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.
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.’
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.’
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.’
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.’
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.’
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.