Rona Munro (The Nick Hern Books Anniversary Interviews)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do these people have anything in common?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Photograph of Rona Munro by Colin Hattersley.

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Edinburgh Fringe Report 2015 Part I: cutting it at the fringe

Taking a show to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe can be daunting, exhausting, and about as financially sound as betting on the Chinese stock market. But it can also be a hugely rewarding experience for cast and crew, and even for audiences. Plus, if you’re really on top of your game, there’s a chance it might launch your career. In this first part of our Edinburgh Fringe Report 2015, four amateur companies performing plays licensed by Nick Hern Books give us a sneak preview as they prepare to take the plunge…

pp posterPassing Places by Stephen Greenhorn
Great Child Productions
Greenside at Nicholson Square, 10–15 August

A schizophrenic Motherwell gangster on a motorbike vs. two idiots in a Citroën Saxo en route to Thurso to flog a surfboard. Sounds ridiculous, huh? Well it has to be seen to be believed! Passing Places follows Alex and Brian on their journey through Scotland, meeting the real characters of Caledonia and beyond…

It’s truly the best play you could ever be involved in. I’m the show’s director and I still find it funny. Rehearsals have really differed from ones I’ve had in the past – we’ve improvised around the script and we’ve made lots of mistakes along the way, but it’s always been funny and fresh.

Passing Places by Stephen Greenhorn, performed by Great Child Productions

Passing Places by Stephen Greenhorn, performed by Great Child Productions

Despite the absurdity of the story and all the goofy action, it’s the characters that really stand out – and they’re brilliantly believable. Relationships are the real heart of the show, and Stephen Greenhorn has managed to make them genuinely touching. We’re a company of young adults so we feel a natural connection with the young characters in the play and their predicaments – and we’re looking forward to sharing that with audiences on the Fringe.

Plus, having a real car as part of the set is going to be exciting!

– Tom Sergeant, CEO of Great Child Productions


2015STRAWBE-ZR-300Strawberries in January by Evelyne de la Chenelière, in a version by Rona Munro
Gone Rogue Productions
C nova, 16–31 August

Strawberries in January seemed to us the perfect chance to stand out at the Fringe among the droves of dark, depressing student productions. Sitting just on the line between heartwarming and (dare I say it?) twee, Rona Munro’s adaptation of this brilliant romantic comedy has been a genuine joy to rehearse, and we hope that audiences feel the same way when they watch it in Edinburgh.

With a cast of just four (including me), plus a pair of directors, it means working together in a pretty intense way. It’s been a treat to be able to take the time to focus on details that might be missed in a larger-scale production. It’s had its challenges too – we’ve each got a lot of lines to learn, and I’d completely fallen out of the habit. Still, we’re getting there!

Strawberries in January by Evelyne de la Chenelière, in a version by Rona Munro, in rehearsal with Gone Rogue Productions

Strawberries in January by Evelyne de la Chenelière, in a version by Rona Munro, in rehearsal with Gone Rogue Productions

The show is completely driven by the characters’ relationships, so we’ve spent a lot of time workshopping and developing the all-important chemistry between us. We even played several rounds of the Newlywed Game in character to get to know each other’s characters better, and develop their relationships and the vocabulary they share.

We’ve just finished our preview season on campus, and audiences have told us they thoroughly enjoyed the show. Now we’re just tightening it up in a few places before we launch it on the Fringe!

– Caitlin Hobbs, co-producer and cast member


ff-posterprintresFoxfinder by Dawn King
Master of None
Bedlam Theatre, 5–30 August

“They want nothing more than our complete annihilation… Without Man, the Fox will rule.”

So states William Bloor, the Foxfinder after whom Dawn King’s dystopian parable takes its name. Reading the play for the first time, it was the impact of lines like these that made the play so irresistibly compelling. Replace ‘the Fox’ with any number of other supposed national threats within our own society, and the statement becomes an eerily familiar sentiment; one that could perhaps have been uttered by certain members of our own political class. Combine this parallel with the recent prospect of a repeal of the Hunting Act, and Foxfinder, along with the world of fear, blame and suspicion it presents, feels more relevant and exciting than ever.

As we would soon discover, this play is a big beast! However, we all recognised that staging it would be a worthwhile challenge, and as such our rehearsal process came in two distinct legs, separated by 4 weeks, 400 miles and 1 national border.

Foxfinder by Dawn King, in rehearsal with Master of None

Foxfinder by Dawn King, in rehearsal with Master of None

Our rehearsals began in London in June, when our main focus was to create a shared sense of what the England of Foxfinder is actually like. We were helped in this by considering dystopian civilizations within other works of fiction, such as Orwell’s 1984, along with comparably despotic and ideologically zealous regimes throughout history, such as those of Stalin’s Russia and modern-day North Korea.

However, the real crafting of the play’s action began in Edinburgh, two weeks before the Fringe began. We were able to rehearse at our venue, Bedlam Theatre, where it was full steam ahead with scene work, blocking and tweaking of characterisation. All the different elements of our production started to combine – our actors, original score, hand-crafted set and lighting design – as we sought to create the tense, paranoid and claustrophobic atmosphere of the play, and prepare ourselves for the month to come!

– Hugo Nicholson & Alexander Stutt, cast members


PentagonForever House by Glenn Waldron
Pentagon Theatre
Greenside @ Infirmary Street, 17–29 August

Pentagon Theatre is a theatre company based in the South West, so Glenn Waldron’s Forever House – which is set in Plymouth – seemed a natural choice for us. And it’s a fantastic, pitch-black comedy full of twists and turns, about three different sets of characters who unearth buried secrets just as they try to negotiate a fresh start to their lives. We’re very excited to be bringing the play up to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe!

We had an intense first four weeks getting the piece ready for Arts on The Move Festival in Exeter back in June. The performances took place in Poltimore House, a disused stately home and grounds which provided the perfect backdrop for our first showing of the play. As I write this, we are busy getting ready for our second round of performances, at the Old Red Lion Theatre in London on 29 July.

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Forever House by Glenn Waldron – a visit to the National Marine Aquarium, Plymouth, with Pentagon Theatre

Our favourite part of the preparations so far has been visiting some of the play’s locations in Plymouth, including the amazing Aquarium. It really helped the cast get a feel for the play’s natural setting. The excitement is definitely building now for Edinburgh. Many of our team have never performed at the Fringe before, so this is an amazing experience for them and we can’t wait to get up there and get started!

– James Bowen, director

Pentagon Theatre perform Forever House by Glenn Waldron

Pentagon Theatre perform Forever House by Glenn Waldron

 


1143114837LOGO_ORANGE[1]Look out for Part II of our Edinburgh Fringe Report next month, when we find out how our four companies fared on the Fringe.

And don’t forget to check out the exciting new plays we’re publishing alongside their Edinburgh premieres this year. Click here for all the details, plus a special discount code you can use to buy any of the playtexts.

Edinburgh Fringe 2015_website banner

See you in Edinburgh!