Jack Thorne is the playwright behind Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and a five-times BAFTA-winning screenwriter. He talked to theatre journalist Al Senter about his abiding love for theatre, while, below, we publish his speech at the Nick Hern Books thirtieth anniversary party at the Royal Court Theatre in July…
Jack Thorne is a writer in demand right now. The winner of no fewer than five BAFTA awards for his TV work (including for his original drama series The Fades, his work on Shane Meadows’ This Is England series, and his 2017 mini-series National Treasure starring Robbie Coltrane), he is also the playwright behind J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, which has played to packed houses and won Best Play awards on both sides of the Atlantic. As if this wasn’t remarkable enough, he’s even bringing King Kong to Broadway later this year in the form of a live show featuring ‘animatronics, puppetry, music and stagecraft… and a 20-foot high gorilla’. All this and he’s not yet reached the age of forty.
Yet despite this conspicuous success and the acclaim which his work has attracted, he remains wary of fame, and almost reflexively self-critical. ‘I’m still surprised by the fact that people are interested in listening to what I have to say,’ he observes when we meet up for this interview. ‘That’s the arrogance of the writer, I suppose. I still love writing but I also feel that it’s important not to grow too dependent on it. Ultimately I’d say that I use my writing to try to make sense of the world, and I only do stuff when I think that there is a really interesting story to be told.’
Jack took to writing plays, as he says in the extraordinarily revealing Introduction to the first volume of his Collected Plays, ‘as a means of expressing things which I couldn’t say.’ He laments in those pages that ‘I’m a constant idiot in conversation. I always seem to sound either smug or stupid.’ There’s a self-lacerating streak to Jack’s conversation still, even if that period of ‘utter self-hatred and destruction’ now lies in the past. You get the sense that, for him, writing has always been something of a displacement activity.
Once he found his voice as a writer – partly through the support and patronage of Mike Bradwell, former artistic director of the Bush Theatre in London, where his first professional play, When You Cure Me, was staged in 2005 – Jack seemed to stumble on the realisation that he was a born writer. In the years since, he has become a prolific one. Despite all his work for TV and film, he has continued to get plays onto the stage at an impressive rate: 2nd May 1997, about Labour’s landslide victory, at the Bush in 2009; Mydidae, written for Phoebe Waller-Bridge prior to her breakout success with Fleabag; an adaptation of John Ajvide Lindqvist’s Let the Right One In, a coming-of-age vampire love story that was directed for the National Theatre of Scotland by John Tiffany, with whom Jack was later to collaborate on Harry Potter and the Cursed Child; a National Theatre Connections play for young people, Burying Your Brother in the Pavement; Hope, about the intolerable pressures placed on a local council, staged at the Royal Court in 2014; The Solid Life of Sugar Water for Graeae Theatre Company; Junkyard, a play with music by Stephen Warbeck about the creation of a community playground by a group of disaffected youngsters; and, most recently, two high-profile adaptations for the Old Vic in London, of Büchner’s Woyzeck and Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.
On the face of it then, there seems little to unite his disparate work. Yet themes do emerge. There’s Jack’s ability to get inside the minds and hearts of young people – especially young people struggling with the confusing complexities of the modern world – apparent in his early TV work on Skins and on This Is England, and there too in his National Theatre Connections play, and in Junkyard, inspired by his own father’s work on a pioneering social scheme in Bristol. It must have been a consideration, too, when J.K. Rowling was looking for a collaborator for Cursed Child: Jack had already shown an extraordinary empathy for embattled or bullied children thrown into fantastical or supernatural situations, with Let the Right One In and his TV series The Fades. It’s there, too, in the apparently odd coupling of Woyzeck and A Christmas Carol for the Old Vic: for who is Woyzeck if not a traumatised child, infantilised by the military hierarchy that bullies and abuses him, and strips him of his self-belief; and who is Ebenezer Scrooge, if not a man whose ability to experience joy went missing at a precise and demonstrable time in his childhood, and whose redemption lies in reclaiming it, through the ministry of Dickens’ supernatural agents? The casting of the ageless Rhys Ifans as an unusually youthful Scrooge for the Old Vic production seemed designed to underline the point.
Jack’s adaptation of A Christmas Carol also demonstrated his innate understanding of how people are shaped by social realities, and how the gap between prosperity and penury is a narrow one. It’s a recurring theme, there in his depiction of the night New Labour came to power in 2nd May 1997, in the playground politics of Junkyard, and in his analysis of local council politics in Hope.
In a way, it’s remarkable that Jack continues to return to work in the theatre, after such success in the golden worlds of TV and film. Yet it’s the more democratic nature of working in the theatre that appeals to him. ‘It’s the one area where you feel you are part of the creative team. You come in to rehearsals, you chat to the Music Supervisor, you sense you are part of something bigger.’ That sense of belonging, of wanting to belong, that weaves its way through his work.
He must have faced huge pressures, though, having to deliver for J.K. Rowling on the stage?
‘The pressure before Harry Potter and the Cursed Child opened was enormous,’ agrees Jack. ‘But I’d gone through a similar kind of experience when I wrote This Is England and I didn’t want to let Shane [Meadows] down. A lot of it is like being in school and having to hand your homework in on time. And I tend to work best to deadlines.’
Writers are, of course, expendable. There are always plenty of them available for hire. ‘I’ve been fired twice this year already,’ admits Jack. ‘And I get really upset by it. But then, as a writer, you are always expecting failure. There’s always a twist somewhere and people are never satisfied. You feel that you’re constantly exposing yourself. When they give your job to somebody else, it’s brutalising. You might be the first writer on a job and you can sense the other writers queuing up behind you. There are projects with directors attached whom you’d crawl over broken glass to work with again, and there is work that you don’t want anybody else to do but you.’
Not long after conducting this interview with Jack, I was at the Royal Court Theatre for an event to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of Nick Hern Books. Jack himself gave one of the speeches. His speech was full of his habitual humour and trademark modesty, but also remarkably eloquent and outspoken in its praise for Nick Hern and his publishing team. Jack had dug out something that Nick himself had written, about how he got into play publishing: as a teacher at the University of Hull, Nick hadn’t had immediate access to plays produced in London, and had longed for them to appear in print. He went on to pioneer the ‘programme/text’ at the Royal Court and other theatres, ensuring that those plays being staged in London could be read, in affordable editions, across the UK and beyond. Jack was effusive about ‘a publisher born of the need to see Pinter and his generation as soon as London was lucky enough to see it. A genuine revolutionary. This is a man that values the playwright and the play above all things, and took those values into his own company. As someone who similarly wasn’t born in London and who would order all the Royal Court plays (which I discovered were remarkably cheap) as soon as they came out, I think that democratic intent is extraordinary.’
It was clear from his speech that Jack, for all his worldly success, feels glad to belong to a stable of playwrights published by Nick Hern Books. ‘For thirty years this glorious company has been publishing beautiful plays and making every one of their writers feel like they matter and that people need to read them – and that is a glory.’
I ask Jack if there’s anything he feels he hasn’t yet tackled in his writing. ‘I am still trying to write a defining original stage play that expresses how I feel about politics,’ he says. ‘I have tried, and I’ll go on trying.’
Let’s hope he will soon realise his ambition. There’s no shortage of material, after all.
Most of Jack Thorne’s plays are published by Nick Hern Books, including his Plays: One (which includes the plays When You Cure Me, Stacy, 2nd May 1997, Bunny, Red Car, Blue Car and Mydidae).
All are available from our website in paperback or ebook formats with at least a 20% discount.
Here is the text of Jack Thorne’s speech at the Nick Hern Books thirtieth anniversary party at the Royal Court Theatre on 1 July 2018…
When Nick asked me to make this speech, he said – and I quote – ‘It certainly shouldn’t be hagiographic. Maybe just a reminiscence of your early years as a writer and getting published, etc.? Whatever you like really.’ Yup, despite thirty years at Nick Hern Books, and forty-four in publishing, he gave the sort of brief it is extremely dangerous to give a writer – ‘Whatever you like.’
So I started writing a play, because it’s all I can do, but it got a bit weird and tangential and about writers kissing behind shelving units – and I decided to keep things a bit simpler.
When they took me on, three of them took me to lunch at this lovely Italian in Shepherd’s Bush. And I can’t make conversation and I’m not very good at eating spaghetti, and I was quite a lot weirder and lonelier than I am now – and I’m quite weird and lonely now – and they made me feel so important – so cared for. I was going through a stage of being quite into horoscopes at the time – thinking they meant something – which in all probability they might do – and Nick was asking me kindly about this – as he probably regretted even being there – and he said – ‘So was your horoscope today upbeat? Because it probably should be. Because you’re going to be published!’
I remember walking home that day and thinking, ‘I’m going to be published! Who on earth would want to do that? I’m going to have an ISBN!’ And yet they made me feel like they’re the ones who should be grateful. And that’s how the relationship continued. With care, attention and just incredible generosity.
My first colour – spine colours are important in the Nick Hern universe and something that is taken very seriously – was pink, for my first play When You Cure Me. I then had puce, purple and red; I’ve been through blues, greys, greens and whites – and now I’m back at what I think is magenta. Now I know, because I keep them stacked on my shelf, that these colours have been carefully thought about. Nothing ever gets repeated, everything always means something. My first play about the Labour Party, 2nd May 1997, they put in a beautiful red cover. My second play about the Labour Party, Hope [published in 2014], they put in a greyish black. Not that they were casting aspersions but – you know…
And that is the attention they put into everything – and it is an appalling job when you think about it. The majority of what they publish are live plays – currently in rehearsal: that means the majority of writers they deal with are in the middle of what is essentially an existentialist nightmare. I went back through some emails I’d written to them, looking desperately for anything interesting or funny, and all I found was panic, sheer unadulterated panic, from me – and then calm, brilliant, soothing words from them. Nick reminded me I’d been with them twelve years – during which they’ve published thirteen books of mine. I looked through the emails I sent them and there are hundreds – and the abiding word is ‘Sorry’ – or ‘Dead sorry’. Generally because I’ve missed a deadline, or misunderstood something, or let them down in some way. And the chastisement I deserve as a result never arrives – and I don’t think I’m alone.
But this is the thing – as I understand it – and this should make us all feel a lot better: this is all Nick Hern’s fault. Stemming from, if my sources are correct, the publishing of Stephen Poliakoff’s Hitting Town. To quote from Nick’s introduction to the book My First Play: ‘At that time Methuen was still publishing all its plays in both hardback and paperback and publishing them some months after the premiere. Coming from teaching in the provinces [at the University of Hull] where we needed immediate access to the plays that London was seeing, I was determined to short-circuit this cumbersome publication procedure.’
A publisher born of the need to read Pinter and his generation as soon as London was being lucky enough to see it. A genuine revolutionary. Nick is a man who values the playwright and the play above all things, and took those values into his own company. As someone who similarly wasn’t living in London and who would order all the Royal Court plays (which I discovered were remarkably cheap) as soon as they came out – I think that democratic intent is extraordinary.
Thank you for doing a beautiful job with every play, thank you for always finding something nice to say – even when the play is terrible – thank you for being revolutionaries – and thank you for your extreme generosity in all things.
And I am one of many. In fact, I’m one of hundreds. For thirty years this glorious company has been publishing beautiful plays and making every one of their writers feel like they matter and that people need to read them – and that is a glory.
I tried to work out today how many writers they have on their list. I discovered rather neatly that there are ninety-nine pages of authors – I think that amounts to close to a thousand writers – with everyone from Hassan Abdulrazzak and David Bowie to Tom Wells and Alexis Zegerman on their list. And I bet if you talked to any of those people they’d tell you how valued they felt. And that’s the thing. Yes, they publish Caryl Churchill – but they also publish and treasure many others who do not get the limelight or acclaim and who never will – and I know they make them all feel like they’ve made me feel. Which is like I matter and that my plays matter.
As a writer, I treasure being part of Nick Hern Books. As a reader, I treasure having Nick Hern books. I treasure them because they’re all bloody good – it is a company with, myself excluded, immense taste – and I treasure them because I know they were made with love, with thought and with joy.
The text of Jack Thorne’s speech has been slightly abridged for its appearance here.
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.