Rona Munro (The Nick Hern Books Anniversary Interviews)

Continuing our series of interviews with our leading authors and playwrights, commissioned to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of Nick Hern Books in 2018, theatre journalist Al Senter talks to playwright and screenwriter Rona Munro…

Born and raised in Aberdeen, Scotland’s venerable Granite City, writer Rona Munro has recently transported herself to the other end of Scotland. She now lives in the Scottish Borders, a land that was once home to Sir Walter Scott ­– and, like Scott, Rona seems to draw inspiration from an extraordinarily diverse range of sources.

There cannot be many writers whose work is as wildly heterogeneous as hers. Her breakthrough 1990 play Bold Girls (revived at Glasgow’s Citizens Theatre earlier this year, and again at Keswick’s Theatre by the Lake later this month) is set in Belfast at the height of the Troubles, and features a raucous girls’ night out. Then there’s a comically sinister whodunnit (Your Turn to Clean the Stair); a wild and fantastical tale set in nineteenth-century Scotland (The Maiden Stone); a sweet theatrical rom-com set in Montréal (Strawberries in January, based on a play by French-Canadian playwright Evelyne de la Chenelière); and an intense psychological drama set in a women’s prison (Iron). She’s written about obsessive mountaineers (Long Time Dead), the Soviet space programme (Little Eagles), the last woman to be executed for witchcraft in Scotland (The Last Witch) and the youth gangs of nineteenth-century Manchester (Scuttlers). She’s adapted Lorca and Elizabeth Gaskell, and even turned Shakespeare inside out (in The Indian Boy). Her adaptation of Elizabeth Strout’s novel My Name is Lucy Barton is now playing at the Bridge Theatre, London, in a production directed by Richard Eyre and starring Laura Linney. And, in a major coup for fans of Ian Rankin’s morose Edinburgh detective John Rebus, it was recently announced that she has been working with Rankin on a new Rebus story, written exclusively for the stage. Rebus: Long Shadows premieres at Birmingham Repertory Theatre in September.

Bold Girls by Rona Munro at Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, January 2018 (photo by Tim Morozzo)

She has worked widely in radio, film and television, too. She is, according to those who study these things, the only writer to connect the ‘classic’ Doctor Who years with the rebooted version of life in the TARDIS.

Rona is now perhaps best known as the author of the astonishingly ambitious historical trilogy The James Plays, which premiered at the Edinburgh International Festival in 2014 before transferring to the National Theatre in London. An epic cycle chronicling three generations of Stewart kings who ruled Scotland in the fifteenth century, the plays succeeded in finding a Scottish equivalent to Shakespeare’s history plays. Undaunted by the obscurity of her material, Rona blew the dust off this turbulent and tumultuous period of Scottish history, finding modern resonances in the lives of her medieval kings and – notably – their resourceful wives and mothers. ‘The scope is Shakespearean,’ proclaimed The Times, ‘yet Munro applies a contemporary sensibility to her medieval characters, who talk and swear in modern tongue.’

The James Plays by Rona Munro, National Theatre of Scotland, 2014 (photo by Manuel Harlan)

Rona, it seems, has an urgent appetite for stories. When quizzed about her seemingly boundless versatility, she downplays her protean character. It is all down to ‘cashflow’, she says, a simple matter of the need to make a living. Yet there are a number of other reasons to accept the challenge of a commission. It is clear that she is a highly sociable writer who values the personal relationships she has developed with certain directors down the years. She gives a roll call of some of her favourite collaborators, from the Birmingham Rep’s Roxana Silbert to Sarah Frankcom at the Manchester Royal Exchange and Laurie Sansom, the former Artistic Director of the National Theatre of Scotland.

Do these people have anything in common?

‘If you’re going to work intensively with someone on a project for six months but you’re not going to enjoy it on a personal level, what’s the point of doing it in the first place?’ asks Rona. ‘I shall always be interested if I have an established relationship with a director and a kind of shorthand has developed between us. I suppose you develop an understanding with them, and so they get what you are trying to do. The people I enjoy working with are the ones who are also very good at spotting where you haven’t served your script to its best advantage, and they’re not afraid to say that what you’ve come up with is shite.’

Has she ever had a bad experience with a director? ‘Oddly enough, I am always being asked about directors ‘sullying’ my work. However, I have never come across such people, apart from the occasional snob who is snooty about pantomime, for instance. Nobody is trying to ‘destroy’ my work.’

Oranges and Sunshine, dir. Jim Loach, wr. Rona Munro

Unusually, she has worked with both Ken Loach (she wrote the screenplay for his 1994 film Ladybird Ladybird, about a woman’s fight with Social Services over the care of her children) and his son Jim Loach (for whom she wrote the screenplay to Oranges and Sunshine, about a social worker who holds the British government accountable for child migration schemes). ‘These were wonderful experiences,’ she says. ‘Ken effectively taught me how to write for the screen.’

Her high level of productivity is partly practical. ‘Any writer who wants to make a living needs to be prolific, and you need to have as many other strings to your bow as possible. Sometimes I think that I haven’t been as successful in established television series as I could have been because I find it hard to blend into the background. I’m too much of an individual, perhaps, and I don’t enjoy pitching ideas for long-running series.’

Rona refers frequently to luck as an active force in her career. ‘There have been times in my career when I’ve been extremely broke, but I’ve also been very lucky and I haven’t needed to take on work simply to pay the bills.’

She is refreshingly down to earth about her work, with no trace of ego. She is serious, yes, but grand never. ‘Iron is one of the most successful of my plays,’ she says, ‘And if anybody knows why it has done so well, can they please tell me? Then I could write another one like it.’

Iron by Rona Munro at New Venture Theatre, Brighton, 2011 (photo and set design by Strat Mastoris)

Even if she has experienced quieter moments in her career, Rona seems never to have had any doubts about her vocation. A cousin of her mother’s, the writer Angus McVicar, was a shining example of the literary life, and Rona also praises a series of inspirational English teachers. ‘Uncle Angus was simply a fantastic story-teller, and I decided at the age of eight that I wanted to be a writer too. My parents were also very encouraging. Nobody told me not to bother.’

Rona is relishing her return to her native soil. Scottish theatre is in a good place at the moment, she feels, with a healthy climate for new plays in particular. ‘The nice thing about having a Scottish base again is that you have the support of your friends and peers. There is a great support system between writers which transcends any natural tendency to jealousy. Two of my closest friends are the writers Linda McLean and Stephen Greenhorn, and we wouldn’t stab each other in the back. We enjoy a drink and a blether, and there is no sense of rivalry between us. Nor is it compulsory to live in London. People don’t generally realise that you have left London, as long as you turn up for meetings.’

Rona Munro and cast member Lucianne McEvoy in rehearsal for Bold Girls at Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, 2018 (photo by Tim Morozzo)

She pays a warm tribute to the publisher of her plays, Nick Hern. ‘Nick came into my career very early, and it is thanks to him that I was able to experience the thrill of seeing my name in print. He is really quite an inspirational person who has often persuaded me to publish plays which I felt would not sell, and yet he was always right. By pioneering the programme/text, where the playtext is reproduced inside the programme that is sold alongside performances of the play, Nick has made a real difference to the career of every playwright based in the UK. The programme/text has proved itself to be a kind of public service for new writers. It’s been an absolute gift. It enables you to hand over a copy of your play, and when you present it to people, they look at you with increased respect. It’s a kind of calling card, I suppose. Thank you, Nick.’


Rona Munro’s plays are published by Nick Hern Books, including a new edition of Bold Girls, published this month alongside the revival at Keswick’s Theatre by the Lake (21 June – 24 October).

To buy a copy of Bold Girls for just £7.99 (20% off the RRP), visit our website.

Read all our Anniversary Interviews, including one with actor Harriet Walter, available here.

Photograph of Rona Munro by Colin Hattersley.

‘Reaching out for life in a new country’: Winsome Pinnock on her play Leave Taking

Winsome Pinnock’s play Leave Taking, about a Caribbean family living in North London, is as powerful today as it was when it was first performed in 1987. As a major new production opens at the Bush Theatre in London, the author reveals how she came to write it, and how it was inspired by her own family story…

I hadn’t read Leave Taking for several years when Madani Younis, Artistic Director of the Bush Theatre, told me that he wanted to revive the play as part of the theatre’s 2018 season. He said that he and the Bush’s creative team considered the play a classic in the canon of work by black British playwrights and that they felt that it remained relevant: Enid’s predicament – the plight of many immigrants regardless of where they come from, caught between worlds – reaching out for life in a new country, haunted by memories of what she has left behind.

On the first day of rehearsals at the Bush I was asked to talk to the cast about how I came to write the play, the first full-length play I had ever written. I found it difficult to answer the question. Engaging with the text again had put me in conversation with my younger self, who I felt was a presence in the rehearsal room. I wished that she could answer for me.

Seraphina Beh in rehearsals for Leave Taking at the Bush Theatre, 2018 (photo © Helen Murray)

I developed a passion for theatre and performance as a child of around twelve years old when, with generous grants from the GLC (Greater London Council), our school took us on visits to the theatre. I wouldn’t have gone otherwise. There wasn’t enough money in our household to afford such trips and there wasn’t enough time either. The interest was awoken, and, along with my younger sister, I became part of a group of young people who became regular theatregoers. We were given the resources (by our school, youth theatres and drama clubs) to dance, act and write. My mother offered quiet encouragement. When I doubted myself, she reminded me that success was usually a matter of holding on, of seeing things through to the end. When I expressed a desire to play the piano I came home from school one day to discover that she had purchased a piano so old it had a few missing keys, but it was functional. She found me a teacher: Miss Wright who lived off the Holloway Road and taught local kids to play at 15p a lesson. My mother and siblings listened tirelessly to the stories I wrote as a child; I was the acknowledged writer of the family.

My mother migrated from Jamaica to the United Kingdom in 1959, following her husband-to-be who, like Enid’s spouse in Leave Taking, saved his salary for a whole year before he was able to afford the money to buy a ticket for her passage over. The shock and disappointment of those who migrated to the UK at that time is well documented. My parents’ generation had been indoctrinated by a colonialist education that lionised all things British. They celebrated Empire Day (24th May) when their schools distributed British flags and lollipops. Despite their disappointment on entering a country whose environment was often hostile (‘No blacks, no dogs, no Irish!’), they didn’t complain and rarely discussed the hardships. After all, they had grown up on plantation villages where the legacy of enslavement was still evident in the wretched poverty they endured. Jamaica achieved independence the year that my youngest sibling was born. My parents’ marriage disintegrated a few years later, and my mother became a single parent to four young children at a time when there was still stigma attached to divorce.

Sarah Niles and Wil Johnson in rehearsals for Leave Taking at the Bush Theatre, 2018 (photo © Helen Murray)

Writers are given their preoccupations at birth. I am the descendant of enslaved Africans who were forcibly denied the right to the written word, or to express themselves through art or song and yet held on to aspects of their African heritage in both. Traces of African spiritual rituals were preserved by clandestine practices like obeah, which was made illegal in Jamaica in 1898, a law that remains on the statute books. Despite its illegality, my mother and some of her peers retained an interest in obeah, consulting obeah men and women in times of crisis for advice and healing.

As a schoolgirl I thought I was going to be an actress. I idolised Glenda Jackson and longed to follow in her footsteps. When I left school, the headmistress predicted that I had a future in the industry. At university I was told that, although I was considered a talented actress, I probably wouldn’t be cast in many productions because I was black. I focused on my writing. I had started writing a play (a sketch really) about two girls getting ready to go out but never managing to leave their bedroom. I sent it to the Royal Court Young Writers’ Group and was invited to join. It was there that I wrote Leave Taking, my first full-length play, when I was twenty-three years old. I wanted to make Enid the heroine of the play because I couldn’t recall ever seeing such a character – a hospital cleaner – as the lead in a British play. I specifically wanted to write about the black British experience as distinct from African American culture because producers often seemed to think that they are interchangeable. I submitted the play to the Royal Court’s literary department who sent me an encouraging rejection letter.

I knuckled down to write another play – A Hero’s Welcome – which received a rehearsed reading at the Royal Court. As a result of the reading I was commissioned by the Liverpool Playhouse Studio and dusted off Leave Taking, restructuring and rewriting to their financial requirements – the budget would only allow for five characters and two sets, so I cut characters and locations. This meant that I could focus more on Enid’s relationship with her daughters, Del and Viv. I was a young feminist. At consciousness-raising groups the mantra ‘the personal is political’ was drummed into me. Similarly, at the Royal Court Young Writers’ Group we were encouraged by workshop leaders Hanif Kureishi and Stephen Wakelam to ‘write what you know’. I now understand that you write what you come to know. Writing is an exploration, the pursuit of the answer to an unanswerable question. I started out wanting to write about the daughters – this new breed of black British woman – but ended up fascinated by Enid and the complexity of her relationship with England, her daughters, and herself, as well as her long-standing friendship with Brod whom she has known since childhood. Brod and Enid have travelled a great distance, both physically and psychologically. They would not have survived without each other. Mai is an enigmatic figure, especially for Viv and Del who have no direct connection with the culture she represents, but she comes to have a powerful influence on all of them.

Adjoa Andoh and Seraphina Beh in rehearsals for Leave Taking at the Bush Theatre, 2018 (photo © Helen Murray)

Leave Taking has been produced four times (the 2018 Bush production will be its fifth production) since 1987. Years after the play was produced at the National Theatre (1994) I was told that it was the first play written by a black British woman to have been produced there. I also learned that it was the first time that a black woman writer and director (Paulette Randall) had worked together at the venue. After the first performances of the play at the Liverpool Playhouse Studio women from different cultural backgrounds collared me to say: ‘That’s my story. I’m Enid’ or ‘That’s my mam. She’s just like Enid.’

The young woman who wrote Leave Taking had no idea that a generation who were very young children or who hadn’t been born when it was first produced would feel that the play still speaks to their experience. I hope it will connect with new audiences in the same way. Some of the speeches feel as though they were written recently: Brod’s words about having to seek naturalisation after thinking of himself as a British citizen for his whole life echo words spoken thirty years later by victims of the 2018 Windrush scandal (a misnomer considering it involves immigrants from diverse backgrounds and not just the Caribbean).

When I was a child my mother told me that she thought that I might have a gift for clairvoyance. I understand now that she had always instinctively known that I was a writer. It’s not that writers are necromancers, but when I read the play I raise again the spirits of those characters. I hear their voices very clearly; I see my younger self consulting with my mother, asking her how you make chocolate tea, and hear her ribbing me all over again about the royalties I owe her or joking that I should credit her as co-writer. I experience again the writing of the scene where Enid breaks down. I know what that feels like now because I have lived through it. I want to ask that young woman if, when she wrote the play, she would ever have imagined that she too would one day howl with grief into a rainy London night after witnessing her mother take her last breath just as Enid howls for a mother she will never hold again.


Reproduced from the new edition of Leave Taking by Winsome Pinnock, published on 24 May 2018 by Nick Hern Books.

To buy your copy for just £7.99 (20% off the RRP), visit the Nick Hern Books website here.

Leave Taking is revived at the Bush Theatre, London, 24 May – 30 June 2018. To book tickets, visit the Bush Theatre website.

Author photo by Bronwen Sharp.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or perhaps most appropriately for this particular evening:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Author photograph of Caryl Churchill by Stephen Cummiskey.

‘Let’s not forget how far we have come’: Mark Gatiss on remembering gay history in Queers

gatiss-mark.jpgJuly 2017 sees the fiftieth anniversary of the 1967 Sexual Offences Act, which partially decriminalised sex between men over twenty-one in the privacy of their own homes in England and Wales. When the BBC approached writer, actor and director Mark Gatiss to curate Queers, a series of monologues to mark the anniversary, he got to work straight away. Here, he explains the inspirations behind the eight pieces, and reflects on where the LGBT+ community stands today.

When I was a child, Friday nights were sacrosanct because it was then – after the late sports report – that Tyne Tees Television showed horror films. I would sometimes watch them in company, but more often than not I was left by myself to sit up and watch. In the summer, the slot was occupied by more palatable fare but, used to my horrors, my family duly left me alone. One night – I think I was about twelve or thirteen – there was a film called if… I knew nothing about it except that the Northern Echo gave it five stars and a ‘don’t miss!’

An English public school. Boys returning from the holidays. And, within minutes, a beautiful blond boy is being castigated by a prefect with the words ‘And you, Phillips, stop tarting.’ I felt my heart thud in my chest, my mouth go dry. As the film unfolded, I found myself more tense and gripped than by any horror film I’d ever seen. I became more and more afraid that someone would come downstairs and catch me watching, spoil it all, spoil the illicit thrill…

I’d known I was gay since before I could really understand what such a thing meant. And, just as I had pored over the men’s underwear section of the Brian Mills catalogue in search of titillation (it was slim pickings in those days), I had scoured the TV schedules for anything that might have even a glimmer of homosexual content. From my first crushes (Craig in The Champions and the dark one off Follyfoot, in case you’re wondering) to the first stirrings of something nameless and exciting whilst watching a particular adventure of The Tomorrow People. Jason Kemp, the actor in that episode, later turned up in the ITV drama Kids, playing a brilliantly acerbic Scouse queen. I think I responded both to his physical beauty and his blazing queerness which, like all the best things, felt both exciting and a little bit scary.

These fragments, then, these little moments of visible gayness were like diamonds in the TV schedules. To be savoured, hoarded up and remembered forever.

These days, of course, we do not have to scour the schedules in the same way. There are visible gay characters in many mainstream dramas. Nevertheless, the commitment of the BBC to their ‘Gay Britannia’ season is still a massive cause for celebration. So when I was approached with the idea of curating a series of monologues for the fiftieth anniversary of the 1967 Sexual Offences Act, I leapt at the chance.

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Mark Gatiss on the set of Queers | © BBC, Photograph: Richard Ansett

But where to start? Well, with a qualification. Queers commemorates an Act of Parliament which partially decriminalised sex between men over twenty-one in the privacy of their own homes in England and Wales. It would not become law in Scotland until 1980 and in Northern Ireland until 1982. In curating this series I have not attempted to cover the entire history of LGBT+ representation in Britain over the past century. Rather, I wanted, predominantly, to examine the gay male experience, looking at the world leading up to the 1967 Act and the years which have followed, tracing the extraordinary progress that’s been made, but from a variety of unexpected angles.

Anti-gay legislation in the modern era really began with the passing of the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885, the so-called ‘Labouchere Amendment’, prohibiting ‘gross indecency between males’. This became known almost at once as ‘the blackmailer’s charter’ and was the law that ensnared Oscar Wilde. Wilde seemed an obvious place to start the monologues, but as I wanted to encompass the century, perhaps it could be from the perspective of someone with a memory of Oscar Wilde? Perhaps someone on the railway platform that infamous day he was taken to Reading Gaol? From this sprang the idea of Perce, a stretcher-bearer in the trenches of World War One and a love that almost spoke its name…

Though the series, as I’ve said, was to reflect mostly the gay male experience, I did want to include some female perspectives. I discovered the extraordinary story of Lillias Irma Valerie Arkell-Smith – known as Colonel Barker – who had lived as a man, even going so far as to marry a woman. I thought this could be the basis of a fascinating story and from it, Jackie Clune wove The Perfect Gentleman and its unexpected take on the notion of masculinity.

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Kadiff Kirwan (Fredrick) on the set of Queers |© BBC, Photograph: Richard Ansett

What was it like to be a black gay man in the past? Although there was a thriving ‘queer’ demi-monde in America in the twenties and thirties, it only seems to have touched the fringes of the jazz scene in this country. It was astonishing, in fact, to discover how little is known about black gay sub-culture at that time. I re-read the biography of the artist Glyn Philpot and thought there might be something interesting in the notion of being an ‘exotic’ life model at that time. This, together with the story of Patrick Nelson – who was one of Duncan Grant’s lovers – provided Keith Jarrett with the inspiration for Safest Spot in Town.

In 1957 came the Wolfenden Report. This was the beginning of change, though it would take a further decade for the law to actually pass. But what aspect of this period to examine? Jon Bradfield pitched me Missing Alice – an idea with which I instantly fell in love. A woman happily married to a gay man who worries that increasing liberalisation might make him leave her. What a lovely, simple notion. A tiny Terence Rattigan play, as it were.

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Rebecca Front (Alice) and Mark Gatiss on the set of Queers | © BBC, Photograph: Richard Ansett

When I first moved to London I remember being invited to what seemed to me quite a sophisticated gay party. What I’ll never forget is chatting to an elderly man, waspish, hilarious and who lapsed into Polari at the drop of a feather boa. ‘It was never the same, you know, dear, after it was legal,’ he said. ‘All the fun went out of it.’ I wanted to use this as a jumping-off point, to explore the notion that not everyone saw legalisation as a good thing. Matthew Baldwin, who had already co-written a fascinating play about ’67 called The Act, was the natural choice to write I Miss the War.

With the eighties, the shadow of AIDS, of course, looms, as monolithic as those tombstone TV ads we grew so used to. This was the time in which I grew up as a gay man. But how to approach this period and this subject which might feel like it’s prey to cliché? Happily, Brian Fillis came up with More Anger about a young gay actor who finds the health crisis affecting him in unexpected ways.

By 1994, change was in the air and the House of Commons voted to lower the homosexual age of consent. I was there that night as big crowds gathered to hear the – as it turned out, disappointing – result. Michael Dennis was also there – though we didn’t know each other at the time. His memories of that experience and of being a young man enjoying the big city for the first time became A Grand Day Out.

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Russell Tovey (Phil) and Mark Gatiss on the set of Queers | © BBC, Photograph: Richard Ansett

Finally, Something Borrowed brings us – almost – to the present day and the preparations for a wedding. I wanted to celebrate this amazing state of affairs, unthinkable just a short time ago, but also to explore what might have got lost along the way. The notion of being different, an outsider, other; that illicit thrill I felt watching if… all those years ago. Gareth McLean’s monologue asks some tough questions without providing easy answers.

As we see every day, hard-won victories can be undone with the stroke of a presidential pen. Homosexuality remains illegal in seventy-four countries. In thirteen of them, it is punishable by death. But let’s not forget how far we have come. And that we stand on the shoulders of giants.

Curating and directing Queers has been a wonderful journey, and I’d like to thank everyone involved – from the BBC to the writers, the actors, the crew and the publishers – for making it an unforgettable experience.


FormattedThis is taken from the introduction to Queers: Eight Monologues, published by Nick Hern Books in partnership with the BBC.

Curated by Mark Gatiss, and written by Mark and seven other authors – Jackie Clune, Keith Jarrett, Jon Bradfield, Matthew Baldwin, Brian Fillis, Michael Dennis and Gareth McLean – these eight monologues for male and female performers celebrate a century of evolving social attitudes and political milestones in British gay history, through deeply affecting and personal rites-of-passage stories.

The monologues will be performed at Old Vic Theatre, London, and broadcast on BBC Four

To get your copy at a special 25% discount – so just £7.49 – use code QUEERSBLOG when ordering here.

‘One of the great artistic privileges of my life’: Conor McPherson on writing and directing Girl from the North Country

Fresh from his acclaimed TV debut Paula on BBC Two, award-winning Irish playwright Conor McPherson’s latest project sees him weave the masterful songs of Nobel Prize laureate Bob Dylan into a poetic, haunting tale of love, loss and obligation set in Minnesota during the Great Depression. As Girl from the North Country premieres at the Old Vic Theatre, London, McPherson reflects on how he found the inspiration for the show, and his deep respect for Bob Dylan’s skills as a musician and writer…

Maybe five years ago I was asked if I might consider writing a play to feature Bob Dylan’s songs. I initially didn’t feel this was something I could do and I had cast it out of my mind when, one day, walking along, I saw a vision of a guesthouse in Minnesota in the 1930s.

I had been in Minnesota twice in the years leading up to this – both times in the dead of winter. The friendliness of the people, the dry frozen wind, the vast distance from home, these things had stayed with me. And I saw a way Mr Dylan’s songs might make sense in a play.

I was invited to write down the idea I had seen and send it to Bob Dylan. A few days later I heard back that Mr Dylan liked the idea and was happy for me to proceed. Just like that.

Ron Cook rehearsing Girl from the North Country at the Old Vic. Photo by Manuel Harlan

And then I received forty albums in the post, covering Mr Dylan’s career. While I owned Dylan albums already, like Desire and Blood on the Tracks, and loved many of his songs (often without knowing he’d written them) performed by hundreds of artists from The Byrds to Fairport Convention, I had no idea of the real search he had been on his whole life.

It strikes me that many of Mr Dylan’s songs can be sung at any time, by anyone in any situation, and still make sense and resonate with that particular place and person and time. When you realise this you can no longer have any doubt you are in the presence of a truly great, unique artist.

Working on our production of Girl from the North Country, sometimes I would wake in the night with a Bob Dylan song going round in my head. The next day I would come into rehearsals and we’d learn the song and put it in the show. Did it fit? Did it matter? It always fit somehow.

Many books have been written in an attempt to explore this universal power. Even though Mr Dylan will say he’s often not sure what his songs mean, he always sings them like he means them. Because he does mean them. Whatever they mean.

Sheila Atim rehearsing Girl from the North Country at the Old Vic. Photo by Manuel Harlan

Every time I hear these songs I see a picture like I’m watching a movie. Sometimes it’s the same, sometimes it’s different, but you always see something.

Like Philip Larkin, like James Joyce, Mr Dylan has the rare power of literary compression. Images and conceits are held in unstable relations, forcing an atomic reaction of some kind, creating a new inner world.

But let’s talk about his musicality. Spending time with his music has taught me a few things: Firstly, writing something that sounds original is rare, but writing something that sounds original and simple at the same time is the mark of genius. Anyone can keep making things more complicated, but to keep a song simple, like it somehow always existed and would have surely been written by someone, someday… try writing that one.

Secondly, Mr Dylan always goes through the right musical door. Listening to a Bob Dylan song is like being in a room you’ve never been in before. It’s full of characters and images and tons of musical atmosphere. But then Bob changes the chords, moving through a bridge or a chorus, and a door opens up in that room, so you go through that door into another room – but it’s always the right door.

Thirdly, Mr Dylan sings about God a lot. Sometimes God appears as an impossible reflection of yourself. Sometimes as someone you could never know. But however God appears, however Mr Dylan begs for mercy, you understand that cry.

The company rehearsing Girl from the North Country at the Old Vic. Photo by Manuel Harlan

Anyway, I write this on the eve of moving from the rehearsal room to the theatre. Whatever happens next I have no idea. All I can say with any certainty is that having had Mr Dylan’s trust to create a piece of work using his songs has been one of the great artistic privileges of my life.


This introduction is taken from the published script to Girl from the North Country by Conor McPherson, which includes the full text of the play plus the lyrics to all of the Bob Dylan songs featured in the production.

Get your copy via our website at a 20% discount – no voucher code required – here.

Girl from the North Country is at the Old Vic, London, until 7 October 2017. Tickets available here.

Author photo by Mel Melcon.

‘One of the greatest ever collaborators’: Enda Walsh on working with David Bowie

Enda Walsh Now playing in London following its premiere in New York last year, new musical Lazarus marks a unique collaboration between the playwright Enda Walsh and legendary singer and songwriter David Bowie – featuring many of the latter’s most famous songs. Though nobody realised at the time, the production turned out to be one of Bowie’s final projects, opening just weeks before his death in January 2016. Here, Walsh recalls what it was like to work with Bowie, and pays tribute to the unending genius of this singularly visionary artist…

David Bowie had passed me a four-page document to read so we could begin our discussions on writing a new story with his songs – and based upon the character of Thomas Newton from the Walter Tevis novel The Man Who Fell to Earth – which David had famously played in the Nicolas Roeg film. In the room was the theatre and film producer Robert Fox and David’s right hand, Coco Schwab. As I started to read those four pages, the room was very quiet.

Earlier, I had been feeling very calm and detached as I walked towards David’s building with Robert – as we stood in the elevator, as that ridiculously wide office door opened, and Mr David Bowie was standing there. He hugged me and the first thing he said to me was ‘You’ve been in my head for three weeks.’ We sat and we chatted about my work (he had read everything) and why I was writing the way I was – and what themes kept returning into my plays like a nasty itch. I spent that whole morning and now this first hour of our first meeting in a state of serene self-confidence.

David Bowie

‘David Fucking Bowie’
(Photo: Frank W Ockenfels 3)

It was only at the moment when he said, ‘This is where I’d like to start’, when he pushed those four pages towards me, that I was hit with the realisation that I was sitting opposite this cultural icon – this man who had created so much and influenced so many. This bloody genius. David Fucking Bowie. I felt like a child – and at that point of silently ‘reading’ – a child who had once the ability to read words but had forgotten how to read. I scanned the first page and all I heard was interference – my own insecurities screaming at me.

I stopped reading, took a deep breath and read from the first line again.

David had written three new characters around Thomas Newton (the stranded alien, seemingly immortal and definitely stuck). There was a Girl who may or may not be real; a ‘mass murderer’ called Valentine; and a character of a woman who thought she might be Emma Lazarus (the American poet whose poem ‘The New Colossus’ is engraved on the base of the Statue of Liberty) – a woman in this case who would help and fall in love with this most travelled of immigrants – Thomas Newton.

At the centre of these four pages was a simple, powerful image: Thomas Newton would build a rocket from debris. His mind, having further deteriorated, would torture and tease him with the dream of escape; and in his imprisonment – in his room in this big tower – Newton would try one last time to leave.

So this is where we started.

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Michael C Hall (Newton), Sophia Anne Caruso (Girl) in Lazarus | Photo: Johan Persson

We talked around the characters and the themes of the book. On isolation and madness and drug abuse and alcoholism and the torment of immortality. And there was a lot of talk about the beauty of unconditional love and goodness. We talked about characters finding themselves out of control – about the story sliding into a murky sadness and quick violence – about characters having drab conversations about television snacks – the everyday bending quickly and becoming Greek tragedy. The celestial and the shitty pavement.

For the first few meetings Coco stayed silent and listened to us (until she couldn’t listen to us any more maybe!), and then she asked, ‘Yeah, but what happens?’ It was a fair question and one that we would return to – but we weren’t there yet. We needed to get a sense of the themes of it and its atmosphere and its world. The narrative trajectory of a man wanting to leave Earth and being helped by some and stopped by others – this was there in David’s four pages and would remain in our story, but the events of the story would emerge later.

And then there were the songs.

David handed me a folder of lyrics and CDs he had put together. ‘Some of these you’ll know.’ It was a bloody funny thing to say. We would hammer out the story together, but initially he wanted me to choose the songs we would use. I guess he had lived with some of them for years and there must have been unshakable associations – maybe it would be easier for me to listen to them coldly from a purely narrative perspective.

His lyrics often arrive cut-up and opaque – so it was rarely about listening to the words and sticking it into the story. It was about the emotion, rhythm and atmosphere of those songs – and having the characters riding that wave and accessing their souls, where they could lyrically go to those strange places.

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Michael C Hall (Newton) in Lazarus | Photo: Jan Versweyveld

We talked about the form – the shape of the story arriving broken and a little shattered. We talked about a person dying and the moments before death and what might happen in their mind and how that would be constructed on stage. We started talking about escape, but we ended up talking about a person trying to find rest. About dying in an easier way.

Newton would spend his last moments trying to stop a bullying mind that kept him living. Physically it didn’t matter to us whether he was on Earth or in the stars at the very end. We wanted Newton – in his terms – to feel at rest.

No matter how plays come out, you always end up talking about yourself. David was certainly the most superb shapeshifter – one of the greatest ever collaborators too – someone who could walk his colleagues in directions they’d yet seen. But for me he remained personal in his work and spoke about where he was at that moment in really truthful terms.

Lazarus arrived at both of us with its own swagger and shape and emotion. It’s a strange, difficult and sometimes sad dream Newton must live through – but in its conclusion, he wins his peace.

screen-shot-2016-11-10-at-10-47-15This is taken from the Introduction to Lazarus: The Complete Book and Lyrics by David Bowie and Enda Walsh, out now.

The book contains the full script, including the lyrics to the seventeen songs featured in the musical – among them iconic Bowie numbers such as ‘Changes’, ‘Life on Mars?’ and ‘Heroes’, plus three new original compositions.

To get your copy for just £7.99, click here.

Lazarus is playing at Kings Cross Theatre, London, until 22 January. See more about the show here.

Out of the vault: highlights from VAULT Festival 2016

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VAULT Festival is fast becoming one of the most exciting events on London’s cultural calendar. Taking place each year in the vaults beneath Waterloo, this year’s festival (running until 6 March) is host to over 100 events, from hard-hitting drama to comedy, dance, cabaret, installation, and of course late-night parties. This year Nick Hern Books publishes an anthology containing five of the best plays appearing at the festival, Plays from VAULT (don’t miss the special offer at the bottom of this page). We asked each of the writers to sum up what their plays are about and what VAULT means to them – plus, at the bottom, a few handy tips on what to see at the festival…

Kellett, RosieRosie Kellett on her one-woman play Primadonna, 17-21 Feb, which she also performs:

Primadonna is about being a PA. It’s about being young and keen and impressionable and the lengths we go to to please the people we respect. It’s somewhat based on experiences Jamie [Jackson, the play’s director] and I have had of being assistants ourselves, but in a way it’s more about questioning the cult of overwork and the void between service and servitude that we’ve found ourselves in. I was in Edinburgh with a show in 2015 and saw a lot of solo shows whilst I was there – some were awful, but a few were brilliant and I became fascinated by the challenge of writing one myself. This struck me as the perfect story to tell in monologue form, and it has proven to be equally challenging and rewarding to make.

VAULT Festival is such a special place. I think it might be one of my favourite places to be in London. Big words, but seriously, if you’re not down there in deepest darkest winter, you’re in the wrong place. I mean, not only is it one of the very few places in London that you can put on a show with relative financial ease, it’s also made up of the kindest and most supportive production team you’re ever going to meet. Tim, Mat and Andy seem to only hire lovely, professional people. It’s like a gang that you want to be a part of and for a few weeks you are. It’s the best. It’s one of London’s treasures.

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Rosie Kellett in a publicity shot for her play Primadonna


Forsyth, OliOli Forsyth on his play Cornermen, 2-6 March, set in the world of boxing:

Cornermen came out the time I’ve spent in boxing clubs over the years. They’re really fascinating places to be. You get trainers, promoters and boxers of all levels working there, and they’re all looking for the right fight for the right money. I realised the most fascinating relationship of all was between boxer and manager: it seemed full of conflicts of interest. Managers are expected to know their fighters intimately, to care for their well-being and guide their career in a way that generates the most income and the most longevity. But in that lies a conflict. What happens if you manage a boxer who isn’t good enough to compete for titles or book large purse fights? What happens to the vast majority of boxers? The answer is that they become journeymen, boxers who make a living out of fighting any opponent, often at short notice and largely with the expectation that they’ll loose. It’s a hard career, both physically taxing and often short lived. The complexities of that business and the relationships within it are what inspired Cornermen.

We’re hugely excited to be taking the show to the 2016 VAULT Festival. The work last year was exceptional and it looks set to be even better this time around. We’re very fortunate to be on in the closing week, bringing the curtain down on the festival, so to speak, but it does mean the pressure’s on to live up to what came before! To have also been published by Nick Hern Books is something really special – it’s a strange feeling when you see people walking around holding a script you wrote in your local greasy spoon.

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Cornermen by Oli Forsyth


Keith-Roach, Florence_Cropped_Credit Lily Bertrand-Webb

Author photo by Lily Bertrand-Webb

Florence Keith-Roach on her dark comedy about female friendship, Eggs, 24 Feb-6 March:

I wrote Eggs to try to examine the volatility and unique calibre of the variety of female friendships I saw around me and felt was underexplored in art. I was also interested in making theatre that nodded to its own artifice, was non-naturalistic and highlighted the absurd in the mundane.

Eggs is a dark comedy about female friendship, fertility and freaking out. It’s an intimate two-hander looking at the struggle of growing up as a part of Generation Y.

It’s structured as a series of dialogues between two women in their late-twenties, taking place intermittently over the course of a year. They have been friends since university, but in the years since they have started to make very different life choices, and as a result live utterly divergent, almost incommensurable lives. They also lost a friend a while ago, and in the time that has passed since this traumatic event, they realise that without the link of this ‘third leg of their tripod’, they actually have very little in common.

Eggs presents two very complex, intelligent, witty, at times irrational, women, facing life’s obstacles and making bold, but tortured and sometimes quite reckless decisions about how they choose to live their lives. The piece focusses on their friendship, their journey. Both women are at an age where society forces them to confront the ‘ticking time bomb’ that apparently is their fertility, and we witness how these two different women internalise this systemic anxiety. It deals with broader questions about the link between the political and the personal, the visceral alienation that our laissez-faire, capitalist society engenders in people’s subjectivities. And it’s about human beings coping with a mounting sense of alienation in an increasingly fragmented world.

VAULT Festival provides an amazing platform for emerging artists like me and I am incredibly grateful for the huge support they’ve given me. They came to see Eggs in Edinburgh and have offered us their biggest stage for one of their longest runs, which is a huge step for our team. Fringe theatre is becoming increasingly unviable in our profit-driven capital city. This is a real problem as London still prides itself on being a cultural capital of the world and yet most of the artists living here cannot afford to make work. The Vaults however offer an uniquely affordable platform for new work to be exposed to large audiences, younger theatregoers who normally can’t afford the tickets, and industry members. The opportunities they have given me have been essential to the development of my career. It’s a very special place.

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Eggs by Florence Keith-Roach (photo by Lily Ashley)


Laughton, Stephen 1Stephen Laughton on writing Run, 10-14 Feb, his play about a young man who risks everything for love:

So in a short sentence, Run is basically about a 17-year-old who falls in love – and that kind of takes over his entire universe. It’s about love, life, loss, growing up into the man you’re supposed to be and everything in between. And space. There’s a lot of that.

Rather than coming from something  external that inspired me, which is the way I usually work – this time I sat down and thought, I’ve never written a monologue before, I’d like to write about being in love at 17, I’d like to write something about being gay and Jewish, and I’d like to write about a boy who’s a bit obsessed with space. I was then approached about writing a short for Theatre Renegade’s Courting Drama showcase, so I sat down and wrote a twenty-minute version and we all (cast and crew) loved the process so much we decided to have a go at making a full length version. Fastforward nine months or so, and here we are!

It also occurred to me last week that, on a really personal level, it’s also about the moment when my partner and I took a break for a little bit last January. Although it was ultimately a good move, looking back it’s clear that I really had a hard time dealing with that – including a disastrous rebound. And that space apart really affected me.  (But it’s all okay, now, because we got back together and we’re really happy!)

I love VAULT Festival. I’ve been going for a few years now and it’s one of my favourite things to do in London. So being a part of it is just, well… wow…. I’m absolutely super chuffed.

It’s special having this particular play in the festival too… with this team… it’s all kind of just fallen into place wonderfully! Oh and I got a play published because of it… that just rocks!

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Run by Stephen Laughton


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Camilla Whitehill on her monologue about modern love and old-fashioned entitlement, Mr Incredible, 10-14 Feb:

Mr Incredible is about the dark side of modern romantic relationships; it’s about toxic privilege and entitlement; it uses the word ‘love’ a lot but is not a love story. I think a lot of people who have co-habited with a significant other will recognise a lot of the behaviour and language.

VAULT Festival is utterly unique – it is a genuinely egalitarian testing ground for new work and experimental styles. There’s nothing else like it. And once you go, you’ll be addicted. The atmosphere is electric.

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Mr Incredible by Camilla Whitehill


Our writers recommend at VAULT Festival 2016…

Rosie Kellett: It goes without saying that you should see all the other plays in the Nick Hern Books anthology: Mr Incredible, Run, Eggs and Cornermen. Rebecca Durbin is doing really exciting things with Play, I’m totally going to try and make it down to a show. And Vinay Patel has a reading of his play Known Unknowns which I’m really excited for – I loved True Brits which was at the Festival last year.

Florence Keith-Roach: The VAULT Festival seems to be the place for this year’s exciting new writing. It’s not all polished, but that’s what’s so thrilling about it. I am heading straight to the performance poetry/one-woman play by Lily Ashley called You are Me and I am You. After the Heat We Battle for the Heart by Tallulah Brown, about a female bullfighter, will be great too. I am also excited to see Play, a series of devised plays bringing together some really great talent across acting, writing and directing. All of the other plays in the Nick Hern Books anthology are by writers who I have been hearing great things about, so I’m going to be seeing their shows and cannot wait.

Camilla Whitehill: I’m excited to see all the other plays in the anthology, Isley Lynn’s Skin A Cat, and Plunge Theatre’s scratch of their new show Success. I’m also running a fundraiser called A Night For Syria on 5 February, with loads of brilliant theatre and comedy, and all proceeds going to the UNHCR emergency fund.

Oli Forsyth: There’s so much on! I’m working with an Edinburgh Fringe model of running my finger down the programme and going to see whatever I stop on. That said, there are undoubtedly some highlights I’ll be in to see. I Got Dressed In Front of my Nephew Today is as mental as it sounds but is brilliantly funny, clever and makes a real point about the pressures woman are under to conform to a modern perception of beauty. I’m really excited to see Run, Primadonna and Mr Incredible. Chill Pill is usually an excellent night and it’ll be good to see some spoken word during the Festival. Police Cops is exceptional and very, very funny and I can’t wait to catch Eggs – our shows clashed during Edinburgh so I’ll take my chance now!

Stephen Laughton: Isley Lynn’s Skin A Cat, Rosie Kellet’s Primadonna, Camilla Whitehill’s Mr Incredible and Viscera Theatre’s In Tents and Purposes are looking like particular highlights for me. Also check out what Play are doing and basically everything that’s going on at The Locker, there are some great pieces playing there; Crowley and Co are doing a takeover for a couple of weeks and they have an awesome programme… and you’ll def find me at Sarah Kosar’s new play Armadillo and Vinay Patel’s Known Unknown.

FormattedPlays from VAULT contains five of the best plays from VAULT Festival 2016:

Eggs by Florence Keith-Roach
Mr Incredible by Camilla Whitehill
Primadonna by Rosie Kellett
Cornermen by Oli Forsyth
Run by Stephen Laughton

The anthology is out now, published by Nick Hern Books.

SPECIAL OFFER: To buy your copy for just £7.79 (40% off the RRP £12.99), order via the Nick Hern Books website here and use voucher code VAULTBLOG at checkout. Offer valid until 31 March 2016.

VAULT Festival 2016 runs from 27 January – 6 March. Visit the festival website here.

Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting: the first ten years

The Bruntwood Prize is the biggest national competition for playwriting. With prize money totalling £40,000, plus the chance of a production on a major stage, as well as publication by Nick Hern Books, it’s a fabulous opportunity for writers. Since its inception in 2005, over 11,000 scripts have been entered, more than £200,000 has been awarded to 22 prize-winning writers and 16 winning productions have been staged. Here publisher and NHB founder Nick Hern reflects on what makes the Bruntwood Prize so special, while below we introduce this year’s winners and catch up on the Bruntwood Story with Exeunt Magazine’s podcast…

HernNICK HERN: Memory is an unreliable friend, but it tells me that the first thing I did ten years ago on hearing the announcement of the brand new Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting was to write suggesting that part of the prize might be to guarantee publication of the winning play by Nick Hern Books. I was very taken with the essential premise of the award: that no entry should have been performed or published before and that all entries were to be submitted anonymously, the identity of the winning author only to be revealed after the judges had arrived at their verdict. In other words the work was to be judged on its merits alone and not according to the expectations aroused by the author’s other work – or lack of it. This seemed to go a long way to fulfilling every writer’s desire to know whether what they’ve written is really, intrinsically, even existentially any good!

Pretend You Have Big Buildings by Ben Musgrave, winner of the 2005 Bruntwood Prize

Pretend You Have Big Buildings by Ben Musgrave, winner of the 2005 Bruntwood Prize

Anyway, my offer to act as ‘publisher by appointment’ was accepted, and so I found myself at the ceremony awarding the first ever Bruntwood Prize to Ben Musgrave’s Pretend You Have Big Buildings. True to our word, we had the pleasure of publishing it when the Royal Exchange, also honouring their commitment to stage the winning play, premiered it on their main stage.

I’m not going to pretend to remember the chronology of subsequent winners, but together they amount to a seriously impressive collection of brand new plays, each of which might have remained in their author’s bottom drawer had it not been for the Bruntwood. Indeed, in at least one case, the play would not even have got as far as that drawer: it would probably never have been written. Vivienne Franzmann tells the story that, as a career schoolteacher, she had been saying for some time that she was going to ‘write a play’ – but never had. Then, hearing of the Bruntwood, and realising the deadline was only a couple of weeks away (alert: unreliable memory at work), she set to it. The result, Mogadishu, opened to loud acclaim in Manchester and proceeded to transfer to London, thereby launching Viv on a new career as a full-time writer.

Mogadishu by Vivienne Franzmann, winner of the 2008 Bruntwood Prize

Mogadishu by Vivienne Franzmann, winner of the 2008 Bruntwood Prize

I am as proud of each of the playwrights we have published thanks to their winning the Bruntwood as if I had discovered them myself: as well as Musgrave and Franzmann, there’s been Matt Hartley, Fiona Peek, Andrew Sheridan, Janice Okoh, Nayla Ahmed, Louise Monaghan, Katherine Chandler, Anna Jordan, Gareth Farr and Luke Norris. In the same way, we ‘take on’ each of our writers in the fullest sense, publishing not only the winning play but also standing by to publish their subsequent work as well, as has been gratifyingly the case already with Janice Okoh (who won with Three Birds and went on to write Egusi Soup) and Anna Jordan (who won with Yen, but whose Freak and Chicken Shop have been published subsequently).

So Here We Are by Luke Norris, winner of a 2013 Judges Award

So Here We Are by Luke Norris, winner of a 2013 Judges Award

As the Bruntwood has grown in reputation and renown – and, it has to be said, in the generosity of the prize money on offer – my sense is that more established writers are submitting their work. In the early days we used to joke about a situation where Tom Stoppard, say, submitted a play – anonymously of course – and failed to win… Now, it seems, something like that really could happen, though, to the writer’s relief, only the administrator of the prize would ever know! Our latest winner, in fact, has already broken the mould in some respects: Luke Norris was already a performed and published playwright when he submitted – and won with – So Here We Are.

In its ten years, the Bruntwood Prize has already gifted a rich panoply of new plays to the world. So here’s to its next decade – and to ten more years of splendid if unreliable memories.


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Katherine Soper, winner of the 2015 Bruntwood Prize (photo by Joel C Fildes)

Congratulations to Katherine Soper on winning this year’s Bruntwood Prize with her play Wish List.

Katherine, who currently works in a perfumery on Regent Street in London, was announced as the winner of the 10th anniversary Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting 2015 on 17 November.

Wish List is Katherine’s first play. She said: ‘This is the best boost of writerly confidence I could imagine.’

Congratulations also to the recipients of the four Judges’ Awards: Chloe Todd Fordham, James Fritz, Alan Harris and Kendall Feaver.

Find out more about the Bruntwood Prize at www.writeaplay.co.uk.


PODCAST: The Bruntwood Story

In this episode of Exeunt Magazine’s podcast Pursued by a Bear, produced in association with Nick Hern Books, Tim Bano takes an in-depth look at the Bruntwood Prize, following the progress of scripts from submission to shortlisting by speaking to judges, readers and writers.

Featuring interviews with: Michael Oglesby, Anna Jordan, Sarah Frankcom, Suzanne Bell, Andrew Haydon, Megan Vaughan and David Mercatali.

Podcast presented by Tim Bano. Produced by Tim Bano and Annegret Marten.

Drama Online: the Netflix of Theatre

DO_On BlackThis week saw the launch of the Nick Hern Books Collection on Drama Online, a groundbreaking new educational resource for reading and studying drama. Here, NHB’s Digital Editor Tim Digby-Bell explains how it works, and how it sheds new light on familiar plays.

Finally, it’s launch week. We’ve been working hard preparing a selection of our plays for Drama Online, the amazing new platform for anyone studying drama. For more than twelve months we’ve been planning, editing, revising, checking, drinking cups of strong coffee, fretting, and then doing some more editing. It’s all been worth it, though. It’s a thing of wonder, and it’s open for business.

Drama Online is a joint venture with other leading theatre publishers including Bloomsbury, Faber and Faber and L.A. Theatre Works, and incorporates archival material from the Victoria and Albert Museum and The American Shakespeare Center. As the name suggests, its focus is very much drama, and the place very much online. It’s essentially a subscription service aimed at schools, universities and libraries, giving instant online access to the best of world drama alongside a range of scholarly works for criticism and context. There is also a range of tools for exploring and analysing plays in new and extremely useful ways (more about those later).

Because it’s all online, students can access the plays they’re studying at any time of the day and night, without having to wait for a copy to become available. Think of it as a theatre-based Netflix. ‘Want to come round to my place for some Drama Online and chill?’ is now an actual thing.

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Drama Online – The Deep Blue Sea by Terence Rattigan, from the Nick Hern Books Collection

There are some 1,900 plays already available, with more being added all the time. You’ll find everything from Aeschylus to the present day, with a full range of classic drama, the complete Arden Shakespeare Series, modern classics and the latest work from contemporary playwrights. The Nick Hern Books Collection comprises 400 titles, including classic plays by writers such as Molière, Gogol, Strindberg and Alfred Jarry, the works of Terence Rattigan, modern classics by Caryl Churchill, Conor McPherson, David Edgar and Howard Brenton, and some of the most exciting new writing from the likes of debbie tucker green, Lucy Kirkwood, Jack Thorne, Steve Waters and Enda Walsh. With a Drama Online subscription, you have the whole pantheon of drama in English at your fingertips.

And, as if that’s not enough, you also get some really impressive tools to work with. At a keystroke you can call up Character Grids, Words and Speech graphs and Part Books for any play. For instance, if you want to compare the number of words spoken by different characters in a play, act by act, or even scene by scene, you can quickly and easily generate a table that lays it all out for you. If you’re performing a play, you can call up a Part Book showing just the lines spoken by your character. If you want to see plays set in London, or in nineteenth-century Paris, or written during the Belle Époque or the Spanish Golden Age, you can call up a list, and cross-refer to your heart’s content.

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Character Grid for Jerusalem by Jez Butterworth, from the Nick Hern Books Collection

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Words and Speeches table for Clybourne Park by Bruce Norris, from the Nick Hern Books Collection

The platform is designed to give you a simple but powerful set of tools to break down any play, making them easier to study. It might all sound a bit Orwellian at first, but start using it and you find it both incredibly useful and really quite addictive. The plays in the collections are all interconnected: every play is connected to other plays via their themes, characters, settings and genres, allowing faster analysis and deeper insights into the works themselves.

Beyond that, the site provides you with every bit of information you could possibly need about each title – including insightful introductions and expert analysis, production history, performing rights information to enquire about staging the plays, and even links to places where you can buy the good old-fashioned print editions (remember them?).

So if you’re studying plays at school, college, drama school or university, you absolutely must have Drama Online. Ask your librarian or resources manager to get a subscription immediately. If they say no, then stage a non-violent protest citing the fact that the first thing any totalitarian regime does when it comes to power is to ban access to the theatre. But do check if you already have a subscription before you do any of that – it could save you some embarrassment.

Having worked on preparing Drama Online for many months I can genuinely say that it’s an exciting new way to read and study plays. It’s the future, right here.


For more information about subscriptions, trials and pricing, visit: www.dramaonlinelibrary.com/pages/how-to-subscribe.

Girls centre stage: Lucy Kerbel on building a new canon of writing for young actors

Good roles for young female actors are in short supply, so Tonic Theatre set out to change that by commissioning a series of new plays with mainly or entirely female casts for schools and youth theatre groups to perform. As the first three plays in the Platform series are published by Nick Hern Books and made available for performance, Tonic’s Lucy Kerbel explains why things have to change, and how you can get involved…

Commissioning and publishing a range of new plays for young actors which put girls and their stories centre stage is something I have wanted to do for a long time and, since Tonic Theatre was formed in 2011, it is an idea I have been looking to get off the ground. Tonic exists to support UK theatre to achieve greater gender equality in its workforces and its repertoires; essentially our mission is to catalyse a culture-shift in how theatre thinks and works, so that talented women are given the same levels of support and opportunity as talented men.

While it has pretty big aspirations, Tonic is a tiny organisation; we have one-and-a-bit members of staff, no core funding, and a very modest financial turnover. Because we have such limited funds and capacity, we have to use these wisely and consequently are extremely strategic about where we target our efforts. I spend much time looking to identify ‘pressure points’ – places where, with a bit of work, a far bigger ripple effect can be achieved. For this reason, much of our work to date has been focused on partnerships with some of the largest organisations in the country, because if they change, others will follow. But youth drama has always been clear to me as one of the greatest pressure points of all. It is the engine room of the theatre industry; tomorrow’s theatre-makers (not to mention audience members) are to be found today in youth-theatre groups, university drama societies and school drama clubs all over the country.

The Light Burns Blue by Silva Semerciyan

The Light Burns Blue by Silva Semerciyan

If we can challenge their assumptions about the role of women’s stories, voices, and ideas in drama, then change in the profession – in time – will be immeasurably easier to achieve.

Beyond this strategic interest in youth drama, I was convinced that girls were getting a raw deal and I found that troubling. Having worked previously as a youth-theatre director, I was familiar with the regular challenge of trying to find scripts that had adequate numbers of female roles for all the committed and talented girls that wanted to take part. In nearly all the various youth-drama groups I worked in across a five-year period, there were significantly more girls than boys. However, when it came to finding big-cast, age-appropriate plays for them to work on, I was constantly frustrated by how few there seemed to be that provided enough opportunity for the girls, its most loyal and committed participants. When looking at contemporary new writing for young actors to perform, one could be mistaken for thinking that youth drama was a predominantly male pursuit, rather than the other way round.

Second Person Narrative by Jemma Kennedy

Second Person Narrative by Jemma Kennedy

Aside from the practicalities of matching the number of roles to the number of girls in any one drama group, the nature of writing for female characters was something I struggled to get excited about. While there were some notable examples, often the writing for female characters seemed somewhat lacklustre. They tended to be characters at the periphery of the action rather than its heart, with far less to say and do than their male counterparts, and with a tendency towards being one‑dimensional, rather than complex or vibrant, funny or surprising. Why was it that in the twenty-first century the quality as well as the quantity of roles being written for girls still seemed to lag behind those for boys so demonstrably?

Keen to check I wasn’t just imagining this imbalance, Tonic conducted a nationwide research study looking into opportunities for girls in youth drama, focusing on the quantity and quality of roles available to them. The research was written up into a report, Swimming in the shallow end, and is published on the Tonic Theatre website. Not only did the research confirm my worst fears – more depressingly, it exceeded them. While many of the research participants were vocal about the social, artistic and emotional benefits that participation in youth-drama productions can have on a young person’s life, so too were they – to quote the report – on ‘the erosion to self-esteem, confidence and aspiration when these opportunities are repeatedly held out of reach… [and] for too many girls, this is the case’.

But despite the doom and gloom of the research findings, there remained an exciting proposition; to write stories that weren’t currently being put on stage, and to foreground – rather than ignore – the experiences, achievements and world-view of young women, perhaps the group above all others in British society whose situation has altered so dramatically and excitingly over the past hundred or so years. Tonic commissioned writers I was most fascinated to see respond to the brief set to them: a large-cast play written specifically for performance by young actors, with mainly or entirely female casts and in which the female characters should be no less complex or challenging than the male characters. I asked them to write in such a way that these plays could be performed by young people anywhere in the country, and that there should be scope for every school, college and youth-theatre group performing the play to make a production their own.

This Changes Everything by Joel Horwood

This Changes Everything by Joel Horwood

At Tonic our hope is that the first Platform plays – The Light Burns Blue by Silva Semerciyan, Second Person Narrative by Jemma Kennedy and This Changes Everything by Joel Horwood – will be just the beginning of a longer trajectory of work for us. Although it entails further fundraising mountains to climb, we plan to commission and publish more plays over future years. Our aspiration is that over time Platform will become a new canon of writing for young actors and one that puts girls and their lives centre stage. I dearly hope that they will be taken up by groups all over the country and performed for many years to come.

‘Drama is an important tool for building confidence and empowering young people. Platform will give girls opportunity to access these benefits as much as their male counterparts.’ – Moira Buffini

A few words from NHB’s Performing Rights Manager, Tamara von Werthern…

Tamara von Werthern

We’re incredibly proud and excited to be supporting Tonic Theatre’s important work in addressing gender inequality in the theatre. I’m sure these plays will be picked up and performed by youth theatres, schools and drama clubs across the country, as they really do address an urgent need for more good parts for young women. I’ve been asked so many times to recommend plays that offer young women strong roles, and it’s wonderful that now we can start licensing three new plays that fit the bill exactly. I urge everyone who works with youth theatre or teaches drama at a school to pick up these plays and give them a go!”


All three Platform plays – The Light Burns Blue by Silva Semerciyan, Second Person Narrative by Jemma Kennedy and This Changes Everything by Joel Horwood – are published on 11 June 2015 by Nick Hern Books.

Buying from an educational institution or youth group? You can get all three Platform plays at a special discount price – head to the Platform website for more information.

The plays are all available immediately for amateur performance. To apply for performing rights, visit the Nick Hern Books Plays to Perform website or contact our Performing Rights Department.

For more information about Tonic Theatre, visit www.tonictheatre.co.uk.

Lucy Kerbel photograph by Slav Kirichok