Spotlight: RATTIGAN’S NIJINSKY at Chichester Festival Theatre

Nicholas Wright

Nicholas Wright, author of Rattigan's Nijinsky

Terence Rattigan’s 1974 BBC television script about Diaghilev, the genius impresario behind the Ballets Russes, and Nijinsky, the greatest dancer of all time, was mysteriously withdrawn before it could be filmed. Playwright Nicholas Wright explains how his new play interweaves Rattigan’s screenplay with the story behind its cancellation. Rattigan’s Nijinsky received its world premiere this week at Chichester Festival Theatre, as part of this year’s celebrations for the playwright’s centenary. The production runs in rep with Rattigan’s classic The Deep Blue Sea until 3 September.

The director Philip Franks rang me unexpectedly in September 2010 to ask if I’d be interested in adapting a Rattigan screenplay about Nijinsky. The usual form is for playwrights to be grandly equivocal when requests like this are made: ‘Mmm… I’ll need a few days to think about it.’ So my reply must have startled him. I had huge admiration for Terence Rattigan, I said, I’d been researching a play about Diaghilev’s company, the Ballets Russes, for years, though I hadn’t yet written a word of it, I loved classical dance and I was at that moment working with Christopher Wheeldon on a full-length Alice for the Royal Ballet. When could I start? We met and he gave me the script. As Philip had warned me, it wasn’t performable onstage: there were too many short, choppy scenes, crowded set-pieces, mandatory close-ups, packed auditoria, train rides and an enormous cast. In common with most good screenplays, the dialogue was sparse. But on its own terms it was excellent. The history of the Nijinsky/Diaghilev relationship, and of the Ballets Russes is a complex one. As always happens when people realise that what they’re creating is radically new, practically everyone involved felt compelled to write about it, and those who didn’t became the subject of scholarly biographies. Add to these a welter of programmes, newspaper announcements and reviews, and there cannot have been a minute in the life of Diaghilev’s company that hasn’t been documented somewhere or other. Rattigan’s brilliance was to fillet this mass of material down to a lucid and moving story about a love affair that was an emotional disaster but an artistic triumph.

I searched the script for clues to why he had written it. He must have known that an Edward Albee-scripted Nijinsky movie project, starring Nureyev and Paul Scofield, had recently had the plugs pulled on it by the producer, Harry Saltzman, and the commercial potential can’t have escaped him. But he must also have realised that he would be doing something very untypical: he would be writing an explicitly homosexual play. Did the knowledge that he hadn’t long to live fuel the desire, finally, to write about his own sexuality?…

How to stage the unstageable? A couple of paragraphs in Michael Darlow’s biography of Rattigan gave a clue. Nijinsky was commissioned by the BBC in 1972, as a potential ‘Play of the Month’. But when Romola, Nijinsky’s widow, got wind of the project she opposed it furiously. Legally speaking, she had no case, but her threats were so alarming to Rattigan that he persuaded the BBC not to produce the play during her lifetime. As he must have known, postponed projects never get made for the simple reason that everyone loses interest in them. Nijinsky was never produced. As Michael Darlow puts it, ‘Rattigan regretted this for the rest of his life.’

This seemed the perfect springboard for what Philip and I thought of as a ‘meta-play’ – one that not only provided the frame for a fine but unknown Rattigan creation, but saw through the picture, as it were, to give an impression of the man who wrote it, why he wrote it, what it meant to him and why he suppressed it. It was also a welcome opportunity to create a portrait, not of the smiling, imperturbable Rattigan of legend, but of a writer beset by his sense of failure, mortally ill and coursing towards a messy and angry death – just as the suave surfaces of his plays conceal disorderly passions.

Rattigan's Nijinsky

Rattigan's Nijinsky, £9.99

This is an edited extract from Nicholas Wright’s Introduction to his ‘fascinating’ (The Times) new play – Rattigan’s Nijinsky. The full piece is printed in the playscript published by Nick Hern Books. To order your copy for £8.99 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).

To book tickets for the world premiere of Rattigan’s Nijinsky and The Deep Blue Sea playing at Chichester Festival Theatre click here.

Richard Eyre on TALKING THEATRE: Interviews with Theatre People

Richard EyreTo celebrate the new paperback edition of Richard Eyre’s Talking Theatre – his superlative account of how theatre is made, in the words of the very people who make it – we will be posting exclusive extracts from the book here on the NHB blog. Come back on Monday to find out what John Gielgud thought about working with Brando on Mankiewicz’s celebrated film of Julius Caesar. Then on Tuesday we’ll hear from Peter Brook about why theatre is so important to the English. Later in the week there will be posts from Fiona Shaw, Alan Bennett and Stephen Sondheim – all talking candidly about some of the most important productions and performances in the theatre of recent times. Here, as a prologue to next week’s special feature, Richard Eyre introduces the book, and explains why he thinks theatre remains essential and distinct from other forms of performance.

I started going to the theatre when I was eighteen, in the early sixties. The start of my theatregoing coincided with a period of extraordinary theatrical energy and invention. I saw the work of Joan Littlewood at Stratford East, the Royal Court in its most fertile years, the newly formed Royal Shakespeare Company under Peter Hall in Stratford, and the newly formed National Theatre under Laurence Olivier at the Old Vic; Oh! What a Lovely War and The Wars of the Roses; Scofield’s Lear and Olivier’s Othello; the young Maggie Smith, the young Albert Finney, the young Vanessa Redgrave, the young Judi Dench, the young Ian Holm, the young Ian McKellen, the even younger Michael Gambon; the older Richardson, Gielgud, Guinness, Ashcroft, even Edith Evans and Sybil Thorndike; the plays of Harold Pinter, John Osborne, Peter Shaffer, Arnold Wesker, Edward Bond, David Storey, Peter Nichols, Charles Wood and Tom Stoppard—with Kenneth Tynan presiding over it all as a mercurial judge and godfather.

What I liked about the theatre then and what I like about it now is its ‘theatreness’, the properties that make it distinct from any other medium—its use of time, of space, of light, of speech, of music, of movement, of storytelling. Theatre is intrinsically poetic, it thrives on metaphor—a room becomes a world and a group of characters becomes a whole society. It conscripts the imagination of the audience to transform the obvious unreality of costumed actors standing on a stage saying things they’ve said to each other many times into something that is both real and truthful. Theatre insists on the present tense—there’s a sense of occasion and of being part of a community in any theatre performance. We go into a theatre as individuals and we emerge as an audience. Above all, theatre can never dissolve its reliance on the scale of the human figure and the sound of the human voice.

Talking Theatre (paperback)

Talking Theatre (paperback, £9.99)

In 1997, shortly before I left the directorship of the National Theatre, I was asked by Andrea Miller (the producer) and Mark Thompson (then Controller of BBC 2) to write and present a six-part television series for the BBC and PBS on the history of twentieth-century British theatre. The series was christened Changing Stages and was broadcast as part of the BBC’s ‘Millennium Project’ in 2000. The programmes were composed of archive footage, pieces to camera, documentary film and, most importantly, interviews with people who had played a significant part in making and influencing the theatre of the previous half-century in Britain, with occasional glimpses across the Irish Sea and the Atlantic beyond. If there were omissions it wasn’t because there was a host of people who refused to be interviewed: almost all the people we asked agreed to talk to me on camera. The most notable refusal was from Marlon Brando, who sang down the phone from Los Angeles to the Glaswegian producer, Andrea Miller:

Just a wee deoch an doris, just a wee drop, that’s all.
Just a wee deoch an doris afore ye gang awa.
There’s a wee wifie waitin’ in a wee but an ben.
If you can say, ‘It’s a braw bricht moonlicht nicht’,
Then yer a’richt, ye ken.

While he was enthusiastic to sing and discuss the work of Harry Lauder and the plight of the American Indian, he told her that he would rather do anything in the world than talk about acting.

A friend of mine once rashly invited Paul Scofield to give a lecture on acting. He wrote this in response:

I have found that an actor’s work has life and interest only in its execution. It seems to wither away in discussion, and become emptily theoretical and insubstantial. It has no rules (except perhaps audibility). With every play and every playwright the actor starts from scratch, as if he or she knows nothing and proceeds to learn afresh every time—growing with the relationships of the characters and the insights of the writer. When the play has finished its run he’s empty until the next time. And it’s the emptiness which is, I find, apparent in any discussion of theatre work.

I hope Talking Theatre proves him wrong.

Don’t miss reading exclusive extracts from five of the interviews published in the book, publishing everyday next week!

To order your copy of Talking Theatre at £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.

Spotlight: THE PRIDE at Crucible Studio, Sheffield

Alexi Kaye CampbellAlexi Kaye Campbell’s award-winning debut play received its regional premiere this week at Sheffield’s Crucible Studio Theatre, following its sell-out world premiere at the Royal Court Theatre, London, in 2008, and subsequent off-Broadway production. Directed by actor and director Richard Wilson, the production has been praised as ‘a brave and rewarding drama that speaks to us all’ (Guardian), ‘beautiful, hopeful’ (WhatsOnStage.com) and a ‘sharp, funny and deeply affecting debut play’ (Telegraph). Exclusively for the NHB blog, Alexi tells us about the experience of reviving The Pride, and using his considerable experience as an actor in his writing…

The Pride was your debut play and won multiple awards after it premiered at the Royal Court in 2008 – can you tell us what first inspired you to write it?

 I suppose the starting point was wanting to explore what it meant to be gay in two very different eras on each side of the sexual revolution and to compare and contrast them. I started thinking a lot about the seismic social and cultural changes that occurred in the 1960s and 1970s and especially how those changes influenced gay identity. But once I began to do that I began to realise that in many ways what existed today seemed to be a quite extreme response to what had gone before: from the covert to the overt, from the implicit to the explicit, from everything being subtext to everything being overstated, from a state of being repressed to a state of taking everything for granted. And so I began to not only compare the two different periods but to try and identify connections and also explore some sense of inheritance – of how one generation receives a sense of self from a previous one and then has to struggle to  throw it off and find its own. Finally I suppose there was a part of me that wanted to pay homage to the people who had brought on those big changes by remembering what it was that they had to fight: the hypocrisy, the hatred, the oppression. That was an important part of it.

Daniel Evans in rehearsals for THE PRIDE

Daniel Evans (Oliver). Photos Robert Day

How would you describe the play for people who haven’t read or seen it?

I think The Pride is really a play about characters trying to discover something about the forces that drive them. And to put it simply, a love story.

Do you imagine the play’s themes still holding relevance to audiences in decades to come?

I really don’t know. I suppose you always hope that what you have written is honest and human and that its qualities will travel beyond your own time but I can’t say I spend too much time thinking about that. If people in my own time are moved or affected by it, that’s good enough for me.

You are also an actor, and have acted for companies including the RSC, Shared Experience and Chichester Festival – what made you decide to turn to playwriting?

Honestly,  it was the frustration. I had always written bits and pieces but had spent all my professional life focussing on the acting and then it got to the point when I simply wasn’t fulfilled enough. Unfortunately, unless an actor is very successful he or she will end up spending quite a bit of the time either being out of work or often doing jobs which don’t quite tick all the boxes as it were. And so I sat down and wrote my first play. And it was when I completed it that all my excuses ran out and I knew that this was what I was meant to be doing. It just felt right. If nothing else I was  suddenly too caught up in it all  to spend the time wondering if the phone was going to ring with news of an audition.

Claire Price in rehearsal for The Pride

Claire Price (Sylvia). Photos Robert Day

Do you feel your acting experience has helped your writing?

Completely and absolutely. It’s no surprise that it is a common trajectory, from actor to playwright. Both are storytellers who put themselves in other people’s shoes. And I spent a good fifteen years as an actor learning all about plays: character, plot, dialogue, drama.  It was reassuring to know that all my time as an actor – the good and bad experiences – had been informing my work as a writer.

The Pride toured to the off-Broadway theatre MCC following its debut at the Royal Court, London, in 2008 – did you find any particular differences between the audiences’ reactions to the play?

New York audiences were great. I was worried about some of the comedy falling flat but it was the opposite – if anything, they took to it even more than the London audiences. For the most part I found them very engaged and generous.

What is it like having the prolific actor and director Richard Wilson direct this new production? And how important is it to you who directs your plays?

Richard is very open and trusting and he allows the play and the actors to discover things without imposing them. He seems to be quite back-footed and then you realise that what he is doing is helping everything to develop organically. He suggests, coaxes, invites  – and the directors who do that are the ones who get the best results, I think, because they understand how collective the whole creative experience is in a rehearsal room. It’s been a pleasure to work with him. I have been very, very spoilt with the directors of my plays so far – Jamie Lloyd, Joe Mantello, Josie Rourke and Richard Wilson – so luckily I haven’t had a bad experience. But getting on with the person who is directing your play is paramount. The trust is all.

Jame Sives in rehearsal for THE PRIDE

Jamie Sives (Phillip). Photos Robert Day

Your new play – The Faith Machine (also to be published by NHB) – will premiere at the Royal Court this summer directed by Jamie Lloyd. Can you tell us a little about it?

I’m thrilled to be working with Jamie again and we have an exceptional cast so I’m very excited. The Faith Machine sometimes feels like the third play in a trilogy following The Pride and Apologia in that all three plays share inheritance as their common theme, but maybe I only say that because I quite fancy saying I’ve written a trilogy! Really it’s a play about the death of religion and about the void that  death leaves behind it  and exploring if there is anything at all that can fill it. . But that all sounds rather boring and worthy so I better add it has a few laughs in it. At least I hope it does, we’ll find out.

TICKET GIVEAWAY!

The Pride is an emotionally charged play about love and relationships set in two different eras. It tells the story of Philip, Oliver and Sylvia and imagines their lives in two different time periods. In 1958, Philip is married to Sylvia, but is secretly in love with Oliver. In 2008, Oliver and Philip are together, but struggling with Oliver’s infidelity, whilst Sylvia is liberated – single and pursuing her dreams.

The Pride play text

The Pride (NHB £8.99)

To enter our competition for the chance to win 2 tickets for the performance on 14th July (Crucible Studio, 7.30pm) answer the following question:

THE PLAY IS SET IN WHICH TWO YEARS?

Send your answer, name and address to sasha@nickhernbooks.demon.co.uk by Friday 8th July (4pm).

To book tickets for another performance click here.

Nick Hern Books proudly publish The Pride playscript. To purchase your copy with a 10% discount and free P&P (RRP £8.99, UK customers only) click here and add ‘Blog Offer’ in the comments field at checkout.

Spotlight: HUNDREDS AND THOUSANDS at Soho Theatre

Lou Ramsden - author of Hundreds and ThousandsThis month NHB publishes Lou Ramsden’s Hundreds and Thousands, the follow-up play to her critically acclaimed debut Breed (2010), for which she was shortlisted for the Critics’ Circle Most Promising Playwright Award. Here, exclusively for the NHB blog, Lou spills the beans on what it’s like for a playwright in those final days leading up to opening night, and answers the big question – when is a play actually ‘finished’?

Last year I wrote a play called Breed, staged at Theatre503 in September. It was a story about parenting, and sometime during late-night redrafting I changed my Facebook status to :

I’m writing a play about a baby, and starting to get a tiny hint of what it might be like to have one : sleepless nights… endless changes… and general anguish at the thought of handing it over to someone else…’.

Cue lots of annoyed remarks from my friends with babies (sorry, friends with babies). And of course they’re right – writing a play is nothing like having a kid. But now, preparing for my second production – Hundreds and Thousands at Soho Theatre Upstairs – I’m starting to remember why I made the comment. As one mate pointed out, your play is never going to vomit fish pie down you in the middle of playgroup. But still, some of the thoughts and emotions it throws up have got to be similar: trepidation; excitement; pride. And a big question mark over when and how it’ll finally come of age. Because – when is a play actually finished?

On the first day of rehearsals, maybe? We started rehearsing Hundreds and Thousands at the end of May, under the guiding hand of director Lisa Spirling. Our initial read-through was very nerve-wracking but exciting, and in the following days we began to pick apart the play, discussing every scene in detail. And….I discovered that it wasn’t actually finished, quite yet. Actors’ questions highlighted moments that need clarifying. Hearing it aloud made me realise that some bits could be slimmed down. So I made changes; felt good about them; felt almost finished, but then…

Stuart Laing (Allan), Sukie Smith (Lorna) and Robert Wilfort (Jonathan) in Hundreds and Thousands

Stuart Laing (Allan), Sukie Smith (Lorna) and Robert Wilfort (Jonathan). Photo by Graham Michael

The actors got on their feet. The space was marked out in the rehearsal room, and Lisa began blocking the action. And that’s when you really start to understand the physicality of the piece. How many lines characters will need to travel from A to B. Why that character can’t be locking that door at that point. Some of the stage directions I’d written disappeared, new ones were added for clarity. Got to be nearly finished now. But then…

We get into the space. Tech it, dress it, and previews start. As I write this, we’re in our first few nights of a preview week, and I’m watching as the play takes baby steps in front of its first proper audiences. We’ll see what people will laugh at. Where the action flies and where it needs to speed up. I’m making cuts, honing, and talking to Lisa about aspects of the performances.

And it’s just about now that I really realise – perhaps a play never, totally, comes of age. Because it’s an audience that ‘finishes’ it, isn’t it? Their presence, and reactions. And they’re different every night, so the play changes every night, so…

Perhaps ‘finished’ is the wrong word, then. The wrong feeling to be aiming at. What writers should really hope for is that, as their play grows up, it keeps good company – it finds people who understand it and care about it. And I’ve been incredibly lucky to get that with Hundreds and Thousands. I’m part of a creative team who are all amazing at what they do, have got a real passion for the play, and are just as excited about seeing it in print as I am.

Nadine Lewington (Tiggy) in Hundreds & Thousands

Nadine Lewington (Tiggy). Photo by Graham Michael

Ironically, Hundreds and Thousands’ central character, Lorna, craves children. After a rocky childhood herself, she longs for the chance to build something better in the future, and she pursues her dream ruthlessly. It’s a play about the dark-hearted selfishness which I think we’re all, sometimes, in danger of giving in to. But in the rehearsal room we’ve discovered lots of humour too, and realised that it’s also a story about the things that are best in people – determination, devotion, and love. I’m working with a team who have all those – and that’s the best cure that I’ve found for playwrighting’s sleepless nights.

Buckle For Dust theatre company in association with English Touring Theatre present Hundreds and Thousands – premiering this month at Soho Theatre, London (21 June – 16 July 2011). Special Ticket Offer: tickets only £10 (usually £12.50 -£15), valid for all performances (subject to availability). To book call the Soho Theatre Box Office – Tel: 020 7478 0100 and quote ‘HOT TICKETS’, or visit http://www.sohotheatre.com and enter promo code ‘HOTTICKETS’ at checkout.Hundreds and Thousands programme text

Nick Hern Books proudly publish the playscript alongside the debut production at Soho Theatre. To purchase your copy with a 10% discount and free P&P (RRP £9.99, UK customers only) click here and add ‘Blog Offer’ in the comments field at checkout.

Spotlight: HOME DEATH – a new play by Nell Dunn

Nell DunnNell Dunn is a distinguished writer whose work includes the award-winning play Steaming, as well as several novels including Up the Junction, which was directed for TV by Ken Loach. Her latest play Home Death is based on moving true-life accounts of people dealing with the death of their loved ones at home. It was performed this week at the Royal Society of Medicine as part of the Dying Matters Awareness Week. Here, the writer reveals how her own experience of loss led her to confront the way we deal with the reality of dying, raising urgent questions about the state of palliative care in the UK today.

Where did the idea to write your play first originate?
I wrote Home Death because after the death of my partner at home, I realised I knew so little about how to comfort and take care of the dying. So I began to ask other people, and what I learned I put into the play.

The main impetus was curiosity – a desperation to know. After the feeling of failure in my situation with my partner, Dan, it seemed to make me feel better talking to others.

You interweave a number of individuals’ stories in the play. Was it always your intention to include your own personal experience as well?
I started with my own story. I was heartbroken I hadn’t helped Dan more. He had always been so wonderful and supportive to me, and I so wanted to help, but was frightened and didn’t know enough.

Could you describe your process of researching and writing Home Death?
I always research in a completely haphazard way… talking to someone on a bus for example. I use a tape recorder sometimes, not always. The technique is to gather material, then smash the glass and reassemble it differently by listening to it again and again – hence the unconventional punctuation in the play.

You also write novels and screenplays, but what made you choose to write Home Death as a play?
I think the theatre is the best medium for Home Death. It can be interpreted in so many different ways by actors, yet it is really so simple – stories about the most extreme moment of life. People are so extraordinary, and this is what I have tried to capture.

Home Death jacket

Home Death by Nell Dunn

The play contains some striking images that feature in several of the stories such as the cold, unwanted, hospital bed arriving in a patient’s home. Is this a notion that particularly struck you?
The image of the cold bed was intentional. I was thinking about how an object was attempting to take the place of clear sensible human care. Why an unfamiliar ugly hospital bed to die in, rather then your own familiar bed?

What is your opinion of the current standard of palliative care available in the UK?
Sometimes palliative care is excellent and sometimes dreadful. However, I do think all the different painkillers that now exist should be more freely available to people in their last few weeks of life. Why this puritan approach to drugs?

There are far too few palliative care doctors, and almost none that do home visits. This means if you are dying at home, you are in the hands of a district nurse who isn’t even allowed to prescribe painkilling drugs like morphine – so you can find yourself in a dire position.

Why do you think we are so afraid of dying in today’s society, or do you think it has always been this way?
I think there has always been fear around death, which is why the Victorians made those huge lead-lined coffins to preserve the body for the afterlife. Eternal death was too frightening then, but most of us now believe that this is it – and when it is someone you love, it is so huge.

The first fully-fledged production of Home Death will take place at the Finborough Theatre in London this July – part of Vibrant, the venue’s annual playwriting festival.  Nick Hern Books are proud to publish the script, which you can purchase with free P&P (UK customers only) and a special 20% discount, click here and add ‘Blog Offer’ in the comments field at checkout (your discount will be applied when your order is processed).

Dying Matters logoDying Matters
This week (16-22 May) is Dying Matters Awareness Week throughout the UK. Dying Matters is a broad-based national coalition led by the National Council for Palliative Care, with over 15,000 members which aims to support changing knowledge, attitudes and behaviours towards dying, death and bereavement, and through this to make ‘living and dying well’ the norm. To find out more or to join visit www.dyingmatters.org or call freephone 08000 21 44 66. 

Spotlight: MOMENT

Deirdre KinahanDeirdre Kinahan, Irish playwright and Artistic Director of  Tall Tales Theatre company, reveals the inspiration behind her latest acclaimed play currently playing at the Bush Theatre, MOMENT.

I feel I pick up plays from off the street, from the top seat of a bus or from a fragment of newspaper. Plays often present themselves in the furrowed brow, pained complexion or twinkling eye of a passer-by. Plays echo all humanity as I encounter it.

One morning frying eggs I turned on the radio. The voice of a mother echoed out, a mother in extraordinary distress. She told the story of her son. Her son who suffered from depression. Her son who lay in jail. Her son who murdered her daughter.The woman seemed so ordinary, so gentle, so wise. She spoke explicitly about her grief for her daughter and her grief for her son. She spoke for a full hour about the horror of that day, that phone call, that moment that shattered her existence. She spoke with such compassion, with such confusion and with such conflicted emotion that I forgot the eggs and listened. I listened without moving. This woman loved her son. This woman loved her daughter. Yet her son killed her daughter. She spoke for an hour and circled, circled, circled around the heart of her distress, around the murder itself. She could never enter it.

So I thought: how do you deal with that? How do you survive in such acute trauma… how do you survive your love?

I have suffered loss myself. I know the grief of losing a family member and so have some notion of trauma. I know its bizarre state where the world slows down and spins to your tune. I know that it demands extraordinary reserve.

And so I decided to write about trauma. A trauma that shapes you, wounds you and envelops your life. I did some preliminary investigation and then began to reimagine. To reimagine a family and build an afternoon. An afternoon where Mammy goes for a walk, where Niamh and Hilary practise for a talent contest and where Nial commits murder. I reimagine – and I have a play.

Tara Wilkinson, then producer at London’s Bush Theatre came to see the premiere production of MOMENT in Dublin in 2009, and between herself and Artistic Director Josie Rourke, they invited us over. Playing at the Bush means a lot to me, not only because it is an extraordiany theatre but also because it has a long history of supporting and championing Irish writing. The space echoes with story and atmosphere and charm; I felt a palpable energy as soon as I entered that tiny room.

MOMENT jacket

MOMENT by Deirdre Kinahan

I am so pleased that MOMENT has impacted on the Bush audience. Reviews from bloggers, stragglers, twitterers and critics alike have been phenomenal. I feel quite humble. I am served by extraordinary actors, an extraordinary director and enjoy the support of an extraordinary British theatre.

MOMENT plays at the Bush Theatre until 26th March, though tickets are like gold dust. If you can’t get to see it, then buy the playtext here with free P&P (UK customers only). Just quote ‘blog offer’ in the comments field at checkout.

A double-dose of fun: revisiting VERNON GOD LITTLE

Jacket image: Vernon God Little (new edition)

Vernon God Little (new edition) by Tanya Ronder

Playwright Tanya Ronder sheds light on the experience of reworking her 2007 adaptation of Vernon God Little, the Booker Prize-winning novel by DBC Pierre, for the Young Vic’s fortieth anniversary season.

When the idea was proposed of redoing Vernon God Little at the Young Vic, it took precisely one second to be 150% behind the idea. The whole creative team and cast had fallen in love with the project the first time round. As a book it has everything – grotesquely funny characters, an insane but almost believable plot, and a beating heart at the centre of it, born from such depth and emotional intelligence, it’s startling. The politics, the philosophy, the comment on our current world and the sheer, vivid joy of trying to stage it was a theatrical combination which captivated us all.

So where’s the rub? Delivering, of course, the second time around; stepping up to the block, having worked at all those improvements we ‘knew’ needed to happen at the end of the previous run. As at the end of any run, we came away thinking, ‘Ah, now we understand what it needs…’ ha, ha. So, firstly, I set about reducing it by 10 per cent; I used to cringe throughout the whole first act’s last incarnation, knowing there was too much in there, too many characters, too much plot. The task was to reduce the foliage without cutting off the path of any vital sap.

Vernon God Little at Young Vic, 2011

Daniel Cerqueira (left), Joseph Drake (centre) and Nathan Osgood (right) in Vernon God Little. Photograph: Tristram Kenton

Then the major, tonal task of the whole piece was to adjust the balance of satire and tragedy – a line which DBC Pierre treads so breathtakingly well in the book. But, we are in Vernon’s head on the page, with him every step of the way, so the appalling horror and loss which underpins it all is never far from us. Trying to reduce the to-audience stuff (another note to self) but upping the emotional stakes was the key challenge. One of the things we had set out to do in the first incarnation, intended until the last minute, was to have the ghost of Jesus, Vernon’s best friend who has just killed all their classmates, on stage. However, we simply didn’t find the right actor back then, and decided to cut our losses and put him on film instead. This time, we started the hunt earlier, and we weren’t going to give up.

The other thing we wanted to do was to celebrate the musical numbers in it even more. We had Country and Western music threaded throughout, but this time we set out to find an entire cast who could sing, so that we could boost every number almost to the level of a musical. Then I wanted to clean-up all the story arcs, make them more archetypal, firm up the back stories, help the audience pick their way through the glorious chaos of characters and places Vernon bounces through.

Vernon God Little at Young Vic, 2011

Lily James (Taylor) and Joseph Drake (Vernon) in Vernon God Little. Photograph: Johan Persson

Result of all these intentions? I have never been so nervous at any first preview. Despite the beautiful final rehearsal-room run, the bar felt higher than ever. It wasn’t as if we’d cocked it up the first time – what were we doing, unpicking it all? Ugh. That first preview felt, to me, less clear, more confusing, less vivid, than it ever had before! But of course my memory was of a highly evolved show from 2007, when the actors had been pacing it up and finding their lights and moments with the great skill and dexterity which they each brought to it. I had to stand back for a few days and let the team do their extraordinary preview work (as well as a bit of re-writing along the way to help clarity…). Several previews later and press night come and gone, I now feel very proud of the work. I’m as in love with it as I ever was, and when there’s an audience full of youngsters in there, the place rocks. I feel unimaginably lucky to have had the chance all over again to paint this distinct canvas with DBC’s extraordinary words and world.

Vernon God Little is currently playing to March 12th 2011 at the Young Vic, London. To purchase a copy of the new edition script (£9.99) click here.

Five minutes with Bruce Norris – author of CLYBOURNE PARK

jacket image of Clybourne Park

Bruce Norris’s raucously funny and fearlessly shocking racial satire Clybourne Park opened in the West End this week. Since its UK debut at the Royal Court Theatre in 2010, the play has received widespread critical acclaim – hailed as ‘the funniest play of the year’ (Evening Standard), ‘genius’ (Times) and ‘out of this world’ (Independent) – and has already scooped all of the prestigious theatre awards. We tracked down the author in his native USA to ask him a few burning questions, exclusively for the NHB blog…! 

 

Clybourne Park dares to confront the submerged racism of its characters, black as well as white, in a potentially explosive way. Do you think it important to provoke audiences in the theatre as well as make them laugh?

I’m not sure whether or not it’s important, per se, it’s just what I enjoy. I’ve always been argumentative by nature and so anything that might potentially cause a fight in the theatre amuses me, as long as fists aren’t used. I had a friend say to me recently, “you should never say mean things to people because words can hurt as much as a fist.” I asked her if she’d ever been hit by a fist? She said no, so I said then maybe someone should hit you so that you’d have proper basis for your comparison.

How have you found British audiences have reacted to the play? Has there been a notable difference to the reaction in the US?

I think that what’s surprising is that the reactions have been remarkably consistent. I think that that’s because theatre-going audiences in the US and the UK draw upon a similar constituency: Well-educated, privileged and (primarily) white people.  Conservatives also go to the theatre in both places, but they go to see shows like The Lion King or Jersey Boys. Conservatives prefer musicals, (or failing that, Shakespeare) and that’s because they know full well that the creators of the kind of theatre you’d see at the Royal Court are, by and large, liberal – sometimes in the extreme – and they (the conservatives) don’t want to go somewhere only to be preached at by people with different opinions. I don’t blame them; I’d hate to go see a play by some conservative bastard whose opinions I despised. The only problem with all of that is, when there is no political or cultural disagreement in an audience it makes for a rather bland experience where our values are simply reconfirmed by the play that we see.  So I find it interesting to explore what would potentially divide or upset a mono-culturally liberal audience – and liberals, currently, are rather easy to upset, both in the US and UK because we’ve been effectively silenced by a dominant center-right coalition for several decades, and are thus, unsurprisingly, a little edgy.

What are your views on the American model of funding theatre (e.g. private finance/philanthropy), and do you think the British Government is right to encourage the UK’s subsidised arts sector to adopt this model?

That’s a really tricky question. Obviously we theatre people over here in the US are ridiculously jealous of your system and would benefit enormously from having some (less paltry) government subsidy for the Arts. If American theatre actors could make a comparable living to London theatre actors they’d be dancing in the streets.  The problem for me (and this is where I become slightly – oh god, dare I say it? – conservative) is that, in order to advocate for government money to be placed in service of the theatre, I’d have to believe that theatre – including the theatre I create – was some kind of social necessity that justified taking away tax dollars from housing programs or education or health care for those who can’t get it via other means. I’m just not sure theatre is important than those things. Correction: I know it’s not. Of course, others would say but your tax dollars are already going to support unjustified wars…Yes, true. But I don’t think that funding one can contradict the other. I don’t think that theatre promotes political change; I think you’d be hard-pressed to show me a real, concrete example of how it does. Moreover, I think that if you’re looking to theatre to effect political change you’ve chosen the most inefficient means possible. I think theatre reflects and responds to the world we live in, rather than leading it. So, how do you justify its funding at the governmental level?

On the other hand, you’ve got the US model. Here’s an interesting fact: The Chairwoman (or -person) of the Board of Directors at Playwrights Horizons (the theatre where Clybourne Park had its premiere), the woman principally responsible for raising money from various corporate entities to fund the existence of that theatre, is married to…former US Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, formerly a board member of Goldman Sachs, and arguably someone who holds partial responsibility for the mess our economy is currently in (and, it should be noted, a lovely man and a fan of my play). Yikes. How to make sense of that?  Here our economy is in free-fall, jobs lost, houses foreclosed upon, and we in the theatre are expected to somehow respond to all of this while at the same time our very existence is being made possible by the very people who put us into this situation? And so you have an entirely different question:  If the money that goes to pay our bills is drawn from the same coffers that perpetuate policies with which we disagree, how should we respond? Are we content to be jesters for a court of Medicis? Or do we attack them with our savage theatrical thrust (that was sarcasm) with the aim to somehow bring them down? And what if we could? Doesn’t Playwrights Horizons exist as a function of the largesse of the wealthy? Should we be grateful for that, or resentful? If we could somehow, through the mechanism of theatre, foment a liberal economic revolution (more sarcasm) that would somehow level the playing field, and thus redistribute some of that same largesse to some of the less fortunate, such as theatre people…wouldn’t that, then, eliminate Playwrights Horizons altogether, and simply bring us back around to the previous paragraph? I wish I knew the answer, but I don’t.

Clybourne Park is currently playing at the Wyndham’s Theatre, London, to 7 May 2011.

AWARDS: Evening Standard Best Play * Critics’ Circle Best New Play * South Bank Sky Arts Best New Play * NOMINATIONS: Olivier Awards – MasterCard Best New Play

PART 4: Bruntwood Playwriting Competition 2011

image of Fiona Peek

Fiona Peek collecting her award

FIONA PEEK…worked for many years as an actress and director in Ireland, before returning to England and completing an MA in Dramatic Writing. Her first full-length play, Salt, was joint-winner of the 2008 Bruntwood Playwriting Competition, and was premiered at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester, in February 2010.

Until you’ve had a play accepted and produced, you can’t really refer to yourself as a ‘writer’.

In 2004 I took a leap, and with no previous writing experience started a 2-year part-time MA in Dramatic Writing at Sussex University. My background was in theatre – performance and a small bit of directing – but for a number of years I’d been doing other things. The MA was a potential route back and, in the course of it, I began writing Salt. It was my first full-length play and to an extent I regarded it as an ‘exercise’ in naturalism (any work I’d attempted up to this point fell into the lyrical/surreal category!). Because it never occurred to me that it might be produced on a real live stage with real live actors, and most significantly, real live stage managers, I didn’t worry overly much about the practicalities of conjuring a 4-course meal every night (which said real live actors would be called upon to eat).

So at the end of the course, I had a difficult-to-produce play, which I knew to be unfinished and no real sense of what to do with it. I sent it out to a couple of the bigger new writing theatres and had positive feedback. But none of them was in a position to take it further.

Jacket for SALT

Salt by Fiona Peek

And that’s where Bruntwood came in. The extraordinary thing about the Bruntwood Prize is that it enables potential to be recognised and developed. What an amazing opportunity – to work closely with the literary team over a period of time to develop the piece to its fullest potential, to have one’s work produced in one of the most highly-respected regional theatres in the country, not to mention the possibility of one’s work actually being published through Nick Hern Books’ close association with the competition.

And then of course there’s the money, which often goes politely unmentioned, but which for me bought the time to pursue more writing avenues. Working at the Royal Exchange was hugely rewarding. Had Salt not been spotted by the Bruntwood team, I could easily still be touting it around – I almost certainly would not currently be writing for the BBC and working on my next play. So on some level, one could say that the Bruntwood Competition turned me into a writer… or at least someone who claims to be one!

Come back tomorrow for the final installment in our week-long Bruntwood Playwriting Competition blog special! Andrew Sheridan reveals why the Bruntwood is the most important new playwriting competition in this country!” – and what it’s been like to go from being an actor to a playwright with his debut play and 2008 joint winner of the prize, Winterlong.

PART 3: Bruntwood Playwriting Competition 2011

Vivienne Franzmann photo, 2008

Vivienne Franzmann receiving her award

VIVIENNE FRANZMANN…was a Drama teacher in London for twelve years. She left teaching in 2009 to pursue writing after winning the 2008 Bruntwood Playwriting Competition for Mogadishu. The play also won the George Devine Award in 2010.

What did it mean to win the Bruntwood Prize? The first thing was that it was a total shock. I never expected to be one of the winners and, it was, and has been, brilliant. My ambition was to write a complete and finished play and be able to type the words ‘The end’. I would often start to write and then get sidetracked by real life/work/food – juggling a full-time career as a busy secondary school teacher with a passion for playwriting is no easy feat! So initially I was just pleased to have completed a whole play. When I was shortlisted in the competition, I allowed myself to imagine what it would be like to win, but never felt it was a real possibility, so I just enjoyed the fantasy of it all. My overwhelming memory of the ceremony was that in the rehearsed reading, the audience laughed at the stuff I thought was funny, which felt great. And then later when they announced my name as one of the winners, my dad, who’s Australian leant over and whispered, “You fucking beauty!”

And then all the hard work and lots of rewriting began…..

Winning has given me the chance to do things I never thought I’d do and be part of an industry that I didn’t think I’d ever be part of – I thought I’d teach for the rest of my life. The Bruntwood is an amazing competition because it’s open to everyone and everyone has an equal chance and the Manchester Royal Exchange is a fantastic place full of talented people who care about new writing and want to find new writers. Being one of the winners gave me the chance to develop my play alongside some great people and really develop my skill as a writer. The prize money gave me time and space to get the play to a place that I wanted it to get to and I enjoyed the whole process. So sometimes it was hard, but mostly it was just bloody great.

Since the award ceremony in 2008, I’ve been commissioned by Clean Break and the Royal Court. I’ve got an agent. I’ve poked my nose tentatively into the world of telly and I won another prize in 2010, the George Devine Award. And I bought a dog and called her Mabel (she’s a fucking beauty!). So, in essence, winning the Bruntwood opened doors to me and took my life in a completely different direction – and it made me a writer.

Book jacket of Mogadishu

Mogadishu by Vivienne Franzmann

Mogadishu received its world premiere at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester, January 2011: ‘the play has urgency and neatly balances rough-tongued adolescent rudeness with adult anxiety’ – Guardian. It will later transfer to the Lyric Hammersmith, London, opening on 3 March 2011.