‘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.

 

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Wrestling with Brecht: author David Zoob on why Brecht still matters

Why are Brecht’s theories often so baffling? And are they any use to theatre makers today? David Zoob, author of the newly published Brecht: A Practical Handbook, explains how he was converted to Brecht, and why he still matters.

Sometime in the late 80s, when I was in my mid-twenties, my theatre company was touring a show about the first Palestinian Intifada to schools and colleges. We employed some of Brecht’s ideas without really knowing it. At one sixth form centre, the Head of Drama asked me if I would do a workshop on Brecht. She said that he was part of the A-level Theatre Studies syllabus and was almost impossible to teach. The students either didn’t get him, or they hated him. Maybe they hated him because they didn’t get him. ‘I see… and how much will you pay me?’ When she replied that it would be something like £30 for a couple of hours, I said yes of course I’d do it.

I then tried to remember what Brecht was all about. Two things came to mind: first, in his plays he would introduce a spoiler before each scene, telling the audience what would happen; secondly, in his essays he said that at any moment, an actor should show an audience that it would be equally possible for him or her to turn to the left as turn to the right. Or something like that. I had no idea what that meant.

When I got to the workshop I explored the spoiler idea. I asked a group of about six to improvise a doctor’s waiting-room scene. They loved representing sad, sickly people, but their classmates in the audience sat unimpressed. When I introduced a projection that read, ‘One of these people is about to be murdered’, the audience became slightly more interested. I waited a bit, noticing that I was now watching the audience much more than the improvisation. Then up went another projection, which read, ‘The murderer is on the right’. Now they really were interested. When one of the performers (who happened to be on the right) leaned over to take something from his bag, the audience started laughing nervously. The tension was palpable.

David Zoob leading a workshop on Brecht (source: YouTube)

We had stumbled across several of the ideas at the heart of Brecht’s theatre – ideas that have fascinated me ever since. The viewers knew the ‘ending’, and yet this made them more interested; they didn’t ask themselves ‘what will happen next?’ but ‘how and why?’ They didn’t identify with any particular character, and yet they were completely engaged; they studied individuals, making inferences about their actions and motives. One student commented, ‘We are told that Brecht is didactic, but this isn’t teaching anything.’ We agreed that in this example there was no ‘message’, but the spectators were nevertheless learning a lot about human beings, simply by observing them.

Theatre that encourages audiences to discover things actively without preaching to them? That seemed exciting, and it was quite different from what I vaguely remembered about Brecht from university. I read more, and realised why so many people didn’t like him. Translated by the esteemed John Willett, Brecht on Theatre was a tough read. And what was meant by that business about turning right or left? I realised it was about showing an audience that a decision was being made. Nothing was inevitable: humans could make the opposite choice at each pivotal moment. A bit like Sliding Doors, that film in which the central character’s life goes down two different paths depending on whether or not she catches a particular train ­– but with Brecht, the important thing was that the person would decide whether or not to get on the train. A moment of choice, not a whim of fate. A decision with a political, not a sentimental purpose.

Which leads us to the knotty question of Brecht’s alleged attitudes to emotion and empathy. In the workshops I gave, this was frequently the main issue. Brecht’s detractors complained that he was a killjoy: a severe Marxist insisting that theatre should be an ‘alienating’ experience, where a lack of feeling was supposed to be good for us. It certainly was true that his essays discouraged empathy, but I couldn’t square that with the frequent expressions of deeply felt emotion in his plays: Grusha’s flood of tears at the river in The Caucasian Chalk Circle; Shen Te’s anguish and weeping in The Good Person of Szechuan; Kattrin’s dumb rage and powerfully moving maternal impulses in Mother Courage. All this seemed to suggest that the theories were of limited use – or even a waste of time. It was as if the process of writing plays had made Brecht forget his key theories, as the business of writing and staging his work reminded him that audiences had to care about the characters for the plays to work, proving that emotion is the lifeblood of theatre.

Mayday Mayday Tuesday by Carlos Murillo, performed by students of Rose Bruford College, directed by David Zoob (photo by Benkin Photography)

Do I believe that? Partly. It’s the contradiction that sits at the centre of Brecht’s thoughts, his writing, and his practice. It’s a necessary and deliberate contradiction. I devote a whole chapter to emotion in my book Brecht: A Practical Handbook, and all I will say now is that the representation of emotion is a vital part of Brecht’s understanding of how humans live and behave. The conditions we live in mean that human impulses and emotions are frequently constrained, altered or even distorted, and performers can represent both the feelings and the things that hold them back. Emotion becomes an essential element in a dynamic tension (a dialectic, in fact). In Brecht’s view, emotion should never be portrayed as an end in itself. Never – as it so commonly is in Hollywood films – as a commodity.

When I started directing in the 1990s, I usually found myself concerned with the story and what it meant, rather than with the characters’ feelings. Some actors didn’t seem to mind; they just got on with the job of making personal connections themselves. Others sometimes complained that they weren’t ‘feeling it’, implying that I was supposed to do something about that. While I accept that on such occasions I was probably suffering from emotional illiteracy, I can now see why ‘the story and its meaning’ was so much more important to me. My work in the 1980s involved adapting the extraordinary and moving testimonies of people living in zones of conflict: a woman who had been shot in the eye with a plastic bullet in Northern Ireland; a former Israeli Paratrooper who, after becoming a journalist, had spent a year in Israel and the occupied territories disguised as an Palestinian Arab, daily risking his life in order to understand what life was like as his nation’s enemy; young Palestinian boys and girls who had risked arrest and savage beatings while protesting against the occupation. These people had trusted me with their stories, and when my theatre company performed them, our priority was to tell them accurately and make their meaning clear for our audiences. We wanted viewers to engage with the dilemmas of history. The young people who saw our shows certainly felt the scenes’ emotional power, but how we were feeling as actors wasn’t something we concerned ourselves with.

Mayday Mayday Tuesday by Carlos Murillo, performed by students of Rose Bruford College, directed by David Zoob (photo by Benkin Photography)

So I was struck by Brecht’s insistence that the actor should be re-enacting something that has already happened, rather than pretending it’s actually happening in the moment. This rang true for me. The actor was showing an audience what was significant about a moment in history, and the most important thing was that the audience should grasp that significance, and be provoked by it. My colleagues who taught in drama schools didn’t have much time for this idea. Their view, and one with which I partly sympathise, was that if an actor plays their character’s psychology ‘truthfully’, then the significances will take care of themselves. If they play their characters’ actions within ‘given circumstances’, if they are alive to the way other characters react to them… well then, we don’t need Herr Brecht to explain it all.

This position deserves far more discussion than I can give it here. It poses interesting and difficult questions: what is meant by ‘truthfully’? Which particular ‘given circumstances’ should be privileged over others? Why should psychological ‘reality’ be more important than other realities, be they political, moral, poetic or speculative? I think that including all these perspectives in theatre making allows us to create memorable dramatic events that can address the urgent questions that face us as a species.

Mayday Mayday Tuesday by Carlos Murillo, performed by students of Rose Bruford College, directed by David Zoob (photo by Benkin Photography)

Brecht: A Practical Handbook emerged from debates I had with my friend and colleague Julian Jones, an apparently incurable Stanislavskian who became increasingly interested in Brecht the more we wrestled with him. In fact, I’ve been wrestling with these ideas ever since that first opportunistic workshop I gave. And then, a couple of years ago, I took the step of writing a book. I wanted to write something that would be of use not only to a colleague like Julian, and to the young directors we worked with, but also to actors in training and to A-Level or undergraduate students who might have felt the same bafflement as I had. I included lots of exercises, so that readers could join in the wrestling process too. I hope, if you read the book, you will try the exercises and make them work for yourself. No doubt, if you do, you’ll improve on my ideas. Please let me know.


Brecht: A Practical Handbook by David Zoob is out now, published by Nick Hern Books.

To buy your copy for just £10.39 (20% off the RRP), visit the Nick Hern Books website.

To contact David Zoob, please use the Contact Us form here, and include ‘FAO author David Zoob’ at the top of your comments.

Author photo by Michael O’Reilly.

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.

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.

‘Authenticity guaranteed’: Robin Belfield on why verbatim theatre is so important right now

Verbatim theatre, fashioned from the actual words spoken by real people, is the perfect antidote to our troubled times, argues Robin Belfield, whose new book Telling the Truth: How to Make Verbatim Theatre is an essential guide for theatre-makers, artists, students and teachers.

If ever there was a time for verbatim theatre, it’s now.

We live in a world that sometimes feels like it’s being overrun by information outlets – television, newspapers, bloggers, social media platforms, the list goes on… I don’t suppose there’s more news, just more channels clamouring for attention. And how much of it can we trust?

There’s been a long-running debate about ‘truth’ in the news. Do we – should we – believe everything we see, read or hear in the news, or via our Facebook feed? In the current climate of ‘fake news’, that debate is hotter than ever. The line between ‘reporting’ and ‘opinion’ is not so much fuzzy as invisible.

I’ve come to believe that verbatim theatre offers the perfect antidote.

Hamlet famously advises the actors that the very purpose of playing “was and is, to hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature”. And arguably that has always been the theatremaker’s gift – to offer up a reflection of the world to their audience. But in the majority of cases it’s the playwright’s truth that is being reflected: truth filtered through their imagination, metaphor and craft. Of course the best playwrights offer a kind of truth: the accuracy of an impeccably researched historical drama, say; or the emotional or psychological truth laid bare in the behaviour of their fictional characters.

But verbatim theatre is different. By giving actors only the actual words of real people, verbatim theatre is the closest that theatre can get to objective truth – no dramatic licence required. It is neither imagined nor invented; its authenticity is guaranteed because it presents the testimony of those with first-hand experience.

Henry Wyrley-Birch as Neil in a 2015 production of Walking the Chains, commissioned to celebrate the 150th birthday of Clifton Suspension Bridge, written by ACH Smith and directed by Robin Belfield

It would be naïve to think, and wrong of me to suggest, that verbatim theatre is completely free of a ‘filter’. With this kind of theatre, the playwright usually serves as researcher, editor and dramaturg all at once; and in all three roles they are required to make active choices. As researcher, they are often responsible for gathering the material, choosing who to interview and what questions to ask. As editor, they make selections, choosing what to keep in and what to leave out. And as dramaturg, they give the material its shape, choosing what form to present it in, what story to tell.

The verbatim theatre practitioner is mouthpiece and censor all at once. And this is the beautiful challenge.

Little Revolution, Alecky Blythe’s recorded delivery play about the 2011 London Riots

I’ve worked with other people’s words for a long time, and had the privilege of watching and talking to others who have done the same. During that time I realised that, while there are some pretty firm rules which define verbatim theatre, there are many different ways of processing and shaping the raw material from which it is formed. In my book, Telling the Truth, I lift the lid on some of the key verbatim theatre practices, from Alecky Blythe’s ‘recorded delivery‘ method – where actors are fed the verbatim material ‘live’ via an earpiece – to the process developed by Ivan Cutting, whose work with Eastern Angles fuses verbatim testimony with fictional dramatic material.

I love working with artists and students who are new to this work, and over the past few years I’ve developed a number of activities to guide newcomers through the process of working with verbatim material. My book, Telling the Truth, is the realisation of all that work, combining my own experience with an exploration of recent verbatim theatre productions. The book also includes interviews from a number of different practitioners – actors, writers, directors and designers – all offering their insights into the rewards and the responsibilities of handling other people’s words.

Theatre will never entirely rid itself of ‘opinion’ or ‘agenda’. And why would it want to? Theatre of any kind, even verbatim theatre, is an art rather than a science. But at a time when we’re faced by constant cries of ‘fake news’, by the most outrageous distortions and misrepresentations across news channels and at the hearts of our democracies, we can rely on theatre – and perhaps especially verbatim theatre – to interrogate the truth and to help us understand our bewildering world.

The cast of Walking the Chains by ACH Smith, in a production directed by Robin Belfield


Telling the Truth: How to Make Verbatim Theatre by Robin Belfield is out now, published by Nick Hern Books.

To buy your copy for just £10.39 (20% discount), click here.

Also available in the Making Theatre series from Nick Hern Books: Creating Worlds: How to Make Immersive Theatre by Jason Warren.

Photographs by Toby Farrow.