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.

 

Vaulting ambition: the best new plays from VAULT Festival 2019

VAULT Festival, London’s biggest arts and entertainment festival, is now underway in the Vaults in Waterloo, where it runs until 17 March.  With over 400 shows from more than 2,000 artists, featuring the best new writing in theatre and comedy, cabaret, immersive experiences, late night parties and more, there’s something for everyone. And to celebrate the publication of Plays from VAULT 4, an exciting collection of seven 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…

Maud Dromgoole on her play 3 Billion Seconds, 6–10 March:

3 Billion Seconds is about two hardcore population activists who advocate having no children until (obviously) they get pregnant themselves. We watch them going to greater and greater extremes, struggling to ‘offset’ keeping the baby.

It comes really from being a member of a fair few zero-waste groups, and observing the sporadic militantism and absolute hypocrisy of trying to be a good person in a confusing world. It’s been a complete nightmare play for me in interrogating my own choices. It’s made me vegetarian which is, you know, good for the cows, but sad for me.

The text isn’t particularly prescriptive and I’m very lucky to have a director I trust implicitly. I’m really excited to see what Beth [Bethany Pitts] makes with it, and I hope people will come see it at VAULT.


Nathan Lucky Wood on his play Alcatraz, 27 Feb–3 March:

Alcatraz is the story of a little girl who breaks into a nursing home to bust her Granny out for Christmas. It’s about finding room for love in big institutions, and the meaning of Christmas, and the meaning of Clint Eastwood.

It started life as a short play for The Miniaturists. I had an idea for a sort of gender-swapped Don Quixote set in modern London. I thought I could write a play where a woman with dementia wanders through London misinterpreting everything she sees, and her granddaughter goes with her, not realising she has dementia. Don Quixote became Donna Quexis and Sancho became Sandy, which I thought was quite clever. Then I sat down to write the play and by the time I had finished, something very different had emerged, and it had nothing to do with Don Quixote except the names. At the time I’d been stuck on a very serious, important play about whistleblowing in the NHS, and Alcatraz seemed to absorb all those themes and ideas. But at heart it’s about a child trying to repair a broken family. Which seems to end up being the subject of every play I write, whether I want it to or not.

It’s a huge privilege to come back to VAULT Festival. It’s an incredible place with an incredible atmosphere, and a fantastic, supportive team behind it. And the venues have so much atmosphere. I’m really excited to see Alcatraz in the Cavern – it’s been my favourite venue here for years and it’s just perfect for the play.


Margaret Perry on her play Collapsible, 13–17 February:

Collapsible is a play set inside the brain of an unemployed and isolated woman who increasingly feels she is not a person who exists. Interviewing for job after job, she starts to run out of ways to describe herself, and so she decides to make a list, crowd-sourced from the people who know her. Or used to know her. But as the list grows, she soon finds that words on a page aren’t enough to cling to. It’s a monologue about work, self, and trying to wade out of the dark.

The play came from a few different places. When I first moved to London almost five years ago, I was unemployed for three horrible months. Collapsible is partly an exorcism of that time in my life and an interrogation of the damaging way in which our neoliberal capitalist society has intrinsically linked who we are to what we do. I also wanted to explore the tunnel-vision solipsism of depression and anxiety – the ways we push people away just when we need them the most. And I wanted to write a play from the perspective of a complex, compelling bisexual woman.

I’m SO excited to be at VAULT 2019 making this play with the best collaborators I could ask for. VAULT 2017 and 2018 filled my heart and emptied my pockets and I knew I had to be part of it any chance I got!


Nabilah Said on her play Inside Voices, 23–27 January:

Inside Voices is a dark comedy about Muslim women from Singapore. It blends humour with magical realism to confront audiences with a community they rarely see, or think about. The play is highly energetic and playful – with mythology and monsters thrown in – to really reflect the atmosphere and rich cultural diversity of Southeast Asia. The show is presented by an all-Asian and all-female team.

I wrote Inside Voices because I saw nothing in London that reflected my sensibilities as a Southeast Asian. Growing up in Singapore, which is a super-modern country and a former British colony, I have a natural (and sometimes confusing) affinity for British culture, but that love isn’t necessarily reciprocated. A lot of people still wonder why I speak good English. The movie Crazy Rich Asians didn’t help either – it put Singapore on people’s radar but it didn’t portray brown people like me who are also Singaporean.

I am so thrilled to be showing Inside Voices at VAULT 2019. Last year I was a festival assistant and I remember thinking, “Man, I wish I could be part of this”. The festival has a real buzz to it. I value the opportunity to share a little bit of Southeast Asia with London – I honestly don’t think people have seen anything like it here. I suppose it’s a bit of a provocation as well: would you watch a show about a community you probably have never cared about?

Inside Voices by Nabilah Said (publicity shot and author photo by Erfendi Dhahlan)


Christopher Adams and Timothy Allsop on their play Open, 23–27 January:

We initially conceived of Open after we’d worked together on another play about a nineteenth-century book collector. Chris had been working with an archive to write the play, and we realised we had an archive of our relationship. All our emails, Facebook posts and Guardian Soulmates messages had formed part of material we had handed to the Home Office when Chris was processing his Leave to Remain. This is what began our discussion about doing a show about our relationship, the focus on the ‘open’ aspect came afterwards.

It was an exciting but also complex process of engaging with the timeline of our relationship and working out a narrative structure through which to explore a modern-day romance. When researching we found amazing statistics about how many gay men are in open relationships (40–50%) and yet how few people talk about it openly. There were also lots of different rules that worked for different couples. We found this a useful focus point for the show.

We also interviewed some of our former lovers and friends and used that material in the show. The result was a moving patchwork of voices and experiences which helped to people the stage alongside our own story.

The responses from the audiences have been overwhelmingly positive, with most people connecting with its humour and honesty. We were also amazed by the diversity of the audience and felt the play spoke to all kinds of people. We hope there will be a future life for the piece and fully enjoyed our time at VAULT. It’s also been wonderful to be published in the Nick Hern Books collection.

Timothy Allsop and Christopher Adams in their play Open


Dylan Coburn Gray and Claire O’Reilly of MALAPROP Theatre on their play JERICHO, 6–10 February:

Dylan Coburn Gray: JERICHO is a play about the world right now. It’s about a young journalist struggling to get by, writing about things she doesn’t care about and worrying whether writing about things she cared about would be any more meaningful. It’s about professional wrestling, and how it’s like contemporary politics in more ways than you might think. It’s about plausibility, the danger of myths, Roland Barthes and RuPaul, and whether there’s any point even trying to get a pension as well as paying rent if the world’s just going to go on fire before any of us get old.

Jericho is the oldest city. It has a protective wall around it. Chris Jericho’s signature move is named after that wall. Wrestling has always been more about what feels true, rather than what is true. From that little constellation of ideas, the show grew. Its heart is interrogating our sentimentalities about the past and how they lead us to interpret the present.

I think we started off knowing we wanted to make something that would approach the present obliquely. The news cycle right now is such that we spend all our time in our political fury refractory period; you can only get so angry about so many things, and beyond that current events just hurt us with no change in motivation or insight. We didn’t want to just tell people more horrible stuff, we wanted to encourage a reappraisal of the horrible stuff we all already know. Or something like that.

Claire O’Reilly: Having had a blast in Edinburgh for the last two years, bringing work to the UK [MALAPROP is a Dublin-based collective] has so far been a pleasant experience for us (one I’m probably jinxing as I type, go me). It’s exciting to open the conversation out beyond our regular audience, particularly now that we’re no longer complete strangers to the British landscape. That said, being part of VAULT 2019 feels particularly special due to the high volume of Irish work on offer. This is owed in no small part to fellow Irishwoman Gill Greer, Head of Theatre and Performance at Vaults, who really put VAULT Festival on the radar of Irish practitioners.

JERICHO by MALAPROP Theatre (photo by Molly O’Cathain)


Jodi Gray on her play Thrown, 6–10 March:

Jill Rutland and Ross Drury from Living Record approached me a while ago with (what I naively thought was) quite a simple, but beautiful, stimulus for a show: When was the moment you knew you were no longer a child? This is what we referred to as the ‘Thrown’ moment (something to do with the impenetrable philosopher Heidegger) – the point at which we’re hurled unceremoniously into adulthood. We all of us have one, though the levels of drama and sometimes trauma vary hugely; everyone I spoke to could pinpoint theirs immediately.

Along with this simple question, they explained that in performance we would be using binaural technology – an on-stage microphone shaped like a human head with a pick-up in each ‘ear’ – and the audience would listen in via wireless headphones. So, the performer breathes into the left ear of the mic, and each audience member can almost feel their own left ear warming up. (Yes, it is eerie – and has ended up feeling a bit like we have direct access to your brain…)

Part of the development of the play involved us collecting testimony from older people (how better to understand how the end of childhood affects a life?), and I was overwhelmed by the stories we heard, the detail and the joy and the pain. Every one was a privilege to hear, and I’m only sorry I couldn’t include all of them*.

So, this simple idea had somehow become The Stuff of Life – much too much to squeeze into the running-time of a show designed to be performed at a festival. I decided to wrangle it through the character of Dr Constance Ellis – a child psychologist searching through her life story for her own, lost, thrown moment amongst those of her former patients.

Jill is a bewitching performer, and she understood Constance immediately, intuitively. (She also makes everything I wrote magical in ways I could never have dared dream for.) With Ross’s profound direction, and Chris Drohan’s otherworldly sound design, Thrown is not an ‘easy’ watch – but we’ve made something that feels exactly like a memory: strange, enigmatic, bittersweet.

It surprised me in the end that this play, developed so collaboratively, should end up being one of the most personal I’ve ever written. In fact, after one of the previews a close friend turned to me, shaking her head but laughing, and said, ‘No wonder you’re like this.’ I still don’t know what the fuck she means.

We’re so chuffed to be bringing Thrown to VAULT Festival after a run at the Edinburgh Fringe, and ahead of our UK tour – it’s such a beacon of awesomeness in the depths of winter and I love the timelessness of being underground. It’s like a lovely nourishing fugue for all us creative folks.

* These interviews are available to watch on the company’s YouTube Channel as part of Living Record’s ongoing online archive of collected testimony called ‘The Record of Living’ – true stories from the end of childhood retold and relived from people all over the country.

Thrown by Jodi Gray


What to see at VAULT Festival 2019

Just before the festival opened on 23 January, we asked our authors which shows from this year’s programme they were most excited to see. Check out their picks below…

Maud Dromgoole: I’m really looking forward to so many shows at the festival. All the other shows in the Nick Hern Books anthology look brilliant. I also can’t wait to see Hear Me Howl (30 Jan–3 Feb), Queens of Sheba (30 Jan–3 Feb), Fatty Fat Fat (30 Jan–3 Feb), 10 (13–17 Mar), Pufferfish (6–10 Mar),The Last Nine Months (of the rest of our lives) (20–24 Feb), Lola and Jo (8 Feb), Juniper and Jules (23–27 Jan), i will still be whole (when you rip me in half) (27–28 Feb), Essex Girl (30–31 Jan), Lucy Light (13–17 Mar), WORK BITCH (27 Feb–3 Mar) and Cabaret Sauvignon and a Single VAULT Whiskey (24 Jan–8 Mar), which I think has won VAULT on title alone.

Nathan Lucky Wood: There’s so much great stuff on this year it’s hard to know what to recommend, But I’m hugely excited for WOOD by Adam Foster, directed by Grace Duggan (27 Feb–3 Mar). I saw a very early sharing of it last year and it was absolutely astonishing. I’m really excited to see the full-length play.

Margaret Perry: I’m very excited to see all the other plays in the anthology – particularly 3 Billion Seconds (6–10 Mar), Inside Voices (23–27 Jan) and JERICHO (6–10 Feb). I also can’t wait for Dangerous Lenses (23–27 Jan), 17, (23–27 Jan), i will still be whole (when you rip me in half) (27–28 Feb), Juniper and Jules (23–27 Jan), Pufferfish (6–10 Mar), Landscape (1989), (13–14 Feb), bottled. (13–17 Feb),WORK BITCH (27 Feb–3 Mar), Finding Fassbender (15–16 Mar), and The New Writers’ Showcase (17 Mar).

Nabilah Said: I’m excited for Silently Hoping by Ellandar (20–24 Feb) and SALAAM by Sara Aniqah Malik (30 Jan–3 Feb). Both deal with Muslim-related issues in different ways – Silently Hoping tackles being half-Asian and half-British, while SALAAM is a lyrical take on Islamophobia in Britain. I love that there can be three really different plays at the festival talking about being Muslim. It just shows you that there isn’t one way to be Muslim, and it isn’t mutually exclusive with being human, either.

Maeve O’Mahony of MALAPROP Theatre: I can’t wait to see Queens of Sheba (30 Jan–3 Feb), having missed it at Edinburgh Fringe (actually, note to self, book tickets now). There’s also a plethora of Irish work on offer this year. I’m particularly excited about Sickle Moon Production’s Tryst (13–17 Feb), Sunday’s Child’s Get RREEL (6–10 Feb), Joanne McNally’s Bite Me (13–17 Mar), and Nessa Matthews and Eoghan Carrick’s Infinity (6–10 Feb). I’m also REALLY tempted to extend my stay and crash on a couch so I can catch Oisin McKenna’s ADMIN (27–28 Feb) and Margaret Perry’s new play Collapsible (13–17 Feb)!

Jodi Gray: I’m especially looking forward to all the plays in Nick Hern Books’ VAULT collection, particularly 3 Billion Seconds by Maud Dromgoole (6–10 Mar) and Collapsible by Margaret Perry (13–17 Feb), and then BOAR by Lewis Doherty (6 Mar) (you’d be an absolute idiot to miss this, and it’s on for one night only), 10 by Snatchback (13–17 Mar), Vespertilio by Fight and Hope (20–24 Feb), and Tacenda by RedBellyBlack (20–24 Feb).

Plays from VAULT 4, containing seven of the best plays from this year’s festival, is published by Nick Hern Books. To buy your copy for just £13.59 (RRP £16.99), visit our website now.

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

VAULT Festival 2019 runs from 23 January – 17 March at the Vaults, Waterloo, London. Visit the festival website here.

‘We all live within shouting distance of someone in crisis’: Lynn Nottage on her play Sweat

As her latest play Sweat opens at the Donmar Warehouse in London, the double-Pulitzer-winning playwright Lynn Nottage reveals the painful personal encounter that led her to write it, and how her intensive research uncovered truths overlooked by mainstream media…

Several years ago I received a commission from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival to write a play about an American Revolution; it was part of an ambitious initiative to encourage playwrights to wrestle with large questions about American history.

I struggled for a couple years, resisting the obvious temptations to write about the Civil War or the Civil Rights Movement, and then late one night, I received an email in the form of a plea from a dear friend in dire financial straits. She was a single mother of two who had no motive, other than the need to share her predicament with close friends. It was a difficult task, but her raw honesty about her financial reality shattered me. For months, she’d been hiding her circumstances from friends and family. I read her email and felt ashamed. She was my next-door neighbor, yet my eyes had been closed to her painful situation. My friend was someone who had an easy smile, which unbeknownst to me hid a hard reality familiar to too many Americans. She had worked for years, signed the American social contract and yet had, like many middle-class folx, found herself broke, desperate and on the verge of despair. Her emotional email forced me to reckon with the reality that we all live within shouting distance of someone who is in crisis and experiencing real economic insecurity. I was awakened from my complacency, and my response was to ask hard questions about how and why this was happening in a country as wealthy as the United States.

Leanne Best in rehearsals for Sweat by Lynn Nottage at the Donmar Warehouse, 2018 (photo by Johan Persson)

The next day, my friend and I went to Occupy Wall Street (which was beginning that week). We marched around Zuccotti Park, and chanted until we were hoarse. At the end of the day she felt better, and less alone, but I had more questions. As a result, I ended up going back to Occupy Wall Street multiple times and speaking loudly at the people’s mic. Around this time I decided to write about the American de-industrial revolution for the Oregon Shakespeare commission. My curiosity led me to Reading, Pennsylvania, a post-industrial city at the tail end of the Rust Belt. At the time, 2011, it was the poorest city of its size in America, and a microcosm of what was happening to small cities across the United States. Reading was once an industrial powerhouse: home to textile and steel factories, home to the first outlet malls in America, and the nexus of the Reading railroad.

In Reading, I spent two-and-a-half years interviewing people, from the city’s first African American Mayor to members of a homeless community squatting in the woods. Too often, I found that folx spoke of their city in the past tense; they’d respond to my questions with a simple rejoinder: ‘Reading was’. I recognized in hearing this over and over that a city that couldn’t imagine itself in the present or the future was a city that had lost its narrative. To me this was heartbreaking.

Wil Johnson and Osy Ikhile in rehearsals for Sweat by Lynn Nottage at the Donmar Warehouse, 2018 (photo by Johan Persson)

Still, I didn’t really find my play until I sat in a circle with a group of middle-aged white steel workers who’d been locked out of their factory for ninety-three weeks. They’d worked for more than half of their lives in one place, and yet were forced out of their jobs by corporate greed and left with nothing. Their stories broke my heart and invited me to see the world from another’s perspective; to be moved by people who I would not ordinarily encounter. In that moment, I replaced judgment with curiosity and allowed myself to really listen and to hear what they had to say. Some of it was difficult, and as a Black woman from Brooklyn I hadn’t expected that I would be so profoundly moved by their predicament. But they were not only willing to share their stories, they were open and brave enough to cry in front of me. I felt a responsibility to write a play that would capture the honesty and contradictions of this conversation; sustain the complexity of our multicultural country in crisis, and reveal the ugly truths and ask the uncomfortable questions. I also recognized that there was a larger story about America that wasn’t being told in the mainstream media in 2014; a story that would reveal the level of disaffection, anger, shame, despair, racism and invisibility that I encountered in Reading, PA.

So, I wrote my play Sweat, which is about a close-knit group of steel workers who find themselves forced out of the steel factory where many of them have worked for over twenty-five years. Sweat examines how their economic hardships dangerously rupture their friendships along racial lines, destroying their community in the process. I was surprised that the play, which was written a couple of years before the 2016 Election, really struck a nerve and seemed to anticipate the unfortunate election of Donald Trump. When the New York Times asked how I foresaw with this play the rise of divisive, reactionary politics in America – a story that took most journalists in this country by surprise – my answer was simple: I showed up and listened.

Jack Willis, Carlo Albán and K. T. Vogt in Sweat by Lynn Nottage, Oregon Shakespeare Festival, 2015 (photo by Jenny Graham)


Sweat by Lynn Nottage is out now, published in the UK and Ireland by Nick Hern Books.

To buy your copy for just £7.99 (20% off the RRP of £9.99), click here.

Sweat is at the Donmar Warehouse, London, until 26 January 2019.

 

Howard Brenton (The Nick Hern Books Anniversary Interviews)

Howard Brenton’s career as a playwright encompasses an extraordinary variety of subjects and many glittering successes, from Pravda and The Romans in Britain to Paul and Never So Good. But, as he tells theatre journalist Al Senter, there have been tricky times too, and he owes the revival of his career to a stint on TV’s Spooks

As a playwright, Howard Brenton has long been associated with a certain kind of politicised, radical and uncompromising sensibility. It’s a view epitomised by his state-of-the-nation collaborations with David Hare (Brassneck and Pravda), his work with Joint Stock (Epsom Downs) and his succès de scandale, The Romans in Britain, which Mary Whitehouse tried – and failed – to close down by launching a criminal prosecution.

So it comes as a shock to discover that, in person, Brenton has a genial charm that belies his reputation and his formidable oeuvre. He has an extensive fund of stories, which he plunders with many a gleeful chuckle. And what is more, he credits his survival as a writer to his work on the television espionage series Spooks.

‘The 1990s were not a good time for me,’ he recalls. ‘There were new people running the Royal Court [which had staged several of his plays, including Magnificence, Greenland, and Berlin Bertie], and I was out of fashion at the National [where Pravda and Romans in Britain had been staged].

‘I’d written a version of Goethe’s Faust for Michael Bogdanov and the RSC, but there was nothing else being offered, and I could see that I was really in trouble. I taught for a while in America and then I wrote a play for RADA [the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art], and it was at a performance of this play at RADA that I met the producer Jane Featherstone, who was putting together a team for what turned out to be Spooks. There was a scene in the play that satirised spies, and Jane asked me if I’d be interested in writing a trial episode – which I did.’

Brenton went on to become a lead writer on the BBC One drama series, penning thirteen episodes between 2002 and 2005, and winning a BAFTA for Best Drama Series in 2003.

‘In a sense Spooks was my rebirth, and it was a tremendous source of discipline for me. Because I was so much older than everybody else on the show, nobody knew me and it meant that I didn’t bring any baggage to the party. There were no pre-conceptions.

‘Then I got a call from Nick Hytner at the National, who’d seen one of my Spooks episodes. He asked me why I wasn’t writing for the theatre, and commissioned a play from me that became Paul.’

That play, staged at the National Theatre in 2005, was a stunning return to form. A provocative inquiry into the life of the apostle Paul, it questions the whole basis of Christianity by presenting Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus as a trick, and even overturning the received facts about Jesus’s death on the cross.

Adam Godley in Howard Brenton’s Paul at the National Theatre, 2005 (photo by Catherine Ashmore)

In the thirteen years since Paul was premiered, Brenton has enjoyed a remarkable period of sustained creativity, averaging a play a year – no mean feat for a playwright, especially one whose imaginative scope and historical subject matter make you think he must have permanent residence at the British Library. Amongst those plays are major achievements such as Never So Good (National Theatre, 2008), about Harold Macmillan and the decline of British imperial power; Anne Boleyn (Shakespeare’s Globe, 2010), about Henry VIII’s second wife and her reckless, passionate espousal of the Protestant Reformation; 55 Days (Hampstead Theatre, 2012), about Oliver Cromwell and the momentous decision to execute King Charles I; Drawing the Line (Hampstead Theatre, 2013), about the partition of India; and Lawrence After Arabia (Hampstead Theatre, 2013), about T.E. Lawrence and his struggle to divest himself of the mythology surrounding him.

There are also such glittering gems as In Extremis (Shakespeare’s Globe, 2006, later revived as Eternal Love), about the 12th-century love affair between Abelard and Heloise; #aiww: The Arrest of Ai Weiwei (Hampstead Theatre, 2013), about the imprisonment of the Chinese artist by state authorities; The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists (Liverpool Everyman, 2010), an adaptation of Robert Tressell’s classic and very funny novel about the working lives of a group of housepainters; and The Blinding Light (Jermyn Street Theatre, 2017), about Swedish playwright August Strindberg’s so-called ‘Inferno’ period, when he took leave of his senses and devoted himself to the practise of alchemy.

Iranian Nights by Tariq Ali and Howard Brenton, the first of Brenton’s plays to be published by Nick Hern Books

All of those plays and more have been published by Nick Hern Books. Brenton has had a working relationship with Nick Hern since Hern was drama editor at Methuen Drama, which published Brenton’s early plays. When Hern, increasingly dismayed at the way Methuen was being handled by a series of consortia, broke away in 1988 to form his own imprint, Brenton went with him, one of a quartet of writers that also included Caryl Churchill, David Edgar and Nicholas Wright. It was a vote of confidence in his editor, and without it, Nick Hern Books might well not have survived. One of the first titles published by the fledgling imprint was Brenton’s Iranian Nights, written with Tariq Ali and premiered at the Royal Court in 1989. ‘I remember going to see Nick when he was part of Random House,’ recalls Brenton. ‘I have a vivid memory of walking down an endless corridor in a building on the Vauxhall Bridge Road, and then finding Nick in a corner at the end of it.’ Small beginnings, but Brenton has stuck with his editor, praising his habit of plain-speaking whenever they are discussing one of his plays.

Howard Brenton (left) with Nick Hern (centre) and Nicholas Wright (right) at the Nick Hern Books 30th anniversary party in July 2018 (photo by Dan Wooller)

Brenton is charmingly vague about the number of plays he’s actually written – he’ll leave that to the theatre historians. Meanwhile, it’s the real business of history, the stuff that changes people’s lives, that interests him.

Anne Boleyn by Howard Brenton, published by Nick Hern Books

‘I like setting my plays at times of crisis, at times of great social change,’ he says. ‘I’m also a great believer in the “Schiller Manoeuvre”. In his play Maria Stuart, Friedrich Schiller brings together Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots in a pivotal scene, despite the fact that in real life they never met. I did the same in my play Anne Boleyn, bringing together Anne and William Tyndale, although they too never met.’

As a dramatist, Brenton is clearly drawn to characters who, grappling with the big ideas of their day, find their idealism compromised by the messy business of reality: Oliver Cromwell  in 55 Days, trying to reconcile revolutionary fervour with constitutional necessity, and finding himself having to compromise with a king who will do no such thing; Cyril Radcliffe, the lawyer who, in Drawing the Line, is given six weeks to draw the border that will divide the Indian sub-continent in two and determine the fate of millions of people; Harold Macmillan, who, in Never So Good, finds himself woefully out of his depth as an empire begins to crumble around him; and Paul, the erstwhile scourge of Christians who becomes one of Christ’s most devout disciples. ‘I call them “dirty saints”,’ says Brenton: those who reach for the stars, despite having feet of clay.

Jeremy Irons as Harold Macmillan in Howard Brenton’s Never So Good at the National Theatre, 2008 (photo by Catherine Ashmore)

He is responsible for one of the most charismatic figures in modern drama, the monstrous media tycoon Lambert Le Roux in Pravda, co-written with David Hare. The mesmerising performance by Anthony Hopkins in the 1985 National Theatre production  became, in retrospect, a dry run for Hopkins’ portrayal of another monster: Hannibal Lecter in the 1991 film The Silence of the Lambs.

‘With Pravda, something happened that can occur with writers and their characters. We had intended to do a version of Faust, with Andrew the newspaper editor tempted by Le Roux as Mephistopheles; but we fell in love with Lambert in the way that Shakespeare makes audiences complicit with Richard III or Macbeth.’

Brenton recalls, too, how the play was steered towards its eventual form through the intervention of Peter Hall, who was then running the National Theatre. ‘David [Hare] and I rented a flat in Brighton, and every Monday I’d take the train to Brighton and David would drive down and we’d start by telling each other our favourite jokes. Yet at the dress rehearsal the play barely got a laugh. So then Peter Hall gave us a very useful note. He advised us to “meet the Monster plot”. In other words, the play had a tremendous appetite for plot, so we should feed it accordingly.’

Anthony Hopkins (left) in Howard Brenton and David Hare’s Pravda at the National Theatre, 1985 (photo by Nobby Clark)

Perhaps this ability to handle the complexities of plot – not always a component of the modern playwright’s skill set – is one of the reasons Brenton succeeded in the plot-hungry environment of the television drama series.

‘I firmly believe that a television audience will accept complex ideas if the quality of the writing is good enough,’ he argues. ‘After Spooks, I was something of a Golden Boy. I was commissioned to tour all over China for one project, and there was also a Hollywood movie and a four-part television series that never got made. I recently spoke to one of our most successful writers in theatre, films and television, and he estimates that only one in three of his projects ever gets made.’ This must be one of the most maddening aspect of Brenton’s trade, and yet he dismisses it with a shrug. Perhaps, for a writer of his prolific qualities, it poses no real problem. More likely, he’s learned how to cope with the exigencies of the business and is happiest when he’s hard at work on a new play. He jokingly refers to himself when he’s at work as ‘The Man in the Bunker’. He insists, however, that he’s no workaholic.

‘I remember Shaw’s biographer, Michael Holroyd, remarking that Shaw, for all his massive output, was actually comparatively lazy, and would prefer to waste his time on some minor pursuit rather that getting on with the job in hand. We writers refer to this phenomenon as “Teach Yourself Spanish” syndrome. I’m certainly very lazy: work for me comes in spasms.’

Brenton is currently writing a new play for Hampstead Theatre, and there will be a revival next year of his most recent play, The Shadow Factory, about the wartime Government’s requisitioning of local businesses in Southampton to use as covert factories for the production of Spitfires. The play was commissioned to open Southampton’s new theatre, NST City, where it premiered in February 2018.

Spasmodic or otherwise, let’s hope that Brenton won’t have cause to venture far from the Bunker in future.

Howard Brenton’s The Shadow Factory at NST City, Southampton, 2018 (photo by Manuel Harlan)


Many of Howard Brenton’s plays are published by Nick Hern Books, including his most recent play, The Shadow Factory, which will be revived at NST City, Southampton, in January 2019.

For a full list of Brenton’s plays published by Nick Hern Books, visit our website here, where they are available in paperback or ebook formats with at least a 20% discount.

Nick Hern Books is celebrating its 30th anniversary in 2018 – visit our website to stay up to date with everything that’s happening throughout the year.

Other Nick Hern Books Anniversary Interviewees include Harriet Walter, Rona Munro, Lucy Kirkwood and Jack Thorne. Catch up with them all here.

Author photo by Dan Wooller.

Remembering Stephen Jeffreys

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Publisher Nick Hern pays tribute to Stephen Jeffreys…

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

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

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

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


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

Photograph of Stephen Jeffreys by Martin Argles.

Jack Thorne (The Nick Hern Books Anniversary Interviews)

Jack Thorne is the playwright behind Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and a five-times BAFTA-winning screenwriter. He talked to theatre journalist Al Senter about his abiding love for theatre, while, below, we publish his speech at the Nick Hern Books thirtieth anniversary party at the Royal Court Theatre in July…

Jack Thorne is a writer in demand right now. The winner of no fewer than five BAFTA awards for his TV work (including for his original drama series The Fades, his work on Shane Meadows’ This Is England series, and his 2017 mini-series National Treasure starring Robbie Coltrane), he is also the playwright behind J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, which has played to packed houses and won Best Play awards on both sides of the Atlantic. As if this wasn’t remarkable enough, he’s even bringing King Kong to Broadway later this year in the form of a live show featuring ‘animatronics, puppetry, music and stagecraft… and a 20-foot high gorilla’. All this and he’s not yet reached the age of forty.

Yet despite this conspicuous success and the acclaim which his work has attracted, he remains wary of fame, and almost reflexively self-critical. ‘I’m still surprised by the fact that people are interested in listening to what I have to say,’ he observes when we meet up for this interview. ‘That’s the arrogance of the writer, I suppose. I still love writing but I also feel that it’s important not to grow too dependent on it. Ultimately I’d say that I use my writing to try to make sense of the world, and I only do stuff when I think that there is a really interesting story to be told.’

Jack took to writing plays, as he says in the extraordinarily revealing Introduction to the first volume of his Collected Plays, ‘as a means of expressing things which I couldn’t say.’ He laments in those pages that ‘I’m a constant idiot in conversation. I always seem to sound either smug or stupid.’ There’s a self-lacerating streak to Jack’s conversation still, even if that period of ‘utter self-hatred and destruction’ now lies in the past. You get the sense that, for him, writing has always been something of a displacement activity.

Once he found his voice as a writer – partly through the support and patronage of Mike Bradwell, former artistic director of the Bush Theatre in London, where his first professional play, When You Cure Me, was staged in 2005 – Jack seemed to stumble on the realisation that he was a born writer. In the years since, he has become a prolific one. Despite all his work for TV and film, he has continued to get plays onto the stage at an impressive rate: 2nd May 1997, about Labour’s landslide victory, at the Bush in 2009; Mydidae, written for Phoebe Waller-Bridge prior to her breakout success with Fleabag; an adaptation of John Ajvide Lindqvist’s Let the Right One In, a coming-of-age vampire love story that was directed for the National Theatre of Scotland by John Tiffany, with whom Jack was later to collaborate on Harry Potter and the Cursed Child; a National Theatre Connections play for young people, Burying Your Brother in the Pavement; Hope, about the intolerable pressures placed on a local council, staged at the Royal Court in 2014; The Solid Life of Sugar Water for Graeae Theatre Company; Junkyard, a play with music by Stephen Warbeck about the creation of a community playground by a group of disaffected youngsters; and, most recently, two high-profile adaptations for the Old Vic in London, of Büchner’s Woyzeck and Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

Jack Thorne’s stage version of John Ajvide Lindqvist’s Let the Right One In, in a 2017 production by the National Theatre of Scotland (photo by Lawrence Peart)

On the face of it then, there seems little to unite his disparate work. Yet themes do emerge. There’s Jack’s ability to get inside the minds and hearts of young people – especially young people struggling with the confusing complexities of the modern world – apparent in his early TV work on Skins and on This Is England, and there too in his National Theatre Connections play, and in Junkyard, inspired by his own father’s work on a pioneering social scheme in Bristol. It must have been a consideration, too, when J.K. Rowling was looking for a collaborator for Cursed Child: Jack had already shown an extraordinary empathy for embattled or bullied children thrown into fantastical or supernatural situations, with Let the Right One In and his TV series The Fades. It’s there, too, in the apparently odd coupling of Woyzeck and A Christmas Carol for the Old Vic: for who is Woyzeck if not a traumatised child, infantilised by the military hierarchy that bullies and abuses him, and strips him of his self-belief; and who is Ebenezer Scrooge, if not a man whose ability to experience joy went missing at a precise and demonstrable time in his childhood, and whose redemption lies in reclaiming it, through the ministry of Dickens’ supernatural agents? The casting of the ageless Rhys Ifans as an unusually youthful Scrooge for the Old Vic production seemed designed to underline the point.

Jack’s adaptation of A Christmas Carol also demonstrated his innate understanding of how people are shaped by social realities, and how the gap between prosperity and penury is a narrow one. It’s a recurring theme, there in his depiction of the night New Labour came to power in 2nd May 1997, in the playground politics of Junkyard, and in his analysis of local council politics in Hope.

Jack Thorne’s Junkyard, at Bristol Old Vic in 2017 (photo by Manuel Harlan)

In a way, it’s remarkable that Jack continues to return to work in the theatre, after such success in the golden worlds of TV and film. Yet it’s the more democratic nature of working in the theatre that appeals to him. ‘It’s the one area where you feel you are part of the creative team. You come in to rehearsals, you chat to the Music Supervisor, you sense you are part of something bigger.’ That sense of belonging, of wanting to belong, that weaves its way through his work.

He must have faced huge pressures, though, having to deliver for J.K. Rowling on the stage?

‘The pressure before Harry Potter and the Cursed Child opened was enormous,’ agrees Jack. ‘But I’d gone through a similar kind of experience when I wrote This Is England and I didn’t want to let Shane [Meadows] down. A lot of it is like being in school and having to hand your homework in on time. And I tend to work best to deadlines.’

Writers are, of course, expendable. There are always plenty of them available for hire. ‘I’ve been fired twice this year already,’ admits Jack. ‘And I get really upset by it. But then, as a writer, you are always expecting failure. There’s always a twist somewhere and people are never satisfied. You feel that you’re constantly exposing yourself. When they give your job to somebody else, it’s brutalising. You might be the first writer on a job and you can sense the other writers queuing up behind you. There are projects with directors attached whom you’d crawl over broken glass to work with again, and there is work that you don’t want anybody else to do but you.’

Jack Thorne (photo by Dan Wooller)

Not long after conducting this interview with Jack, I was at the Royal Court Theatre for an event to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of Nick Hern Books. Jack himself gave one of the speeches. His speech was full of his habitual humour and trademark modesty, but also remarkably eloquent and outspoken in its praise for Nick Hern and his publishing team. Jack had dug out something that Nick himself had written, about how he got into play publishing: as a teacher at the University of Hull, Nick hadn’t had immediate access to plays produced in London, and had longed for them to appear in print. He went on to pioneer the ‘programme/text’ at the Royal Court and other theatres, ensuring that those plays being staged in London could be read, in affordable editions, across the UK and beyond. Jack was effusive about ‘a publisher born of the need to see Pinter and his generation as soon as London was lucky enough to see it. A genuine revolutionary. This is a man that values the playwright and the play above all things, and took those values into his own company. As someone who similarly wasn’t born in London and who would order all the Royal Court plays (which I discovered were remarkably cheap) as soon as they came out, I think that democratic intent is extraordinary.’

It was clear from his speech that Jack, for all his worldly success, feels glad to belong to a stable of playwrights published by Nick Hern Books. ‘For thirty years this glorious company has been publishing beautiful plays and making every one of their writers feel like they matter and that people need to read them – and that is a glory.’

I ask Jack if there’s anything he feels he hasn’t yet tackled in his writing. ‘I am still trying to write a defining original stage play that expresses how I feel about politics,’ he says. ‘I have tried, and I’ll go on trying.’

Let’s hope he will soon realise his ambition. There’s no shortage of material, after all.

Most of Jack Thorne’s plays are published by Nick Hern Books, including his Plays: One (which includes the plays When You Cure Me, Stacy, 2nd May 1997, Bunny, Red Car, Blue Car and Mydidae).

All are available from our website in paperback or ebook formats with at least a 20% discount.

Jack Thorne’s adaptation of A Christmas Carol returns to the Old Vic Theatre, London, in November 2018, tickets available here.

 


Here is the text of Jack Thorne’s speech at the Nick Hern Books thirtieth anniversary party at the Royal Court Theatre on 1 July 2018…

When Nick asked me to make this speech, he said – and I quote – ‘It certainly shouldn’t be hagiographic. Maybe just a reminiscence of your early years as a writer and getting published, etc.? Whatever you like really.’ Yup, despite thirty years at Nick Hern Books, and forty-four in publishing, he gave the sort of brief it is extremely dangerous to give a writer – ‘Whatever you like.’

So I started writing a play, because it’s all I can do, but it got a bit weird and tangential and about writers kissing behind shelving units – and I decided to keep things a bit simpler.

When they took me on, three of them took me to lunch at this lovely Italian in Shepherd’s Bush. And I can’t make conversation and I’m not very good at eating spaghetti, and I was quite a lot weirder and lonelier than I am now – and I’m quite weird and lonely now – and they made me feel so important – so cared for. I was going through a stage of being quite into horoscopes at the time – thinking they meant something – which in all probability they might do – and Nick was asking me kindly about this – as he probably regretted even being there – and he said – ‘So was your horoscope today upbeat? Because it probably should be. Because you’re going to be published!’

I remember walking home that day and thinking, ‘I’m going to be published! Who on earth would want to do that? I’m going to have an ISBN!’ And yet they made me feel like they’re the ones who should be grateful. And that’s how the relationship continued. With care, attention and just incredible generosity.

My first colour – spine colours are important in the Nick Hern universe and something that is taken very seriously – was pink, for my first play When You Cure Me. I then had puce, purple and red; I’ve been through blues, greys, greens and whites – and now I’m back at what I think is magenta. Now I know, because I keep them stacked on my shelf, that these colours have been carefully thought about. Nothing ever gets repeated, everything always means something. My first play about the Labour Party,  2nd May 1997, they put in a beautiful red cover. My second play about the Labour Party,  Hope [published in 2014], they put in a greyish black. Not that they were casting aspersions but – you know…

Jack Thorne’s published plays – including When You Cure Me, 2nd May 1997 and Hope

And that is the attention they put into everything – and it is an appalling job when you think about it. The majority of what they publish are live plays – currently in rehearsal: that means the majority of writers they deal with are in the middle of what is essentially an existentialist nightmare. I went back through some emails I’d written to them, looking desperately for anything interesting or funny, and all I found was panic, sheer unadulterated panic, from me – and then calm, brilliant, soothing words from them. Nick reminded me I’d been with them twelve years – during which they’ve published thirteen books of mine. I looked through the emails I sent them and there are hundreds – and the abiding word is ‘Sorry’ – or ‘Dead sorry’. Generally because I’ve missed a deadline, or misunderstood something, or let them down in some way. And the chastisement I deserve as a result never arrives – and I don’t think I’m alone.

My First Play, published to celebrate NHB’s 25th anniversary in 2013

But this is the thing – as I understand it – and this should make us all feel a lot better: this is all Nick Hern’s fault. Stemming from, if my sources are correct, the publishing of Stephen Poliakoff’s Hitting Town. To quote from Nick’s introduction to the book My First Play: ‘At that time Methuen was still publishing all its plays in both hardback and paperback and publishing them some months after the premiere. Coming from teaching in the provinces [at the University of Hull] where we needed immediate access to the plays that London was seeing, I was determined to short-circuit this cumbersome publication procedure.’

A publisher born of the need to read Pinter and his generation as soon as London was being lucky enough to see it. A genuine revolutionary. Nick is a man who values the playwright and the play above all things, and took those values into his own company. As someone who similarly wasn’t living in London and who would order all the Royal Court plays (which I discovered were remarkably cheap) as soon as they came out – I think that democratic intent is extraordinary.

Thank you for doing a beautiful job with every play, thank you for always finding something nice to say – even when the play is terrible – thank you for being revolutionaries – and thank you for your extreme generosity in all things.

And I am one of many. In fact, I’m one of hundreds. For thirty years this glorious company has been publishing beautiful plays and making every one of their writers feel like they matter and that people need to read them – and that is a glory.

I tried to work out today how many writers they have on their list. I discovered rather neatly that there are ninety-nine pages of authors – I think that amounts to close to a thousand writers – with everyone from Hassan Abdulrazzak and David Bowie to Tom Wells and Alexis Zegerman on their list. And I bet if you talked to any of those people they’d tell you how valued they felt. And that’s the thing. Yes, they publish Caryl Churchill – but they also publish and treasure many others who do not get the limelight or acclaim and who never will – and I know they make them all feel like they’ve made me feel. Which is like I matter and that my plays matter.

As a writer, I treasure being part of Nick Hern Books. As a reader, I treasure having Nick Hern books. I treasure them because they’re all bloody good – it is a company with, myself excluded, immense taste – and I treasure them because I know they were made with love, with thought and with joy.

All four speakers at NHB’s 30th Birthday Party: (l-r) Jack Thorne, Indhu Rubasingham, Nick Hern and Matt Applewhite (photo by Dan Wooller)

The text of Jack Thorne’s speech has been slightly abridged for its appearance here.

Nick Hern Books is celebrating its 30th anniversary in 2018 – visit our website to stay up to date with everything that’s happening throughout the year.

Lucy Kirkwood (The Nick Hern Books Anniversary Interviews)

Lucy Kirkwood is a leading playwright whose plays include the hugely acclaimed Chimerica. She spoke to theatre journalist Al Senter as part of our interview series celebrating the thirtieth anniversary of Nick Hern Books in 2018

Lucy Kirkwood has come a great distance in a remarkably short period of time. In the ten years since her debut play Tinderbox, a dystopian farce in which England is quite literally disappearing beneath the waves, premiered at the Bush Theatre, she has established herself as one of the leading voices of her generation. Her major breakthrough came in 2013 with Chimerica, her extraordinarily bold and gripping dissection of global geopolitics and Chinese-American relations, which transferred directly from the Almeida Theatre to the West End, with a major four-part TV series now on the way from Channel 4. And then two plays focussing, in quite different ways, on the moral responsibilities of contemporary scientists: The Children,  which premiered at the Royal Court in 2016; and Mosquitoes, at the National Theatre in 2017, starring Olivia Colman and Olivia Williams as rival sisters who have followed very different paths in life.

Lucy Kirkwood’s Tinderbox, published by Nick Hern Books in 2008

As a playwright, she has never backed away from tackling the most pressing issues of our times, and her work has been garlanded with awards. Yet she is wary of the slippery concept of success. Before turning to writing, she had done a smidgeon of acting and tried her hand at directing, but found neither fitted her particular talents. She credits her agent, Mel Kenyon at Casarotto Ramsay & Associates, with giving her the confidence to start writing. ‘She invited me in for a cup of tea and when she offered to take me on as a client, I felt galvanised,’ explains Lucy. ‘I’d always written and I’d always been attracted to the theatre. I love the medium – there’s something about the liveness of it which excites me. And I love the process, which you don’t get in any other medium. Here is a group of people gathered together in a room – in a rehearsal room – to interrogate, to ask questions of the play, of the director, of each other, until something unexpected emerges. And I find that very sustaining and often very beautiful.’

Francesca Annis and Deborah Findlay in Lucy Kirkwood’s The Children at the Royal Court Theatre in 2016 (photo by Johan Persson)

She draws a pointed contrast with the world of TV and film, where she also has considerable experience: she was a lead writer on Skins, created fire-fighting drama series The Smoke for Sky 1, and is exec-producing Channel 4’s Chimerica. ‘When you are working on a film or a television drama, the time I need as a writer is at a premium. Television people may pay you more money, but getting an agreement or a green light out of them is very hard, mainly because they won’t take the risk of getting it wrong and ending everybody’s career.’

Is the screen more competitive than theatre – or more hostile, perhaps, to writers?

‘I tend to pick my battles at the right time and in the right area. Since I am the person who mostly sits on a chair, having relatively little to do by that stage, they’ll tend to agree with me when I point out something to the team. It may only be a tiny detail but they’ll agree to do whatever it is with an “of course”.’

In her plays, she writes unsparingly about the tensions between women, either as workplace competitors (NSFW, at the Royal Court in 2012), or as rival siblings (Mosquitoes). Lucy is patently not afraid of breaching female solidarity, pointing out that ‘if they are not in conflict with one another, where’s the play? That’s the whole point.’

Olivia Colman and Olivia Williams in Lucy Kirkwood’s Mosquitoes at the National Theatre in 2017 (photo by Brinkhoff Mogenburg)

Lucy is careful not to sound triumphalist when her ‘success’ is discussed. She prefers to reference Samuel Beckett: ‘I feel very lucky that with every bit of work I do, I think that I fail better. My one ambition is to write a play as good as Far Away by Caryl Churchill, and I don’t have a lot of confidence about whether or not I’ll be good enough. I tend to write my plays at night; there’s something almost clandestine about it. And seeing my plays in performance is very nerve-wracking. I always sit at the back of the auditorium, ready to make a quick getaway if necessary. I find the audience very strange. It’s as if here is a group of people who have been invited to watch me peel away layers of my own skin. And I find it impossible to predict how an audience will take to a play: which lines get laughs one night, and which are greeted with silence the next. Yet the moment you think you can predict how an audience will react, the work begins to suffer.’

Success, then, she defines as ‘just writing something which you think is good’. As a salutary warning, Lucy mentions the figure of the late Arnold Wesker, whose early success with plays such as Chicken Soup with Barley and Roots, which both came to the Royal Court after premiering at the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry in the late-50s, gave way to neglect when his work later fell out of fashion. Why does Wesker appeal to her?

‘His work is beautifully written, with well-crafted ideas given robust expression with political passion and understanding. All you can hope for in the theatre is that people will continue to want to direct your work and that you avoid writing plays that are inward-looking.’

Benedict Wong in Lucy Kirkwood’s Chimerica at the Almeida Theatre in 2013 (photo by Es Devlin)

There is no shortage of new plays being written, and in the jostling for exposure, new plays can lose out when they are denied further productions, especially outside the metropolis. Lucy feels drawn in two opposing directions on this subject.

‘I tend to get bored listening to my voice, and I often feel I’d rather be watching a new play written by somebody else rather than a revival of my own work that is too familiar. I think that a lot of writers secretly have their favourites among their plays, and it varies from day to day which they like the most.’

She stresses the importance of having her plays published. ‘My publisher Nick Hern is one of the first people to read a new play of mine, and the email which he sends me after he has read it is one of the highlights of the production process, like the conversation we’ll have about the design of the book covers, for example. I feel that the people involved in the publication process are just as important as the individuals contributing to the production. In a sense, the published text is a valuable record of what went on in the rehearsal room. It’s part of stating that the play has arrived.’


Lucy Kirkwood’s plays are published by Nick Hern Books, including the collection Plays: One, which contains Chimerica as well as four other plays.

Other Nick Hern Books Anniversary Interviewees include Harriet Walter and Rona Munro. Catch up with them all here.