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.

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Harriet Walter (The Nick Hern Books Anniversary Interviews)

Nick Hern Books is celebrating its thirtieth anniversary in 2018. To mark the occasion, we’ve commissioned interviews with some of our leading authors and playwrights. First up, theatre journalist Al Senter talks to Dame Harriet Walter…

Actor Harriet Walter has enjoyed a long and distinguished career, including playing almost all of Shakespeare’s heroines on the stage. As she ruefully points out in her latest book, Brutus and Other Heroines: Playing Shakespeare’s Roles for Women, she has reached a point in her career where she has exhausted the supply of mature female roles in the Shakespeare canon. Where, she asks, does an actress go after playing Cleopatra’s magnificent death?

Then, as she recounts in the book, the director Phyllida Lloyd came to her with the idea of an all-female Shakespeare season at the Donmar Warehouse. Committing herself to this experiment, Harriet played Brutus in Lloyd’s production of Julius Caesar in 2012, followed by the title role in Henry IV (a condensed version combining both parts, which opened at the Donmar in 2014), and then Prospero in The Tempest in 2016.

It was a journey into previously uncharted territory, but it clearly paid off when the three plays, performed together as the Shakespeare Trilogy at the Donmar’s temporary theatre in King’s Cross in 2016, was met with resounding critical acclaim, hailed by the Observer’s critic as ‘one of the most important theatrical events of the past twenty years’.

Harriet Walter as Brutus in Julius Caesar, Donmar Warehouse, 2012 (photo by Helen Maybanks)

Did such a positive response from the public and the profession surprise her? ‘Definitely,’ replies Harriet. ‘I initially expected a lot more hostility – even ridicule. But from the kick-off, we received wonderful reactions. If there were some dissenters back in 2012, by the time we moved on to the second and third play, we had built up a great following. And certainly among younger people, men and women, there was a feeling of “Women playing men? What’s the problem?”‘.

‘Most of the people I have heard from have said that they felt inspired and liberated by our productions,’ Harriet continues. ‘They told me that they had seen the plays in a completely fresh light and that there was a great significance to the work, beyond providing an evening’s entertainment. They also felt that the shows had marked a huge cultural shift in the world at large. I hope that doesn’t sound over-reaching.’

Naturally not everybody was sympathetic to what Harriet, Lloyd and the other members of the company were trying to achieve.

‘There are people, of course, who simply hate the idea of women playing men; but they mostly didn’t come to see the productions,’ reports Harriet. ‘Those that did come grudgingly at first often said that they were pleasantly surprised. I know that we usually only hear from people who have enjoyed the play. Those who haven’t liked it tend not to say anything, so I am well aware that we didn’t convert everybody. However, I’d argue that the strength of the reaction from young people outweighs the more negative reactions.’

Harriet Walter as King Henry IV in Henry IV, Donmar Warehouse, 2014 (photo by Helen Maybanks)

It could be argued that such experiments in gender-blind casting work best in period plays with a historical setting, where the characters, the language and locations are already at one remove from our own. Can a non-naturalistic approach to gender in casting work just as well in the staging of contemporary plays as it has done in Shakespeare?

‘This I am not so sure about,’ replies Harriet. ‘I think that it is more important to get new writers to create 360-degree female characters in new plays. The nature of Shakespeare’s plays depends more on the actors’ ability to live through language and communicate some universal truths that have not changed since Shakespeare’s day and don’t depend on naturalistic casting. The modern classics – the plays of Pinter and Beckett – belong in very specific worlds, created in the imaginations of those playwrights, and there would be complex arguments about the pros and cons of altering the gender of any of the characters. Change one brick and a lot of the meaning comes tumbling down. People need to be very clear on the reasons for changing the gender of a role – or the gender of the actor playing it. The important thing is that each production has a coherent motive for its casting scheme and that things are not done just for the sake of being trendy or different. It is important not to confuse an audience. If the casting lacks coherence, audiences can sniff it out and become alienated very quickly.’

Given her long association with the Royal Shakespeare Company and a working life steeped in Shakespeare, Harriet must feel a certain kinship with the playwright. Does she sense that he liked women?

‘It’s hard to be sure. I think that in general he loved them and was fascinated by them. He gave them many of the best insights – the most witty and wise arguments. But he also had some of the main characters express the sexist prejudices of the age – that women were fickle, vengeful or feeble. Whether he himself agreed with those voices is hard to say. He was human and he lived at a particular time.’

Harriet Walter at Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra, Royal Shakespeare Company, 2006 (photo by Pascal Molliere, © RSC)

For the moment, Harriet has a busy schedule, meeting her various film and television commitments, and you get the feeling that it will take something special to tempt her back to the stage.

‘At the moment, I’m very happy being in the audience watching things that I wouldn’t necessarily want to do myself. I want to do work that will break boundaries, and I want to keep going and be permanently challenged in what I do.’

In her professional life, Harriet has a fear of becoming stuck, like a musical instrument that plays the same notes over and over again. In a sense, her ground-breaking work with Phyllida Lloyd enabled her to find a different tune. But she has also challenged herself repeatedly as an author: her book Other People’s Shoes is an elegant analysis of what an actor is and does, while Facing It is a series of reflections on images of older women whose faces and lives have inspired her.

Actors, self-evidently, have other people’s words with which to go to war, so it must be a daunting task to have to invent your own.

‘I’m not saying that acting is easy, compared with writing, but you do develop a skill that reminds you that you know how to do it. And after you have reached the age of fifty, you feel the need to challenge yourself. I think we can all get a bit complacent at that age.’

Has she any further writing plans?

‘I enjoy writing but I think I need a break from writing about work,’ she reveals. ‘Perhaps I should try fiction. I have less reason to think I could do that, but I’m tempted to try.’

You heard it here first!


Harriet Walter’s Brutus and Other Heroines: Playing Shakespeare’s Roles for Women is published by Nick Hern Books in paperback and ebook formats.

To buy a copy for just £10.39 (RRP £12.99), visit the Nick Hern Books website.

Look out for more Anniversary Interviews and promotions coming soon. Subscribe to our newsletter now to make sure you don’t miss out!

Author photograph by Georgia Oetker.