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.

‘A hero, a leader, a true warrior’ – a tribute to Larry Kramer

We’re saddened to hear the news of writer and activist Larry Kramer, who sadly died on 27 May 2020 at the age of 84. Nick Hern Books is proud to publish his passionate, vital play The Normal Heart, set during the early days of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in New York in the 1980s. Here, we celebrate Larry Kramer and his work – read the text of a letter given out to audiences at performances of The Normal Heart, the story of his first play, and a personal tribute from NHB’s Managing Director, Matt Applewhite

A copy of this letter was given to every member of the audience – often by Larry in person – as they left the theatre after the 2011 Broadway revival of The Normal Heart.

A Letter from Larry Kramer

PLEASE KNOW

Thank you for coming to see our play.

Please know that everything in The Normal Heart happened. These were and are real people who lived and spoke and died, and are presented here as best I could. Several more have died since, including Bruce, whose name was Paul Popham, and Tommy, whose name was Rodger McFarlane and who became my best friend, and Emma, whose name was Dr Linda Laubenstein of New York University Medical Center. She died after a return bout of polio and another trip to an iron lung. Rodger, after building three gay/AIDS agencies from the ground up, committed suicide in despair. On his deathbed at Memorial, Paul called me (we’d not spoken since our last fight in this play) and told me to never stop fighting.

(Left-right) Paul Popham, Rodger McFarlane and Linda Laubenstein, who are all depicted in The Normal Heart

Four members of the original cast died as well, including my dear sweet friend Brad Davis, the original Ned, whom I knew from practically the moment he got off the bus from Florida, a shy kid intent on becoming a fine actor, which he did.

Please know that AIDS is a worldwide plague.

Please know that no country in the world, including this one, especially this one, has ever called it a plague, or dealt with it as a plague.

Please know that there is no cure.

Please know that after all this time the amount of money being spent to find a cure is still miniscule, still almost invisible, still impossible to locate in any national health budget, and still totally uncoordinated.

Please know that here in America case numbers continue to rise in every category. In much of the rest of the world, like Russia, India, South-east Asia, and in Africa, the numbers of the infected and the dying are so grotesquely high they are rarely acknowledged.

Please know that all efforts at prevention and education continue their unending record of abject failure.

Please know that there is no one in charge of this plague. This is a war for which there is no general and for which there has never been a general. How can you win a war with no one in charge?

Please know that beginning with Ronald Reagan (who would not say the word ‘AIDS’ publicly for seven years), every single president has said nothing and done nothing, or in the case of the current president, says the right things and then doesn’t do them.

Please know that most medications for HIV/AIDS are inhumanly expensive and that government funding for the poor to obtain them is dwindling and often unavailable.

Please know that pharmaceutical companies are among the most evil and greedy nightmares ever loosed on humankind. What ‘research’ they embark upon is calculated only toward finding newer drugs to keep us, just barely, from dying, but not to make us better or, God forbid, cured.

Please know that an awful lot of people have needlessly died and will continue to needlessly die because of any and all of the above.

Please know that as I write this the world has suffered at the very least some seventy-five million infections and thirty-five million deaths. When the action of the play that you have just seen begins, there were forty-one.

I have never seen such wrongs as this plague, in all its guises, represents, and continues to say about us all.

Larry Kramer, New York, 2011

Joe Mantello as Ned Weeks (left) and John Benjamin Hickey as Felix Turner (right), in the 2011 Broadway revival of The Normal Heart (Photo: Sara Krulwich/The New York Times)


A piece by Larry Kramer from 2013 anthology My First Play: An Anthology of Theatrical Beginnings.

I sat in my short pants at a makeshift card table in our front yard on a lovely afternoon in spring in suburban Maryland and wrote in longhand about baseball players. I hated baseball and I hated my father (who called me a sissy) so I guess I was trying to please him and I ran out of steam after but a few pages. I guess I was eight or nine, maybe ten. The next ‘first’ play was a pageant I wrote for the Cub Scouts about I can’t even imagine what and remember only that it was a hit, particularly with my mother who said some- thing to the tune of, ‘I didn’t know you could write, dear.’ I was however old Cub Scouts are, twelve maybe.

My first real ‘first play’ was something called Sissies’ Scrapbook, which I wrote when I was in my early thirties (after my Women in Love film adaptation), serious stuff, following four Yale roommates through the years. It was done in a workshop at the old and first Playwrights Horizons, where it seemed to go down very well (people actually cried, which is what I wanted, and I fully remember the power of that feeling: I wrote something that made people cry).

However, upon its transfer to off-Broadway under the title of Four Friends, Clive Barnes of The New York Times wrote, ‘With friends like these you don’t need enemies,’ and we closed on opening night. So wounded did I allow myself to be that I didn’t write another play for many many years. I was to learn much later that Barnes not only arrived a half-hour late but was drunk, now a matter of public record. Imagine that: the chief drama critic of The New York Times was a drunk. I wonder how many other playwrights never wrote another play because of this. Now I look back and see how much time I wasted, that the playwright who just won a Tony at age seventy- seven had many more plays within him that he should have written had he not been such a sissy.

My First Play: An Anthology of Theatrical Beginnings, compiled by Nick Hern, 2013


Matt Applewhite, Managing Director of Nick Hern Books, shares a personal tribute to Larry Kramer, whom he recounts meeting in 2011.

The 2011 revival of The Normal Heart did not strike me as a history play (even though it chronicles a dark period some three decades earlier) nor just a masterpiece of dramatic writing (even though it is) – but one of the most vital, important and relevant plays of our time, crystal clear in its insight, its humanity, its righteous anger. A clarion call to action.

Stumbling out of a matinee performance onto West 45th Street, with tears still hot on my cheeks, I called its author, whose work we already published but I’d never yet met. ‘Let’s meet for coffee,’ he rasped, and thirty minutes later I was in Larry’s book-lined apartment at the bottom of Fifth Avenue, overlooking the Washington Square Arch.

For several hours I was entranced by his staggering mind, more engaged and alive than that of a man half his seventy-five years. He hadn’t softened or mellowed over the decades. And why should he? For a true warrior, the fight is never over. A better day is always worth fighting for – and Larry was unfaltering in that aim, through his art, his activism, with uncompromising ferocity, sincerity and courage.

Over the subsequent years he asked me to send him new British plays and books about the theatre. His apartment may not have had space for more books – but his mind did. It was as boundless as the Great Plains. He was a hero, a leader, a champion – not just for LGBTQ+ people, but for anyone who cares about our world. We are lucky to have had him.


Nick Hern Books is proud to publish Larry Kramer’s passionate, polemical drama The Normal Heart.

Author photo courtesy of Sundance International Film Festival.

Putting autism on the stage: Jody O’Neill on her innovative and myth-busting new play

Inspired by her own experiences with autism, actor and writer JODY O’NEILL set out to write a play that would celebrate autistic identity whilst engaging autistic and non-autistic audiences alike. The resulting play, What I (Don’t) Know About Autism, has just finished a sell-out run at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, on the Peacock stage. Here, she explains why she felt it was so necessary to write, and how the production was designed to make it accessible to people with autism…

The genesis of What I (Don’t) Know About Autism came in 2016, along with my son’s autism diagnosis.

We left the private clinic that had diagnosed him with two things:

  1. What we thought was solid advice.
  2. A sense of relief that our child was the same child we’d had before. We just had an answer now for why certain things were a struggle.

My own autism diagnosis followed three years later, in June 2019, and in the time in between these two major life events, What I (Don’t) Know About Autism came into being.

What happened was that the solid advice we thought we’d left the clinic with turned out to be not so solid after all. At first, we followed it blindly, not knowing any better.

  1. “Find an ABA tutor.”
  2. “Start intensive early intervention as quickly as possible.”
  3. “Normalise your child to give him the best possible chance of success.”

We couldn’t find an ABA tutor. I did an ABA course instead. ABA stands for Applied Behavioural Analysis, and it is a system of training based on receiving a reward for exhibiting a desirable behaviour. Think Pavlov’s Dogs. For example, a child with autism makes ‘good’ eye contact, they are given a sweet. It’s problematic for many reasons, and so I had mixed feelings about what I learned.

We couldn’t gain access to early intervention. All doors were closed.  The waiting list was three years, at least.

And we simply didn’t want to ‘normalise’ our child. We already loved him very much the way he was.

And so, we began to dig around online, to make connections to local support groups, to attend some courses, and lo and behold, we stumbled our way into the autism community.

With that discovery came the realisation that so much of the ‘expert’ information we had been given was the exact opposite of what autistic adults were saying would have helped them when they were children. Indeed, many autistic adults consider ABA to be, at best, ineffective. Just taking my previous example, ABA teaches a child with autism to make eye contact for a reward, not in order to communicate in a meaningful way. At worst, ABA is considered a form of abuse. Where the experts were talking of intervention and modification, autistic people pleaded for empathy and acceptance. Which sounds more humane to you?

The cast of What I (Don’t) Know About Autism at the Abbey Theatre (Peacock), Dublin, 2020: Paula McGlinchey, Eleanor Walsh, Shay Croke, Jayson Murray, Jody O’Neill & Matthew Ralli (photo Ros Kavanagh)

As a parent, I wanted to learn as much as I could, as quickly as I could. I couldn’t understand why this information wasn’t getting out there. How easily we could have gone down a road that risked being so detrimental to our child.

As an artist, I wanted to find a way to get this subject matter into the public eye, because it was urgent, it was humane and it had all the ingredients for good art.

I set out to write a play with two aims: to promote autism acceptance and to celebrate autistic identity. And, at first, I had this burning idea for a play that would be set in a future world where babies are grown in labs to the genetic specifications their computer-love-matched parents have selected for them. Anomalies have been wiped out. Disorders are ancient history. But innovation is suddenly at a complete standstill. Something is missing, and that thing arrives in the form of the child of parents who decide to go about reproducing the old-fashioned way. An autistic child…

That’s what I meant to write, but something happened. I got completely sidetracked by my research, and I realised there was another play I needed to write first. A play that would act as a theatrical introduction to autism – from an autistic perspective. A play that would dispel damaging myths and reveal important truths. A play that could open up a little shaft in the mind of the viewer, through which acceptance might come pouring through.

And so, I wrote the twenty-six scenes that comprise What I (Don’t) Know About Autism. Some of those scenes connect narratively to each other, some thematically, and some of them stand alone, but all of them explore different aspects of autism. The play contains over thirty characters, who can be played by just six performers (more if required). At times, the performers appear to come out of character completely to speak to each other and the audience. Indeed, there are two scenes called ‘Question Time’ that are completely improvised each night, giving the audience the opportunity  to ask questions about the play. Another device that emerged during the writing process was that of the Interrupting Voice, a character who, to an extent, functions as the voice of the audience within the play, stopping the action to question, provoke or unpack what is happening onstage.

During each ‘Question Time’ scene, the audience can ask any questions they like, while one cast member times the scene with a giant egg timer (photo Ros Kavanagh)

In terms of the production, I had a few requirements from the outset…

It was crucial that at least half of the cast members would be autistic. Embracing the disability maxim ‘Nothing about us without us’, I wanted autistic voices representing autism onstage at Ireland’s national theatre. Bear in mind, I was only starting to realise at this point that I might be one of the ‘us’. But it was imperative from the outset that autistic people would be part of every aspect of the creative process.

If we were going to be celebrating autism, then I wanted autistic people to be able to come to the party. Therefore, it was going to be a relaxed performance, where traditional theatre etiquette is set aside. The house lights would remain on throughout; ear defenders would be made available to audience members; loud noises onstage would be flagged in advance; noises from the audience would be welcomed; the audience would be free to move around; and if anyone had to leave the auditorium during the performance, they would always be readmitted. They’re simple accommodations, but for some adult autistic people it meant they could come to a play for the first time ever.

Flipcharts on either side of the stage display the titles of the scenes, which are crossed out as the play progresses (photo Ros Kavanagh)

Choreography would be central to the creative process. I trained as a dancer, and so my plays tend to have a lot of movement, but the choreography had another purpose here. Stimming (or self-stimulatory behaviour) is the repetitive movements, gestures and vocal tics that autistic people commonly have. Stims might range from small things like pen-tapping or humming, to bigger things like spinning, running in specific patterns, rocking, flapping. For autistic people, stimming has important functions – self-regulating, expressing emotions, communication. Historically, stimming has been repressed by parents and teachers because it makes a child stand out as atypical. This repression had sound roots way back when standing out was enough to get you institutionalised or worse, but these days it’s more down to the fact that stimming might be distracting or embarrassing for the autistic person’s carers or guardians. But early in my writing process, I remember being at a family fun day and watching a child who was on a bouncy castle with my son. She wasn’t bouncing. Her movement was beautiful. It was rhythmic. It was stimming. It was heartfelt. It was dancing. I knew then that stimming would be an essential part of what I was writing.

What I (Don’t) Know About Autism at the Abbey Theatre, with a cast of autistic and non-autistic actors (photo Ros Kavanagh)

Lastly, I knew that I wanted to represent female autism, partly because I felt it was so underrepresented in the media and in the arts, and because autism in females is generally so under-diagnosed. But also, maybe because somewhere in my unconscious was the seed of an idea of where my personal journey would lead to.

What I didn’t know was how the production would be received. I thought people might be angry. I thought people might be confused. I thought maybe nobody would come.

But in fact most of the performances sold out weeks in advance. And so, I found myself on 1 February 2020, the date of our first preview at the Abbey Theatre, with an impending sense of doom – wondering what on earth I’d been thinking, wishing we could give all the tickets back, and send all copies of the book to the great big shredder in the sky.

But it was too late for that. And what followed were two extraordinary weeks, meeting autistic people, parents, teachers, health workers and just plain regular theatre goers who told us that their outlooks, their lives, the lives of their children or students, would change as a result of what they had seen. Autistic people said they felt represented onstage for the first time; parents told us they will no longer stop their children from stimming in public; teachers said they had learned more during the performance than they had at all the autism training courses they had attended; a mother realised she could finally speak to her son about his diagnosis.

Having finished the first run of the show a few weeks ago, I’m only beginning to take stock. I’m hopeful that there’s demand for the production to have another outing in Ireland and internationally, and I also hope that other companies might consider taking on the show, so that it can have as wide a reach as possible.

In terms of the text, my strong sense is that for the play to be performed, at least half the cast needs to be autistic. The script itself is a flexible blueprint. The ‘Question Time’ scenes need careful preparation and training, so that they work in performance. Apart from that, everything is up for grabs.

What I (Don’t) Know About Autism at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, 2020 (photo Ros Kavanagh)


What I (Don’t) Know About Autism by Jody O’Neill was co-produced by Jody O’Neill and the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, in association with The Everyman, Cork, and Mermaid County Wicklow Arts Centre, Bray. It was first performed, on the Abbey’s Peacock Stage, in February 2020.

The playtext of What I (Don’t) Know About Autism is out now, published in paperback and ebook formats by Nick Hern Books. To buy your copy for just £7.99 (RRP £9.99), visit the Nick Hern Books website.

For further information about performing the play, and the availability of amateur performing rights, contact the Nick Hern Books Performing Rights Manager.

Author photo by Viktor Cibulka. Production shots by Ros Kavanagh.

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.

‘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.

Steve Waters on putting Idi Amin on the stage

Playwright Steve Waters has adapted Giles Foden’s acclaimed novel about Idi Amin, The Last King of Scotland, for the stage, now premiering at Sheffield Theatres. Here, he reflects on the process of adapting the novel, and reveals that it wasn’t until he went to Uganda himself that he realised the true extent of Amin’s legacy, and the instinct of a brutalised nation to forget the horrors inflicted on them by the ‘Butcher of Uganda’…

What is the responsibility of one writer adapting the novel of another, to the reality behind the work? When I first started to shape The Last King of Scotland for the stage, I was content to trust Giles Foden’s account of the world of 1970s Uganda; after all, he had spent many years in the country and his book bristles with evidence of serious research. Part of the power of his novel lies in its detail about that country’s history, landscape, and the shocking yet fascinating facts of Idi Amin’s eight-year reign. Surely my job was just to extract the dialogue and turn the rich prose into spare stage directions?

Yet as I got deeper into the project, I realised this wasn’t good enough. I had to have some skin in the game. After all, as the play took shape, it travelled away from its source and became its own reality. As the thrilling possibility of a production with Sheffield Theatres approached, I realised I couldn’t sit in rehearsals batting away questions by glibly saying, ‘read the book’. This play needed to come from within me as much as from its source.

Tobi Bamtefa and Joyce Omotola in rehearsals for The Last King of Scotland at Sheffield Theatres (photo by Helen Murray)

So last summer I found myself on a flight to Entebbe. Let’s be clear, I’m under no illusion that a week in a distant nation by a white traveller confers on them any real expertise or authority. Whilst my plays are grounded in research, they are also made out of haphazard experiences, conversations, books and hours of browsing YouTube. Now, armed with a Bradt guidebook, a copy of the novel, numerous inoculations and an intermittent phone signal, I tried to track some of the places and events in the book.

I didn’t make it to the Murchison Falls. I didn’t trek up to see the gorillas in the Rwenzori Mountains, or kayak the headwaters of the Nile. My trip was a relatively tame one, but revealing in other ways. The first shock was the invisibility of Amin’s regime after more than thirty years of Yoweri Museveni’s rule. Yes, there are the torture chambers beneath the Twekobe Palace (these I did visit, with the uncomfortable thrill of being a sensation seeker as I made the descent); yes, there is Paradise Island, where Amin was rumoured to have fed his victims to the waiting crocodiles; or the huge avenue named after his loyal supporter Muammar Gaddafi, leading to the vast Kampala Mosque. But no museums, no reckoning, little visual evidence of what occurred here under Amin.

Tobi Bamtefa in rehearsals for The Last King of Scotland at Sheffield Theatres (photo by Helen Murray)

And when I mentioned to Ugandans that I was working on a play about Amin, there was a distinct sense that I was raking over ancient history. After all, for the youthful population, Amin’s rule preceded their birth by decades. They’re more interested in the current President’s critic, the singer and philanthropist Bobi Wine; or in protesting at a Government tax on social media. The swanky new malls that rise from streets choked with traffic, the impoverished fishermen emptying Lake Victoria of its fish with mosquito nets, the commuters with their legs wrapped round the rider of a boda boda bike – they all have their faces set on a difficult future as citizens of one of the poorest nations in Africa. No wonder the then-imminent visit of Narendra Modi or the unfinished pothole-free highway from Entebbe Airport held more interest to them than the mayhem of Amin’s rule.

Yet for all that, I came home feeling closer to Amin’s tenure. One astonishing outcome of the visit was a read-through of the play on Bulago Island in the great space of Lake Victoria. A company was hastily assembled, with one paper copy of the script, two laptops running out of battery, and various shared phones. The part of Idi was read by the Island’s policeman (like Amin, a member of the Kakwa people); the Ambassador was read by a retired British judge, sidelined by the current Government for exposing its corruption; Idi’s wife Kay was played by a cook who, it quickly became apparent, was barely literate. The waters of the lake lapped against the shore, kingfishers flashed past and golden-orbed spiders hung from the trees. The day passed, we broke for lunch, we continued.

Afterwards, we talked. The policeman, his voice soft and kind, felt Idi Amin was a ‘great man’, misunderstood, badly advised. A lawyer spoke of his fear of Amin as a child, his family’s sufferings. The white ex-pats seemed a little uncomfortable with this discussion, and I felt their loneliness too – it is reflected in the fate of Marina, one of the characters in the play. Then, without warning, the sun fell below the horizon and the equatorial night began.

Where is all that in the play? A line here, a line there. But for me, my brief time in that wonderful country transformed a technical task into a labour of love, closing down the distance between play, novel and the reality behind them both, as vast and intangible as the waters of that great African lake.


The above is an edited version of an article by Steve Waters, first published in the theatre programme for the Sheffield Theatres’ production of The Last King of Scotland by Giles Foden, adapted by Steve Waters. The play has its world premiere at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, 27 September–19 October 2019. To book tickets, visit the Sheffield Theatres website.

The script of The Last King of Scotland is published by Nick Hern Books. To buy your copy for just £7.99 (rrp £9.99) visit the Nick Hern Books website.

In Memoriam Peter Nichols

Playwright Peter Nichols, whose plays include A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, The National Health and Privates on Parade, died on 7 September at the age of 92. Here, in an extract from his published Diaries, he describes meeting Laurence Olivier in January 1969 to discuss the National Theatre’s forthcoming production of his play The National Health – a meeting that didn’t quite go according to plan…

Michael Blakemore [director of the National Theatre production ofThe National Health], having been asked to meet Olivier [Laurence Olivier, then Director of the National Theatre] fifteen minutes before I was due, arranged to see me fifteen minutes before that. All his life is like this – a farce of concealments and intricate deceptions. Having left him at Waterloo Bridge, I walked about for fifteen minutes before turning up at Aquinas Street where the offices of the National Theatre are crammed into government-issue prefabs among terraces of two storey artisan housing. Olivier had outflanked Mike’s intrigue by not arriving at all, leaving Ken [Kenneth Tynan, Literary Manager of the National Theatre] to keep us happy. Ken gave me whisky and apologised for Larry, said to be at a wig-fitting. We all talked of the new theatre to be built to Denys Lasdun’s design near the Festival Hall. Is it likely or just another mirage? The Queen Mother had already unveiled several foundation-stones in various places. Ken was hopeful.

After half an hour and a good deal of Scotch, Ken lost patience and said it must be quite some wig. At which moment, a Rolls was manoeuvred through the narrow opening and parked in the yard.

There was a flutter of myrmidons and a little man bustled in, holding out his hand.

‘I’ve never been more sorry in my life.’

For some minutes he alternated apology with disposing of the business accrued in his absence, mostly arrangements to bring a film producer from LA, requiring subtraction sums for the lost hours.

‘I apologise abjectly for being late then attend to anything but your play!’ he exclaimed, took off the pinstripe suit-jacket, sat at the table and drank some of the Scotch we’d left.

We went through the cast of twenty-two characters, matching them to the available actors. His opinions of his company were unimpressed, even brutal.

‘No, he can’t play Foster because he’s not staying.’ This was evidently news to Tynan. ‘No. Boring man. Drinks too much and is always slapping me on the back and asking me to supper with his family. No.’

Poster for the 1973 film of The National Health, directed by Jack Gold

The advantage a famous actor has is the history he carries with him. I, now fairly far gone on subsidised whisky, saw not only a sixty-year-old man with toothbrush moustache, bank-manager glasses, suit and club tie, but Maxim de Winter confessing he hadn’t loved Rebecca, Heathcliff on the moor, Darcy, Henry V, Richard III, Hamlet, Archie Rice, Astrov, Titus Andronicus, Coriolanus, Antony, The Duke of Altair, the waiter in Carrie, etc., so I’d been watching him much of my life in the flesh or on film.

‘Well, I don’t know what else we have to discuss.’ As he poured another glass, this seemed to be our exit-cue, but Tynan asked where I stood on euthanasia and this began a further hour’s discussion. I put my own confused and watery arguments for allowing the helplessly defective to die, based on our own firstborn [Nichols’ daughter Abigail, whose severe disabilities were reflected in the character of Josephine in his 1967 play A Day in the Death of Joe Egg]. Tynan argued the liberal case against this and Olivier got the best of both worlds by saying we shouldn’t be so squeamish about life itself and in a few years we’d all be standing on each other’s heads and then it would be too late for such sentiments, people who were no use should be helped out, then at once told us that when the doctors warned him his daughter may not survive, she had only a five-per-cent chance, he’d said, ‘Save her! Save her!’ I hope he didn’t do this with quite the panache he used in telling us or the doctors’ hands must have shaken with fear. ‘You see? I wanted to save my child, though I knew she might not be whole.’ His eyes were burning bright as he roared: ‘I was a female tiger.’

As we walked away later, Michael pointed out that Tynan, for all his egalitarian posturing, has lived a life devoted to excelling and becoming élite, whereas Olivier exemplifies in his vigorous person and his willingness to face the crowd again and again, a reason for living.

Peter Nichols in Bristol 1968 with his daughter Louise and (background) daughter Abigail, wife Thelma and son Dan


The above is an edited extract from Peter Nichols’ Diaries 1969–1977, published by Nick Hern Books.

Also published by Nick Hern Books are Nichols’ plays Passion Play and So Long Life.

The ordinary made extraordinary: Robert Holman on writing plays

Robert Holman is the playwright most admired by other playwrights. Championed by writers such as Simon Stephens and David Eldridge, his plays – including Making Noise Quietly, Jonah and Otto and A Breakfast of Eels – combine close observation of the way people behave with a thrilling and often fiercely uncompromising mastery of dramatic form. His work is now set to find new audiences, with the film adaptation of Making Noise Quietly showing on cinema screens from this week. Here, alongside the publication of a collection of his early plays, Robert Holman Plays: One, he reflects on his own approach to playwriting, and how each of his plays has been shaped by his own personal circumstances.

Mud is the first play I wrote that had an interval. I was twenty-one. I left Yorkshire when I was nineteen and stayed with a school friend in Camden Town. I slept on an air bed. One night a bullet came through the window, made a little hole in the glass, and passed over my head. A prostitute lived below, but I never found out what the bullet was about. In the kitchen in Camden Town, in a notepad and then on the portable typewriter my parents bought me, I wrote a play which a few months later went on in a lunchtime theatre in Edinburgh. It lasted nearly an hour and was my first professional production. The play was a sort of fantasy about an old man visiting a graveyard at night, and the critic of the Scotsman newspaper said it was clearly written by a bitter old man. I was still only nineteen. I have wondered if I might one day write about the bullet in Camden Town, but a play has not come along.

Mud was written in Belsize Park. I had got there by way of Westbourne Park, where I had found a room overlooking the railway to Paddington. There were more very small spiders living around the window than I had seen before or since, as well as untroubled mice running across the floor. There was an old, broken wardrobe. The window was opaque with dirt. I put down my case, sat on the bed and looked about, got depressed, and stayed two hours. Back in Camden Town in desperation I rang my mother, wondering if I should go home to Yorkshire, but she had heard, from a distant relative, about a family in Belsize Park who sometimes had a room they let out. I went to Belsize Park for a week and stayed seven years. All the early plays were written there, in a bright room at the top of the house overlooking the garden, with Hampstead Heath nearby to walk across and the space to think. Sometimes in life we are most grateful for ordinary things, if giving someone a room to live in is ordinary. The room set the course for the rest of my life. The rent was a few pounds a week, and very often I did not pay it. I have struggled with money ever since, and it started then.

Mud was written in the evenings and in the early hours of the mornings, because I worked during the day on Paddington Station, selling newspapers and magazines. I was not a clever boy, but sometimes I had a good instinct about the best thing to do, and I was learning to trust myself. Intuition had told me to get an easy job, one where I did not have to think too deeply. If that sounds rude about the bookstall or the other people working there, I do not mean it to be. It’s the only ‘proper’ job I have ever had, and to begin with I did not tell them I was also trying to write. The first draft of Mud was written in longhand using the fountain pen I had sat my school exams with. I made it up as I went along, with no idea of where it might end up. I put down the things I saw in my imagination and wrote what I heard people say. The dialogue was character-driven and the people in the play led me. If there were days when they said nothing it was a nuisance, and I would do my best to look at the empty page for half an hour before putting away the pen. If too many days like this came one after the other, it would be frustrating and then I would get depressed. I longed for the skills of a proper writer. My writing was in charge of me, rather than me being in charge of it.

Mud was written when writing was a hobby of mine. There were two drafts of the play written in ink, the second one bearing very little resemblance to the first, because all I was trying to do was to get a sense of who the characters were, and this was changing as I wrote them. Men were becoming women, women men, someone of nineteen was becoming sixty and vice versa. At some point a consistency emerged, as much decided by them as decided by me. It was as if I knew these people as well as I knew anybody who was actually alive. By now I was typing the play. It was still changing as I went on, still surprising me. I would sometimes look at my watch and it would be past three o’clock in the morning. One day Mrs Bradshaw, who owned the house, came up the stairs with a felt pad to put underneath the typewriter because their bedroom was below, and the clatter of the typewriter keys was keeping them awake.

Other Worlds by Robert Holman, Royal Court Theatre, 1983, included in Robert Holman Plays: One

On Paddington Station we used to give rude customers as many small coins in their change as we possibly could. We wore badges with our names on. One day a stranger asked to speak to me. I expected to be told off or even sacked, but it was a theatre director, who asked if I might be free to write a play for him. He had wanted Howard Brenton, but Howard Brenton was busy and had told him about me. Still standing on the platform of the station, the director explained he had a slot. The play would need to be written in six weeks. Mud had taken me over a year to write and I was usually very slow. But who would say no to this? So, I said yes. I would be given money for writing, which I was not used to. When could I start? I said I could start straight away.

The Natural Cause was the play that began to turn my hobby into a job. I set the play in London not in Yorkshire, though when the characters said something I still heard my own accent. As with Mud I made it up as I went on. Some evenings I would write three or four pages and other evenings three or four lines, and then cross out most of it. I had to be taken in by what I was writing and get lost in it. Sometimes it would be like bashing my head against a brick wall. At the end of two weeks it dawned on me that there would not be a play if I was still selling newspapers because I needed every minute of the day to try to write. I spoke to the manager of the bookstall and told him what I was doing. He said to come back when I was finished, and if he had not managed to replace me, there would still be a job.

The Natural Cause was a worrying play to write. If writing is a hobby it matters little if there are days when you cannot do it very well. I had four weeks left to finish a play, and a day with nothing done is a day empty forever. I spent all one Monday walking up and down across the Heath, all the time wondering how I was going to lie my way out of writing the play. If I told the director I was ill that was better than saying I could not do it. Or I could just disappear. The rain started. It came down in heavy sheets and was soon penetrating the leaves and branches of trees, so standing under them was pointless. On Parliament Hill it looked as if London was drowning. As it got towards evening and lights came on, the city was resplendent. For less than a minute, in the hardest of the rain, London went turquoise, a colour I had not seen it go before or seen since. I stood on one of the wooden benches to get a clearer view, and decided it was better to write rubbish than to write nothing at all, and to work out the lies I would tell another time.

I am mostly a private writer, which means my plays mean different things to different people, even though the theatre is a public place. My plays are not driven by a single ideology or an idea, there is no right or wrong in them, or one easy explanation. They are about what you want them to be about, and this changes.

Royal Shakespeare Company poster for 1985 Barbican season, including Robert Holman’s Today

All plays are pieces of energy, and how they come about, the places they are written and in what circumstances, always says something about them. Today was written quickly. I did not have much time to think, and sometimes this is the best way to write, because thinking is inhibiting, if you are me. I still want to write a play where I do not think at all. Today was written in the moment, line by line, wherever the dialogue led me, rather than me leading it. It is a history play, but not one with an overarching idea or ideology. It is a play driven by the needs of its characters. I am simply not clever enough to write about history in an original way. If I might generalise for a moment, there is always at least one person somewhere in the world who is cleverer than we are. These are the people who come up with new thoughts about history – or anything else for that matter. On the other hand, our emotions, our feelings, are always slightly different and special to each of us. You might fall in love in a different way to me or be scared by very different things. Sometimes living is easy, but often it is painful. There are times when we feel alone even with friends about us. I was learning to try to write about all this and to know it is the stuff of life. If I have anything special as a writer, and you will decide if I have or not, it is writing characters who stay in the mind for an hour or two when the play is over; and they stay in the mind because the people in the plays are like you with your fears. They are my fears, too.

All my plays are a mixture of memory and imagination, and they have mostly used landscapes that I know well. I was born and brought up on a farm on the moors in north Yorkshire. Middlesbrough and the Tees Estuary, with the chemical and steel industry close by, were twenty miles away.

The Overgrown Path by Robert Holman, Royal Court Theatre, 1985, included in Robert Holman Plays: One

The way my plays are written in the moment means that they will not be perfect. They can be strong because of the moment but also weak because of it. If I write a scene one morning it might be slightly different if I write it the next morning. It is down to luck, but I have learned more about the world from writing plays in this way than I have from anything else in life. I have surprised myself, and now and again I hope I have surprised an audience. If an audience does not know what is coming next, it is because I also did not know what was coming next. My writing involves a lot of trust. I have to trust myself that something interesting will come out of me next morning  and know that I can put it down using words. Words are everything. To trust oneself to find the right word is sometimes a challenge. The thing that matters most to me is the English language and how it can be used to tell a story.

A writer has no responsibilities whatsoever, other than to themselves, their integrity and intelligence. My plays are not about the world as it is, but about the world as I would like it to be and wish it was. In this way my plays are romances.


The above is an edited extract from the introduction to Robert Holman Plays: One, out now, published by Nick Hern Books. To buy your copy for just £15.19 (20% off the RRP), click here.

Robert Holman Plays: One includes the plays The Natural Cause, Mud, Other Worlds, Today and The Overgrown Path. Other plays by Robert Holman published by Nick Hern Books are available here.

Author photo by Dan Wooller, 2018.

 

‘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.