’re faced by constant cries of ‘fake news’, by the most outrageous distortions and misrepresentations across news channels and at the hearts of our democracies, we can rely on theatre – and perhaps especially verbatim theatre – to interrogate the truth and to help us understand our bewildering world.

The cast of Walking the Chains by ACH Smith, in a production directed by Robin Belfield


Telling the Truth: How to Make Verbatim Theatre by Robin Belfield is out now, published by Nick Hern Books.

To buy your copy for just £10.39 (20% discount), click here.

Also available in the Making Theatre series from Nick Hern Books: Creating Worlds: How to Make Immersive Theatre by Jason Warren.

Photographs by Toby Farrow.