In dark times: Two Ukrainian playwrights on life in the midst of the conflict

It has been six months now since Russia invaded Ukraine, but as a double-bill of Ukrainian plays – published this week and currently showing at the Finborough Theatre in London – makes clear, the conflict really began much earlier than that, when Russia invaded and annexed Crimea in 2014. For the two leading Ukrainian playwrights whose work is being staged, and who both still live and work in Ukraine, the war there is as devastating as it was foreseeable. Here, Natal’ya Vorozhbit and Neda Nezhdana (together with their translators, Sasha Dugdale and John Farndon) write about the anger, dismay and horror that has fed into their work, as well as the extraordinary human resilience in the face of outrageous Russian aggression.

Vorozhbit, Natalya_Cropped

Natal’ya Vorozhbit writes: ‘When I wrote Take the Rubbish Out, Sasha in 2014, the war in Ukraine had already begun. It continued in the east of the country, and it was impossible to believe. I tried to wear this war, as did my family; I wrote about my fears and premonitions and hoped that they would never come true, that humanity would be horrified and stop the war at that stage. But humanity pretended that nothing was happening and bought gas from Russia. Eight years have passed and everything that I described in the play, only much worse, has happened to the whole of Ukraine, hit all of us and touched all of you.

For eight years, neither Ukraine nor the world has coped with the evil that came without hiding. It really hurts me that this text is only now so relevant. Can it change anything? It seems that art does not become a warning and does not change the world at all. And only the human ability not to lose hope moves us further, makes us write, fight, and believe that good and truth will win.’

Take The Rubbish Out, Sasha. Amanda Ryan and Alan Cox Credit Charles Flint 2

Amanda Ryan and Alan Cox in Take the Rubbish Out, Sasha by Natal’ya Vorozhbit at the Finborough Theatre, 2022 (Photograph by Charles Flint)


Dugdale, SashaSasha Dugdale writes: ‘I translated Take the Rubbish Out, Sasha in late 2014 for A Play, A Pie and A Pint at Òran Mór in Glasgow, directed by Nicola McCartney. The war in Donbas had begun earlier that same year, so by the time Natalka wrote her short play the initial shock of war and invasion had worn off. In her lithe, funny and poignant work, Natalka looks back to the Soviet period, and the confusion of the nineties, and shows how ideas of masculinity have shifted over a period of turbulent change. With her “sly writer’s heart” (a phrase she uses in her 2017 classic Bad Roads) and her abundant compassion and humour, she depicts a family operating under all sorts of strains: the burden of alcoholism, divorce, poor health, death, financial constraints, and the various toxins of a corrupt and venal late- or post-Soviet military system.

It is a surprise when war interrupts this mess of ordinary lives and their tensions – as much a surprise to the viewer as it appears to be for the characters. They are wrenched backwards into a time when masculinity counted for something – and yet paradoxically it is women now managing, holding the fort, buying the supplies: the men turn out to be absent, shadowy or supernatural.

I have translated Natalka’s work for many years and it has been a privilege and a responsibility. Over the period of our collaboration she has documented the emerging Ukraine and its process of self-definition, through protest and uprising, into the woeful period of Russian aggression which has dominated Ukraine’s recent history. I love and relish her deft, wry dialogue and its humour, and the power female protagonists have in her writing. Most of all I love her joy in humanity, in all its forms, and I take this into my translating, often laughing aloud at her sheer cleverness and wit as I strive to find English equivalents.’

Take The Rubbish Out, Sasha. Issy Knowles and Amanda Ryan Credit Charles Flint 2

Issy Knowles and Amanda Ryan in Take the Rubbish Out, Sasha by Natal’ya Vorozhbit at the Finborough Theatre, 2022 (Photograph by Charles Flint)


Nezhdana, Neda_croppedNeda Nezhdana writes: ‘Since the Revolution of Dignity, I have “mobilised” my “literary soldiers”; all my texts have been related to the Maidan and the war. At the beginning of 2014, my native city of Kramatorsk in Donetsk region was occupied by Rashists (Russian fascists) for several months. My relatives managed to escape, and I wanted to write a play about it: what it is like to become a refugee. They had had their whole world stolen from them: home, work, friends, city… And the total lies of Russian propaganda – about the Maidan, Donbas, Ukraine in general – were outrageous. Nothing to do with reality. On the contrary, they called the Maidan’s international goal of association with the EU “Nazism”, and described their own aggression, terror and looting as “liberation”. Time has shown that their hybrid occupation brought only grief: tens of thousands killed, wounded, orphaned, millions of refugees, destroyed houses and destinies… And people, provoked by propaganda, became murderers, executioners and traitors…

I searched for a long time to find the right form for my play, Pussycat in Memory of Darkness. The impetus was the true story of Iryna Dovgan, a beauty-salon worker who was captured and tortured by the Russians. Her words suggested the title of the play: she saw “darkness” in the eyes of her executioner. This is what I wanted to talk about. I wanted to warn the world about this “darkness” – the impunity of criminals turning into a “tsunami” that can engulf all of us in a terrible nightmare of terror… Yet “in dark times, bright people are clearly visible,” as Erich Maria Remarque wrote. The second impetus for the play was photos of our retreating soldiers rescuing dogs, cats and parrots. Animals, whose owners had been killed or captured, sensed where they would be helped, and went to Ukrainian soldiers. I believe that humanity begins with our attitude towards animals. This is how the eventual image of a volunteer heroine who helps soldiers and saves kittens was born. White, grey and black are the three steps in the war of light and dark… Documentary stories from relatives and friends, my own memories and news, such as the shooting down of a passenger plane by the Russians in Donbas, were intertwined with fantasy. It was a cry for help: people, stop this horror before it’s too late… But millions of crimes in the Russian Federation remain unpunished, and unpunished evil is growing progressively.

Pussycat In Memory Of Darkness. Kristin Milward Credit Charles Flint 4

Kristin Milward in Pussycat In Memory of Darkness by Neda Nezhdana at the Finborough Theatre, 2022 (Photograph by Charles Flint)

Since 24th February 2022, this “darkness” has spread over the whole of Ukraine. When I wrote this play, I didn’t know, like my character, how it was to be with children and animals under fire from rockets and bombs, what it meant to be a refugee. But now I know this from my own experience in the Kyiv region, and my relatives in Kramatorsk live next to the train station that was hit by Russian rockets on 8th April… Tens of millions of people are going through this now, dozens of countries around the world are helping displaced people and the wounded from Ukraine. More than two-thirds of Ukrainian children are refugees, others are under fire, in infiltration camps, deported, wounded, killed… Now refugees are a problem for the whole world. Rashists destroy entire cities and villages, especially schools, hospitals, museums, theatres, churches, burn books… And they also “denazify” animals: horses are burned in stables and cows are blasted by “hail”… They even attack plants – mining forests and burning grain fields… This is not only the most terrible war in terms of weapons, it is genocide, the attack of barbarism on civilisation, slavery on freedom. It is important to understand: leaving the occupied territories of Ukraine to the Russian Federation means condemning people to death and torture. Unfortunately, this play has only grown in relevance. I believe that such texts help those traumatised by the war and those who want to understand what is really happening. All over the Earth, which is becoming absorbed by the “darkness”. However, I remain in Ukraine and continue to write, because I believe in the victory of light. Thanks to all “warriors of light” in the world.’


Farndon, John_cropJohn Farndon writes: ‘The ongoing Russian attack on Ukraine is a horror which no one can ignore. What can theatremakers do? The very painful answer is not much. But since the beginning of March 2022, I’ve been working with the Worldwide Ukrainian Play Readings project, in collaboration with Theatre of Playwrights in Kyiv, to bring the words of Ukraine’s amazing and courageous playwrights to the world by translating dozens of their plays, many written almost from the frontline – raw, immediate and powerful.

For me, the most extraordinary discovery has been the writing of Neda Nezhdana, and it’s been a privilege to translate her work. She is something of a legend in Ukraine yet her work has never been staged in English until now. It should have been. Neda has an extraordinary ability to distil the most challenging aspects of Ukraine’s situation into bold, provocative, thrilling drama.

Pussycat in Memory of Darkness is set in 2014, when Russia occupied Crimea and began its ongoing attempts to destabilise the Donbas, in revenge for Ukraine’s Maidan revolution to rid the country of Russian influence. It tells the story of the nightmare life that develops for one woman in the Donbas in the face of the insidious violence stirred up in her home town by the Russian-backed militia and propaganda. It is a beautifully crafted, yet uncompromising drama that takes us right into the heart of darkness that is Russia’s war on Ukraine. Yet the message is not just about Ukraine, but for us all.’

Pussycat In Memory Of Darkness. Kristin Milward Credit Charles Flint 3

Kristin Milward in Pussycat In Memory of Darkness by Neda Nezhdana at the Finborough Theatre, 2022 (Photograph by Charles Flint)


Cover image for blog

This is an edited version of the introduction to Voices from Ukraine: Two Plays published by Nick Hern Books. Save 20% on your copy when you order direct from the Nick Hern Books website here. 10% of the proceeds from sales of the book will be donated to the Voices of Children Charitable Foundation, a Ukrainian charity providing urgently needed psychological and psychosocial support to children affected by the war in Ukraine.

The plays Take the Rubbish Out, Sasha and Pussycat in Memory of Darkness are in production at the Finborough Theatre, London, until 3 September. For more information, and to book tickets, visit the Finborough Theatre website.

Three plays, one cast, all at the same time: Chris Bush on her ambitious dramatic triptych Rock / Paper / Scissors

Bush, Chris for blogFor the fiftieth anniversary of the Crucible, Sheffield Theatres commissioned playwright Chris Bush to write three plays that could be performed by the same cast, simultaneously, in all three of their spaces (the Crucible, the Lyceum, and the Studio). Nothing quite like it had ever been attempted before. As the resulting plays Rock / Paper / Scissors are premiered in Sheffield, Chris explains how the idea came about…

This is a very silly idea.

We first started dreaming up these shows in February 2021. Directors Rob Hastie and Anthony Lau, designer Ben Stones and myself were making The Band Plays On at the Crucible and going slightly insane through the pressures of creating work during a global pandemic, trying to imagine a brighter future while struggling to navigate the strange new realities of the day to day. The fiftieth anniversary of the Crucible was coming up in November, and who knew how we were going to mark it, or even if the theatre would be open at all by then? While I went home to work on rewrites and do deep dives into lesser known Sheffield Britpop acts, the directors were putting together funding applications and drawing up bold new seasons with a combination of blind hope and bloody-mindedness that all theatre professionals know only too well.

One morning, Rob met me outside my digs to walk with me to the theatre. He had an idea. What if we threw caution to the wind and thought big – even bigger than usual? What if we tried to do something never attempted before – something that could more or less only be done here, within a complex of three world-class stages all only a few metres from each other? What if we took over every inch of Sheffield Theatres with three brand-new standalone shows with a shared a cast, playing simultaneously in the Crucible, Lyceum, and Crucible Studio? Alan Ayckbourn’s House and Garden had done the same thing with two plays, but no one had ever tried it with three (arguably for good reason). The concept was absurd. Would we even be open in a year’s time? What was the story? How do you even begin to plan something like this? I had no idea. Of course I said yes immediately.

Denise Black in Rock

Denise Black in Rock by Chris Bush at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, 2022 (Photograph by Johan Persson)

We started kicking ideas around straight away. What was the hook, beside the sheer audacity of attempting it? What if each show had a distinct genre – one farce, one murder mystery, one musical, all linked by the same set of characters? What if we showed the same character at different points in their life?

A christening, a wedding, a funeral (Birth, Marriage and Death as your three titles)? Time travel was definitely discussed at one point. Then for a while we settled on the idea of two weddings, one in the Crucible, one in the Lyceum, and the caterers in the studio (working titles of Bride, Groom and Cake). What if two childhood sweethearts were now getting married on the same day to different people, next door to each other, and hilarity ensued? This concept evolved into one real wedding in the Crucible, and a local am-dram production of a wedding-themed musical in the Lyceum, with all the potential for mistaken identities that might entail. I even came up with the fake show-within-a-show, Wits ’n’ Weddings, a 1980s mega-flop based on the works of Philip Larkin with a book by a young Richard Curtis… alas, it was not to be.

As fun as some of these ideas were, I was never quite sure why we wanted to tell any of these stories, beyond the technical challenge they presented. We all agreed some kind of ‘farce engine’ felt useful, but then a lot of the comedy in farce comes from the audience knowing more than the characters onstage – this is difficult when any given audience might only be getting a third of the overall story at any given time, and these shows needed to be entirely self-contained, as well as forming part of a greater whole. We were all enjoying ourselves, but I felt like I needed to go back to the dramaturgical drawing board.

Paper

Paper by Chris Bush at the Lyceum Theatre, Sheffield, 2022 (Photograph by Johan Persson)

What makes good drama?

All drama fundamentally revolves around conflict. All stories are about a hero (protagonist) who wants something (a goal) but there’s something or someone (an obstacle) in their way. Sometimes that obstacle is physical, or psychological, or elemental, but often it takes the form of an antagonist – a villain – a character whose dramatic function is to stop our hero from getting what they want. This might be because the antagonist despises the hero, and wishes them to suffer, but equally it could just be because they have goals of their own, and those goals are incompatible. The crucial takeaway is this: we are all protagonists in our own stories, but we could very easily be antagonists in someone else’s, whether we’re trying to be or not.

‘Main Character Syndrome’ is a contemporary term for a timeless condition. It describes someone who believes that they are the centre of the universe, and anyone else is of little or no significance. It’s a twenty-first-century form of solipsism, and something we can all be guilty of. Three standalone plays with a shared company – three distinct viewpoints on a common event – is the theatrical antidote to this. Each play would have its own protagonist(s), but said protagonist might become a primary or secondary antagonist when they step off one stage and onto another. It doesn’t mean any of these people are monsters, they just want different things. Theatre, at its best, is a machine for generating empathy – it can transport us to strange and unfamiliar worlds and populate them with characters we’ll come to care deeply for, and learn to understand, despite the fact that they might appear to be nothing like us. This simultaneous-trilogy structure offers a unique opportunity for further experiments in empathy: we can watch villains become heroes and vice versa when we watch the same events from a different angle. Our sympathies may shift entirely depending on what order we watch the shows in. A traditional ‘hero’s journey’ three-act saga can often get a bit black-and-white in terms of its morality, in part due to the necessary primacy it places on the hero’s perspective – here we can gently remind an audience, through the theatrical form, that life is messy and complicated and we rarely have the full picture.

Scissors

Scissors by Chris Bush at the Studio Theatre, Sheffield, 2022 (Photograph by Johan Persson)

However, I still didn’t know what the plays were about. I wanted to write about intergenerational conflict, and how each generation might have a legitimate reason to feel uniquely hard done by. The next trilogy concept was Work, Rest and Play – a young generation of school-leavers facing an uncertain future, their parents representing the squeezed middle, and their grandparents in retirement. Was this a family saga of three spaces within the same house? The granny annex, the grown-up dinner party downstairs, the teenagers getting high in the garage? What event would throw them all into crisis? ‘No one wants to see a play called Work,’ said Rob Hastie. And a play called Play felt a little sub-Beckett. Fair enough. Keep thinking. What about a properly Sheffield trilogy, using local placenames as generational markers? Intake (the youth), Halfway (middle-aged), and Endcliffe (for the OAPs)? Was that a bit niche? Furthermore, I felt like we’d explored intergenerational family dynamics in the domestic realm quite thoroughly in Standing at the Sky’s Edge, so maybe this should move into the world of work. At this fiftieth anniversary moment of reflection, it was a chance to think about what cities are for, what civic/public spaces are for, who owns our heritage, who owns our future? Where have we come from and how does that inform where we’re going?

For all this intellectualising, we also just brainstormed a lot of three-part lists. What words went together and did any of them mean anything? How about…

Hop, Skip, Jump
Stop, Look, Listen
Ready, Set, Go
Red, Yellow, Green
Faith, Hope, Charity
(the National Theatre got there first)
Snap, Crackle, Pop
(almost definitely trademarked)

Then, on 3 September 2021, with time rapidly running out and a season announcement due very soon, Rob and I had the following exchange over WhatsApp (edited only for clarity).

Chris Bush, 17:29
‘I feel like Rock, Paper, Scissors could be a good name for something (and hints at three competing forces of equal strength) but I don’t know what they mean by themselves.’

Chris Bush, 17:30
Scissors = stainless steel, Sheffield history etc etc, Paper = office work? Or press? Rock = rock music? Teenage rebellion? Dunno…’

Rob Hastie, 17.31
‘Oo that’s quite fun’

Chris Bush, 17:37
‘Could be something in whatever they’re competing over – an inherited building, for instance – could it stay testament to industrial heritage (scissors), become a cool music venue (rock), or just bland but commercially lucrative office space (paper)?

Rob Hastie, 17:44
‘Oh that’s VERY good’

Chris Bush, 17:46
‘I wonder if then (another rethink) do we want our stages to all be different parts of the same building/complex – the factory floor, the old manager’s office, the break room or something? And lean into that idea of everyone milling around the same space in real time?’

And that was that. Of course this was still only the sketchiest of ideas, but in just over fifteen minutes something had crystalised. It now felt like we had the bones of a story (or multiple stories) worth telling. Something that spoke to intergenerational conflict, about heritage, about legacy, about autonomy, and how much any of us are in control of our destiny at any given time. What has been done here, and how does that inform what we should do next? How can we work together when no one really has enough? No heroes, no villains, just a group of people trying to survive in difficult circumstances. An exercise in empathy – which is, after all, the best reason to make theatre in the first place.

This is an edited version of Chris Bush’s introduction to Rock / Paper / Scissors published by Nick Hern Books. Save 20% on your copy when you order direct from the Nick Hern Books website here.

The plays are in production at Sheffield Theatres until 2 July. For more information, and to book tickets, visit the Sheffield Theatres website.

Great new drama from the US and Canada

This month we’re bringing you a selection of fantastic plays from our North American partners, Theatre Communications Group and Playwrights Canada Press.

They include an updating of the myth of Eurydice by Pulitzer-finalist Sarah Ruhl, a fabulously anarchic ‘sequel’ to Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus by performance artist Taylor Mac, Wajdi Mouawad’s award-winning play about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and a collaborative exposé of modern motherhood.

They join our growing list of the best plays from the US and Canada, including recent additions such as Michael R. Jackson’s Tony Award-nominated musical A Strange Loop, Lynn Nottage’s powerful indictment of the ivory trade, Mlima’s Tale, and, from Canada, Jordan Tanahill’s brilliant supernatural thriller Concord Floral. All are available direct from Nick Hern Books, and from good bookshops.


Eurydice by Sarah Ruhl

Eurydice for blog

Alice in Wonderland meets Greek myth in this playful, heart-breaking take on a timeless tale of loss, grief and redemption, from the author of The Clean House and In the Next Room.

Eurydice is in love with Orpheus. Her dead father has advice for her wedding but his letters can’t get through to the land of the living. At last one does. With her father’s words in her hand, she crashes down a flight of stairs and wakes in the underworld, her memory wiped as clean as glass. How will she ever get home?

‘The most moving exploration of the theme of loss that the American theater has produced’ New York Times

SEE MORE AND GET YOUR COPY HERE


Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus by Taylor Mac

Gary for blog

Performance artist Taylor Mac picks up where William Shakespeare’s blood-soaked tragedy Titus Andronicus left off in a play that explores generic boundaries and charts the violence done by those in charge, and the lives of those left to clean up.

The Roman Empire is falling. A bloody coup has ended, the country has been stolen by madmen, and there are casualties everywhere. Two lowly servants, Gary and Janice, are charged with cleaning up the bodies. It’s the year 400 – but it feels like the end of the world.

‘Fabulous and bedraggled: a defiant and beautiful mess’ New York Times

SEE MORE AND GET YOUR COPY HERE


Birds of a Kind by Wajdi Mouawad

A compelling drama from the award-winning Lebanese-Canadian playwright Wajdi Mouawad (Scorched / Incendies). Winner of the Canadian Governor General’s Literary Award in 2019.

A terrorist attack in Jerusalem puts Eitan, a young Israeli-German genetic researcher, in a coma, while his girlfriend Wahida, a Moroccan graduate student, is left to uncover his family secret that brought them to Israel in the first place.

‘A vivid and vaulting multigenerational Middle East-set drama… challenging and complex… full of richness and raw emotion’ Globe and Mail

SEE MORE AND GET YOUR COPY HERE


The Children’s Republic by Hannah Moscovitch

A powerful play about Dr Janusz Korczak, hero of the Warsaw Ghetto – a reminder of the hope that can still be found in a world devoid of freedom and the necessities of life.

Confined within the walls of the Warsaw Ghetto, Dr Korczak struggles to protect the children at his orphanage from the horrors of the Second World War. Between a troublemaking thief, an abandoned girl, a malnourished boy, and a violin prodigy, he has his hands full, but together they fight for beauty and hope in a world crumbling around them.

‘Hannah Moscovitch has found a fresh window into one of the most extensively documented horrors of the Second World War’ Glove and Mail

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Mortified by Amy Rutherford

A darkly funny play exploring sex, shame, and transformation, and how we reckon with the traumatic experiences that have shaped us. Winner of the 2019 Carol Bolt Award.

A woman runs into her former abuser and is surprised by the power he still holds over her. In an attempt to uncover the truth of what really happened between them, she recalls her adolescent self: a synchronized swimmer struggling to make sense of the world around her.

‘A beautiful and memorable piece of theatre that will not be easily forgotten’ Vancouver Presents

SEE MORE AND GET YOUR COPY HERE


Secret Life of a Mother by Hannah Moscovitch with Maev Beaty & Ann-Marie Kerr

The raw and untold secrets of pregnancy, miscarriage, childbirth and mothering are revealed in this collaboratively written play that is uplifting and full of love.

A playwright writes an exposé of modern motherhood, full of her own darkly funny confessions and taboo-breaking truths. One of her real-life friends, an actress, performs the piece, and through it her own experiences of motherhood start to surface. These mothers are not the butts of jokes, the villains, or the perfect angels of a household.

‘An engrossing and necessary work of theatre’ Globe and Mail

SEE MORE AND GET YOUR COPY HERE


WROL (Without Rule of Law) by Michaela Jeffery

Part Judy Blume, part Rambo, this is a darkly comic coming-of-age story for complicated times.

When Maureen, Jo, Sarah, Vic, and Robbie sneak out at night to investigate an ominous hidden lair in the woods, they believe they have stumbled onto proof of what happened to a mysterious local cult that vanished over a decade ago. What they discover changes everything.

‘Captures a generation’s frustration Saskatoon StarPhoenix

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We’re proud to distribute these and dozens of other titles by our North American partners, Theatre Communications Group and Playwrights Canada Press. See our full range of TCG publications here, and Canadian publications here.

Theatre for the Climate Emergency: 100 Plays to Save the World

Fighting climate change is an urgent, universal endeavour – and theatre-makers and playwrights have a vital role to play, capturing the reality of an experience we’ve never faced before, and envisaging our responses to it.

Elizabeth Freestone and Jeanie O’Hare’s new book, 100 Plays to Save the World, is a guide to a hundred brilliant plays that address the climate crisis, from recent plays that tackle it directly, to classic texts in which ecological themes now ring out clearly.

Designed to start conversations, provoke debate and launch many future productions, 100 Plays to Save the World is a call to arms, a challenge to us all to unleash theatre’s power to imagine a better future into being.

Here, the authors explain why the great climate-change play already exists, and what theatre-makers can do to save the planet.


People often ask: where is the great climate-change play? The answer is it’s here, it has already been written, and quite possibly it was staring you in the face. Writers have for years been wrestling with the challenges the world now faces, but clarion calls from the past by visionary playwrights are only now being listened to. Extinction, extreme weather, resource shortages, failing political leadership, truth, denial – these things already exist in the playwriting culture. We just need a sharp new ear to tune into their resonances. In addition, new plays are being written every day dealing head-on with these topics.

We – artists, thinkers, creators – have a responsibility to communicate the truth of this emergency. The future we currently face is as uncertain as it is daunting. The world is shape-shifting and our culture must too.

‘The future we currently face is as uncertain as it is daunting’: there were mixed responses from activists to the COP26 summit that took place in Glasgow in Oct-Nov 2021.

The Anthropocene is the name given to the geological age we are in now. Named after the Greek ‘anthropos’, meaning ‘man’, it was chosen to emphasise the truth that humankind has now left a geological footprint on this planet: radioactive isotopes are found in glacial ice; the high levels of CO2 in the atmosphere are detectable in tree rings and limestone; our plastic waste is forming a new sedimentary layer. But still large swathes of the population opt out of believing in these facts. Why? We have to consider that the stories we tell, the way in which we tell them, and on which stages they are told, might be part of the problem. We urge theatre-makers and programmers to become part of the Theatre of the Anthropocene, telling stories that anticipate our future, acknowledge our past and make our present liveable.

Climate-change plays don’t need to be either scientist plays, dystopias, or have a polar bear in them. Some of the works we can now view in this light were written long before such a thing as a climate crisis was known about. Plays by Aristophanes, Chekhov, Brecht and others now seem eerily prescient when read through environmental eyes, both predicting and speaking directly to this moment. Some were written more recently but without an explicitly stated intention that the play addresses environmental issues. Relationships to nature, geopolitical issues, social consequences of environmental impacts; all of these help tell the story of the most pressing issue facing us today. Their relevance is a useful reminder that staging environmental stories is not just the responsibility of playwrights. Theatre-makers of every discipline – casting, design, acting, directing, stage management – must reimagine and reinterpret these plays through the prism of the present. The climate crisis is not one problem. Turning down the global thermostat won’t solve habitat destruction or reconnect people to the natural world.

Fighting the climate crisis is a global endeavour. There are voices and places under-represented – and we urge translators and commissioners to enable more work from the Global South to be heard.  We need to acknowledge that the nature of our international theatre reveals our collective thinking, and that maybe our collective thinking is sleepily behind the curve. The world is reshaping itself violently in the physical realm and that is impacting on the reshaping of stories we need to tell, not just for now but for generations to come. This climate emergency will, in many ways, be the subject of all of our art for the foreseeable future, just as it ought to be the dominant discourse in our political, economic and social spheres.

Writers won’t just write plays about these issues for a short while, after a fashion, believing the crisis will then be over. This is our new reality. The shifts we make societally in the next decade will be with us forever, otherwise the undeniable truth is that the concept of forever will itself no longer exist.

The impact of the climate emergency is also altering the way that plays are written and for whom they are written. The movement of peoples has an impact on our stories, and the rise in the pitch of the voices that need to be heard has an impact on our listening.

We can no longer navel-gaze and clink our gins. We need to capture a reality that we have never experienced before. We need to unleash the power of a total theatre, an era of playwriting that embraces epic stories, and values playwrights’ intelligent, focused urgency and understanding. We need to exercise and stretch our thinking, widen our eyes, strengthen our neck muscles for the sustained looking up we now need to do. Theatre must imagine the future, and help us reach towards the bold, humane, quick thinking we are going to need.

Elizabeth Freestone (left) and Jeanie O’Hare (right), authors of 100 Plays to Save the World


This is an edited extract from 100 Plays to Save the World by Elizabeth Freestone and Jeanie O’Hare, out now, published by Nick Hern Books.

To buy your copy for just £11.99 plus p&p (rrp £14.99), visit the Nick Hern Books website now.

Elizabeth Freestone is a theatre director, creative consultant and environmentalist. She has directed plays for the Royal Shakespeare Company, Manchester Royal Exchange, the Citizens Theatre Glasgow, the Young Vic and Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory, amongst others. She is a former Artistic Director of Pentabus, a new work touring company. She offers strategic advice and creative and environmental consultancy in both a paid and volunteer capacity for various organisations, as well as teaching and mentoring young artists. She has a Masters degree in Environmental Humanities from Bath Spa University.

Jeanie O’Hare is a short-story writer, playwright and project consultant for theatre and film. She originally trained as a sculptor. She has worked for the Royal Court Theatre, the Royal Shakespeare Company, Druid Theatre, and was Chair of Playwriting at Yale School of Drama. Most recently she was the Director of New Work Development at the Public Theater in New York.

Great new American drama to celebrate

As part of our celebration of American drama this month, we’re taking a look at five new titles from our US partners, Theatre Communications Group, all of which are now available direct from Nick Hern Books.

They include a Pulitzer Prize-winning musical, a dark new comedy from the revered author of August: Osage County, a life of Gloria Steinem, a gloriously personal take on the US Constitution, and a collection of plays by one of American theatre’s greatest innovators…


A Strange Loop by Michael R. Jackson

Strange Loop

Winner of the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, Michael R. Jackson‘s blistering musical follows a young artist at war with a host of demons – not least of which are the punishing thoughts in his own head – in an attempt to understand his own strange loop.

Usher is a Black, queer writer, working a day job he hates while writing his original musical: a piece about a Black, queer writer, working a day job he hates while writing his original musical.

‘An exhilarating cocktail of hilarious lyrical complexity… Michael R. Jackson is a musical talent with deep wells of invention’ Time Out New York

SEE MORE AND GET YOUR COPY HERE


Linda Vista by Tracy Letts

Linda Vista

From the Pulitzer-winning author of Killer Joe and August: Osage County, Linda Vista is a scorching new play about the ultimate midlife crisis.

Fifty-year-old Wheeler is moving into his own apartment after a nasty divorce. There’s nothing so bewildering as the search for self-identity once you’ve already grown up.

‘An inspired, ruthless take on the classic midlife-crisis comedy’ Ben Brantley, New York Times

SEE MORE AND GET YOUR COPY HERE


Gloria: A Life by Emily Mann

Five decades after Gloria Steinem began raising her voice for equality and championing the voices of others, she remains a leader of the American feminist movement.

Emily Mann‘s play traces the life of the American feminist icon, from her undercover Playboy Bunny exposé in the 1960s, through her founding of Ms. Magazine in the 1970s, to her activism in today’s women’s movement.

‘A unique, deeply moving performance created in the hopeful, conversational spirit of its extraordinary subject’ New York Magazine’s Vulture

SEE MORE AND GET YOUR COPY HERE


What the Constitution Means to Me by Heidi Schreck

A finalist for the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, Heidi Schreck‘s very personal play looks at the way the US Constitution is inextricably linked with personal life.

When she was fifteen years old, Schreck started travelling the country, taking part in constitutional debates to earn money for her college tuition. Decades later, in What the Constitution Means to Me, she traces the effect that the Constitution has had on four generations of women in her family.

‘A wildfire! Something every citizen must see. Heidi Schreck’s play has tears on its cheeks and the torch of liberty in its fist’ Time Out New York

SEE MORE AND GET YOUR COPY HERE


He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box and other plays by Adrienne Kennedy

In her first new work in over a decade, He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box, Adrienne Kennedy traces the story of an interracial love affair in the 1940s, doomed by the devastating effects of segregation.

Also included in the volume are the plays Etta and Ella on the Upper West Side and Mom, How Did You Meet the Beatles?

‘One of the American theater’s greatest and least compromising experimentalists’ New York Times

SEE MORE AND GET YOUR COPY HERE


We’re proud to distribute these and dozens of other titles by our American partners, Theatre Communications Group. See our full range of TCG publications here.

All the way from America – great new drama to discover and enjoy

For over thirty years, we’ve been proud to partner with Theatre Communications Group, North America’s largest independent trade publisher of dramatic literature, to distribute their books throughout the UK and Europe.

To celebrate the arrival of another batch of fantastic American drama – all now available to order – we’re taking this opportunity to introduce you to the plays and the wonderful writers behind them.


Evening Plays by Richard Maxwell

Three new dramas written by award-winning playwright Richard Maxwell – described by the New York Times as ‘perhaps the greatest American experimental theater auteur of his generation’ – as a response to Dante’s Divine Comedy.

The Evening centers around three archetypal barflies who together form an elegy of universal loss. The loss of a loved one seeps poignantly into his illustration of the stark reality and emotional tumult of coping with death.

Samara is a mythic tale of redemption that follows a messenger through a bleak frontier in his quest to collect a debt, though the human cost of the journey may be more than he bargained for.

And Paradiso, which takes place in the not-too distant future, describes three great loves: family, country and God.

SEE MORE AND GET YOUR COPY HERE


Exquisite Agony by Nilo Cruz

First seen at Repertorio Español in New York, this acclaimed drama by Pulitzer Prize-winning dramatist Nilo Cruz is a play about the heart—its passions, its failures, and its ability to connect.

After Millie’s husband, Lorenzo, dies in a car crash, his heart is used to save a young man’s life. Unable to let go of this final living piece of her husband, Millie reaches out to the transplant recipient, Amér, with the hope that some part of the heart still carries Lorenzo’s memories.

As Amér ponders the ways in which this new heart is transforming him, he becomes entangled in the lives of Millie and her family, trapped by longings and obsessions that are not his own.

We love this review from the New Yorker, which really sums up the play: ‘Cruz’s feminist view is one of the liberating aspects of his writing, as is a kind of magical realism that is not cloying but true to his characters, and to the fact of dispossession: sometimes we don’t know who we are because we don’t know where life has landed on our bodies, let alone in our hearts.’

SEE MORE AND GET YOUR COPY HERE


Illyria by Richard Nelson

It is 1958. In the midst of a building boom in New York City, Joe Papp and his colleagues are facing pressure from the city’s elite as they continue their free Shakespeare in Central Park.

From Richard Nelson, the Tony and Olivier Award-winning playwright and creator of the most celebrated family plays of the last decade, comes a drama about a different kind of family—one held together by the belief that the theatre, and the city, belong to all New Yorkers. It premiered at the Public Theater, New York.

SEE MORE AND GET YOUR COPY HERE


The Kilroys List: Volume Two – 67 Monologues and Scenes by Women and Nonbinary Playwrights

The Kilroys are a gang of playwrights and producers who came together in Los Angeles in 2013 to stop talking about gender parity in theatre and start taking action. In 2014, they released their first annual List: a vetted collection of plays written by women, trans, and nonbinary writers, nominated by hundreds of professional artistic directors, literary managers, professors, directors, and dramaturgs.

This collection includes a monologue or scene from each play from the 2016 and 2017 editions of The List.

‘When I look at the list of women and nonbinary writers included in this volume, many of whom I have mentored or taught, it is a beautiful reminder that we are a community to be reckoned with, and that there is an abundance of vital narratives awaiting a larger audience. While there remains a great deal of work to be done to reach racial and gender equity in the theater, the powerful and provocative writing presented here is part of the inciting incident that will no doubt shake up the status quo.’ Lynn Nottage, from her Foreword

SEE MORE AND GET YOUR COPY HERE


The Language Archive and Other Plays by Julia Cho

A new collection of plays by one of the most versatile dramatists in contemporary American theatre.

In The Language Archive, a documenter of dying languages of far-flung cultures finds himself unable to recognise and respond to the words and feelings of those closest to him. (‘Very stimulating and haunting’ – Chicago Tribune)

Durango is a ‘finely wrought drama’ (Los Angeles Times) about families and the secrets that lie just beneath the surface. When two seemingly perfect young men embark on a road trip with their widowed father, it doesn’t take long for the carefully constructed facades of all three to crack, and old wounds to re-open.

In the poignant and lyrical Aubergine, snapshots of different lives and characters show how the making of a perfect meal can be an expression more precise than language, and the medium through which life gradually reveals itself.  (‘A moving meditation on love, loss, and the emotional power of food’ – Hollywood Reporter)

The Piano Teacher is ‘a cozy, effective little chiller’ (New York Times) about an elderly widow in a small suburban town who finds herself compelled to call one of her old piano students – but is it out of loneliness or some other, darker need?

Finally, Office Hour is an ‘undeniably topical’ (Los Angeles Times) play about our public and private selves, and what we choose to project to the world. Teacher Gina instructs her eighteen-year-old problem student, Dennis, to attend her office hours – but soon discovers that her impression of him may be very wrong indeed.

SEE MORE AND GET YOUR COPY HERE


Slave Play by Jeremy O. Harris

This acclaimed, much-talked-about drama – described by the Chicago Tribune as ‘the most radical Broadway play in years’ – rips apart history to shed new light on the nexus of race, gender, and sexuality in twenty-first-century America.

The Old South lives on at the MacGregor Plantation – in the breeze, in the cotton fields… and in the crack of the whip.

Nothing is as it seems, and yet everything is as it seems.

Slave Play was premiered by New York Theatre Workshop, before transferring to Broadway. It was nominated for Best Play in the 2019 Lucille Lortel Awards.

SEE MORE AND GET YOUR COPY HERE


The Sound Inside by Adam Rapp

Brimming with suspense, this riveting play by novelist, filmmaker and OBIE Award-winning writer and director Adam Rapp (‘the closest thing that the American theater currently has to a David Foster Wallace’ – Chicago Tribune) explores the limits of what one person can ask of another.

When Bella Baird, an isolated creative writing professor at Yale, begins to mentor a brilliant but enigmatic student, Christopher, the two form an unexpectedly intense bond. As their lives and the stories they tell about themselves become intertwined in unpredictable ways, Bella makes a surprising request of Christopher.

An ‘astonishing play’ (New York Times) that ‘will take your breath away’ (Variety), The Sound Inside was first seen at Williamstown Theater Festival,  Williamstown, Massachusetts, before transferring to Broadway.

SEE MORE AND GET YOUR COPY HERE


Straight White Men / Untitled Feminist Show: Two Plays by Young Jean Lee

Two plays by award-winning dramatist Young Jean Lee, the first female Asian-American playwright to be produced on Broadway.

In Straight White Men, it’s Christmas Eve, and Ed has gathered his three adult sons to celebrate with matching pajamas, trash-talking, and Chinese takeout. But when a question they can’t answer interrupts their holiday cheer, they are forced to confront their own identities.

In Untitled Feminist Show, six charismatic stars of the downtown theatre, dance, cabaret, and burlesque worlds come together to invite the audience on an exhilaratingly irreverent, nearly-wordless celebration of a fluid and limitless sense of identity.

‘Young Jean Lee is, hands down, the most adventurous downtown playwright of her generation’ New York Times

SEE MORE AND GET YOUR COPY HERE


Three Sisters by Anton Chekhov, translated from the Russian by Richard Nelson, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky

After their father’s death, Olga, Masha, and Irina find life in their small Russian town stifling and hopeless. They long to return to Moscow, the bustling metropolis they left eleven years ago, but their brother Andrei’s gambling habits have trapped them in their small provincial lives.

As the seventh play in Theatre Communication Group’s Classic Russian Drama Series, playwright Richard Nelson and translators of Russian literature Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky continue their collaboration with a masterful new translation of Chekhov’s exploration of yearning and disillusionment.

‘Pevear and Volokhonsky are at once scrupulous translators and vivid stylists of English.’ – James Wood, New Yorker


We’re proud to distribute these and dozens of other titles by our American partners, Theatre Communications Group. See our full range of TCG publications here.

‘The show we needed to make’ – The Wardrobe Ensemble on The Last of the Pelican Daughters

Formed in a rehearsal room at the Bristol Old Vic in 2011, The Wardrobe Ensemble are, in their own words, ‘a group of theatre artists working together to make new plays that dissect the twenty-first century experience’. In the near-decade since their founding, they’ve earned success and critical acclaim – performing around the UK, winning awards and staging one of their plays in London’s West End. 

Their latest show, The Last of the Pelican Daughters, premiered at Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2019, and was due to embark on a UK-wide tour before it was sadly shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Here, in an extract from the introduction to the published playscript shared to mark the play’s publication, the play’s co-directors Tom Brennan and Jesse Jones reflect on its development, what that showed them about the evolution of the company, and how the current crisis in UK theatre has made them reflect on their own choices.

When we met with Judith Dimant of Complicité (and now Wayward Productions) in 2016, she said that we reminded her of a young Complicité (which is always exactly what an emerging theatre company wants to hear). As much as this was to do with theatrical style, it was perhaps more to do with the non-hierarchical form of our company, and the intensity of the relationships between company members. We’re a tight-knit group with our own traditions, secrets and mythologies, crafted over the decade we’ve spent working together. In that meeting, she asked us if there was a show that we wanted to make, but were too terrified and felt too inexperienced to do so.

We’d been speaking about making The Wardrobe Ensemble’s version of a ‘family drama’ for some years. As much as we loved watching stories about families, from Greek tragedy to The Simpsons, it felt like so much of what we associated with ‘family drama’ was formally stuck within a kind of naturalism that didn’t reflect our tastes or theatrical sensibilities. On top of this, the most famous works of family drama explored the particular quirks and traumas of a singular playwright. Tennessee Williams’ ‘memory’ play The Glass Menagerie, for example, reads like a therapy session for the writer. Would it be possible for a group rather than a single writer, or more importantly our group, with our particular quirks and differences of experience to embark on such a therapy/creation experience? How would we excavate and interrogate our collective familial demons? Is there anything to be revealed about our time and generation? Importantly in those early conversations, we were sure that our show would look nothing like a family drama that you’ve seen before. It would mess with the conventions of the genre and reflect our own world-view and style. Judith liked this idea the best.

Somewhat ironically, but perhaps tellingly, what emerged is the most naturalistic play that we’ve ever made, one that adheres to many narrative and stylistic conventions of ‘traditional’ or ‘straight’ plays of the past. It’s got plenty more silence, subtext and emotional performance than any of our other work. Similarly, the themes and characters look and sound like plays of the past: it begins with a death, it’s about a house, someone is having a baby. There’s more than a hint of The Cherry Orchard’s Varya in Storm, or the ghost of King Hamlet in Rosemary Pelican. And it’s important to say that all of this convention felt terrifying for us. Making a ‘proper’ play felt extremely difficult. Naturalism felt unnatural.

So much of devising lies in an ability to give up certain aspects of control and let a show emerge. The work that comes out of us collectively is not driven by a singular voice, but emerges through the collective character of the company. And so, it’s weird that we made this. This isn’t the show that any one of us wanted to make. But despite our best efforts, it’s the show that the company needed to make.

‘Our work emerges through the collective character of the company’ – The Wardrobe Ensemble’s award-winning show Education Education Education (photo by Graeme Braidwood)

We understood that to deconstruct a family drama we needed to make one. But by the time we built one that functioned – designed the family, found their stories and struggles, built the pink house, etc. – deconstructing them all felt like a disingenuous act. Though we often felt embarrassed by their behaviour and the interpersonal issues that were emerging in the play, we did care about the Pelicans. We had to, because to varying degrees, their stories are our stories. And that isn’t to say that we have undying love and affection for these characters. Ask any member of the company about how much irony is in the play, and it will differ. Some will say ‘This is my family’, some will say ‘I fucking hate these privileged arseholes’, and some will acknowledge what is maybe closest to the truth: ‘This is a version of The Wardrobe Ensemble.’

We tried to make the show flashier, cooler and more energetic. We tried to make the characters address their political context more directly, as we might have done in previous work. But these attempts felt dishonest. Perhaps because we were all in a process of grappling with an ugly truth, that we were starting to care about so-called ‘grown-up things’. Our work used to explore the world in hypothetical or nostalgic terms, but what do we actually worry about now? What keeps us up at night are often the same questions that are affecting the Pelican children: What do I want my life to look like? What do I need to get there? How long can I exist in this chaotic ensemble? Do I always have to share? What kind of an adult do I want to be?

In March this year (2020), we remounted this show in Northampton ready for our UK tour. After a few rewrites and additions, and a partial re-cast (the wonderful Sally Cheng, Laurie Jamieson and Bea Scirocchi joined the team), the show was ready to hit the road. We were struck by how much more comfortable we had become with The Last of the Pelican Daughters. We were able to lean into the naturalism, pace and emotion of it with far more confidence. It seemed we had finally accepted the strange thing we had collectively given birth to. Had we become what we sought to reject? Had we actually become adults? And then, of course, COVID-19. We were at the Nuffield in Southampton (NST) when it was announced the government strongly advised the public not to go to theatres any more. The tour was cancelled and all the professional stability that we had tried so hard to build over the past ten years had disappeared overnight. We dismantled the set and packed it away. NST has since gone into administration. And so, as we write this (in early July), we find ourselves reflecting on the show in vastly different ways.

Preparations for The Last of the Pelican Daughters at Nuffield Southampton Theatres, before the production was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic (photo by Tom Crosley-Thorne)

If this play is our first reckoning with the proper realities of being grown-ups, there are two diametrically opposing messages that the show seems to reflect back at us.

Firstly, that our mission of collective theatre-making and non-hierarchical structures was naive and hypocritical. Instead, we should have cared about real ‘adult things’. The Pelican children lose their house and their inheritance at the end of the play, because at some level, they just weren’t paying attention. From one perspective, we as a company have buried our heads in the sand for the last ten years. We’ve been making financially unsustainable choices since day one. So perhaps it’s time to kill the dream and start making responsible choices. Maybe the Tories are right. Maybe we should wake up to the reality that we live in a capitalist society before we lose everything we hold dear.

But secondly, that dramatic changes to our reality can come out of nowhere, whether you’ve behaved like an ‘adult’ or not. Susie Stephens of Stephen Stephens and Sons Solicitors will always interrupt breakfast. And so, now more than ever, it feels vital that we hold onto the families that we find ourselves in. The idealism of Rosemary Pelican and indeed The Wardrobe Ensemble is unrealistic, but at the moment we’re not sure what isn’t. As the coronavirus leaves our world’s safety, economy and future on shaky ground, we need communities, rituals, traditions, secrets and mythologies to hold onto more than ever. And if we really are the grown-ups now, it’s our responsibility to define the culture of the families in which we exist. It’s up to us to choose what to bring forward into the future and what to abandon. It’s our responsibility to start building a house in which we actually want to live.


The members of The Wardrobe Ensemble meeting on Zoom during lockdown (photo by Tom Brennan)

We’re very proud to publish The Last of the Pelican Daughters, which is out now in paperback and ebook. In addition to the full script of the play, the published edition includes an extensive oral history of The Wardrobe Ensemble by its members, and a workshop plan for two people of different generations to communicate and collaborate in person or online.

As one the dozens of NHB-published shows affected by the COVID-19 shutdown, we’re currently offering 30% off The Last of the Pelican Daughters in our Still on the Page celebration – see more here.

Check out more of The Wardrobe Ensemble’s NHB-published work here.

Nicholas Wright on writing his plays

Today, 27 June 2020, marks the 80th birthday of playwright Nicholas Wright. Born in South Africa in 1940, over the course of his long and illustrious career he has established himself as one of the UK’s most-respected dramatists. His plays have been staged at leading venues including at the National Theatre, Royal Shakespeare Company, Royal & Derngate in Northampton, Almeida Theatre, Chichester Festival Theatre and in London’s West End, as well as internationally. He has also won numerous awards, including the Olivier Award for Best New Play for Vincent in Brixton in 2003.

Here, to mark the occasion, Nicholas reflects on five of his many notable plays, how many of them draw on his own life and experiences, and pays tribute to the many people who’ve helped make his remarkable career possible.


Mrs Klein

Zoe Waites, Nicola Walker and Clare Higgins in the 2009 revival of Mrs Klein at the Almeida Theatre, London (photo by Tristram Kenton)

I first heard of the psychoanalyst Melanie Klein when I was very young. A friend at drama school invited me around to her house one Sunday: she was Harriet, the daughter of George Devine, the director of the Royal Court Theatre. Her father was living elsewhere and the house – a romantic old place on the bank of the Thames – now revolved around his wife Sophie, a much-respected stage designer who had made it a regular Sunday home for impecunious young people. I went there often. It was my first encounter with English middle-class, semi-bohemian life, and a great education for a young and raw South African.

The presence of the Royal Court was felt throughout the house. Its star director, Tony Richardson, lived on the top floor in a flat containing an aviary peopled by exotic birds including a real toucan. Richardson’s partner was a social worker named George Goetschius: a big bear-like, bearded American, twinkly-eyed, who was said to have formed the Royal Court policy of being ‘a writers’ theatre’. Like all real intellectuals, he had the gift of making everything he talked about sound interesting. He spoke about religion, ethics, social change, always with a dry American wit and, in his hands, psychoanalysis became a labyrinth of infinite fascination. Surprisingly, while working in New York, he had met and got to know Melanie Klein’s estranged daughter, Melitta Schmideberg.

It’s Goetschius’s angle on analysis that I drew on when, many years later, I wrote Mrs Klein. I read Klein’s books and papers and found her thinking difficult but rewarding. It’s more dynamic than the conventional analytic notion of emotions being displaced from one place to another, like water being poured in and out of buckets. With Klein, the relations between us are in a state of flux, transformed this way and that by our perceptions, with the mother always centre-stage in the psychic drama.


Cressida

The cover to the playscript of Cressida, published by Nick Hern Books alongside its premiere at the Albery Theatre (now Noël Coward Theatre), London, in 2000, starring Michael Gambon

Cressida is based on my life as a child actor. During the war, while my father was away, I was taught to read by my grandmother and became precociously fluent, so when the local broadcasting company needed a little boy who could sight-read, I was a shoo-in. I made my radio debut at the age of six, after which I was on the air most weeks. At twelve, I gave what I’m told was a chilling performance as the corrupted schoolboy in a stage adaptation of The Turn of the Screw, and by then I knew all there is to know about the joys and pains of pre-pubescent acting, not to mention the cut-throat rivalry that rages between one child-actor and another.

My acting career dwindled away as I got older. Child actors aren’t really acting anyway: they’re simply trying to win approval and, once you reach adolescence, that doesn’t work for you or anyone else. There’s something melancholy about the ephemeral nature of childhood talent and one could say the same thing about theatre in general. Nothing about it lasts, except in memory.

While I was writing Cressida I did a lot of what people call research, though I don’t think of it like that. It’s more like rummaging around until I feel comfortable in the world of the play. That’s how I learned about John Shank’s dodgy practices and Stephen Hammerton’s rise to stardom. I became fascinated by the phenomenon of gender-crossing acting by boys and I wondered what the attraction of it was. Was it their brilliance at impersonating women? Or was something weirder going on: was the cross-dressing in itself an attraction? I also wondered what would happen if a girlish boy, such as I was at that age, were to play women’s roles. Would he be better or worse at the job? That’s one of the things that Cressida is about.


Vincent in Brixton

Peter McGovern and Janine Birkett in the 2013 revival of Vincent in Brixton at Theatre by the Lake, Keswick (photo by Keith Pattison)

When I was writing Vincent in Brixton, I had in my mind the painterly contrast between the foggy streets of Victorian London and the incandescent blaze of colour that we associate with van Gogh. I thought back to my Sunday afternoons in the house of Sophie Devine: her artist’s appreciation of homely things, not least the large and weathered kitchen table that she used to scrub with Vim and that I placed, unchanged, at the heart of the action.

Van Gogh turned out to be the most remarkable man I’d ever studied. I read his marvellous letters to his brother. I discovered his omnivorous reading – all Shakespeare, all Dickens, all George Eliot and Mrs Gaskell – his soaring ambition and his reckless commitment to his art. I learned how the radicalism of nineteenth-century London illuminated his thinking and his work, and I discovered the manic depression that would torment him throughout his life.


The Reporter

The cover to the playscript of The Reporter, published by Nick Hern Books alongside its premiere at the National Theatre, London, in 2007

Depression is a theme in all five of these plays. The Reporter is the story of a man who ended his life because of it. The insidious thing about this illness is that it disguises itself as a perfectly sane appraisal of an unbearable world, rather than the distorted view that it really is. Thus, while Mossman, as I’ve written him, knows that something is badly wrong, he doesn’t know what it is and we, the audience, discover the truth only obliquely.

The play is set in and around the BBC of the 1960s, where I worked as a floor assistant, i.e. glorified callboy. I was present in the early scene of the play where the irascible interviewer Robin Day takes over at short notice from the ailing Richard Dimbleby. I knew Mossman very slightly from his august and elegant backstage presence in discussion programmes. Louis I knew better: I’d met him when I was twenty-one, when his brilliant mind and his charisma bowled me over.


8 Hotels

Tory Kittles and Emma Paetz in the premiere production of 8 Hotels at Chichester Festival Theatre in 2019 (photo by Manuel Harlan)

Finally, 8 Hotels. When Mrs Klein was produced in New York, the title role was played by the great American actress Uta Hagen. Once it had finished its off-Broadway run, the production set off on a national tour and it was at the opening date, San Francisco, that I had the idea for the play.

Uta, the director William Carden and I were having dinner after the show in a once-grand but somewhat down-at-heel hotel. It was Uta who had chosen the place, and I wondered why. Then I noticed her mood of elation. ‘Oh, I am so happy!’ she rasped, and I understood. During World War II, she and her lover – the singer and activist Paul Robeson – had toured the country in Othello, with her husband José Ferrer as Iago. One of their dates was San Francisco, and this hotel was surely where all three of them had stayed. Had Robeson been allowed through the front door, I wondered? Or, like other people of colour, was he sent round to the goods entrance?

Both he and Uta were larger-than-life figures, hugely talented and politically aware. The difference is that, for Robeson, acting and singing were necessary tools in his political work: they gave him profile, they got him heard, they enabled him to get his message across to the world. His art was useful but subordinate. For Uta, it was the whole purpose of her life. 8 Hotels is about these two contrasting paths, with rewards and penalties lying in wait whichever one chooses.


‘I’ve been luckier than I deserve’

Nicholas Wright (r) with regular collaborator Richard Eyre (l) (photo by Bruce Glikas)

A few sources: I couldn’t have written Mrs Klein without the help of Phyllis Grosskurth’s classic biography. Martin Bailey’s book Van Gogh in England was indispensable, Stephen Orgel’s Impersonations opened my eyes to the ambiguities of Jacobean theatrical cross-dressing, and I’m grateful to Professor Martin Dubermann for access to his unpublished interviews with Uta Hagen.

Anyone who has a play produced knows how much is owed to everyone else who touches it. These five plays were directed by three superb directors (Richard Eyre, Peter Gill and Nicholas Hytner) and I’m grateful to them all, as I am to the actors and designers I’ve been lucky enough to work with. Looking back over a long-ish life, I feel that I’ve been luckier than I deserve.


Nick Hern Books is proud to publish Nicholas Wright’s plays – you can browse his work, available to purchase at a 20% discount, here.

Author photo by Dan Wooller.

VAULT 2020: the best new work at London’s VAULT festival

VAULT Festival, London’s biggest arts and entertainment festival, is now underway in Waterloo, where it runs until 22 March. With hundreds of events taking place throughout the eight weeks of the festival, including theatre, comedy, cabaret, immersive experiences, family shows, late-night parties, pop-up events and more, there’s something for everyone. And to celebrate the publication of Plays from VAULT 5, an exciting collection of five 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…

Tatty Hennessy on her play Something Awful, 28 Jan–2 Feb:

In 2014 in a small town in Wisconsin, three teenage girls went on a walk in the woods. Only two of them were meant to come back. Those two had lured their friend to the forest with the intention of murder – a sacrifice to appease the Slenderman, a fictional online horror story these girls had come to believe with a powerful and devastating conviction. The girl survived her ordeal. The story of her attack went viral. Sony made a blockbuster movie about the Slenderman. It tanked.

I was enthralled and disturbed by this story, of a viral online horror meme – the sort I remembered vividly from my own teenage years – seeming to reach out beyond the screen and become real, really real, firstly in those girls’ minds and then in their actions. It seemed to me a story of the peculiar intensity of female teenage friendship and enmity, of the increasingly fine line between stories and facts, of how our online worlds change our offline selves. And of women and violence – as consumers and perpetrators. Why are so many women drawn to stories of the worst things that can happen to us? How do young women adapt and cope in a world that is legitimately threatening?

I didn’t really know what to do with those questions, or with the unease they gave me, so I wrote a play about them.  Something Awful is not a story about those sad, shocking events in Wisconsin six years ago. It’s a complete fiction, but one that owes something to facts.

It also felt like an opportunity to do something we rarely do on stage, and about which I’m passionate: to take the lives of teenage girls as serious subjects for artistic examination. And I hope it’s also funny, because I don’t think I’ve ever met a teenage girl who wasn’t funny. Hopefully it will scare you, and make you think again about what we should be scared of.


Charlotte Chimuanya on her play Second Home, 26–28 Feb:

Second Home is about a crisis of identity, even in a place of solace. It’s the story of a mixed-race girl at age ten, fifteen and twenty, spending her summers in Ireland.

The plot is based on my own experiences growing up; I’m half Nigerian and half Irish. This isn’t a complete biography, but I have given away some of my most embarrassing stories of unrequited love. 

We follow the protagonist, Naomi, through her formative years. Dealing with the usual: boys, insecurities and underage drinking. However she has a dark cloud hanging over her, which we watch her tackle as it expands.

It is extremely important to me that I produce work that highlights black women and lifts them up, because we live in a society that treats black women with the least integrity.

I’m delighted to have my debut play showcased at VAULT this year. It’s a hub of fresh and unique talent, so I’m in great company and there’s always a sparkle in the air.


Rosa Hesmondhalgh on her play Madame Ovary, 18–23 Feb:

Madame Ovary is a one-person monologue following a 23 year old as she attempts to reboot her life at the start of the new year. She makes resolutions about taking care of her body, finding love and creating art that will dent the world. But before January’s even over, she’s diagnosed with ovarian cancer, and her three resolutions take on a bit of a different meaning.

This play is about my own experience with ovarian cancer. I had to give up acting during chemotherapy, which had been my one and only THING for so long. I’d always privately written, but to give my brain something to do from my sick bed I decided to write a blog – called Madame Ovary – about what was happening to me, with the hope to raise some awareness about cancer in young adults (34 are diagnosed every day). Once I got the all clear (and finished celebrating), I wanted to turn that blog into a show. Which was dead hard. I met Adam Small, AD of Wildchild Productions, who agreed to direct and produce it, and helped me get it to Edinburgh. He was the human version of a cup of tea – he calmed me down but lifted me up, and helped make Madame Ovary what it is now.

I’m so excited to be at VAULT 2020. My first time at VAULT was seeing my best friend Rebecca Tebbett in James Huntrods’ incredible play about climate change activism, Cause, in 2018. I’d just finished my second round of chemo and was shedding my hair, full of mouth ulcers and not really allowed to leave the house – but getting to see my best pal in such a brilliant play as part of such a fantastic festival was a really nice reminder that theatre was still there, and I hadn’t left that bit behind despite being ill. Being part of it, two years later, amongst artists I admire so much, feels really special.


Zoë Templeman-Young and Sam McLaughlin from Écoute Theatre, on their play Take Care, 10–15 Mar:

SAM: Take Care is inspired by – and comes straight from the mouths of – the many unheard voices of carers for older people. It’s an explosive piece of documentary theatre, and also pretty funny. In a dark way.

ZOE: Yeah, we try and make people feel like it’s okay to laugh, from the beginning. When you’re a carer, your sense of humour becomes pretty sharp.

SAM: In terms of the plot, the play follows Pam as she campaigns to move her mother to a care home that’s closer to her. Along the way, the audience meets many other characters involved in the care system in some way.

ZOE: There might be some familiar voices in there too, some politicians who weren’t as famous a few years ago as they are now…

SAM: Zoë and I have both worked as carers for members of our family – and we saw that there were a whole range of issues not being addressed for carers. We also didn’t fancy doing a 10, 000 word dissertation at University and so we began creating Take Care and interviewing carers. Six years ago now! When we heard we’d be performing it at VAULT 2020, we were over the moon. I think Ross Kemp captured the feeling pretty well when he said: ‘You will never know what that means to me. That is everything. EVERY. THING.’ To sum up – we were delighted. Not least because, through VAULT Festival, we have the opportunity to reach so many more people with these amazing real-life stories of carers.

ZOE: It’s also incredible to be able to contact the carers we interviewed over the years and tell them that not only will their stories be performed at such a prestigious and exciting festival, they’ll also now be appearing in print, in the Nick Hern Books anthology. That was the cherry on top.


Isabel Dixon on her play Heroes, 18–20 Feb:

Heroes is the story of a secret which blows a family apart. It’s also about our heroes (no surprises there) and what we do when the people we idolise do something we feel we can’t forgive.

It’s set in two time frames: 1991, on a night when David Bowie plays a gig in Brixton, and 2016, on the morning of his death. The two timeframes intertwine throughout the play – sometimes both of them playing out onstage at the same time.

I’m a huge Bowie fan – I grew up with his music, it’s a massive part of the fabric of my life – and his death was the first celebrity death that felt genuinely emotional for me. I’m also fascinated by the fact that a lot of those big rock ‘n’ roll stars who shaped the musical landscape got away with doing things which are shocking and taboo. In particular, I remember feeling really conflicted when, just after Bowie’s death, Lori Maddox stated in interviews that she’d had a sexual relationship with him when she was just fourteen.

Since I wrote the play (in 2016/17) the entire #MeToo movement has happened, and many of these issues have come into focus. Can you separate an artist’s life, and some of the terrible things they did, from the art they’ve created?

But at its heart, Heroes is a family story. Sometimes, our idols are people we’re close to. How do you respond when someone you love does something unforgiveable?

I genuinely can’t wait to be at VAULT. It’s such a special place – it’s unlike any other festival you’ll go to, and the fact that it’s in a railway tunnel makes it feel like you’ve stumbled into Wonderland. It’s also genuinely game-changing for artists and audiences alike. It’s magical.


What to see at VAULT Festival 2020…

With this year’s festival about to open on 28 January, we asked our authors which shows from this year’s programme they were most excited to see. Check out their picks:

Tatty Hennessy: Aside from all the excellent plays included in the Nick Hern Books anthology… I’m a huge fan of Barry McStay. His play Vespertilio at VAULT 2019, about lonely bats and lonely men, was beautiful and funny and heartbreaking; it took a story about science and looked at it from a unique and human angle, and I think he’s going to do it again for Mars and space exploration with The First (11–16 Feb). I’m always excited to see PECS (1 Feb) because anything that manages to be both an insightful full-body take down of the rigidity of societal gender norms and a full-on dance party riot at the same time is a winner in my book. And I can’t wait to see Patricia Gets Ready (For a Date With the Man Who Used to Hit Her) (5–9 Feb) because it has probably the best title of the festival and because Martha Watson Allpress is a really exciting writer and I can’t wait to see more from her.

Charlotte Chimuanya: Some of the shows I’m excited to see are: She Is A Place Called Home (3–8 Mar), a collision of culture and religion, with some traditional Nigerian dancing; Pyneapple (17–19 Mar), which looks spicy – I missed its earlier run at The Bunker Theatre, so I’m glad it’s back; and The Cocoa Butter Club (20 Mar) – with a tagline like ‘Decolonise and Re-moisturise’, how could I resist this voguing cabaret act!

Rosa Hesmondhalgh: I’m so excited to see all the other plays published in the Plays from VAULT 5 anthology, particularly Something Awful (28 Jan2 Feb). Also, First Time (28 Jan2 Feb) by Nathaniel Hall. I can’t wait to see my Ed Fringe faves again, LOVE (Watching Madness) (1416 Feb) by Izzy Kabban/SpeakUp Theatre, and Since U Been Gone (49 Feb) by Teddy Lamb who are both making theatre that makes me so excited. I also have a huge performer’s crush on Katie Arnstein’s work, so very excited to see Sticky Door (1116 Feb).

Zoë Templeman-Young & Sam McLaughlin: We’re really looking forward to seeing Imogené: The Improvised Pop Concert (2628 Feb), which is an amazing clowning/pop concert performance by the incredible Delight Creative. Also we’re definitely going to catch On Arriving (49 Feb) by Ivan Faute, directed by Cat Robey and performed by Sophia Eleni. It’s a one-woman show about a young refugee fighting for survival. To be honest, there’s so much exciting work to see we can’t wait to catch as much as possible.

Isabel Dixon: I’m really excited for all the rest of the plays in the Nick Hern Books anthology, it’s an honour to be in the midst of such a great bunch. I also can’t wait for Catherine Kolubayev’s Bin Juice (1015 Mar) (I saw a short version last year and loved it); LOVE (Watching Madness) (1416 Feb) and Mustard Doesn’t Go With Girls (1422 Mar), which were two of my Edinburgh 2019 highlights; The Thelmas’ new shows, Santi & Naz (28 Jan2 Feb) and Notch (1923 Feb); and all three shows from the brilliant Katie Arnstein: Bicycles and Fish (16 Feb), Sexy Lamp (16 Feb) and Sticky Door (1116 Feb).

Plays from VAULT 5, containing five of the best plays from this year’s festival, is published by Nick Hern Books. To buy your copy for just £11.99 (RRP £14.99), visit our website now.

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

VAULT Festival 2020 runs from 28 January – 22 March at the Vaults, Waterloo, London. Visit the festival website here.

‘Starting sombre, ending wild’: John O’Donovan on a generation afflicted by austerity, in his new play Flights

JOHN O’DONOVAN is a London-based playwright from Co. Clare, Ireland. His new play Flights – which opens in Dublin this week after a short run in his home-town of Ennis, and transfers to the Omnibus Theatre, Clapham, in February – looks at a generation that has been shaped by austerity. Here, he discusses the inspiration for the play, and argues that the common view of a crisis in masculinity overlooks what’s really going on…

Flights is a play that’s very close to my heart. I’ve been writing it on and off for about five years now, using characters that are kind of like grown-up versions of characters I wrote about in my first ever full-length play. It is set very specifically in the here and now (the here being the west of Ireland) while at the same time being about generational memory and the inescapability of histories – both personal and public.

Initially Flights was not much more than a fairly funny short play about someone throwing his own going-away party (that almost no one shows up to); but while I was sketching out that early draft, I got some bad news that a guy from back home had died by suicide.

A few of us living over in England got together once we heard the news – we weren’t going home for the funeral so we went to a pub in London instead, aiming to share stories we had of him, and all the other people we’d known who’ve died prematurely over the years since school, whether through suicide, car accidents, drink or terminal illnesses.

It seemed like a lot – a dozen maybe? – definitely too many. But it also seemed kind of old hat, like we’d been here before. We already knew what to do: gather, tell stories, find out who to contact, ask if they wanted flowers or a donation, then get in touch with whoever we thought might need to be gotten in touch with and make sure again that we were all alright.

Rhys Dunlop and Colin Campbell in rehearsal for Flights by John O’Donovan, 2020 (photo by Ste Murray)

I’ve had a lot of conversations like that over the years. A lot of nights out on the beer in remembrance. Getting rounds in and sharing stories. Starting sombre, ending wild. Making sure to recall the funny stuff as well as the tragic bits. The anger and the pure silliness.

It becomes habitual, ritualistic. Something we remember when the anniversaries roll around. Something to keep in mind whenever we get the unwelcome phone call with the news.

That was the early impulse of Flights – a kind of tribute not just to all the friends who have died, but also to the friends that have gathered in their wake, who look out for each other, look after each other and remember to get in touch when the bad news spreads.

But the more I wrote, the more I realised that the story was not just about personal tragedy, but was also about the economic context in which these tragedies take place. As much as my characters’ lives were stalled by their friend’s death when they were teenagers, they they were equally paralysed in adulthood by the global recession; they made cautious choices, enforced by a lack of opportunities in front of them. And instinctively they learned that their lives were only useful insofar as they were put to work.

This is a punishing and limiting way to live, to be victims of an economy you are obliged to serve. Your creativity, your expression, even your physicality means nothing unless it’s being used to earn and spend money. This ideology produces such a reckless attitude to body and mind, it is no wonder people turn in on themselves, heedless of their safety and capacity, assaulting their physical and mental health while struggling to imagine another way to live.

Conor Madden in rehearsal for Flights by John O’Donovan, 2020 (photo by Ste Murray)

There’s this patronising, anachronistic idea about men, that they don’t know what they’re feeling – that if they just expressed themselves they wouldn’t be so fucked up. But some of the things they feel – rage, weakness, fatigue, apathy – aren’t the kinds of things that people want to hear about. It’s all well and good telling fellas they need to talk, but when there’s no one – trained or otherwise – prepared to listen, many will know it’s easier to keep their mouths shut.

And these feelings are not peculiar: rage, weakness, fatigue and apathy are sensible responses to living under austerity capitalism.

So I don’t think it’s a crisis of masculinity alone; more that there’s a crisis in health services, in housing, in employment and work-life balance – in other words, the same crises that have been devastating Ireland for more than a decade. Young men, like all young people, have been part of a generation disproportionately punished by austerity economics; the idea that their problems would disappear if they weren’t too proud or macho to talk their way out of it is at best naive, and at worst an invidious piece of victim blaming that ignores economic causality and favours individual recrimination over systemic improvement.

To me, Flights is not a play about men not being able to articulate themselves; it’s not filled with brooding, unsaid feelings. Silence is not their problem; if anything they have too many words. It’s not the inability to speak, but the fact that they are speaking to a world that has no interest in listening that’s troubling them. It’s not unsayable truths but unavoidable facts that finally do for them: that not seeing a place for themselves in their country, or in the world, it should come as no surprise that they might want to take themselves out of it.

Flights starts and ends as an act of remembrance: three fellas come together in a world that’s changing around them; old before their time, they’re fading out of their own lives. Consumed with the history of their grief – and bereft of their own potential – they are more adept at remembering the past than they are at seeing clearly what’s happening to them now.

If I could wish anything for them, it is that they never forgive the economics that has left them behind, stewing, with their best days far behind them, lying stalled and stagnating, finished before they ever got started.


The above is an edited version of the author’s note in the playscript of Flights, published by Nick Hern Books in an edition that also includes John O’Donovan’s 2019 play, Sink.

Flights & Sink: Two Plays is out now. To buy your copy for just £8.79 (RRP £10.99) plus postage and packing, visit the Nick Hern Books website now.

Flights was premiered by One Duck Theatre at glór in Ennis, Co. Clare, 15–17 January 2020, and transfers to the Project Arts Centre, Dublin, 21 January–8 February 2020 and Clapham Omnibus Theatre, London, 11–29 February 2020.