Vaulting ambition: the best new plays from VAULT Festival 2019

VAULT Festival, London’s biggest arts and entertainment festival, is now underway in the Vaults in Waterloo, where it runs until 17 March.  With over 400 shows from more than 2,000 artists, featuring the best new writing in theatre and comedy, cabaret, immersive experiences, late night parties and more, there’s something for everyone. And to celebrate the publication of Plays from VAULT 4, an exciting collection of seven of the best plays from the festival, we asked the authors whose work is featured in the anthology to tell us a bit about their play, and what VAULT means to them – plus, at the bottom, a few handy tips on what to see at this year’s festival…

Maud Dromgoole on her play 3 Billion Seconds, 6–10 March:

3 Billion Seconds is about two hardcore population activists who advocate having no children until (obviously) they get pregnant themselves. We watch them going to greater and greater extremes, struggling to ‘offset’ keeping the baby.

It comes really from being a member of a fair few zero-waste groups, and observing the sporadic militantism and absolute hypocrisy of trying to be a good person in a confusing world. It’s been a complete nightmare play for me in interrogating my own choices. It’s made me vegetarian which is, you know, good for the cows, but sad for me.

The text isn’t particularly prescriptive and I’m very lucky to have a director I trust implicitly. I’m really excited to see what Beth [Bethany Pitts] makes with it, and I hope people will come see it at VAULT.


Nathan Lucky Wood on his play Alcatraz, 27 Feb–3 March:

Alcatraz is the story of a little girl who breaks into a nursing home to bust her Granny out for Christmas. It’s about finding room for love in big institutions, and the meaning of Christmas, and the meaning of Clint Eastwood.

It started life as a short play for The Miniaturists. I had an idea for a sort of gender-swapped Don Quixote set in modern London. I thought I could write a play where a woman with dementia wanders through London misinterpreting everything she sees, and her granddaughter goes with her, not realising she has dementia. Don Quixote became Donna Quexis and Sancho became Sandy, which I thought was quite clever. Then I sat down to write the play and by the time I had finished, something very different had emerged, and it had nothing to do with Don Quixote except the names. At the time I’d been stuck on a very serious, important play about whistleblowing in the NHS, and Alcatraz seemed to absorb all those themes and ideas. But at heart it’s about a child trying to repair a broken family. Which seems to end up being the subject of every play I write, whether I want it to or not.

It’s a huge privilege to come back to VAULT Festival. It’s an incredible place with an incredible atmosphere, and a fantastic, supportive team behind it. And the venues have so much atmosphere. I’m really excited to see Alcatraz in the Cavern – it’s been my favourite venue here for years and it’s just perfect for the play.


Margaret Perry on her play Collapsible, 13–17 February:

Collapsible is a play set inside the brain of an unemployed and isolated woman who increasingly feels she is not a person who exists. Interviewing for job after job, she starts to run out of ways to describe herself, and so she decides to make a list, crowd-sourced from the people who know her. Or used to know her. But as the list grows, she soon finds that words on a page aren’t enough to cling to. It’s a monologue about work, self, and trying to wade out of the dark.

The play came from a few different places. When I first moved to London almost five years ago, I was unemployed for three horrible months. Collapsible is partly an exorcism of that time in my life and an interrogation of the damaging way in which our neoliberal capitalist society has intrinsically linked who we are to what we do. I also wanted to explore the tunnel-vision solipsism of depression and anxiety – the ways we push people away just when we need them the most. And I wanted to write a play from the perspective of a complex, compelling bisexual woman.

I’m SO excited to be at VAULT 2019 making this play with the best collaborators I could ask for. VAULT 2017 and 2018 filled my heart and emptied my pockets and I knew I had to be part of it any chance I got!


Nabilah Said on her play Inside Voices, 23–27 January:

Inside Voices is a dark comedy about Muslim women from Singapore. It blends humour with magical realism to confront audiences with a community they rarely see, or think about. The play is highly energetic and playful – with mythology and monsters thrown in – to really reflect the atmosphere and rich cultural diversity of Southeast Asia. The show is presented by an all-Asian and all-female team.

I wrote Inside Voices because I saw nothing in London that reflected my sensibilities as a Southeast Asian. Growing up in Singapore, which is a super-modern country and a former British colony, I have a natural (and sometimes confusing) affinity for British culture, but that love isn’t necessarily reciprocated. A lot of people still wonder why I speak good English. The movie Crazy Rich Asians didn’t help either – it put Singapore on people’s radar but it didn’t portray brown people like me who are also Singaporean.

I am so thrilled to be showing Inside Voices at VAULT 2019. Last year I was a festival assistant and I remember thinking, “Man, I wish I could be part of this”. The festival has a real buzz to it. I value the opportunity to share a little bit of Southeast Asia with London – I honestly don’t think people have seen anything like it here. I suppose it’s a bit of a provocation as well: would you watch a show about a community you probably have never cared about?

Inside Voices by Nabilah Said (publicity shot and author photo by Erfendi Dhahlan)


Christopher Adams and Timothy Allsop on their play Open, 23–27 January:

We initially conceived of Open after we’d worked together on another play about a nineteenth-century book collector. Chris had been working with an archive to write the play, and we realised we had an archive of our relationship. All our emails, Facebook posts and Guardian Soulmates messages had formed part of material we had handed to the Home Office when Chris was processing his Leave to Remain. This is what began our discussion about doing a show about our relationship, the focus on the ‘open’ aspect came afterwards.

It was an exciting but also complex process of engaging with the timeline of our relationship and working out a narrative structure through which to explore a modern-day romance. When researching we found amazing statistics about how many gay men are in open relationships (40–50%) and yet how few people talk about it openly. There were also lots of different rules that worked for different couples. We found this a useful focus point for the show.

We also interviewed some of our former lovers and friends and used that material in the show. The result was a moving patchwork of voices and experiences which helped to people the stage alongside our own story.

The responses from the audiences have been overwhelmingly positive, with most people connecting with its humour and honesty. We were also amazed by the diversity of the audience and felt the play spoke to all kinds of people. We hope there will be a future life for the piece and fully enjoyed our time at VAULT. It’s also been wonderful to be published in the Nick Hern Books collection.

Timothy Allsop and Christopher Adams in their play Open


Dylan Coburn Gray and Claire O’Reilly of MALAPROP Theatre on their play JERICHO, 6–10 February:

Dylan Coburn Gray: JERICHO is a play about the world right now. It’s about a young journalist struggling to get by, writing about things she doesn’t care about and worrying whether writing about things she cared about would be any more meaningful. It’s about professional wrestling, and how it’s like contemporary politics in more ways than you might think. It’s about plausibility, the danger of myths, Roland Barthes and RuPaul, and whether there’s any point even trying to get a pension as well as paying rent if the world’s just going to go on fire before any of us get old.

Jericho is the oldest city. It has a protective wall around it. Chris Jericho’s signature move is named after that wall. Wrestling has always been more about what feels true, rather than what is true. From that little constellation of ideas, the show grew. Its heart is interrogating our sentimentalities about the past and how they lead us to interpret the present.

I think we started off knowing we wanted to make something that would approach the present obliquely. The news cycle right now is such that we spend all our time in our political fury refractory period; you can only get so angry about so many things, and beyond that current events just hurt us with no change in motivation or insight. We didn’t want to just tell people more horrible stuff, we wanted to encourage a reappraisal of the horrible stuff we all already know. Or something like that.

Claire O’Reilly: Having had a blast in Edinburgh for the last two years, bringing work to the UK [MALAPROP is a Dublin-based collective] has so far been a pleasant experience for us (one I’m probably jinxing as I type, go me). It’s exciting to open the conversation out beyond our regular audience, particularly now that we’re no longer complete strangers to the British landscape. That said, being part of VAULT 2019 feels particularly special due to the high volume of Irish work on offer. This is owed in no small part to fellow Irishwoman Gill Greer, Head of Theatre and Performance at Vaults, who really put VAULT Festival on the radar of Irish practitioners.

JERICHO by MALAPROP Theatre (photo by Molly O’Cathain)


Jodi Gray on her play Thrown, 6–10 March:

Jill Rutland and Ross Drury from Living Record approached me a while ago with (what I naively thought was) quite a simple, but beautiful, stimulus for a show: When was the moment you knew you were no longer a child? This is what we referred to as the ‘Thrown’ moment (something to do with the impenetrable philosopher Heidegger) – the point at which we’re hurled unceremoniously into adulthood. We all of us have one, though the levels of drama and sometimes trauma vary hugely; everyone I spoke to could pinpoint theirs immediately.

Along with this simple question, they explained that in performance we would be using binaural technology – an on-stage microphone shaped like a human head with a pick-up in each ‘ear’ – and the audience would listen in via wireless headphones. So, the performer breathes into the left ear of the mic, and each audience member can almost feel their own left ear warming up. (Yes, it is eerie – and has ended up feeling a bit like we have direct access to your brain…)

Part of the development of the play involved us collecting testimony from older people (how better to understand how the end of childhood affects a life?), and I was overwhelmed by the stories we heard, the detail and the joy and the pain. Every one was a privilege to hear, and I’m only sorry I couldn’t include all of them*.

So, this simple idea had somehow become The Stuff of Life – much too much to squeeze into the running-time of a show designed to be performed at a festival. I decided to wrangle it through the character of Dr Constance Ellis – a child psychologist searching through her life story for her own, lost, thrown moment amongst those of her former patients.

Jill is a bewitching performer, and she understood Constance immediately, intuitively. (She also makes everything I wrote magical in ways I could never have dared dream for.) With Ross’s profound direction, and Chris Drohan’s otherworldly sound design, Thrown is not an ‘easy’ watch – but we’ve made something that feels exactly like a memory: strange, enigmatic, bittersweet.

It surprised me in the end that this play, developed so collaboratively, should end up being one of the most personal I’ve ever written. In fact, after one of the previews a close friend turned to me, shaking her head but laughing, and said, ‘No wonder you’re like this.’ I still don’t know what the fuck she means.

We’re so chuffed to be bringing Thrown to VAULT Festival after a run at the Edinburgh Fringe, and ahead of our UK tour – it’s such a beacon of awesomeness in the depths of winter and I love the timelessness of being underground. It’s like a lovely nourishing fugue for all us creative folks.

* These interviews are available to watch on the company’s YouTube Channel as part of Living Record’s ongoing online archive of collected testimony called ‘The Record of Living’ – true stories from the end of childhood retold and relived from people all over the country.

Thrown by Jodi Gray


What to see at VAULT Festival 2019

Just before the festival opened on 23 January, we asked our authors which shows from this year’s programme they were most excited to see. Check out their picks below…

Maud Dromgoole: I’m really looking forward to so many shows at the festival. All the other shows in the Nick Hern Books anthology look brilliant. I also can’t wait to see Hear Me Howl (30 Jan–3 Feb), Queens of Sheba (30 Jan–3 Feb), Fatty Fat Fat (30 Jan–3 Feb), 10 (13–17 Mar), Pufferfish (6–10 Mar),The Last Nine Months (of the rest of our lives) (20–24 Feb), Lola and Jo (8 Feb), Juniper and Jules (23–27 Jan), i will still be whole (when you rip me in half) (27–28 Feb), Essex Girl (30–31 Jan), Lucy Light (13–17 Mar), WORK BITCH (27 Feb–3 Mar) and Cabaret Sauvignon and a Single VAULT Whiskey (24 Jan–8 Mar), which I think has won VAULT on title alone.

Nathan Lucky Wood: There’s so much great stuff on this year it’s hard to know what to recommend, But I’m hugely excited for WOOD by Adam Foster, directed by Grace Duggan (27 Feb–3 Mar). I saw a very early sharing of it last year and it was absolutely astonishing. I’m really excited to see the full-length play.

Margaret Perry: I’m very excited to see all the other plays in the anthology – particularly 3 Billion Seconds (6–10 Mar), Inside Voices (23–27 Jan) and JERICHO (6–10 Feb). I also can’t wait for Dangerous Lenses (23–27 Jan), 17, (23–27 Jan), i will still be whole (when you rip me in half) (27–28 Feb), Juniper and Jules (23–27 Jan), Pufferfish (6–10 Mar), Landscape (1989), (13–14 Feb), bottled. (13–17 Feb),WORK BITCH (27 Feb–3 Mar), Finding Fassbender (15–16 Mar), and The New Writers’ Showcase (17 Mar).

Nabilah Said: I’m excited for Silently Hoping by Ellandar (20–24 Feb) and SALAAM by Sara Aniqah Malik (30 Jan–3 Feb). Both deal with Muslim-related issues in different ways – Silently Hoping tackles being half-Asian and half-British, while SALAAM is a lyrical take on Islamophobia in Britain. I love that there can be three really different plays at the festival talking about being Muslim. It just shows you that there isn’t one way to be Muslim, and it isn’t mutually exclusive with being human, either.

Maeve O’Mahony of MALAPROP Theatre: I can’t wait to see Queens of Sheba (30 Jan–3 Feb), having missed it at Edinburgh Fringe (actually, note to self, book tickets now). There’s also a plethora of Irish work on offer this year. I’m particularly excited about Sickle Moon Production’s Tryst (13–17 Feb), Sunday’s Child’s Get RREEL (6–10 Feb), Joanne McNally’s Bite Me (13–17 Mar), and Nessa Matthews and Eoghan Carrick’s Infinity (6–10 Feb). I’m also REALLY tempted to extend my stay and crash on a couch so I can catch Oisin McKenna’s ADMIN (27–28 Feb) and Margaret Perry’s new play Collapsible (13–17 Feb)!

Jodi Gray: I’m especially looking forward to all the plays in Nick Hern Books’ VAULT collection, particularly 3 Billion Seconds by Maud Dromgoole (6–10 Mar) and Collapsible by Margaret Perry (13–17 Feb), and then BOAR by Lewis Doherty (6 Mar) (you’d be an absolute idiot to miss this, and it’s on for one night only), 10 by Snatchback (13–17 Mar), Vespertilio by Fight and Hope (20–24 Feb), and Tacenda by RedBellyBlack (20–24 Feb).

Plays from VAULT 4, containing seven of the best plays from this year’s festival, is published by Nick Hern Books. To buy your copy for just £13.59 (RRP £16.99), visit our website now.

Collections from previous VAULT Festivals are also available on our website here.

VAULT Festival 2019 runs from 23 January – 17 March at the Vaults, Waterloo, London. Visit the festival website here.

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Top 10 Most-Performed Plays of 2018

2018 saw the thirtieth anniversary of Nick Hern Books – and it was certainly a year to remember, with more plays published than in any previous year in the company’s history, a shelf-load of awards, and the inaugural Amateur Theatre Fest in September. Plus, we licensed many brilliant productions of Nick Hern Books’ plays to amateur companies up and down the country, and further afield. We’ve done some number-crunching, and can now announce our official Top 10 Most-Performed Plays of 2018, together with some of our favourite posters and production shots from the productions we’ve licensed over the year…

10. The Railway Children by E. Nesbit, adapted for the stage by Mike Kenny
Cast: 5f 6m doubling (6f 9m possible)
Staging: can be simply staged (with or without a steam train!)

At number ten on our list comes this delightful period drama, adapted by Mike Kenny from E. Nesbit’s much-loved book. It’s the heart-warming story of a prosperous Edwardian family forced into penury in the rural north of England. This imaginative adaptation captures the anxieties and exhilarations of childhood with great tenderness and insight. It offers three plum roles for young performers, and is eminently suitable for schools, youth theatres and drama groups. ‘This glorious adaptation never for a moment runs out of steam’ Guardian

The Railway Children by E. Nesbit, adapted by Mike Kenny, performed in 2018 by Doncaster Little Theatre


9. Be My Baby by Amanda Whittington
Cast: 6f
Staging: multipurpose set

This poignant and moving drama is set in a 1960s Mother-and-Baby Home, where young, unmarried women are sent to have their babies. It revolves around a central character who has to cope with the dawning realisation that she will have to give her baby up for adoption, whether she likes it or not. Yet despite their plight, the girls’ youthful effervescence keeps breaking through as they sing along to the girl-group songs of the period. Amanda Whittington’s ever-popular play has a cast of 6f, making it our most-performed all-female play in 2018. ‘Immensely touching’ The Times

Be My Baby by Amanda Whittington, performed in 2018 by Chorley Amateur Dramatic and Operatic Society, Lancashire


8. Handbagged by Moira Buffini
Cast: 4f 2m
Staging: minimal requirements

A fresh and funny drama about two of the most powerful women of the twentieth century, Queen Elizabeth II and Margaret Thatcher, Handbagged undoes the clasp of history and takes us right into the royal chamber, exposing the antipathy between Queen and Prime Minister as they battle for supremacy. Featuring two exceptional roles for female performers, the play is also available in a  one-act version suitable for festivals and shorter time-slots. ‘Hilarious and moving… raises serious questions about the balance of power’ Guardian

Handbagged by Moira Buffini, performed in 2018 by Chads Theatre Company, Cheadle Hulme


7. Arabian Nights by Dominic Cooke
Cast: 4f 5m doubling (large cast possible)
Staging: flexible staging, minimal requirements

A simple and delightfully inventive re-telling of the stories from the Arabian Nights, with an original music score by Gary Yershon that can also be licensed for performance. Dominic Cooke’s enchanting Arabian Nights was originally produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company and has been hugely popular with amateur companies ever since. It was our highest-ranking family show in 2018. ‘A truly magical piece of theatre that delights all the senses’ WhatsOnStage

Arabian Nights by Dominic Cooke, performed in 2018 by Falls Church High School, Virginia, USA


6. Jerusalem by Jez Butterworth
Cast: 5f 8m plus 1 boy
Staging: single built set (mobile home in a woodland clearing)

This hugely acclaimed powerhouse of a play by Jez Butterworth centres on local waster Johnny ‘Rooster’ Byron and his disreputable retinue, a constant source of irritation to the local council, who want him evicted from his illegal encampment in a woodland clearing. The play offers an outstanding lead role for a male performer, with plenty of additional roles for a cast of 14 (plus chickens, if available). ‘Unarguably one of the best dramas of the twenty-first century’ Guardian

Jerusalem by Jez Butterworth, performed in 2018 by The Norwich Players

Jerusalem by Jez Butterworth, performed in 2018 by Swan Theatre, Bedford


5. The Thrill of Love by Amanda Whittington
Cast: 4f 1m
Staging: various interior and exterior settings (can be simply staged)

A gripping, noirish period drama about Ruth Ellis, who became the last woman to be hanged in Britain. Holding a place in our Top 10 for the fourth year running, Amanda Whittington’s The Thrill of Love dramatises an absorbing true story, with a female-led cast and a 1950s setting. ‘Tense and engaging throughout… a triumph’ The Stage

The Thrill of Love by Amanda Whittington, performed in 2018 by Bedford Drama Company

The Thrill of Love by Amanda Whittington, performed in 2018 by Nantwich Players, Cheshire


4. The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, adapted for the stage by Steven Canny and John Nicholson
Cast: 3m (playing various roles)
Staging: minimal requirements

Not a standard period whodunnit, but a gloriously funny makeover of the Sherlock Holmes story, from the hit comedy team Peepolykus. This Hound of the Baskervilles is an madcap and zany spoof, offering abundant slapstick opportunities for three male performers. ‘A masterclass in madcap energy… a fun and fresh Sherlock Holmes romp’ The Stage

The Hound of the Baskervilles adapted by Steven Canny & John Nicholson, performed in 2018 by Bersted Arts in Bognor Regis


3. Ladies’ Day by Amanda Whittington
Cast: 4f 1m doubling (or up to 6m)
Staging: flexible staging

The third play by Amanda Whittington in the Top 10 is this high-spirited comedy about four likely lasses from the Hull fish docks on a day trip to the races. Ladies’ Day has been a hit with amateur companies for years, and with its warm heart, relatable soul and fabulous roles for women, it’s not hard to see why. Plus, there’s the option of performing the equally brilliant sequel, Ladies Down Under. ‘Exuberantly up-to-the-minute comedy’ Guardian

Ladies’ Day by Amanda Whittington, performed in 2018 by Tanat Theatre Club, Llanrhaeadr, Powys

Ladies’ Day by Amanda Whittington, performed in 2018 by Bradford Players


2. Blue Stockings by Jessica Swale
Cast: 8-10f 8-14m (plus 2 extras)
Staging: various interior and exterior settings

Jessica Swale’s moving, comical and eye-opening historical drama Blue Stockings is the defiant story of four young women fighting for education against the backdrop of women’s suffrage. Set in 1890s Cambridge, it has plenty of opportunities for a large cast with female leads. ‘Cracking… leaves you astonished at the prejudices these educational pioneers had to overcome’ Guardian

Blue Stockings by Jessica Swale, performed in 2018 by Between the Bars Theatre Company, Cambridge (photo by Timothy Winn)

Blue Stockings by Jessica Swale, performed in 2018 by Commonwealth Theatre, Louisville, Kentucky, USA


***Our most-performed play in 2018***

1. Nell Gwynn by Jessica Swale
Cast: 5-7f 7m
Staging: can be simply staged

In the top spot for the second year running, Jessica Swale’s warm-hearted historical comedy about the young Drury Lane actress who won the heart of the king is a truly popular champion. Boasting a large cast and a wonderfully charming lead role for a female performer, Nell Gwynn is a proper crowd-pleaser with strong box office appeal, and the chance to show off some spectacular frocks. Congratulations to the hugely talented Jessica Swale for holding first and second places in our Top 10 of 2018! ‘Bawdy and brilliant… a wonderful, warm-hearted and generous piece of theatrical history’ The Stage

Nell Gwynn by Jessica Swale, performed in 2018 by the University of Southampton Theatre Group

Nell Gwynn by Jessica Swale, performed in 2018 by Barn Theatre, Welwyn Garden City


Congratulations to all of our wonderful authors who have made it into the Top 10 this year, and to all of you whose performances have been such a success throughout the year.

We have over 1,000 plays available for amateur performance on our website, where there’s a handy Play Finder tool to help you find the perfect play to perform. Our friendly and knowledgeable Performing Rights team is available to discuss your requirements with you in person (email us at rights@nickhernbooks.co.uk, or give us a call on 020 8749 4953). And make sure you sign up for our newsletter to get notifications of the latest releases.

Whatever your plans for 2019, we hope to hear from you soon!

Nick Hern Books at 30

This year, Nick Hern Books celebrated thirty years of theatre publishing. As the year draws to a close, we take a look at some of the things that have made it a year to remember…

We published 100 new plays over the year, two-thirds of them by female writers.

They included the exhilarating debut play from Natasha Gordon, Nine Night, which premiered at the National Theatre in April, went on to win the Evening Standard Most Promising Playwright Award, and is now in the West End.

Featuring alongside Nine Night on many critics’ review-of-the-year lists were Ella Hickson’s The Writer, which premiered at the Almeida Theatre in April, and Annie Baker’s spellbinding John, which had its UK premiere at the National Theatre in January.

Arinzé Kene followed up his acclaimed performance in Conor McPherson’s Girl from the North Country with a play of his own, Misty, performed by Kene at the Bush Theatre in March before transferring to the Trafalgar Studios in September.

There was Josh Azouz’s unsettling Buggy Baby at The Yard in March; Joe White’s ethereal family drama Mayfly at the Orange Tree in April, along with Chris Bush and Matt Winkworth’s headline-grabbing The Assassination of Katie Hopkins at Theatr Clwyd, winner of Best Musical Production at the UK Theatre Awards; Stephen Karam’s The Humans at Hampstead Theatre in August; Alexis Zegerman’s Holy Sh!t, opening the renovated Kiln Theatre in Kilburn in September; Nina Raine’s Stories at the National Theatre, debbie tucker green’s ear for eye at the Royal Court, and Iman Qureshi’s Papatango Prize-winning The Funeral Director at Southwark Playhouse, all in October; Jessie Cave’s Sunrise at Soho Theatre in November; and, in December, Mike Bartlett’s Snowflake at the Old Fire Station in Oxford, as well as Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Sweat at the Donmar Warehouse.

In January, we published a collection of plays from the annual VAULT Festival in Waterloo, as well as a selection of award-winning monologues from the inaugural Heretic Voices competition. In June, there was a volume of short plays by and about women, from the Women Centre Stage Festival. And in July, we published Vicky Featherstone’s selection of monologues, Snatches: Moments from 100 Years of Women’s Lives, as well as a collection of plays by Stephen Jeffreys, who very sadly passed away this year.

It was also a year of major revivals, with Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori’s superlative musical Caroline, or Change at Hampstead Theatre in March, and now in the West End; in May, Winsome Pinnock’s Leave Taking at the Bush, and Tracy Letts’ Killer Joe at the Trafalgar Studios with Orlando Bloom; Sophie Treadwell’s Machinal at the Almeida and Rona Munro’s Bold Girls at Keswick’s Theatre by the Lake, both in June; David Edgar’s Maydays revived by the RSC in September, alongside his new one-man show, Trying It On; and Martin Crimp’s Dealing with Clair at the Orange Tree in October, thirty years after it premiered there in 1988 – when it was the second play ever published by Nick Hern Books!

Dealing with Clair by Martin Crimp (left, the 2018 edition; right, the original 1988 edition, also published by Nick Hern Books)


Awards

Many of our playwrights won awards this year, and we’ve got space here to mention only a few…

Jez Butterworth’s magnificent play The Ferryman won Best New Play at this year’s Olivier, Critics’ Circle and Whatsonstage Awards.

Branden Jacobs-Jenkins won Most Promising Playwright at the Critics Circle Awards for his plays Gloria and An Octoroon, while Andrew Thompson won Best Writer at The Stage Debut Awards for In Event of Moone Disaster.

There were awards aplenty for the revivals of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America and Stephen  Sondheim and James Goldman’s Follies.

And at the Writers Guild Awards, Lucy Kirkwood won Best Play for The Children, Sarah McDonald-Hughes won Best Play for Young Audiences with How To Be A Kid, and Caryl Churchill was recognised for her Outstanding Contribution to Writing.


Some key stats….


Essential theatre books

This year we published Antony Sher’s account, in his own diary entries, paintings and sketches, of his portrayal of King Lear for the RSC. Year of the Mad King follows his classic of theatre writing, Year of the King, in offering a close-up study of a great actor at work on one of Shakespeare’s most challenging roles ­– a fascinating read for actors and theatre-lovers.

Amongst our other publications, there were invaluable resources for actors, including a selection of audition monologues from the National Youth Theatre, and a series of vocal warm-ups on CD from the National Theatre’s Head of Voice.

We published books on Brecht and Ibsen, as well practical guides to puppetry, verbatim theatre and long-form improvisation.

For budding playwrights, there was an indispensable career guide, Being a Playwright, from the team behind new-writing theatre company Papatango, destined to guide and inspire a new generation of playwrights.

Being a Playwright authors Chris Foxon and George Turvey with (centre) NHB Managing Director Matt Applewhite


30 Years / 30 Plays

In July, we published 30 Years / 30 Plays, a fabulous book of postcards featuring a selection of covers from some of the most successful plays published by NHB over our first thirty years.

Copies quickly sold out at HQ, though there may still be a few available from other retailers.


Birthday Party

Also in July, we joined many of our authors and friends for a party at the Royal Court Theatre, to celebrate the anniversary of the company’s launch in July 1988. There were speeches from NHB author Jack Thorne (whose completely delightful speech is reproduced on our blog here) and the Artistic Director of Kiln Theatre, Indhu Rubasingham, as well as from NHB Publisher Nick Hern and Managing Director Matt Applewhite. It was wonderful to bring together some of our newest authors with those who have been with Nick Hern Books since the very beginning.

Jack Thorne, Indhu Rubasingham, Nick Hern and Matt Applewhite at Nick Hern Books’ 30th birthday party at the Royal Court Theatre in July 2018 (photo by Dan Wooller)


Amateur Theatre Fest

NHB author Mike Bartlett (right), interviewed by Matt Applewhite at Amateur Theatre Fest 2018 (photo by Ben Copping)

On 8 September, a capacity crowd gathered at The Questors Theatre in Ealing for an all-day event of talks, workshops and performances focussing on amateur theatre. Taking part were over four hundred actors, directors, producers and many others involved in amateur theatre up and down the country. Highlights included the keynote speech from actor and NHB author Simon Callow, interviews with NHB playwrights Jez Butterworth, Amanda Whittington and Mike Bartlett, and masterclasses from actor Oliver Ford Davies, director Stephen Unwin and fight director Roger Bartlett. Thank you to everyone who came and made it such a success!

Nick Hern Books is one of the UK’s leading licensors of amateur performing rights, and we look forward to helping more amateur drama and youth theatre groups find their perfect play to perform, over the years ahead.

Nick Hern Books staff at Amateur Theatre Fest 2018 (photo by Ben Copping)


Playwriting Then and Now, National Theatre panel event

We staged a panel event at the National Theatre on 8 November with NHB playwrights Howard Brenton, Conor McPherson, Alecky Blythe and Natasha Gordon, to explore how playwriting has – and hasn’t – changed over the 30 years of Nick Hern Books. It was a lively event, attended by many budding and emerging playwrights, who came away full of hope and inspiration, even if there was a consensus that playwrights still face daunting challenges when it comes to making a living from their work.

Clockwise from top row centre: Alecky Blythe, Howard Brenton, Conor McPherson, Nick Hern, Natasha Gordon


Anniversary Interviews

Over the course of the year, we published a series of Anniversary Interviews with some of our leading authors and playwrights, specially commissioned for our blog. Launching with Harriet Walter on the unique challenges facing actresses, particularly in finding mature roles for women in the Shakespeare canon, the series included interviews with playwrights Rona Munro, Lucy Kirkwood, Jack Thorne and Howard Brenton.

Drawing the series to a close this month, NHB’s Publisher Nick Hern and Managing Director Matt Applewhite reflect on the company’s thirty-year history, and what lies ahead. Catch up with all the interviews, over on our blog.

Left to right: NHB authors Jack Thorne, Lucy Kirkwood, Harriet Walter, Howard Brenton, Rona Munro


And finally…

Thank you to everyone who has come along to one of our events this year, or who has bought a book from us. We look forward to seeing more of you in the next thirty years. But for now, have a very happy Christmas, from all at Nick Hern Books.

The Nick Hern Books team at the anniversary party, July 2018 (photo by Dan Wooller)

Nick Hern and Matt Applewhite (The Nick Hern Books Anniversary Interviews)

Rounding off our Anniversary Interviews series, theatre journalist Al Senter talks to Publisher Nick Hern and Managing Director Matt Applewhite about thirty years of Nick Hern Books, and what lies ahead for the company…

In the thirty years since it came into being, Nick Hern Books has grown into a considerable force, not just in theatre publishing – where it’s undoubtedly a leading player – but arguably in the whole ecology of theatre in the UK and beyond. Without Nick Hern Books, the livelihoods of many playwrights, and consequently many theatres, would be severely diminished.

And yet, while he is hugely liked and respected amongst playwrights and their agents, and in the world of theatre professionals in general, the company’s Publisher, Nick Hern, keeps a relatively low profile. He’s not to be found on Wikipedia, and some people still confess a degree of surprise when they learn that Nick Hern is in fact a real, living person.

I know for sure that he is, because I recently met up with him, along with the company’s Managing Director and Commissioning Editor, Matt Applewhite, at their offices in Shepherd’s Bush in West London, not far from the venerable Bush Theatre, one of London’s great crucibles of new writing.

Nick is in his seventies now, but his commitment to the theatre and to his company is undiminished. He came to theatre publishing from academia, joining Methuen as Drama Editor in 1974. When he left Methuen to set up his own theatre imprint at Walker Books in 1988, it was Sebastian Walker who came up with a name for the fledgling imprint. ‘I was at a bit of a loss about what to call it,’ recalls Nick. ‘Sebastian said, “I call my company ‘Walker Books’, so you’ll be Nick Hern Books”. I thought it rather self-aggrandising, but I’ve got used to it now.’

Nick Hern (left) and Howard Brenton at the launch of Nick Hern Books in 1988

For five years, after leaving Walker Books and setting up as a self-financing limited company, Nick ran things out of his back bedroom. But now, after thirty years, it’s thankfully on much firmer footing. In 2013, Matt Applewhite was appointed as the company’s youthful and enterprising Managing Director, and the two continue to work closely together, along with a core team of eleven staff. They have every intention that the company will embrace another thirty years and more of theatre publishing. ‘We’re prepared for the future,’ says Nick, ‘whatever that will bring.’

Matt first joined the company in 2003 as Editorial and Production Assistant, not long after getting a good degree from Cambridge and finishing a Masters at RADA. Nick recalls how, when his future employee turned up for interview, it was in the middle of a torrential downpour. ‘He was like a drowned Bob Cratchit!’ he recalls. ‘But it was clear that, of the ten or twelve people we interviewed, he was head and shoulders above the opposition.’ They connected immediately.

Matt spent his childhood in Chichester, getting his first fix of drama at the esteemed Festival Theatre, and sometimes venturing up to London. ‘Chichester is a great place to grow up – if you like theatre,’ he says. For a while he had ambitions to become a stage director, ‘But I think I lacked the courage to cope with the challenges of being a freelance. On the other hand, I wasn’t absolutely smitten at the time by the idea of going into publishing. I eventually settled for giving the job six months, maybe a year, and seeing where that got me.’

Once he’d started working at Nick Hern Books, however, Matt realised that theatre publishing was the perfect fit. ‘I’d spent my whole youth watching plays and buying theatre books, so nothing had really changed.’ Over the next few years, he tackled just about every job it’s possible to do at NHB. Within that time he spent six months at Currency Press, Australia’s chief publisher of plays, having swapped jobs – and lifestyles – with his opposite number there, which included living in a flat just a stone’s throw from Bondi Beach. The experience gave him a new perspective on theatre publishing, and NHB’s association with Currency Press remains strong. ‘The world of theatre publishing can be insular, with rival publishers competing for the same small pool of talent,’ says Matt. ‘But being immersed in a very different theatre culture is a great reminder that there’s equally important work going on elsewhere. It’s vital to remind ourselves of that, especially at times like the present.’ NHB prides itself on having a list of contemporary playwrights that spans the globe, and Matt is particularly pleased to have so many talented Australian playwrights on the list, including Joanna Murray-Smith, Andrew Bovell, Tommy Murphy and Melissa Bubnic.

NHB playwright Jack Thorne, Indhu Rubasingham (Artistic Director of the Kiln Theatre), Nick Hern and Matt Applewhite at the Nick Hern Books anniversary party, July 2018 (photo by Dan Wooller)

There’s something of a family atmosphere about NHB. It’s a small, tightly knit company, with employees who are noticeably passionate about the theatre. Many of them have been with the company for over a decade. What’s the secret? ‘There’s no secret, really,’ says Nick. ‘Though certainly, when we take someone on at Nick Hern Books, the most important thing is that they like theatre. If what you really want to do is get on in publishing, you’re probably better off elsewhere.’ Matt agrees. ‘In many ways, I think of us as part of the theatre world, working alongside theatres, if you like. We do a lot of things differently from a conventional publishing company.’

For one thing, much of the company’s publishing schedule is dictated by the theatres that produce their authors’ work. ‘When I first started in theatre publishing,’ remembers Nick, ‘plays were being published some months after their premiere. I’d come from teaching in the provinces, and what we needed most was immediate access to the plays that London was seeing. So I wanted to speed the whole process up. And I’m pleased to say that it’s now more or less expected that a playtext is available on opening night.’ ‘Which means we have to move fast,’ adds Matt, ‘because understandably our authors want to be able to make changes to their text as late as possible in the rehearsal process. We have to go from final text to finished copies in a matter of days – sometimes less than that. I don’t know if many conventional publishing companies would be able to compete with the turnaround times we can achieve.’

Another difference is that the company handles the licensing of amateur productions of its plays. ‘It was something I wanted to do from the start,’ says Nick, ‘to extend that relationship between the play on the page, and its future life on the stage. We have an in-house Performing Rights team actively promoting the plays we publish to the amateur community, which includes students and drama schools, as well as the many, many amateur groups who do brilliant work. It has become a huge part of what we do. Amateur theatre is really flourishing at the moment, which is so pleasing.’ ‘And authors like it too,’ says Matt. ‘It means their plays have an ongoing life, which is so important. We’re publishing plays not just as a record of the first production – but also as a blueprint for future ones.

Nick Hern Books’ staff at Amateur Theatre Fest, a one-day event for amateur theatre practitioners at Questors Theatre, Ealing, in September 2018 (photo by Ben Copping)

For their own part, Nick and Matt have a relaxed and informal working relationship. It’s easy to see why Nick and his wife Jane were mistaken for Matt’s parents while they were visiting him during his stint in Australia. ‘I already saw him as my successor,’ says Nick. Matt claims to have learned everything he knows about publishing from Nick, and in return, Matt has overseen the expansion of the company’s activities into ebooks, apps, audiobooks, and online publishing, alongside developing an enviable social media presence. ‘We’ve got further plans in that direction,’ says Matt. ‘It’s hugely important to connect with new readers, and especially new generations of drama students, who are using exciting new platforms to access our titles – and we want to support them in doing that.’

Matt Applewhite interviewing NHB author Mike Bartlett at Amateur Theatre Fest, September 2018 (photo by Ben Copping)

Can Nick point to other examples of Matt making a difference to the firm? ‘Yes. I’d always assumed that in a publishing company, design and typesetting was something you outsourced. But Matt assured me that it would be much quicker and more efficient to take these functions in-house. And he was right.’ ‘It’s about being able to respond quickly when you’re up against a tight deadline,’ says Matt. ‘And knowing that your designer or your typesetter is focused on the job, and not squeezing you in between other assignments.’

Both insist that there’s never been a cross word between them. ‘Nick operates with a combination of charm and iron,’ says Matt. ‘The authors he’s worked with all know that he’ll be candid with them about their work. They expect and appreciate that. And it’s the same in the office. Though he’s yet to wield the big stick!’ ‘We have the same taste in plays,’ adds Nick. ‘We talk about plays in the same way, even though we’re from very different generations. And we trust each other’s judgements. He has a great understanding of the work of younger theatre-makers – he really gets them. Yet the fact that NHB has survived for thirty years means I must have been doing something right.’

Nick Hern with NHB authors Howard Brenton (left) and Nicholas Wright (right), July 2018 (photo by Dan Wooller)

Are there ever any differences between them? ‘Matt is much more collegiate that I am,’ says Nick. ‘He seeks consent from the rest of the office, whereas I’m much more autocratic. However, I do look around me at organisations where the leadership is ageing but where they are simply not preparing for the future. I feel incredibly relieved and happy that NHB’s future is assured in Matt’s hands.’

‘There are some differences between us,’ admits Matt. ‘But I really value the fact that Nick is still very much involved with the running of the business. He’s so knowledgeable about plays and playwrights, and he still goes to the theatre more than anyone I know. His indefatigable, undimmed passion for it is inspiring.’

So, no regrets? ‘Occasionally I wonder what might have happened if I hadn’t got the job at Nick Hern Books, and gone into theatre-making instead,’ confesses Matt. ‘But actually, I think I can make more of a genuine contribution to theatre in my current role, through publishing the plays that people will go on reading and performing, and the books that make such a difference to other theatre-makers learning their craft. That’s the contribution we all make at Nick Hern Books.’ Apparently, he still has the advert for the Editorial and Production Assistant role that he cut out from The Guardian’s Media section, sixteen years ago. ‘Sometimes I wonder where I’d be now if I hadn’t bought The Guardian that day!’

Nick Hern interviewing NHB author Jez Butterworth at Amateur Theatre Fest, September 2018 (photos by Ben Copping)

As for Nick, he’s spent most of his career working behind the scenes, the midwife to other, starrier careers. Does he ever crave the limelight himself? ‘Not really. I did a bit of acting when I was at university. I have no great desire to inflict myself on the public.’ Still, he can certainly rise to the occasion when it calls. At the recent Amateur Theatre Fest – a day of talks and workshops for anyone involved in amateur theatre, organised by Nick Hern Books as part of their thirtieth-anniversary celebrations – one of the headline speakers was the playwright Jez Butterworth, whose plays, including Jerusalem and The Ferryman, are published by NHB. When Nick followed Butterworth onto the stage in order to conduct the interview, there was a second roar of approval – this time for the publisher who has brought so many great plays to so many different stages, simply by putting them in print.

The Nick Hern Books team, July 2018 (photo by Dan Wooller)


 

The Nick Hern Books Anniversary Interviews series includes interviews with Harriet Walter, Rona Munro, Lucy Kirkwood, Jack Thorne and Howard Brenton. Catch up with them all here.

Photograph of Nick Hern and Matt Applewhite by Dan Wooller.

‘We all live within shouting distance of someone in crisis’: Lynn Nottage on her play Sweat

As her latest play Sweat opens at the Donmar Warehouse in London, the double-Pulitzer-winning playwright Lynn Nottage reveals the painful personal encounter that led her to write it, and how her intensive research uncovered truths overlooked by mainstream media…

Several years ago I received a commission from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival to write a play about an American Revolution; it was part of an ambitious initiative to encourage playwrights to wrestle with large questions about American history.

I struggled for a couple years, resisting the obvious temptations to write about the Civil War or the Civil Rights Movement, and then late one night, I received an email in the form of a plea from a dear friend in dire financial straits. She was a single mother of two who had no motive, other than the need to share her predicament with close friends. It was a difficult task, but her raw honesty about her financial reality shattered me. For months, she’d been hiding her circumstances from friends and family. I read her email and felt ashamed. She was my next-door neighbor, yet my eyes had been closed to her painful situation. My friend was someone who had an easy smile, which unbeknownst to me hid a hard reality familiar to too many Americans. She had worked for years, signed the American social contract and yet had, like many middle-class folx, found herself broke, desperate and on the verge of despair. Her emotional email forced me to reckon with the reality that we all live within shouting distance of someone who is in crisis and experiencing real economic insecurity. I was awakened from my complacency, and my response was to ask hard questions about how and why this was happening in a country as wealthy as the United States.

Leanne Best in rehearsals for Sweat by Lynn Nottage at the Donmar Warehouse, 2018 (photo by Johan Persson)

The next day, my friend and I went to Occupy Wall Street (which was beginning that week). We marched around Zuccotti Park, and chanted until we were hoarse. At the end of the day she felt better, and less alone, but I had more questions. As a result, I ended up going back to Occupy Wall Street multiple times and speaking loudly at the people’s mic. Around this time I decided to write about the American de-industrial revolution for the Oregon Shakespeare commission. My curiosity led me to Reading, Pennsylvania, a post-industrial city at the tail end of the Rust Belt. At the time, 2011, it was the poorest city of its size in America, and a microcosm of what was happening to small cities across the United States. Reading was once an industrial powerhouse: home to textile and steel factories, home to the first outlet malls in America, and the nexus of the Reading railroad.

In Reading, I spent two-and-a-half years interviewing people, from the city’s first African American Mayor to members of a homeless community squatting in the woods. Too often, I found that folx spoke of their city in the past tense; they’d respond to my questions with a simple rejoinder: ‘Reading was’. I recognized in hearing this over and over that a city that couldn’t imagine itself in the present or the future was a city that had lost its narrative. To me this was heartbreaking.

Wil Johnson and Osy Ikhile in rehearsals for Sweat by Lynn Nottage at the Donmar Warehouse, 2018 (photo by Johan Persson)

Still, I didn’t really find my play until I sat in a circle with a group of middle-aged white steel workers who’d been locked out of their factory for ninety-three weeks. They’d worked for more than half of their lives in one place, and yet were forced out of their jobs by corporate greed and left with nothing. Their stories broke my heart and invited me to see the world from another’s perspective; to be moved by people who I would not ordinarily encounter. In that moment, I replaced judgment with curiosity and allowed myself to really listen and to hear what they had to say. Some of it was difficult, and as a Black woman from Brooklyn I hadn’t expected that I would be so profoundly moved by their predicament. But they were not only willing to share their stories, they were open and brave enough to cry in front of me. I felt a responsibility to write a play that would capture the honesty and contradictions of this conversation; sustain the complexity of our multicultural country in crisis, and reveal the ugly truths and ask the uncomfortable questions. I also recognized that there was a larger story about America that wasn’t being told in the mainstream media in 2014; a story that would reveal the level of disaffection, anger, shame, despair, racism and invisibility that I encountered in Reading, PA.

So, I wrote my play Sweat, which is about a close-knit group of steel workers who find themselves forced out of the steel factory where many of them have worked for over twenty-five years. Sweat examines how their economic hardships dangerously rupture their friendships along racial lines, destroying their community in the process. I was surprised that the play, which was written a couple of years before the 2016 Election, really struck a nerve and seemed to anticipate the unfortunate election of Donald Trump. When the New York Times asked how I foresaw with this play the rise of divisive, reactionary politics in America – a story that took most journalists in this country by surprise – my answer was simple: I showed up and listened.

Jack Willis, Carlo Albán and K. T. Vogt in Sweat by Lynn Nottage, Oregon Shakespeare Festival, 2015 (photo by Jenny Graham)


Sweat by Lynn Nottage is out now, published in the UK and Ireland by Nick Hern Books.

To buy your copy for just £7.99 (20% off the RRP of £9.99), click here.

Sweat is at the Donmar Warehouse, London, until 26 January 2019.

 

Wrestling with Brecht: author David Zoob on why Brecht still matters

Why are Brecht’s theories often so baffling? And are they any use to theatre makers today? David Zoob, author of the newly published Brecht: A Practical Handbook, explains how he was converted to Brecht, and why he still matters.

Sometime in the late 80s, when I was in my mid-twenties, my theatre company was touring a show about the first Palestinian Intifada to schools and colleges. We employed some of Brecht’s ideas without really knowing it. At one sixth form centre, the Head of Drama asked me if I would do a workshop on Brecht. She said that he was part of the A-level Theatre Studies syllabus and was almost impossible to teach. The students either didn’t get him, or they hated him. Maybe they hated him because they didn’t get him. ‘I see… and how much will you pay me?’ When she replied that it would be something like £30 for a couple of hours, I said yes of course I’d do it.

I then tried to remember what Brecht was all about. Two things came to mind: first, in his plays he would introduce a spoiler before each scene, telling the audience what would happen; secondly, in his essays he said that at any moment, an actor should show an audience that it would be equally possible for him or her to turn to the left as turn to the right. Or something like that. I had no idea what that meant.

When I got to the workshop I explored the spoiler idea. I asked a group of about six to improvise a doctor’s waiting-room scene. They loved representing sad, sickly people, but their classmates in the audience sat unimpressed. When I introduced a projection that read, ‘One of these people is about to be murdered’, the audience became slightly more interested. I waited a bit, noticing that I was now watching the audience much more than the improvisation. Then up went another projection, which read, ‘The murderer is on the right’. Now they really were interested. When one of the performers (who happened to be on the right) leaned over to take something from his bag, the audience started laughing nervously. The tension was palpable.

David Zoob leading a workshop on Brecht (source: YouTube)

We had stumbled across several of the ideas at the heart of Brecht’s theatre – ideas that have fascinated me ever since. The viewers knew the ‘ending’, and yet this made them more interested; they didn’t ask themselves ‘what will happen next?’ but ‘how and why?’ They didn’t identify with any particular character, and yet they were completely engaged; they studied individuals, making inferences about their actions and motives. One student commented, ‘We are told that Brecht is didactic, but this isn’t teaching anything.’ We agreed that in this example there was no ‘message’, but the spectators were nevertheless learning a lot about human beings, simply by observing them.

Theatre that encourages audiences to discover things actively without preaching to them? That seemed exciting, and it was quite different from what I vaguely remembered about Brecht from university. I read more, and realised why so many people didn’t like him. Translated by the esteemed John Willett, Brecht on Theatre was a tough read. And what was meant by that business about turning right or left? I realised it was about showing an audience that a decision was being made. Nothing was inevitable: humans could make the opposite choice at each pivotal moment. A bit like Sliding Doors, that film in which the central character’s life goes down two different paths depending on whether or not she catches a particular train ­– but with Brecht, the important thing was that the person would decide whether or not to get on the train. A moment of choice, not a whim of fate. A decision with a political, not a sentimental purpose.

Which leads us to the knotty question of Brecht’s alleged attitudes to emotion and empathy. In the workshops I gave, this was frequently the main issue. Brecht’s detractors complained that he was a killjoy: a severe Marxist insisting that theatre should be an ‘alienating’ experience, where a lack of feeling was supposed to be good for us. It certainly was true that his essays discouraged empathy, but I couldn’t square that with the frequent expressions of deeply felt emotion in his plays: Grusha’s flood of tears at the river in The Caucasian Chalk Circle; Shen Te’s anguish and weeping in The Good Person of Szechuan; Kattrin’s dumb rage and powerfully moving maternal impulses in Mother Courage. All this seemed to suggest that the theories were of limited use – or even a waste of time. It was as if the process of writing plays had made Brecht forget his key theories, as the business of writing and staging his work reminded him that audiences had to care about the characters for the plays to work, proving that emotion is the lifeblood of theatre.

Mayday Mayday Tuesday by Carlos Murillo, performed by students of Rose Bruford College, directed by David Zoob (photo by Benkin Photography)

Do I believe that? Partly. It’s the contradiction that sits at the centre of Brecht’s thoughts, his writing, and his practice. It’s a necessary and deliberate contradiction. I devote a whole chapter to emotion in my book Brecht: A Practical Handbook, and all I will say now is that the representation of emotion is a vital part of Brecht’s understanding of how humans live and behave. The conditions we live in mean that human impulses and emotions are frequently constrained, altered or even distorted, and performers can represent both the feelings and the things that hold them back. Emotion becomes an essential element in a dynamic tension (a dialectic, in fact). In Brecht’s view, emotion should never be portrayed as an end in itself. Never – as it so commonly is in Hollywood films – as a commodity.

When I started directing in the 1990s, I usually found myself concerned with the story and what it meant, rather than with the characters’ feelings. Some actors didn’t seem to mind; they just got on with the job of making personal connections themselves. Others sometimes complained that they weren’t ‘feeling it’, implying that I was supposed to do something about that. While I accept that on such occasions I was probably suffering from emotional illiteracy, I can now see why ‘the story and its meaning’ was so much more important to me. My work in the 1980s involved adapting the extraordinary and moving testimonies of people living in zones of conflict: a woman who had been shot in the eye with a plastic bullet in Northern Ireland; a former Israeli Paratrooper who, after becoming a journalist, had spent a year in Israel and the occupied territories disguised as an Palestinian Arab, daily risking his life in order to understand what life was like as his nation’s enemy; young Palestinian boys and girls who had risked arrest and savage beatings while protesting against the occupation. These people had trusted me with their stories, and when my theatre company performed them, our priority was to tell them accurately and make their meaning clear for our audiences. We wanted viewers to engage with the dilemmas of history. The young people who saw our shows certainly felt the scenes’ emotional power, but how we were feeling as actors wasn’t something we concerned ourselves with.

Mayday Mayday Tuesday by Carlos Murillo, performed by students of Rose Bruford College, directed by David Zoob (photo by Benkin Photography)

So I was struck by Brecht’s insistence that the actor should be re-enacting something that has already happened, rather than pretending it’s actually happening in the moment. This rang true for me. The actor was showing an audience what was significant about a moment in history, and the most important thing was that the audience should grasp that significance, and be provoked by it. My colleagues who taught in drama schools didn’t have much time for this idea. Their view, and one with which I partly sympathise, was that if an actor plays their character’s psychology ‘truthfully’, then the significances will take care of themselves. If they play their characters’ actions within ‘given circumstances’, if they are alive to the way other characters react to them… well then, we don’t need Herr Brecht to explain it all.

This position deserves far more discussion than I can give it here. It poses interesting and difficult questions: what is meant by ‘truthfully’? Which particular ‘given circumstances’ should be privileged over others? Why should psychological ‘reality’ be more important than other realities, be they political, moral, poetic or speculative? I think that including all these perspectives in theatre making allows us to create memorable dramatic events that can address the urgent questions that face us as a species.

Mayday Mayday Tuesday by Carlos Murillo, performed by students of Rose Bruford College, directed by David Zoob (photo by Benkin Photography)

Brecht: A Practical Handbook emerged from debates I had with my friend and colleague Julian Jones, an apparently incurable Stanislavskian who became increasingly interested in Brecht the more we wrestled with him. In fact, I’ve been wrestling with these ideas ever since that first opportunistic workshop I gave. And then, a couple of years ago, I took the step of writing a book. I wanted to write something that would be of use not only to a colleague like Julian, and to the young directors we worked with, but also to actors in training and to A-Level or undergraduate students who might have felt the same bafflement as I had. I included lots of exercises, so that readers could join in the wrestling process too. I hope, if you read the book, you will try the exercises and make them work for yourself. No doubt, if you do, you’ll improve on my ideas. Please let me know.


Brecht: A Practical Handbook by David Zoob is out now, published by Nick Hern Books.

To buy your copy for just £10.39 (20% off the RRP), visit the Nick Hern Books website.

To contact David Zoob, please use the Contact Us form here, and include ‘FAO author David Zoob’ at the top of your comments.

Author photo by Michael O’Reilly.

Howard Brenton (The Nick Hern Books Anniversary Interviews)

Howard Brenton’s career as a playwright encompasses an extraordinary variety of subjects and many glittering successes, from Pravda and The Romans in Britain to Paul and Never So Good. But, as he tells theatre journalist Al Senter, there have been tricky times too, and he owes the revival of his career to a stint on TV’s Spooks

As a playwright, Howard Brenton has long been associated with a certain kind of politicised, radical and uncompromising sensibility. It’s a view epitomised by his state-of-the-nation collaborations with David Hare (Brassneck and Pravda), his work with Joint Stock (Epsom Downs) and his succès de scandale, The Romans in Britain, which Mary Whitehouse tried – and failed – to close down by launching a criminal prosecution.

So it comes as a shock to discover that, in person, Brenton has a genial charm that belies his reputation and his formidable oeuvre. He has an extensive fund of stories, which he plunders with many a gleeful chuckle. And what is more, he credits his survival as a writer to his work on the television espionage series Spooks.

‘The 1990s were not a good time for me,’ he recalls. ‘There were new people running the Royal Court [which had staged several of his plays, including Magnificence, Greenland, and Berlin Bertie], and I was out of fashion at the National [where Pravda and Romans in Britain had been staged].

‘I’d written a version of Goethe’s Faust for Michael Bogdanov and the RSC, but there was nothing else being offered, and I could see that I was really in trouble. I taught for a while in America and then I wrote a play for RADA [the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art], and it was at a performance of this play at RADA that I met the producer Jane Featherstone, who was putting together a team for what turned out to be Spooks. There was a scene in the play that satirised spies, and Jane asked me if I’d be interested in writing a trial episode – which I did.’

Brenton went on to become a lead writer on the BBC One drama series, penning thirteen episodes between 2002 and 2005, and winning a BAFTA for Best Drama Series in 2003.

‘In a sense Spooks was my rebirth, and it was a tremendous source of discipline for me. Because I was so much older than everybody else on the show, nobody knew me and it meant that I didn’t bring any baggage to the party. There were no pre-conceptions.

‘Then I got a call from Nick Hytner at the National, who’d seen one of my Spooks episodes. He asked me why I wasn’t writing for the theatre, and commissioned a play from me that became Paul.’

That play, staged at the National Theatre in 2005, was a stunning return to form. A provocative inquiry into the life of the apostle Paul, it questions the whole basis of Christianity by presenting Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus as a trick, and even overturning the received facts about Jesus’s death on the cross.

Adam Godley in Howard Brenton’s Paul at the National Theatre, 2005 (photo by Catherine Ashmore)

In the thirteen years since Paul was premiered, Brenton has enjoyed a remarkable period of sustained creativity, averaging a play a year – no mean feat for a playwright, especially one whose imaginative scope and historical subject matter make you think he must have permanent residence at the British Library. Amongst those plays are major achievements such as Never So Good (National Theatre, 2008), about Harold Macmillan and the decline of British imperial power; Anne Boleyn (Shakespeare’s Globe, 2010), about Henry VIII’s second wife and her reckless, passionate espousal of the Protestant Reformation; 55 Days (Hampstead Theatre, 2012), about Oliver Cromwell and the momentous decision to execute King Charles I; Drawing the Line (Hampstead Theatre, 2013), about the partition of India; and Lawrence After Arabia (Hampstead Theatre, 2013), about T.E. Lawrence and his struggle to divest himself of the mythology surrounding him.

There are also such glittering gems as In Extremis (Shakespeare’s Globe, 2006, later revived as Eternal Love), about the 12th-century love affair between Abelard and Heloise; #aiww: The Arrest of Ai Weiwei (Hampstead Theatre, 2013), about the imprisonment of the Chinese artist by state authorities; The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists (Liverpool Everyman, 2010), an adaptation of Robert Tressell’s classic and very funny novel about the working lives of a group of housepainters; and The Blinding Light (Jermyn Street Theatre, 2017), about Swedish playwright August Strindberg’s so-called ‘Inferno’ period, when he took leave of his senses and devoted himself to the practise of alchemy.

Iranian Nights by Tariq Ali and Howard Brenton, the first of Brenton’s plays to be published by Nick Hern Books

All of those plays and more have been published by Nick Hern Books. Brenton has had a working relationship with Nick Hern since Hern was drama editor at Methuen Drama, which published Brenton’s early plays. When Hern, increasingly dismayed at the way Methuen was being handled by a series of consortia, broke away in 1988 to form his own imprint, Brenton went with him, one of a quartet of writers that also included Caryl Churchill, David Edgar and Nicholas Wright. It was a vote of confidence in his editor, and without it, Nick Hern Books might well not have survived. One of the first titles published by the fledgling imprint was Brenton’s Iranian Nights, written with Tariq Ali and premiered at the Royal Court in 1989. ‘I remember going to see Nick when he was part of Random House,’ recalls Brenton. ‘I have a vivid memory of walking down an endless corridor in a building on the Vauxhall Bridge Road, and then finding Nick in a corner at the end of it.’ Small beginnings, but Brenton has stuck with his editor, praising his habit of plain-speaking whenever they are discussing one of his plays.

Howard Brenton (left) with Nick Hern (centre) and Nicholas Wright (right) at the Nick Hern Books 30th anniversary party in July 2018 (photo by Dan Wooller)

Brenton is charmingly vague about the number of plays he’s actually written – he’ll leave that to the theatre historians. Meanwhile, it’s the real business of history, the stuff that changes people’s lives, that interests him.

Anne Boleyn by Howard Brenton, published by Nick Hern Books

‘I like setting my plays at times of crisis, at times of great social change,’ he says. ‘I’m also a great believer in the “Schiller Manoeuvre”. In his play Maria Stuart, Friedrich Schiller brings together Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots in a pivotal scene, despite the fact that in real life they never met. I did the same in my play Anne Boleyn, bringing together Anne and William Tyndale, although they too never met.’

As a dramatist, Brenton is clearly drawn to characters who, grappling with the big ideas of their day, find their idealism compromised by the messy business of reality: Oliver Cromwell  in 55 Days, trying to reconcile revolutionary fervour with constitutional necessity, and finding himself having to compromise with a king who will do no such thing; Cyril Radcliffe, the lawyer who, in Drawing the Line, is given six weeks to draw the border that will divide the Indian sub-continent in two and determine the fate of millions of people; Harold Macmillan, who, in Never So Good, finds himself woefully out of his depth as an empire begins to crumble around him; and Paul, the erstwhile scourge of Christians who becomes one of Christ’s most devout disciples. ‘I call them “dirty saints”,’ says Brenton: those who reach for the stars, despite having feet of clay.

Jeremy Irons as Harold Macmillan in Howard Brenton’s Never So Good at the National Theatre, 2008 (photo by Catherine Ashmore)

He is responsible for one of the most charismatic figures in modern drama, the monstrous media tycoon Lambert Le Roux in Pravda, co-written with David Hare. The mesmerising performance by Anthony Hopkins in the 1985 National Theatre production  became, in retrospect, a dry run for Hopkins’ portrayal of another monster: Hannibal Lecter in the 1991 film The Silence of the Lambs.

‘With Pravda, something happened that can occur with writers and their characters. We had intended to do a version of Faust, with Andrew the newspaper editor tempted by Le Roux as Mephistopheles; but we fell in love with Lambert in the way that Shakespeare makes audiences complicit with Richard III or Macbeth.’

Brenton recalls, too, how the play was steered towards its eventual form through the intervention of Peter Hall, who was then running the National Theatre. ‘David [Hare] and I rented a flat in Brighton, and every Monday I’d take the train to Brighton and David would drive down and we’d start by telling each other our favourite jokes. Yet at the dress rehearsal the play barely got a laugh. So then Peter Hall gave us a very useful note. He advised us to “meet the Monster plot”. In other words, the play had a tremendous appetite for plot, so we should feed it accordingly.’

Anthony Hopkins (left) in Howard Brenton and David Hare’s Pravda at the National Theatre, 1985 (photo by Nobby Clark)

Perhaps this ability to handle the complexities of plot – not always a component of the modern playwright’s skill set – is one of the reasons Brenton succeeded in the plot-hungry environment of the television drama series.

‘I firmly believe that a television audience will accept complex ideas if the quality of the writing is good enough,’ he argues. ‘After Spooks, I was something of a Golden Boy. I was commissioned to tour all over China for one project, and there was also a Hollywood movie and a four-part television series that never got made. I recently spoke to one of our most successful writers in theatre, films and television, and he estimates that only one in three of his projects ever gets made.’ This must be one of the most maddening aspect of Brenton’s trade, and yet he dismisses it with a shrug. Perhaps, for a writer of his prolific qualities, it poses no real problem. More likely, he’s learned how to cope with the exigencies of the business and is happiest when he’s hard at work on a new play. He jokingly refers to himself when he’s at work as ‘The Man in the Bunker’. He insists, however, that he’s no workaholic.

‘I remember Shaw’s biographer, Michael Holroyd, remarking that Shaw, for all his massive output, was actually comparatively lazy, and would prefer to waste his time on some minor pursuit rather that getting on with the job in hand. We writers refer to this phenomenon as “Teach Yourself Spanish” syndrome. I’m certainly very lazy: work for me comes in spasms.’

Brenton is currently writing a new play for Hampstead Theatre, and there will be a revival next year of his most recent play, The Shadow Factory, about the wartime Government’s requisitioning of local businesses in Southampton to use as covert factories for the production of Spitfires. The play was commissioned to open Southampton’s new theatre, NST City, where it premiered in February 2018.

Spasmodic or otherwise, let’s hope that Brenton won’t have cause to venture far from the Bunker in future.

Howard Brenton’s The Shadow Factory at NST City, Southampton, 2018 (photo by Manuel Harlan)


Many of Howard Brenton’s plays are published by Nick Hern Books, including his most recent play, The Shadow Factory, which will be revived at NST City, Southampton, in January 2019.

For a full list of Brenton’s plays published by Nick Hern Books, visit our website here, where they are available in paperback or ebook formats with at least a 20% discount.

Nick Hern Books is celebrating its 30th anniversary in 2018 – visit our website to stay up to date with everything that’s happening throughout the year.

Other Nick Hern Books Anniversary Interviewees include Harriet Walter, Rona Munro, Lucy Kirkwood and Jack Thorne. Catch up with them all here.

Author photo by Dan Wooller.