Helen Edmundson on her stage version of SWALLOWS AND AMAZONS

'Dream' – Akiya Henry and company

'Dream' – Akiya Henry (photo Simon Annand)

Helen Edmundson is a multi-award-winning playwright with a string of stellar hits to her name, including adapting Jamila Gavin’s novel Coram Boy for the National Theatre, and winning the John Whiting Award (Best New Play) for The Clearing. Her latest venture – bringing Arthur Ransome’s classic novel Swallows and Amazons to life for the stage – is a collaboration with songwriter Neil Hannon from The Divine Comedy and director Tom Morris (War Horse, Coram Boy). After a flying start at Bristol Old Vic and a critically acclaimed West End run, the ships have set sail once again touring the UK. Helen reveals how this ‘rich and appealing fantasy’ (Evening Standard) all began…

I’d really enjoyed working on Coram Boy, and I was keen to write something else aimed at a younger, family audience, so I was very pleased when director Tom Morris and songwriter Neil Hannon asked me to collaborate on ‘Swallows‘. Beyond being a really engaging adventure story for children, the book is about important things – about giving children freedom and time to play, about encouraging them in their imaginative games and allowing them to learn through them – and the characters are honestly and lovingly drawn. It is very much of its time – it’s set in the 1920s – but there is a charm and nostalgia which comes with that. And we all knew it could be funny.

'Amazons' – Sophie Waller, Greg Barnett, Celia Adams and Jon Trenchard (photo Simon Annand)

'Amazons' – Sophie Waller, Greg Barnett, Celia Adams and Jon Trenchard (photo Simon Annand)

We developed the book and lyrics over a period of eighteen months – working at The National Theatre Studio. Neil lives in Dublin, so we would get together sporadically, often with marvellous actors to help us to try out our ideas, and then go off and work individually for a time. Tom Morris was with us all the way through, so the whole process was properly collaborative and organic. When Tom took over as Artistic Director at Bristol Old Vic, our show went with him, and became his first Christmas show at the theatre in 2010/11. Last year we continued to work on it, and in December The National Theatre and Fiery Angel, and The Children’s Touring Partnership brought the show into the West End. Now it sets sail on a nationwide tour.

'Swallows' – Richard Holt, Katie Moore, Akiya Henry and Stewart Wright (photo Simon Annand)

'Swallows' – Richard Holt, Katie Moore, Akiya Henry and Stewart Wright (photo Simon Annand)

One of the keys to the adaptation was realising that we could use the notion of imaginative play to unlock the story and its staging. We decided early on that we were not going to flood the stage and attempt to have real boats, but that we would allow the characters to create everything they needed, by grabbing whatever might be lying around in an old shed, or attic or garden. Imagination would be the answer to everything. And we would ask the audience to suspend their disbelief right from the start. So the great thing is that the script we now have can be tackled with very few resources. It’s an invitation to be inventive and could be realised in lots of different ways. The children in our production are played by adults, but they could be played equally well by children. The songs are reasonably simple and easy to pick up. I really hope it will be a tempting prospect for schools and amateur groups.

Tickling Trivia: Arthur Ransome, the author of the book “Swallows and Amazons” was married to Trotsky’s secretary.

Swallows and Amazons playscript

Swallows and Amazons (£9.99)

Swallows and Amazons is currently touring the UK until 31st March 2012, click here to book tickets. NHB are proud to publish the playscript. To order your copy at the special price of £8 (normal price £9.99) with free UK P&P click here and add ‘Blog Offer’ in the comments field at checkout (to ensure your discount is applied when the order is processed).

Coming soon on the NHB blog! Helen talks about her next big project, The Heresy of Love, premiering at the RSC’s Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, February 2012.

Charles Dickens’ THE HAUNTING: I Wants to Make Your Flesh Creep!

Hugh Janes , author of The Haunting

Hugh Janes

Hugh Janes’ spine-tingling play The Haunting is adapted from several original ghost stories by Charles Dickens, and toured extensively throughout the UK in 2010/11. Here, the author explains how the play was inspired by Dickens’ long-held fascination with the supernatural…

Whether we believe in them or not, ghosts appear to be everywhere: in churches, cemeteries and a great many theatres. The composer Ivor Novello has frequently been seen sitting in the stalls of London’s Cambridge Theatre. A woman sometimes glides along the catwalk seventy feet above the Shaftesbury’s stage. And the ghost of 19th-century actor and theatre manager John Baldwin Buckstone appears at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, when a play is about to become a big success. Patrick Stewart apparently saw him at recent revival of Waiting for Godot. I wonder if Buckstone gave the same spectral thumbs-up when the play first opened in the fifties?

Ghosts are a part of ancient culture, as both superstition and belief. They also feature in early literature in works like the Hebrew Bible, the Egyptian Book of the Dead and the Odyssey and Iliad of Homer who describes a ghost vanishing as ‘a vapour, gibbering and whining into the earth’.

It is the Fat Boy in The Pickwick Papers who says ‘I wants to make your flesh creep’, and this is the desire of any storyteller entering the world of the supernatural. It is an opportunity to play with the fear that lurks in our imaginations and is conjured from the twilight and shadows. The slightest suggestion of something lurking in the dark can be as powerful as any ghostly sighting.

THE HAUNTING: Charlie Clements (David Filde)

Charlie Clements (David Filde). Photo: Keith Pattison

Charles Dickens always loved ghost stories. His childhood nurse filled his young mind with these tales and he later wrote about his love of her ghoulish tastes. As a teenager he became fascinated by the illustrated horror stories that appeared in the ‘penny dreadful’ magazines. When he grew older, his curiosity about death, spirits and psychic phenomena increased as the same fascination in things spiritual gripped the public interest like a Victorian X Factor. In one of his short stories he wrote ‘There is always life in the night. Listen for it in bed in a darkened room, or look for it even in the comfortable firelight at dead of night, when the warm coals will conjure wild faces and figures… and as the gentle breeze turns into the howls of demons, the crackle of logs the cackle of witches, and then you can fill the house with noises until you have a noise for every nerve in your nervous system.’

His ghost stories appeared either as independent pieces or were included in his novels; there are five in The Pickwick Papers. He may have written them purely for his own pleasure and then published when he needed to meet a deadline. Or he may simply have felt these tales would fascinate his readers and provide them with an unusual diversion from the main plot. He often introduced a character in a book merely to impart a ghostly tale.

THE HAUNTING: Paul Nicholas (Lord Gray)

Paul Nicholas (Lord Gray). Photo: Keith Pattison

Dickens was fascinated by spiritualism and often visited mediums. Even after he learned the nature of their gimmickry he continued to visit. He loved trickery and was a very proficient magician himself. He describes how he and a friend entertained a large gathering of children at Christmas with ‘wonderful conjuring tricks. A plum-pudding was produced from an empty saucepan, held over a blazing fire kindled in Stanfield’s hat without damage to the lining.’

In my play, The Haunting, I have blended five of Dickens’ short ghost stories with a story I was told some years ago. One of my uncles was an antiquarian book dealer in Brighton and he visited an old Sussex manor to value some books. As he was looking at the collection in the cellar a woman appeared. She watched him for a while, apparently interested in what he was doing, and then vanished; he knew she was a ghost. He returned to the manor on several occasions hoping to find out more about her but she never reappeared.The Haunting (£8.99)

Cinema has been fertile ground lately for all things paranormal but there are still very few ghost plays. Yet all that is needed is the dead of night and an isolated, crumbling mansion high on the moors where a storm is gathering. Then a high-pitched scream followed by the sound of fingernails scraping on glass and the scene is set to begin the haunting of our imaginations.

Nick Hern Books publish The Haunting (£8.99) – adapted by Hugh Janes from five short stories by Charles Dickens. To order your copy with free UK P&P click here and add ‘Blog Offer’ in the comments field at checkout (to ensure your discount is applied when the order is processed). Offer available until 31st December 2011.

This play will be great fun to perform, with lots of potential for stage trickery such as books flying off shelves, creepy sound effects and a ghostly apparition. And the good news is – it is immediately available for amateur performance.

Please let me know if you would like to be sent a copy of the playtext on an approval basis (free for up to 30 days, at the end of which the script can either be bought, or returned to us in mint condition), or if you need any more information, by emailing me directly on tamara@nickhernbooks.demon.co.uk.

Spotlight: TOM WELLS on THE KITCHEN SINK

Tom WellsTalented Yorkshire playwright Tom Wells tells us a little about his hilarious new play The Kitchen Sink – ‘comic, poignant and utterly gripping… outstanding’ Evening Standard – that premiered this week at the new Bush Theatre. A play set entirely in the kitchen of an eccentric Yorkshire family, it’s about big dreams and small changes, and a healthy measure of chaos too!

In six words only, how would you describe your new play, The Kitchen Sink?

A family. A year. A sink.

What attracted you to writing a play about family life?

I think I just find my family quite funny. And lovely. Sometimes on purpose, sometimes by accident. So that’s what started it. And a lot of the comedy I love, things like The Royle Family and Home Time and Gavin and Stacey, really good, compassionate comedy, is centred around families, and it works because you see a bit of your own family in there, hopefully. Mostly though, I’d just moved to London and I was feeling a bit homesick. It all sort of added up.

The play is set in East Yorkshire, as was your first play – Me, As A Penguin – is it important for you to root your plays in a place you are familiar with, having grown up in the region?

It’s helpful to know the world you’re writing about, I think, because then you can make it detailed, and be a bit mischievous with it, and hopefully not make too many mistakes.  But also: I love Withernsea and I love Hull. They both feel like very particular places to me, with their own sets of stories to tell. Withernsea is a sort of fading seaside town, but it’s smaller than the others, the Scarboroughs and the Bridlingtons, sort of a seaside underdog. Once the train stopped going there it got a bit lost, I think. A bit eccentric. And it does sometimes feel like a bit of a dead end. But also, it’s very flat with the sea and this big big sky and it is the sort of place – I think, anyway – where you’ve got space to dream big dreams, and look out at the world and imagine a slightly different life for yourself. So it felt right to set The Kitchen Sink there really. And Hull is a bit like Derby and a bit like Coventry and a bit like Wolverhampton, a bit like a lot of places, sort of scruffy and funny and a bit of an anti-climax. But there’s definitely something special about it too. A ‘Hullness’. Me, As A Penguin felt like a story that could only happen in Hull. It felt like that to me anyway.

The Kitchen Sink jacket

The Kitchen Sink by Tom Wells (£9.99)

How would you describe your approach to writing plays, and where do you draw your inspiration from?

I just try to start writing and sort of go for it. Properly. It’s not much of an approach really. Drink tea. Eat biscuits. Panic. Then, once I’ve got to the end, spend a lot of time trying to make it better. Read it out loud. Do the voices. Show it to people I trust, who are always much better at knowing what to do than I am. Listen to Belle and Sebastian. Weep. That sort of thing.

Inspiration is lots of things: stories people tell you, stuff you hear on buses, letters from my Nan, knitting patterns, photographs by the Caravan Gallery, recipes, the three-minute pop song. Mostly, though, it’s just things that happen to you, or the people you love. You just have to colour it in a bit differently. Change the names.

What are your own ambitions for the future?

I’d like to keep writing plays.

Tom Wells’ new play – The Kitchen Sink – is currently running at the new Bush Theatre until 17th December 2011, click here to book tickets. NHB are proud to publish the playscript. To order your copy with free UK P&P click here and add ‘Blog Offer’ in the comments field at checkout (to ensure your discount is applied when the order is processed).

Jez Butterworth’s JERUSALEM at St Paul’s

Image One

Art often imitates life, but it’s rare that a West End play gets taken up by a group of anti-capitalist protesters as the perfect encapsulation of their spirit of defiance. But this is just what has happened to Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem, a play that is back in the West End with Mark Rylance once again giving his barnstorming performance as Johnny ‘Rooster’ Byron – a modern-day Pied Piper who refuses to bow to the eviction notice served on him by local council officials.

But head on down to the campsite at St Paul’s, currently occupied by protesters under the collective name of ‘Occupy the London Stock Exchange’, and you’ll find an alternative ‘performance’ of the play. A very alternative one, in fact.

Jerusalem by Jez Butterworth

Jerusalem playtext

Here, the man behind the project to bring Jerusalem to the protesters – a protester himself with no previous theatrical experience, who goes only by the name of ‘Bill’ – explains what’s going on in a series of bulletins from the front line.

****************

From: Bill

Date: Sunday 30 October

Subject: ‘Jerusalem’ at St Paul’s

The first play-reading will take place today [30th October] at 4.30pm. It may well turn out to be a shambles, raining and under-attended, but it’s a start!

With any luck, if the readings gain momentum, and a gang starts to get together, we might try and manage a ‘proper’ performance/production? But it’s all very much ‘see how it goes’ at the moment.

Am very grateful to Jez Butterworth for his kind permission to let us do this, against the usual rules when the play’s on in the West End!

Best wishes,

Bill

****************

From: Bill

Date: Tuesday 1 November

Subject: Mrs Theatre

The project has turned out very differently from the original idea because I haven’t seen either of the two people who wanted to do it too since the night of the big conversation about it (Thursday). It’s fairly usual for people to come and go without telling anyone. The upshot is, by Saturday, I began to realise I was alone with the project. I got quite frightened and wanted to drop out: I have no connection with the theatre, am not an actor, director or anything, secondly, it was impossible to find any appropriate space to do anything in the St Paul’s camp, and I was beginning to feel uncertain there, wondering if the interests of the protests might be better served by the Finsbury Square camp [a second scene of protest at Finbury Square, EC1].

By very happy chance I discovered someone had made a theatre in a tent at Finsbury Square when I moved to that camp on Sunday. This project would have been impossible without her (I don’t actually know her name. ‘I’m Mrs Theatre,’ she said.)

Have to go now but will e-mail later.

Best wishes,

Bill

****************

From: Bill

Date: Tuesday 1 November

Subject: Apocalypse Now

Today was a no-show too: it coincided with a big General Meeting up at the St Paul’s site (which won’t be cleared tomorrow after all, as a new legal development has postponed it again.)

I haven’t really left the campsites for the past week, and am grateful for the opportunity to make contact with anyone unconnected with them. They can get a bit hardcore. Finsbury Square, in particular, never sleeps. St Pauls is often manic in the day but gets quite peaceful in the middle of the night, (except for the bells, though I really liked these, one of the best sounds ever). Finsbury Square, meanwhile, is fairly laid back in the daytime, and the public use it as a walk-through, but when it starts to get dark it begins to change; the nights can get a bit ‘Apocalypse Now’. There have been a few problems. Some of the people are street alcoholics, (but no less brilliant for that). There’s often trouble from the public too, late night gangs of men screaming at us, provoking an even more furious response from volatile people on the site. Sometimes protestors arrive in the middle of the night from other parts of the country and can get a bit shirty if they are told they have to come back in the morning. A group of five trashed the kitchen tent at 1am this morning before raging off intending to camp on Parliament Square.

At the reading we had on Sunday, none of the participants had heard of the play, and only one person, Mrs Theatre, had much declared interest in theatre generally. Everyone was a non-actor. But immediately the play had everyone’s absorption and, very soon in, I didn’t have to do or explain anything any more, for all concerned were utterly carrying it. They laughed a lot. The part of Johnny was read by an Irish man of roughly Johnny’s age, no fixed abode, a hurricane of drink and he did it all joyously. He read quite fast, which the reading needed, and the beautiful thing was he’d frequently realise how funny the line he was reading actually was, halfway through reading it, and would crack up laughing. I hoped he might be around for further readings, but haven’t seen him since. Mrs Theatre really loves the play and wants to keep going with it – we didn’t get all the way through on Sunday and she wants to. The play connected with everyone immediately; my aim at the moment is to keep going with it in the hope maybe others will want to continue with the project and I can pass it over to them.

I have been asked questions by many people, and I’ve no idea who they are; questions like ‘is this your theatre then?’, ‘Are you running a company?’ and in some cases, while they examine a copy of the play: Are you the author?

Thanks, Jez Butterworth for this play, for its defiance against rising tyranny, and for creasing us up when we most needed creasing.

Best wishes,

Bill

****************

From: Bill

Date: Friday 4 November

Subject: ‘The Miracle’

The readings are starting to go exactly as hoped, for now: they are not performances, there is no audience. It’s just a reading group and it’s very casual. What happens is: two or three of us sit on chairs in a very, very small theatre tent (about eight foot square, the fourth wall open to the outside), reading selected scenes among ourselves for enjoyment’s sake between 1.30–3pm each day (though today’s looking unlikely: the site’s under six inches of water). When people come, one of us whispers to them they can take a seat if they like. If they sit down they’re handed a copy of the play and shown the page we’re on. They’re invited to join in if they feel like it. Then they’re left alone. No explanations or sales pitch: the continuation of the reading is what matters; people can take it or leave it.

So far, especially yesterday, this has worked well. One or two City workers on their lunch break have come and sat down, eating a sandwich, reading the play as we continue the reading. When the two or three of us read, there are usually 2–3 main character parts in the extracts we’re doing, then a fourth or fifth character might enter, or be there already but not saying any lines until well into the extract. This is when ‘the miracle’ happens: very often the quiet new ‘guest’, be it a City worker, campsite person, whoever, will spontaneously read out that new part, therefore becoming part of the reading.

When the extract finishes, we all go ‘Phew! That was all right, wasn’t it?’ and we all grin and laugh and talk about how funny the play is. The City people who have been present often say they’ve seen the play in the West End and love it, or that they want to go and see it. The campsite people are very often unfamiliar with the play, and don’t know it’s currently very famous. It’s just ‘some play or other’ which, they discover, happens to be brilliant, funny as f***, completely apt for today and apt for their own situation. Anyone who’s not heard of the play but comes to a reading on spec seems to become an immediate convert. They know also they can come and join a reading any time they like, for as little or as long as they want.

Have to go now.

Best wishes,

Bill

We hope to bring you further bulletins from Bill in due course…

LAGAN: Writing Northern Ireland – by Stacey Gregg

Lagan

Lagan by Stacey Gregg (£9.99)

Stacey Gregg is a Belfast-born playwright whose new play – Laganmarks her UK debut, premiering tonight at Ovalhouse, South London. A kaleidoscope of stories from post-Troubles Belfast, Lagan is an intimate and absorbing portrait of a city with a past like no other. Stacey reveals her desire to ‘write’ her hometown…

Lagan sprang from a desire to record stories of moments from the lives of characters definitively of Northern Ireland, today. Sounds simple. But Northern Ireland finds itself in a stage of transition, letting go of its recent troubled past, wondering what it is, and what it might be. In many ways, this is gloriously banal: it is worrying about water tax and recycling, like any other country with the luxury to do so. It marks a settling-down, an opportunity to reflect and, for some, even a kind of anti-climax. Young men in particular, from both traditions, are left with a sense of uncertainty about what defines them. How does that overused word, ‘identity’, apply now we are post-conflict? Like any event that has lain long and deep in a people’s psyche, it is more complex than this. But across industries and disciplines, many seek to explore or project what the Northern Irish make of themselves now, in what is wryly referred to as Nu-Belfast.

In the late 1990s there was disbelief as the Troubles came to a close. It had dragged on so long Lagan no one thought it possible to see Ian Paisley Snr sitting next to Martin McGuinness, laughing together – laughing! But here we were. Suddenly, previously strangled aspects of the region started to sprout tourism, delis, coffee shops, IKEA. The city has evolved over the past decade, no doubt about it, and the middle class, long muted and diffuse, is now restored. But quickly that familiar, capitalist, intoxicated meta-narrative became the only song Belfast sang: Look! Swishy bars! Posh shops! Bring your business here! The north was alarmed by the collapse of the Irish economy in the south, however shrill ads selling the quaint and the cool (the twee and the twee) doggedly multiply, whilst a substantial swathe of society, specifically the urban poor, continue living at a standard much as before. Attempting to write about Northern Ireland, and in particular my hometown, Belfast, felt increasingly like writing a tale of Two Cities. And rue that you be the killjoy in the corner, going on about the disempowered, community projects, remembering the past…

Lagan production shotsIn order not to get lost in illustrating points or statistics, it is always the truisms to which we return: the personal is political. Simple stories allow the blanks to speak. Meanwhile, from theatre to TV, the elusive commissioning steer seemed to be ‘We’re sick of the Troubles! We’re sick of dour, political, hearth and home, laced with that uneasy pressure to put a balaclava on it.’ There is a fatigue of Northern Ireland as we had got used to seeing it, and simultaneously a curiosity for some kind of retrospective analysis, in order, maybe, to move on. There is possibly also a slightly colonial desire to smooth over that unpleasant chapter and race on to funner, brighter, sexier! etc. An expedient aversion to political engagement, it might get in the way of the merchandise! And yet what of those stock images of youths still kicking off in front of riot police every year? Kids to whom sectarian slurs are as ingrained as their parents generation? To those who are asking, it would seem that class inequality generally is on the rise. But Northern Ireland’s working and/or underclass no longer has the limelight, a platform, a voice.

So, following a peculiar hiatus, it feels as though there is a revived interest in the state of the region and its residual questions, the type of analysis only really possible with a bit of reflection and hindsight. All this said, the texture and conflicts within Lagan are not particular to, but perhaps more present or pressing in the North of Ireland. Its specificity is its universality. Back to water tax and recycling. The devil is in the detail. Retail development, social planning, teen pregnancy… – but amplified by the fact that Northern Ireland is the only country in the UK where abortion is not facilitated; where, as of 2008, there is less than 5.5% integrated schooling; where fundamental Christianity is on the rise in the young; and where many still live with the echoes of something that makes precious more sense now than it did then…

Lagan production shotsLagan opens tonight at Ovalhouse, London, playing until 12th November 2011. *£10 ticket offer (usually £14)* Valid for performances on 29th Oct and Tuesday 1st Nov only. Enter the code ‘HUB’ when booking online, OR, quote via the Box Office: 020 7582 7680.

The NHB playscript is available now, click here to purchase your copy for £9.99 with free UK P&P – add ‘Blog Offer’ in the comments field at checkout (to ensure your discount is applied when the order is processed).

Adapting classic children’s literature for the stage – by playwright Mike Kenny

Playwright Mike Kenny

Mike Kenny

Adapting classic children’s novels for the stage is no easy feat. But British playwright Mike Kenny has proven that when it works, it can go down like a treat. With a string of roaring successes over the last two years, including current Waterloo Station Theatre smash hit The Railway Children (recently nominated for the Evening Standard‘s ‘Best Night Out’ Theatre Award), last year’s The Wind in the Willows and this year’s Peter Pan for York Theatre Royal. Here, he reflects on the timeless quality of a ‘golden era’ in British children’s literature where his inspiration stems from…

Rob Angell (Father) in The Railway Children. Photo: Karl Andre Photography

Rob Angell (Father) in The Railway Children. Photo: Karl Andre Photography

‘Career’ has always felt like a good word for my life as a playwright, in so much that it has been like a plummet down a mountainside without the benefit of brakes, or steering. I’ve never really been in control of it and often a bit hazy about what’s coming next. One thing that has consistently characterised it is that the majority of my work has been for children and their families, though sometimes that has meant writing for teens in youth clubs, and sometimes for the very young, nursery age and under, sometimes working with contemporary material and at others with traditional tales and fairy stories.

Sarah Quintrell (Roberta) in The Railway Children. Photo: Karl Andre Photography

Sarah Quintrell (Roberta) in The Railway Children. Photo: Karl Andre Photography

Of late it has taken an increasingly fascinating turn. It began when Damien Cruden, the director of the York Theatre Royal, asked me to think about adapting The Railway Children. 

The Railway Children was a revelation to me. It really was. I know people loved the film, but I confess I didn’t. I was 18 when it came out. Its longing for the steam age and its lasting shining sun made me slightly sick. And although Bernard Cribbins is fantastic, Mrs Perks’ comedy Yorkshire accent put the working classes somewhere back in the thirties. It was about posh kids, again. Yawn. The doctor appeared to live in the Parsonage museum in Haworth. Bizarre, did nobody think we’d notice? I didn’t hate it, but I thought it was sentimental tosh and completely irrelevant. It was 1968 for God sake. Think of what was happening in the world! When it was proposed to me for adaptation I was not keen. Then I actually read the book.

THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS production shot

The Wind in the Willows (2011). Photo: Dublinstones photography

Humble pie was duly eaten. The book is great and reads today as fresh and relevant (bad word I know, but it is) as then. I loved it and I loved working on it. I have since been given credit for all sorts of things which are actually there in the original book. Basking in its glow, I became fascinated by other Edwardian children’s classics. I went on to adapt The Wind in the Willows, and this year did a version of J M Barrie’s Peter Pan (both premiered at York Theatre Royal). They were all originally written within a very few years of each other in that strange time between the end of the long reign of Victoria and the start of the First World War, which swept it all away and with it the generation that read those books as children. There is a moment in Peter Pan (cut from the Disney film and the recent movie) when Wendy says ‘we hope our sons will die like English gentlemen’, and we watch the Lost Boys walk the plank singing the National Anthem. In the play where Peter says that death would be an awfully big adventure, it really is a chilling moment. The play grasps a truth about its time and unknowingly predicts an imminent future. Similarly, The Wind in the Willows seems to turn a cool gaze on the near future, when you consider Toad’s obsession with the internal combustion engine. The addiction to motors, such a rarity then, and such a profound threat to the natural world now, becomes the heart of the book. Messing about with boats doesn’t stand a chance.

The Wind in the Willows, 2011 production shot

The Wind in the Willows (2011). Photo: Dublinstones photography

It was a golden age for children’s art. I’m so envious. There was a collection of original works for children that put them at the centre of the action and both entertained and had prophetic force. The train and the car were much the Internet of their day: they changed the world forever, and these writers incorporate them with such ease in forms that embrace realism and fantasy. I suppose I feel that we struggle to match those days, particularly in theatre. So maybe I’m finally trying to influence the onward plummet of my work. Peter Pan was a theatre piece before it was anything else. It, like the other pieces of its time, entered our culture and has never been out of print in the hundred plus years since. I am now minded to take up the gauntlet and try to write something for our own time, which will hopefully have the same longevity. In the meantime, I’ve got my sights set on Little Lord Fauntleroy.

The Railway Children (jacket)

The Railway Children (£8.99)

York Theatre Royal’s production of The Railway Children is currently running at Waterloo Station Theatre in London to January 2012 – ‘Mike Kenny’s adaptation shows his mastery of playwriting for children and families… adults and children alike are enthralled by the clever mix of imagination and reality’ Financial Times – click here for more information and to purchase tickets. The NHB publication of The Railway Children is available now, click here to purchase your copy for just £8 with free UK P&P – add ‘Blog Offer’ in the comments field at checkout (to ensure your discount is applied when the order is processed).

The Wind in the Willows will publish late November 2011. To pre-order your copy for just £8 with free UK P&P please email your required quantity and contact details to orders@nickhernbooks.demon.co.uk and NHB will be in touch shortly!


Spotlight: playwright CONOR McPHERSON

Conor McPherson

Conor McPherson

Playwright Conor McPherson – ‘a writer who can make inarticulacy sound poetic’ (Evening Standard) – returns to the theatre this month with the premiere of his new play The Veil at the National Theatre. We’ve published the playtext along with a striking new edition of his earliest works, McPherson Plays: One, which includes a new foreword by the author. In this extract from the foreword, McPherson looks at why in the nineties the monologue form became so dominant in Irish theatre.

The nineties in Irish theatre will probably always be associated with the monologue. Almost every successful new play that emerged from Ireland at the time had an element of direct storytelling. It was as though the crazy explosion of money and stress was happening too close to us, too fast for us, making it impossible for the mood of the nation to be objectively dramatised in a traditional sense. It could only be expressed in the most subjective way possible because when everything you know is changing, the subjective experience is the only experience.

Production photograph of The Veil, by Conor McPherson, National Theatre, September 2011

Hannah Lambroke (Emily Taafe) and Grandie (Ursula Jones) in The Veil at the National Theatre. Photo by Helen Warner

I would suggest that the hunger for this kind of highly personal work was unprecedented because the whole phenomenon of living in Ireland at the time was unprecedented. It has been argued elsewhere that a secular need flooded the space left by the disgraced Catholic Church and a contemporary dearth of true political leadership. We still had souls, but we just couldn’t trust anyone with them any more. Thus monologue theatre flourished because it was a mirror which took you inside your own eye. The work had to become more private and the humour more painful in order to reflect the mood of an audience who didn’t feel like they were living in a sustainable reality on any level. Big old ‘state of the nation’ plays simply couldn’t have reflected that feeling, I don’t think. The dramatic problem was far subtler than before so the successful plays of the time took a subtler approach.

The Seafarer production at National Theatre, 2006

Jim Norton (Richard), Michael McElhatton (Nicky), Ron Cook (Mr. Lockhart), Conleth Hill (Ivan) in The Seafarer at the National Theatre, 2006. Photo Catherine Ashmore.

As young writers, we knew of Beckett’s great monologue plays and Brian Friel’s iconic Faith Healer, but these were examples of a form rather than the norm. When one considers the tumultuous time in which this form re-emerged and became almost ubiquitous it doesn’t feel like mere coincidence, and I would contend that to dismiss such a sea change in Irish drama is to ignore how well it charted the peculiar history of the Irish mind for its time. And all the more so when one considers how organic and unconscious this movement was. It just happened. The more Ireland’s economic fortunes appeared to catapult us into a twenty-first-century orbit, the more our theatre seemed determined to return us to an almost ancient mode of storytelling.

The Veil: playscript

The Veil (£9.99)

For myself, I haven’t written a monologue play for well over a decade now. This year I am forty and consider myself extraordinarily fortunate to have worked as a playwright for the last twenty years. The hard-won perspective of the intervening time shows me that I thought I was free and independent back then, but now I know I was struggling with history just like everybody else. I used to find it so difficult to even think about my own past work. I always felt the need to look away into the future. But as I enter middle age I look back with a more forgiving regard. I read the very first line of the first play in this volume, which says: ‘I think my overall fucked-upness is my impatience.’ It was true then, and it’s true now, and probably not just for me. And maybe that impatience drew me to the monologue form. Because it could take you right where you wanted to be so fast and keep you there because it just felt real.

Conor McPherson, 2011

Jacket: McPherson Plays 1 (collection)

Mcpherson Plays: One (£12.99)

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Conor McPherson’s latest work – The Veil – is currently running at the National Theatre until 2nd November – click here for more information and to purchase tickets. His earlier play, Dublin Carol, will run at the Trafalgar Studios in London’s West End 8-31 December 2011 (a Donmar Warehouse production), click here for more information and to purchase tickets. 

The NHB publication of The Veil and the new edition of McPherson Plays: One (with a new author Foreword) are available now to purchase. To order your copy with free UK P&P click here and add ‘Blog Offer’ in the comments field at checkout (to ensure your discount is applied when the order is processed).


WE ARE THREE SISTERS: with author Blake Morrison

We Are Three Sisters jacket

We Are Three Sisters by Blake Morrison (£9.99)

Poet, playwright and novelist Blake Morrison grew up in striking distance from Haworth, the village once home to the Brontë family, and describes his latest play for Northern Broadsides, We are Three Sisters, as ‘a kind of homecoming’. Here he explains the enjoyment of dramatising the Brontë’s lives, lifting the gloom and misery so often written about, and using Chekhov’s Three Sisters as a guiding inspiration.

Charlotte Brontë liked to give the impression nothing of interest ever happened to her and her sisters – Haworth being a remote spot, and life at the parsonage lacking in incident. And yet the lives of the Brontës have been retold – on stage, on film, in fiction, even as ballet – as often as their novels have been adapted. That’s because they raise such fascinating questions. How did three sisters come to write such groundbreaking novels? What was the chemistry between them? Why did they adopt pseudonyms? What experience, if any, did they have of being in love? How did they cope with their wayward, drug- and booze-addicted brother Branwell? How congenial was the influence of their father Patrick, whose health they constantly worried about, but who outlived them all? How feminist were they? How political in their thinking? Far from being uneventful, the lives of the Brontës are so full of psychological interest and dramatic potential that it’s hard to know where to start.

For me the starting point was Chekhov, whose play Three Sisters explores many of the themes that preoccupied the Brontës: work, education, marriage, the role of women, the dangers of addiction, the risks of flirtation, the rival claims of country and city, the stirrings of political unrest. The parallels are no mere coincidence. According to Chekhov’s biographer, Donald Rayfield, one of the books he ordered for the library of his home town, Taganrog, and which he kept for nearly a month before sending it on, was an account of the Brontës by Olga Peterson (a Russian married to an Englishman). The fact that Chekhov’s dancing teacher at school was a Greek called Vrondi, and in demotic Greek (which Chekhov knew a little) Brontë and Vrondi are virtual homonyms, may have tickled his fancy still further…Wherever possible, I’ve tried to be true to the Brontës’ thoughts and feelings. As well as drawing on Juliet Barker’s biography, I’ve used words that appear in the novels, Charlotte’s letters, and Elizabeth Gaskell’s biography. Here, for example, is Gaskell’s account of Charlotte telling her father about Jane Eyre:

‘Papa, I’ve been writing a book.’

‘Have you, my dear?’

‘Yes, and I want you to read it.’

‘I’m afraid it will try my eyes too much.’

‘But it is not in manuscript: it is printed.’

‘My dear! You’ve never thought of the expense it will be!…’

The Brontë story is usually shrouded in darkness and misery. We are Three Sisters tries to disperse the gloom and to highlight resilience instead. Despite the tragic events of their childhood (the deaths of their mother and of two of their sisters), Charlotte, Emily and Anne were not pathetic victims of fate, but strong-minded, independent and resourceful women. Nor was Haworth a godforsaken spot in the back of beyond: as Juliet Barker shows in her marvellous biography of the Brontës, both the industry and the intellectual life of the region were thriving. Patrick Brontë has often been stereotyped as grim and reclusive. But he used his position to campaign fiercely for better education and sanitation for the people of Haworth. Another stereotype about the Brontës is their lack of humour. But there’s a playful air to some of Charlotte’s letters. I wouldn’t call We are Three Sisters a comedy, exactly, but with Chekhov’s encouragement I’ve tried to let in a little lightness.

WE ARE THREE SISTERS: REHEARSAL SHOT

Blake Morrison in rehearsal with Sophia Di Martino (Emily), Catherine Kinsella (Charlotte) and Rebecca Hutchinson (Anne). Photo by Nobby Clark.

This is an edited extract from the author’s Foreword to the published script. Blake Morrison’s new playWe are Three Sisters – is on tour throughout the UK with Northern Broadsides until 26th November 2011, click here for full tour details and to purchase tickets. NHB are proud to publish the playscript alongside the world premiere tour – to order your copy with free UK P&P click here and add ‘Blog Offer’ in the comments field at checkout (to ensure your discount is applied when the order is processed). Click here to watch the production trailer.

Spotlight: Headlong’s DECADE

Decade jacket

Decade (Nick Hern Books, £10.99)

As Decade, Headlong’s imaginative investigation of 9/11 and its legacy, opens in London, NHB Commissioning Editor Matt Applewhite considers a play publisher’s role in documenting the theatre of our times – and why it’s worth pulling out all the stops to do so.

When, in 2009, Caryl Churchill wrote Seven Jewish Children, her short, sharp response to the situation in Gaza, the Royal Court programmed and produced the play within weeks. As Caryl’s publisher, but also as individuals similarly concerned by the crisis, we felt it was important to publish the play alongside its run. Printed copies were given free of charge to all audience members, and the play is still freely available as a PDF download on our website, enabling it to be read, studied and hotly debated around the world.

Since theatre is the art form most able to react to and explore, in imaginative ways, major world events as they happen, our responsibility as a theatre publisher is to respond likewise. Whilst the work itself might be performed for only a very short time, publication will guarantee the play an ongoing life. Bringing permanence to the essentially ephemeral is the guiding principle behind the publication of any play; when the work combines a wider but immediate significance with something of lasting artistic value, it can feel even more vital.

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Headlong, Rupert Goold’s theatre company, has a track record of producing provocative, challenging theatre about urgent, contemporary issues. In their productions of Lucy Prebble’s ENRON and Mike Bartlett’s Earthquakes in London, the Big Subjects of financial meltdown and climate change were respectively explored, in brilliantly theatrical and exhilarating ways. To mark ten years since 9/11, the company began work on their Decade project, commissioning twenty writers from both sides of the Atlantic (and beyond) to respond to the events of that day, and what has happened in the world since.

We all know the profound impact that 9/11 has had on international politics and global security, but the twenty plays making up Decade are all the more powerful for telling us the stories of individuals. So we see the Muslim shopkeeper who has a brick thrown through his window, the souvenir-seller at Ground Zero who seduces weeping tourists, the widows who meet up every anniversary, the passengers grounded at a unnamed airport, the young US solider and the photo which makes her infamous, and – almost comically – the person born on 11th September who must evermore share her birthday with a date remembered for all the wrong reasons. Through these stories we glimpse a bigger picture of how all our lives have changed by varying degrees in various ways.

Decade production shot (photo: Tristram Kenton)

A scene from Decade by Headlong Theatre (photo by Tristram Kenton)

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We’d been discussing the possible publication of these plays for a few months with Headlong, but it was finally confirmed less than two weeks ago that they’d like us to publish all twenty pieces in a single volume and in time for press night. Eight working days is not a long time to get any play into print, from signing a contract to having finished copies, via the processes of typesetting, proofreading, copyediting and design, not to mention the actual printing of the book. And the challenge is all the greater when there are twenty playwrights and their agents to deal with, twenty contracts to be negotiated, twenty plays to be typeset, etc, etc. – and a book of 256 pages to be produced. Thanks to the goodwill, cooperation and hard work of a lot of people, copies were on sale to audiences at the press night.

And, after the production ends on 15th October, and the attention around the tenth anniversary of 9/11 has passed, copies of the publication will still be on sale. Just as the plays explore the legacy of a moment in history, they will have a legacy themselves.

The NHB publication of the twenty plays that make up Decade is available here. To order your copy for £10.99 with free UK P&P add ‘Blog Offer’ in the comments field at checkout (to ensure your discount is applied when the order is processed). 

To see Headlong’s thrilling production of Decade running at St Katharine Docks, London, until 15th October, book via the National Theatre Box Office here

THE GOD OF SOHO Special: with director Raz Shaw

Raz Shaw, director of The God of Soho

Raz Shaw, director of The God of Soho

In part two of our special feature on The God of Soho, director Raz Shaw tells us what it was like bringing Chris Hannan’s wild and raucous script to life for Shakespeare’s Globe.

You have previously directed productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Romeo and Juliet for the Shakespeare’s Globe, but this is your first contemporary play. How did you come to direct The God of Soho for the Globe’s distinctive space?

Dominic Dromgoole, Artistic Director of Shakespeare’s Globe phoned me up in November last year. He sent me Chris’s treatment version, which was gloriously mad – it made wonderful sense and at the same time didn’t make any sense. It was brave and courageous and rude, and funny and moving – and yet, in some ways, indecipherable. I thought there was so much in it, it was bursting at the seams. I had no idea what the end result might be, but there was something about it that was intriguing, exciting, unique and scary. And I only like to do work that scares me or there’s no point, I think.

'The God of Soho' Rehearsal Shot

Iris Roberts (Clem). Photo: Simon Kane

What has proven the biggest challenge, or surprise, in bringing the script to life for the first time?

I’ve discovered that doing a new play at the Globe means two things. One, you have to be very respectful to the author’s words. And two, you have to embrace the Globe in all its forms. Sometimes that means you need to direct a scene in a slightly different way, from how you might have done had it been indoors in a ‘conventional’ theatre. I think that what the Globe gives any play, especially a new play, is an extra resonance and relevance because it reaches out immediately to the audience, and the audience responds right there in the moment. In a really positive way, we hear the words more, we feel the emotions more and we listen to the story of the play more. So for me, the biggest challenge has been to imagine where it needs to sit – how it can resonate best in the Globe. I think the biggest surprise to me is that despite its huge moments – very funny moments, rude moments, very sexy moments – it’s actually about tiny emotional details. The story of the play is very real, it has three very real love stories; the biggest challenge is to make sure we focus on that and at the same time allow it to breathe in a theatre the size and style of the Globe.

With its large cast, sharp topicality and brash language, do you imagine that The God of Soho will be a popular choice for amateur performance in the future?

I do! It’ll be a fun journey to take. There are eleven actors in our cast, with two what are called ‘supernumerary actors’, who only come in for the final rehearsals and do simple, non-acting things, like opening doors and all that kind of stuff – but still feel part of the cast. With thirteen actors, and seven in the band, there are over 120 costumes in this show, as there are actually loads of characters.

The God of Soho: trailer image

Click to view The God of Soho trailer

Part of the fun of doing a play with loads of roles is that all the actors can have a main character, and then they can all kind of let go and have mini-characters too. For instance, there’s a song in the play called ‘Sexier than Sex’, which is very rude. It’s about the Goddess of Love’s journey into King’s Cross and Soho for the first time, and she’s looking for something to hold onto because she’s been rejected by her lover in heaven. One of the things she is hoping to find out is what sex is on Earth. The song is quite vulgar, and requires an assortment of characters from the sex trade, from prostitutes onwards, and would certainly be lots of fun for amateur performers.  Almost every single one of those little parts has something about it that would make it unique and fun to play. Even if those parts don’t have many lines, they certainly have some memorable moments.

Chris Hannan’s new playThe God of Soho – opens tonight (27 August) at Shakespeare’s Globe, running till 30 September. Click here to purchase tickets. NHB are proud to publish the playscript alongside this production – to order your copy with free UK P&P click here and add ‘Blog Offer’ in the comments field at checkout (to ensure your discount is applied when the order is processed).

The God of Soho: jacket

The God of Soho by Chris Hannan (£9.99)

*The God of Soho ticket + drink offer!*
A Yard ticket & a Post-Show Cocktail for just £10 when booking directly through the venue. Use the code ‘pcdsftw’ or quote ‘Something for the Weekend’ when calling the Shakespeare’s Globe box office on 020 7401 9919. Cannot be claimed retrospectively. Usual terms and conditions apply. Purchasers must be over the age of 18. Please note Yard tickets are standing only, but have the best view of the stage.