‘Generosity of the ferocious kind’: Simon Stephens on the late Stephen Jeffreys and his contribution to playwriting

STEPHEN JEFFREYS was an acclaimed playwright and a hugely respected mentor to an entire generation of playwrights who emerged through the Royal Court Theatre while he was Literary Associate there. Amongst them SIMON STEPHENS, who spoke at an event at the Royal Court last weekend to celebrate Stephen’s life and work. Here, in a longer version of the speech he gave, Simon pays tribute to his friend and colleague, and the fearsome intelligence he brought to his work.

A lot has been said about the energy that Stephen brought to his commitment to developing playwriting and working with playwrights. I want to speak briefly on behalf of the playwrights he worked with.

It strikes me that there may be the perception that Stephen’s reading and work and thinking was born out of a beautiful gentleness. I very much want to disillusion anybody who thinks there may have been anything gentle about the way Stephen worked with us.

Simon Stephens

In 2000, I was Resident Dramatist at the Royal Court. At the time, Stephen was Literary Associate. The bulk of our work involved advising Ian Rickson, who was Artistic Director,  about the plays he might choose to produce, at the semi-legendary Friday morning script meetings. I am not somebody who would ever be comfortable describing myself as an intellectual, though neither have there been many occasions in my life when I would describe myself as being quite simply thick. But in those meetings, that is precisely how I felt. And the kernel of that feeling was the ferocious, not gentle, brain of Stephen Jeffreys.

He read like a laser, and spoke with a force and eloquence that left me utterly terrified. Most of my contributions to those meetings very quickly became a timid mutter of ‘Yeah, I think what Stephen thinks’. To be honest, it started making me miserable. The opportunity to be at these meetings was something I had wanted all my life, and the experience was becoming an unhappy one. Until Graham Whybrow, who was Literary Manager, suggested that Stephen might take me for lunch.

I was terrified. It was magnificent. It changed my life.

We spoke for three hours. In those three hours, he talked of my work and the work of this place and his own writing, all with the same intelligence and articulacy and insight. It was during that lunch that I realised that the ferocity I had dreaded in the script meetings was born, not out of cruelty, but out of a faith in the importance of our work.

Stephen Jeffreys could annihilate plays and playwrights with his reading, but he only ever did that when he thought that the playwright wasn’t working properly, or wasn’t taking their art or this place seriously. When he perceived that they were, that ferocity became a ferocious loyalty and faith.

Stephen taught me more about playwriting than anybody I have ever met. He infected me with a sense of the importance of this theatre. He taught and infected not only me, but an entire generation of writers.

Stephen Jeffreys, Masterclass

He wasn’t gentle or frivolous with his wisdom, because he had a deep and serious faith in the importance of theatre as a forum for empathy and humanity, and as a space for the interrogation of the complexity of the human animal. At a time when our national discourse seems shorn of that empathy and humanity, I value his wisdom and teaching more than ever.

He took this art form seriously. He took the work of the playwright seriously. He took this theatre seriously. He taught me that this room, the Royal Court Theatre Downstairs, is the most important room in the world.

There is a great deal I miss about Stephen. Oddly, I miss his hair! Not many men could rock that haircut, but he did. I miss his sparkling smile. Our sons are the same age, and I miss comparing notes on their progression and the love and respect with which he spoke of his family. And I also miss comparing notes on the decline and pathos of our crumbling football teams. I think he would have enjoyed the total collapse of Manchester United, and I secretly miss not having to endure that from him.

But I don’t miss his intelligence or his ferocious, not gentle, generosity. Because I remember it every time I come into this theatre. I remember it every time I write. Generosity of the ferocious kind, intelligence of that force – when it comes, as it always did with Stephen, from grace and love – inevitably survives us. I am honoured to be asked to celebrate it today.


The above is a longer version of a speech delivered by Simon Stephens at a Celebration of Stephen Jeffreys at the Royal Court Theatre on Sunday 29 September 2019. Our thanks to Simon Stephens for his permission to reproduce it here.

Stephen Jeffreys’ book Playwriting: Structure, Character, How and What to Write is published by Nick Hern Books, extracted on our blog here. Click here to buy your copy at a 20% discount.

Author photo by Annabel Arden.

‘As a playwright, you must have something that you want to say’: Stephen Jeffreys on the craft of playwriting

In addition to his success as a highly respected writer and teacher, Stephen Jeffreys also spent many years working on a guide to the craft of playwriting, to share his wisdom and experience. That book, Playwriting, is out now, published posthumously following Stephen’s sad and untimely death in September 2018.

Here, in an extract from Playwriting, he reflects on ‘learning things the hard way’, how writers should always be seeking to improve, and the opportunities of live performance.  

As a teacher of writing, my starting point has always been that nothing that I can say or teach you will turn you into a playwright: you must have something that you want to say. You have to have the urge to say something onstage, and that is something I can’t give you. Most people have learned fascinating things from their life or lived through extraordinary experiences, had brilliant ideas or imagined great things. What I can try to do is to save you years of work by transmitting certain techniques, tools and tricks that can help you to translate your experiences or ideas into your play.

Aristotle’s assessment of playwriting in the Poetics remains to this day the greatest attempt to explain this mysterious craft. I have read many later books on playwriting, some going back to the nineteenth century, and most of them are not very helpful to the aspiring playwright. Either they tend to view plays in an overly academic manner or they tend to be too simple. What I think playwrights need is a practical guide to writing plays, including techniques, approaches, and story ideas, providing them with the tools that they can apply to their own work.

The first time I went to a playwriting workshop, I was running it, and so when I became Writer-in-Residence at Paines Plough, a new-writing theatre company, I sought to remedy this lack of teaching. I set up a group of playwrights called ‘The Wild Bunch’ whose intention was to teach each other everything we knew. We took it in turns to teach sessions, and we learned a great deal. I carried on learning about playwriting through working with writers over many years, including spending twelve years at the Royal Court Theatre in London, reading five plays a week, and running playwriting masterclasses. But more than anything else, I have learned about playwriting from working on my own plays. Writing plays is difficult. It’s rather different from writing poetry or novels or songs. It’s a very particular type of writing with its own set of skills. What I try to share are mostly things that I’ve learned myself the hard way.

Stephen Jeffreys delivering a masterclass on ‘Writing History Plays’ at Theatre Royal Haymarket, London, in October 2016

Writers tend to fall into two groups. There are those who are terribly good at things like structure, organisation, getting the characters on- and offstage, and making sure that the plot is watertight; the tendency of writers like these is that they may be a little unimaginative and possibly lack that sense of poetry, metaphor, and the unexpected. Whereas the other type of writer tends to be brilliant at coming up with great visual images, understanding the psychology of the characters, or finding beautifully poetic moments or metaphors, but they seem incapable of getting the actors on and off the stage in the right order, or finding an overall shape for the play. I rather crudely refer to this as left-brained and right-brained writing: the left-brain being responsible for our organisational, rational and cognitive capabilities, and the right-brain being more poetic and spontaneous. There’s been some recent work on the theory that the left-brain and right-brain are fundamentally different, which of course concludes that it’s a bit more complicated than that, so I enter a disclaimer here that I’m using those terms in inverted commas. When I say ‘left-brain’ and ‘right-brain’, I don’t mean that I have any real grasp of neuroscience, but rather as a convenient way of labelling and thinking about these different types of approach to writing plays.

What I’d encourage writers to do is recognise and improve upon the part of playwriting that you’re not good at. While reading the last paragraph, you may already have instinctively identified with one of the approaches to playwriting; if so, that’s a good start! Because the key to playwriting, in contrast to other forms of writing, is that you do need to develop both these sets of skills. You can just about get away with being a novelist who doesn’t have a great grasp of structure, for instance, but it’s very hard to do that in theatre; conversely, a play that is beautifully organised but has no driving metaphor, no inner life, will be received by audiences as being very efficient but very dead. Another way of looking at it is to think of the difference between a ‘bird’s-eye view’ of playwriting, where you look down and see the whole map of a play spread out before you, and a ‘worm’s-eye view’ of playwriting, where you’re peering up from a muddy field, you have no idea what’s going on, but you are richly in the moment – which I imagine worms to be. Try to look into yourself, and to woo those skills that you feel you don’t have.

If you think about the way an audience receives a play, it’s very different from other art forms. If you are reading a novel, maybe you’ll read forty pages on the first day; the next day you have a domestic crisis so you won’t read anything; the day after that you may read a hundred pages; the day after that you read about five pages before falling asleep; and the next day you’ll get completely gripped and finish the book. Essentially, you choose when it all happens. Or imagine you’re in an art gallery, and you see a sculpture: you can generally choose how much time you spend looking at that sculpture – you can spend half an hour, you can spend ten seconds, but it’s your choice. In the theatre, however, as an audience member, if you’ve lost attention and dropped out at some point, then the show has gone on without you: there’s no rewind button; you can’t go back. A play happens live, in real time – that is the basic condition of writing for theatre – and as a playwright you have to learn to deal with that.

The 2016 revival of The Libertine by Stephen Jeffreys, starring Dominic Cooper as the Earl of Rochester (photo by Alastair Muir)

It’s always frightening when you see audiences tune out at the same time. If I have a play on at the Royal Court, during the first preview I will generally watch the play and take notes; but for the second preview, I will sit in one of the seats at the side of the stage in the gallery and watch the audience. I watch to see at which points they start, literally, to lose the plot. Audiences tend to switch off all together, and when they do that, it’s probably your fault as a writer: there’s something wrong with the play; this is the bit where it’s not interesting. A novelist can get away with writing a self-indulgent description of the countryside, say, because the reader can always think, ‘Oh yeah, I’ll just skip that bit.’ But you can’t do that when writing a play. If you lose the audience, even for a minute, it’s very hard to get them back, because they are holding on to a continuous piece of wire, they are following the story second by second. Our responsibility as playwrights is to make every single second interesting. This is our great problem, and also our great opportunity.

This is an edited extract from Playwriting: Structure, Character, How and What to Write by Stephen Jeffreys, out now and published by Nick Hern Books. Click here to buy your copy at a 20% discount.

Stephen Jeffreys was a playwright and teacher, whose plays include The Libertine. His Masterclasses – delivered at the Royal Court Theatre, London – attracted writers from all over the world and shaped the ideas of many of today’s leading playwrights and theatre-makers. 

Author photo by Annabel Arden.

Remembering Stephen Jeffreys

This week saw the tragic passing of playwright and NHB author Stephen Jeffreys. Known for works including hit historical romp The Libertine, he was also a caring and supportive mentor to an entire generation of writers. In this edited introduction from a recently published collection of Stephen’s plays, his wife, Annabel Arden, pays tribute to the life and career of a much-loved figure. Plus, publisher Nick Hern shares a few words on a man he was proud to not only call an author, but a friend

Stephen Jeffreys was born on April 22 1950 and spent his childhood in Crouch End, North London. His father’s family ran a business making billiard tables, where he himself spent a short time working after university and which he immortalised in his play A Going Concern. According to family legend his great-grandfather taught the Pankhurst sisters how to play billiards. His mother’s family were originally from Ireland. The house Stephen grew up in, 45 Weston Park, had been acquired by his paternal grandfather in 1936, and three generations as well as many lodgers lived there in a very particular post-war austerity. It was a childhood full of eccentric characters, English humour and stoicism. His monologue Finsbury Park (commissioned by Paines Plough for their 2016 series of Come to Where I’m From, and performed by Stephen himself) captures the essence of this. The house remained inhabited by his sister, the writer and journalist Susan Jeffreys, and Stephen later returned to share it with her, bringing myself and his two sons Jack and Ralph to this almost mythical extended family home. It was known to all as ‘The Chateau’.

Finsbury Park by Stephen Jeffreys was part of Paines Plough’s Come to Where I’m From project

Stephen was educated in Crouch End, at Rokesly Primary School, and then at a boys’ grammar, the Stationers’ Company’s School in Hornsey, before going to read English at Southampton University. While there he revitalised the student theatre scene and took a company to the Minack Theatre in Cornwall, directing Indians, in which he cast all the Indians as women – an idea ahead of its time and setting the trend by which he gave great parts to women in all his plays. After his short spell in the family business and work as a supply teacher, he wrote Like Dolls or Angels, taking it to 1977 National Student Drama Festival, where it won the Sunday Times Playwriting Award. Later he would join the board of the NSDF, which he served on for many years.

A part-time job teaching theatre in an art college in Carlisle gave him time and solitude to write, as well as the experience of putting on enormous community plays combining street theatre with carefully staged disruption and spectacle, such as The Garden of Eden (1986) about nationalised beer performed by the people of Carlisle. While living in Carlisle he also spent time at the Brewery Arts Centre in Kendal, where he met Gerry Mulgrew, Alison Peebles and Robert Pickavance, who would go on to found Communicado. Together with Stephen they formed Pocket Theatre Cumbria, which toured the north.

Round this time, Stephen decided to devote his talents to writing plays. His first big success came in 1989 when Valued Friends (with Martin Clunes, Peter Capaldi and Jane Horrocks in the cast at Hampstead Theatre) won the Evening Standard and Critics’ Circle Awards for Most Promising Playwright. There followed The Clink (1990) for Paines Plough, for whom he was Arts Council Writer-in-Residence from 1987–89; A Going Concern (Hampstead, 1993); and The Libertine, a considerable success at the Royal Court Theatre in 1994, where he began an eleven-year stint as Literary Associate, which brought him into contact with a whole generation of emerging writers. He also began giving writing workshops at the Court, which were attended by then little-known playwrights such as Simon Stephens, Roy Williams and April De Angelis.

The American premiere of The Libertine, directed by Terry Johnson at Steppenwolf Theatre, Chicago, in 1996 with John Malkovich as Rochester, led to an ongoing association both with Malkovich and with Steppenwolf, where Lost Land, about Hungary at the end of World War One, was premiered in 2005, again with Malkovich in the lead. When The Libertine was made into a movie (released in 2005) starring Johnny Depp, it was Malkovich’s company that produced it.

Rosamund Pike (Elizabeth Malet) and Johnny Depp (Rochester) in the 2004 film adaptation of Stephen Jeffreys’ play The Libertine, for which he also wrote the screenplay

Meanwhile, Stephen wrote I Just Stopped By to See the Man (directed by Richard Wilson at the Royal Court in 2000), a tribute to the old-time blues singers of the Mississippi Delta, which was also staged by Steppenwolf and many other American theatres; and Interruptions (written while resident at the University of California, Davis, and staged there in 2001), which sprang from his fascination with the Japanese aesthetic principle of Jo-ha-kyu and his desire to create a particular narrative form to express our struggles with democracy and leadership. The Art of War (Sydney Theatre Company, 2007) was inspired both by the ancient Chinese military treatise by Sun Tzu and by Stephen’s own response to the Gulf War. In 2009 he contributed the first play (Bugles at the Gates of Jalalabad) in the series The Great Game: Afghanistan at the Tricycle Theatre, London. This landmark series toured to the US and was performed to senior military personnel at the Pentagon.

Throughout his career, Stephen kept up a steady stream of adaptations. One of the earliest, in 1982, was of Dickens’s Hard Times for Pocket Theatre Cumbria. Two years later came Carmen 1936 for Communicado, which won a Fringe First and played in London at the Tricycle Theatre. He adapted Richard Brome’s seventeenth-century comedy, A Jovial Crew (RSC, 1992), and, in 2000, The Convict’s Opera (premiered in Australia at Sydney Theatre Company and in the UK by Out of Joint), based on The Beggar’s Opera but set on a convict ship heading for Australia. In 2011 his stage adaptation of Backbeat, Iain Softley’s film about The Beatles, opened in the West End, while his characteristically witty and erudite translation in 2013 of the libretto of The Magic Flute in Simon McBurney’s radical production has been performed all over Europe. And for the RSC he helped adapt their 2016 production of The Alchemist.

The Sydney Theatre Company and Out of Joint production of The Convict’s Opera by Stephen Jeffreys

As well as the one for The Libertine, Stephen’s other screenplays include Ten Point Bold, a love story set against the tumultuous political background of the Regency period, written in 2003 but so far unfilmed, and the biopic Diana, released in 2013, directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel and starring Naomi Watts as the Princess of Wales.

Ever since his experience as a selector for the annual NSDF, which involved him in mentoring and launching many careers, Stephen was steeped in the practicalities of theatre and relished collaborative creative relationships with young companies and young playwrights. He was also the ‘go to’ person for short celebratory plays for leaving dos, birthdays, weddings, etc., all of which made him a hugely popular and enormously well-liked figure in the theatre community.


Publisher Nick Hern pays tribute to Stephen Jeffreys…

My relationship with Stephen dates back thirty years, initially as his publisher, latterly as a friend. A nicer man and all-round gent you couldn’t hope to meet. Also a brilliant and inspiring teacher.

Having sat in on one of his famous writing workshops at the Royal Court, I immediately commissioned him to write a book. That was twenty years ago, but whenever we met in the intervening years – usually at Royal Court press nights with him in his trademark hat – he would assure me that progress was being made. When he got ill, progress suddenly became a matter of urgency.

The book was still incomplete – though in its final stages – when he died, and his friends and colleagues and above all his widow Annabel Arden are striving to complete it. Playwriting – Structure; Character; How and What to Write will be published in the next few months to sit alongside a volume of collected plays which came out in July.

Dear Stephen: he will be much missed by this country’s playwriting community as well as, of course, by audiences of the brilliant plays he wrote, and those – tragically – he never got to write.


All of us at Nick Hern Books are greatly saddened by the loss of Stephen Jeffreys. We’re incredibly proud to publish his work, and our thoughts are with his family at this difficult time.

Photograph of Stephen Jeffreys by Martin Argles.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The cast of War Horse in rehearsals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photograph of Cheryl Henson by Richard Termine.

Understanding the Mad King: Antony Sher on rehearsing King Lear

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

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

Thursday 7 July 2016

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

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

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

Prince Philip’s Lear

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

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

Oddly, both sides represent the Dispossessed.

Odder still, Lear has brought it on himself.

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

Derek Jacobi as Lear

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

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

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

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

…And so we created a narrative to the speech:

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

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

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

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

Olly as Edgar as Poor Tom

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

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

The Minimalist (Richard Wilson directing)

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

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

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

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

Someone suggested, ‘Crimes against humanity?’

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


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

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

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

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

‘A writer of protean gifts’: Lucy Kirkwood on Caryl Churchill

This year’s recipient of the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain Award for Outstanding Contribution to Writing is the playwright Caryl Churchill – one of the leading figures in contemporary world theatre, and an NHB author for over thirty years – ‘in honour of her illustrious body of work and a career which has spanned over six decades’.

The presentation of the Award on Monday 15 January was preceded by a speech, reproduced here, by fellow playwright, WGGB Award-winner and NHB author Lucy Kirkwood, who paid tribute to Caryl’s unrelenting and hugely influential innovation, craft and creativity. 

My house is full of books and they are badly organised. So as I prepared to write this speech about the recipient of tonight’s special award, I set aside time just to find my collections of Caryl Churchill’s plays, thinking it might take a while.

It didn’t. There, right at the top of one pile, was Plays: Three. On top of another, Plays: Two. Plays: One and Plays: Four were also in easy reach, in dog-eared copies already on my desk. I’m not sure why I was surprised: like so many other playwrights, I keep her works as close as I keep the tea bags and the emergency cigarettes. They are necessary.

‘They are necessary’ – two collections of Caryl Churchill’s plays

To anyone working in the theatre today, the outstanding contribution of Caryl Churchill is beyond question, to the extent that the word ‘contribution’ doesn’t quite seem up to the job. Her invention is ceaseless. Her influence is profound. In the course of a writing life that spans sixty years, she’s changed the dramatic landscape of two centuries, and evolved more than any other British playwright our conceptions of what a play even is. She’s even changed the way we write them down.

In the words of [playwright and academic] Dan Rebellato, ‘she never repeats herself. She always seems to be asking the question what’s the world like and what form of play do I have to write to express it. She has invented forty or fifty different play forms that everyone else uses, and meanwhile, she’s moved on.’

Rebellato goes on to note that the overlapping dialogue she invented is now used by everyone except her. She’s used doublings, one actor playing many parts, or many actors playing the same part, to political and metaphysical effect over the years, but also just for the sheer theatrical fun of it. Her writing is omnivorous, and slips between naturalism, fantasy and verse with unwavering confidence.

Although Owners, produced in 1972, is usually recognised as her first play, in fact she’d written roughly twenty others before that.

But it was her collaborations with Monstrous Regiment and Joint Stock, beginning in 1976, which were to be a turning point in her practice. She describes these experiences as having permanently changed her attitudes to herself, her work, and others. With Monstrous Regiment she made Vinegar Tom, a play about witches with no witches in it and with Joint Stock she made Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, a play about a revolution that didn’t happen, and followed this with Cloud Nine, a deeply theatrical play about the relationship between sexual and colonial politics, with a structure that leaps from Victorian Africa to ’70s London. It is incisive and vicious, very funny and cautiously optimistic about our ability to free ourselves from the repressions visited upon us from above, and within. It ran for two years in New York, and was followed by Softcops, inspired by the work of Michel FoucaultIn the ’80s, with Top Girls and Serious Money, she took on the Siamese twins of Thatcherism and London’s financial industry, and in Fen she looked at potato pickers in the bleak flatlands of East Anglia. The Skriker collides the modern and the mythical to give form to the ungovernable forces in women’s lives. In A Number, a man is confronted by clones of his dead son, in a play not really about cloning, and Blue Heart consists of two plays, one of which has a virus.

The 2015 National Theatre revival of Light Shining in Buckinghamshire (Photo by Marc Brenner)

It should be clear by now we’re talking about a writer of protean gifts, completely lacking in complacency. Simply put, she is the only person writing today who says something new in both form and content every time she puts pen to paper.

Her work is profoundly political, but never didactic, charged with metaphorical power not journalistic editorial. Far Away which, in Dan Rebellato’s words again, ‘feels like it invented British 21st -century playwriting in some ways’, is my own favourite play and the first work I want to share with any young person interested in theatre. It is constructed of scenes depicting a series of universal domestic scenarios: a child waking in the night, afraid. A workplace romance. Taking a lover home to meet your family for the first time. And yet its twenty-six pages are pregnant with vast and troubling themes. It is a play that seems to be about something different every time I read it: the corrosive effects of a climate of fear, our ability to mute the sound of horror happening beyond our shores, the atrocity that occurs when we are convinced we are on the right side of history.

The structure is consummate, the images searing and the language like knives. As two characters, Harper and Todd, make increasingly extravagant hats – that, we slowly learn, are to be worn by prisoners on the way to execution – Harper observes: ‘It seems so sad to burn them with the bodies’, and later she offers as good and as provocative a reflection on a life in the theatre as I can imagine, noting: ‘You make beauty and it disappears, I love that’.

Her formal invention has been on display again more recently in Love and Information, constructed from fragments that express with audacity the rhythm of how we live now, and in Here We Go, a play about death that uses abbreviations and repetitions to stare down the barrel of our decay with all the verve the title implies.

Nikki Amuka-Bird and Joshua James in Love and Information at the Royal Court (Photo by Stephen Cummiskey)

But I often feel in our eagerness to admire her cathedrals we overlook the exquisite craft of the individual bricks. Not only the dazzling indelible images her plays throw up: a dinner party of women from throughout history, a woman who’s just been murdered appearing in a doorway, a shape-shifter presiding over a feast of glamour, two peasants seeing themselves in a mirror for the first time in their lives.

But also in her dialogue. She’s not a writer with a house-style. The roots of her language are in the demotic, lifted from the playground, the office, the bus, the nursing home, the butchers, and given precise, sculpted form. But her language is poetic in its refusal of artificial elegance, and shot through with flashes of violence, sorrow and comedy, at once dense and digestible, like a Christmas cake that has been fed brandy since January. Next time I get a tattoo, I would happily get them to ink one of her extraordinary lines on my arm, maybe:

If it’s a party, why was there so much blood?

Or perhaps most appropriately for this particular evening:

The only judges I recognise are ones I’ve appointed myself.

She’s written versions of Seneca and Strindberg, opera librettos, worked with choreographers and composers, written for the radio, television and stage and been performed across the world. Her plays are studied at schools and universities and in 2013, Royal Holloway University named its new theatre after her.

Increasingly her work is notable for its economy, not because she has less to say but because her craft is such she can pack more into a line of dialogue than most of us can express in a whole scene. I watched her most recent full-length play Escaped Alone with exhilaration, but also despair, as I realised the play I was myself writing took two hours to say what Caryl Churchill had expressed in a single speech about cats.

Linda Bassett, Deborah Findlay, Kika Markham and June Watson in Escaped Alone at the Royal Court
(Photo by Alistair Muir)

Escaped Alone is a play about four women who have lived a long time, chatting in a garden, tempered with visions of apocalypse. It is a play that once again has a radical, questing form. It is surprising and alive and intelligent and very funny. It is a play that feels both absolutely clear and completely mysterious. And like so much of her work, it offers, unsentimentally, a suggestion that in an increasingly unstable world, humans retain a capacity for both joyful song, and terrible, terrible, terrible rage.

It is breathtaking to write a single play that has such qualities. It is, frankly, showing off to have written so many of them.

In the spirit of trying to sum up with her economy why this award is so deserved, I finally turn to the words of her friend and regular collaborator, [director] James Macdonald, who puts it simply like this: “She’s just doing the best writing, isn’t she? Why make it any more complicated?’

Caryl Churchill and Lucy Kirkwood at the 2018 Writers’ Guild Awards (photo by Matt Writtle)


This is an edited version of a speech written and given by Lucy Kirkwood at the 2018 Writers’ Guild Awards on Monday 15 January 2018.

We’re honoured to publish Caryl Churchill’s plays – visit our website to see the full selection.

Author photograph of Caryl Churchill by Stephen Cummiskey.

Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Everything That Went Into Writing My New Book (But Were Too Polite to Ask, Dear)

Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the West End…

The masked man of Theatreland has returned. West End Producer’s new book is the ultimate guide to theatregoing, full of the hilarious advice and insight he’s become known for. Here, WEP reveals the blood, sweat and Dom Pérignon that went into writing his must-have theatrical masterpiece, and why the perils of going to the theatre means it’s a vital addition to your library…

Back in 2013, the lovely people at Nick Hern Books published my definitive guide to acting – Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Acting (But Were Afraid to Ask, Dear) – filled with invaluable information about training, performing, bowing correctly, and how to get ahead in showbusiness. It was a marvellous success, which made me feel all warm and bubbly inside – the same feeling I get after a particularly tasty bottle of Dom.

But then came the inevitable question: what next? Having conquered the literary world, I knew I wanted to write another essential theatrical tome – but how to overcome the ‘difficult second book syndrome’, and avoid penning a Love Never Dies to my Phantom of the Opera?

West End Producer, struggling for inspiration in his surprisingly smoky study 
(Photograph © Matt Crockett)

Then, one evening, towards the end of a particularly lengthy walk on Hampstead Heath listening to Elaine Paige warbling on my pocket gramophone (the iGram), I suddenly felt inspiration begin to stir and swell deep within me. And so I rushed home, drew the curtains in my mahogany-clad study, and started fingering my keyboard with vigour.

For a long time, I’d wanted to write a book about how to get theatregoing just right (a Goldilocks guide to the West End, if you will). It would be a practical manual covering absolutely everything – how to see the hits and not the shits, how to avoid neck pain and deep vein thrombosis in the balcony, and how to save precious pennies on tickets, so you can afford the overpriced interval drinks and souvenir programmes instead.

After all, going to the theatre is a richly rewarding but potentially perilous activity that can take months of planning to get right. The consequences of being ill-prepared can make even the most confident theatregoer feel like a floppy theatre virgin. There are just so many things to consider: how do you choose what to see? How do you avoid getting lost and ending up at Buckingham Palace instead of the Palace Theatre? How do you find your way to your seat without treading on an unsuspecting OAP? What’s the correct level of applause if you only mildly enjoyed the show? These questions, and many more besides, finally needed answering.

This is not Buckingham Palace, dear. (Photograph © Nigel Howard)

The result is my new book: Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Going to the Theatre (But Were Too Sloshed to Ask, Dear) – which, reading it back now, really is a bloody long title. It’s taken a full four years to get it finished, but this couldn’t be helped. It’s hard to find the time to write in between going to press nights, disciplining actors, producing shows, and cuddling up with my Miss Saigon blow-up doll.

I also found this book a little more challenging to write than my first book, as it required extra research. I had to brush up on my knowledge of theatrical terms (dozens of which are explained in the book). I also attempted to use lots of words that contained eight or more letters – for example: proscenium, cyclorama, and shinging (shit singing) – and learn the names of every single theatre in the West End and beyond. Which takes rather a long time, especially as they keep insisting on building more of the bloody things.

As well as the wide-ranging West End knowledge and advice outlined above, I also wanted to have a little look at some of the greatest shows to have ever hit Theatreland – so scattered throughout the book, like used show-pants in Soho, are potted histories of some our most legendary musicals, plus suggested future casting and details of songs that didn’t quite make the cut (such a shame audiences at Cats were denied the pleasures of ‘God, I Have Another Furball’).

Elaine Page as Grizabella in Cats – other rejected songs included ‘Anyone Got Some Tuna?’ and
‘If I Can’t Find the Litter Tray (I’m Going to Pee in the Stalls)’

It also contains some of my most deliciously naughty-but-true tweets  – because over sixty thousand Twitter followers can’t be wrong….

When reading my book you will learn how to become one of my Theatre Prefects: protecting theatres from phone-users, snorers, and persistent latecomers. With you, my dear readers, forming an army of Prefects parading around theatres up and down the country, we may together finally be able to ‘Make Theatre Great Again’!

Anyhow, I hope you enjoy my new book. It will entertain, enlighten and excite even the most novice theatre spectator – and put the spice back into the theatregoing relationship of the most jaded regular. It’s the perfect present for anyone in your life (Father Christmas himself said so, dear).

So sit back, get yourself into something comfy, and prepare to find out everything you always wanted to know about going to the theatre.


Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Going to the Theatre (But Were Too Sloshed to Ask, Dear) by West End Producer is out now, published by Nick Hern Books.

Buy your copy for just £8.79 (20% discount) from the Nick Hern Books website. All customers who purchase their book directly from NHB will also receive a free ‘Theatre Prefect’ badge.

Author photograph by Matt Crockett.