‘Reaching out for life in a new country’: Winsome Pinnock on her play Leave Taking

Winsome Pinnock’s play Leave Taking, about a Caribbean family living in North London, is as powerful today as it was when it was first performed in 1987. As a major new production opens at the Bush Theatre in London, the author reveals how she came to write it, and how it was inspired by her own family story…

I hadn’t read Leave Taking for several years when Madani Younis, Artistic Director of the Bush Theatre, told me that he wanted to revive the play as part of the theatre’s 2018 season. He said that he and the Bush’s creative team considered the play a classic in the canon of work by black British playwrights and that they felt that it remained relevant: Enid’s predicament – the plight of many immigrants regardless of where they come from, caught between worlds – reaching out for life in a new country, haunted by memories of what she has left behind.

On the first day of rehearsals at the Bush I was asked to talk to the cast about how I came to write the play, the first full-length play I had ever written. I found it difficult to answer the question. Engaging with the text again had put me in conversation with my younger self, who I felt was a presence in the rehearsal room. I wished that she could answer for me.

Seraphina Beh in rehearsals for Leave Taking at the Bush Theatre, 2018 (photo © Helen Murray)

I developed a passion for theatre and performance as a child of around twelve years old when, with generous grants from the GLC (Greater London Council), our school took us on visits to the theatre. I wouldn’t have gone otherwise. There wasn’t enough money in our household to afford such trips and there wasn’t enough time either. The interest was awoken, and, along with my younger sister, I became part of a group of young people who became regular theatregoers. We were given the resources (by our school, youth theatres and drama clubs) to dance, act and write. My mother offered quiet encouragement. When I doubted myself, she reminded me that success was usually a matter of holding on, of seeing things through to the end. When I expressed a desire to play the piano I came home from school one day to discover that she had purchased a piano so old it had a few missing keys, but it was functional. She found me a teacher: Miss Wright who lived off the Holloway Road and taught local kids to play at 15p a lesson. My mother and siblings listened tirelessly to the stories I wrote as a child; I was the acknowledged writer of the family.

My mother migrated from Jamaica to the United Kingdom in 1959, following her husband-to-be who, like Enid’s spouse in Leave Taking, saved his salary for a whole year before he was able to afford the money to buy a ticket for her passage over. The shock and disappointment of those who migrated to the UK at that time is well documented. My parents’ generation had been indoctrinated by a colonialist education that lionised all things British. They celebrated Empire Day (24th May) when their schools distributed British flags and lollipops. Despite their disappointment on entering a country whose environment was often hostile (‘No blacks, no dogs, no Irish!’), they didn’t complain and rarely discussed the hardships. After all, they had grown up on plantation villages where the legacy of enslavement was still evident in the wretched poverty they endured. Jamaica achieved independence the year that my youngest sibling was born. My parents’ marriage disintegrated a few years later, and my mother became a single parent to four young children at a time when there was still stigma attached to divorce.

Sarah Niles and Wil Johnson in rehearsals for Leave Taking at the Bush Theatre, 2018 (photo © Helen Murray)

Writers are given their preoccupations at birth. I am the descendant of enslaved Africans who were forcibly denied the right to the written word, or to express themselves through art or song and yet held on to aspects of their African heritage in both. Traces of African spiritual rituals were preserved by clandestine practices like obeah, which was made illegal in Jamaica in 1898, a law that remains on the statute books. Despite its illegality, my mother and some of her peers retained an interest in obeah, consulting obeah men and women in times of crisis for advice and healing.

As a schoolgirl I thought I was going to be an actress. I idolised Glenda Jackson and longed to follow in her footsteps. When I left school, the headmistress predicted that I had a future in the industry. At university I was told that, although I was considered a talented actress, I probably wouldn’t be cast in many productions because I was black. I focused on my writing. I had started writing a play (a sketch really) about two girls getting ready to go out but never managing to leave their bedroom. I sent it to the Royal Court Young Writers’ Group and was invited to join. It was there that I wrote Leave Taking, my first full-length play, when I was twenty-three years old. I wanted to make Enid the heroine of the play because I couldn’t recall ever seeing such a character – a hospital cleaner – as the lead in a British play. I specifically wanted to write about the black British experience as distinct from African American culture because producers often seemed to think that they are interchangeable. I submitted the play to the Royal Court’s literary department who sent me an encouraging rejection letter.

I knuckled down to write another play – A Hero’s Welcome – which received a rehearsed reading at the Royal Court. As a result of the reading I was commissioned by the Liverpool Playhouse Studio and dusted off Leave Taking, restructuring and rewriting to their financial requirements – the budget would only allow for five characters and two sets, so I cut characters and locations. This meant that I could focus more on Enid’s relationship with her daughters, Del and Viv. I was a young feminist. At consciousness-raising groups the mantra ‘the personal is political’ was drummed into me. Similarly, at the Royal Court Young Writers’ Group we were encouraged by workshop leaders Hanif Kureishi and Stephen Wakelam to ‘write what you know’. I now understand that you write what you come to know. Writing is an exploration, the pursuit of the answer to an unanswerable question. I started out wanting to write about the daughters – this new breed of black British woman – but ended up fascinated by Enid and the complexity of her relationship with England, her daughters, and herself, as well as her long-standing friendship with Brod whom she has known since childhood. Brod and Enid have travelled a great distance, both physically and psychologically. They would not have survived without each other. Mai is an enigmatic figure, especially for Viv and Del who have no direct connection with the culture she represents, but she comes to have a powerful influence on all of them.

Adjoa Andoh and Seraphina Beh in rehearsals for Leave Taking at the Bush Theatre, 2018 (photo © Helen Murray)

Leave Taking has been produced four times (the 2018 Bush production will be its fifth production) since 1987. Years after the play was produced at the National Theatre (1994) I was told that it was the first play written by a black British woman to have been produced there. I also learned that it was the first time that a black woman writer and director (Paulette Randall) had worked together at the venue. After the first performances of the play at the Liverpool Playhouse Studio women from different cultural backgrounds collared me to say: ‘That’s my story. I’m Enid’ or ‘That’s my mam. She’s just like Enid.’

The young woman who wrote Leave Taking had no idea that a generation who were very young children or who hadn’t been born when it was first produced would feel that the play still speaks to their experience. I hope it will connect with new audiences in the same way. Some of the speeches feel as though they were written recently: Brod’s words about having to seek naturalisation after thinking of himself as a British citizen for his whole life echo words spoken thirty years later by victims of the 2018 Windrush scandal (a misnomer considering it involves immigrants from diverse backgrounds and not just the Caribbean).

When I was a child my mother told me that she thought that I might have a gift for clairvoyance. I understand now that she had always instinctively known that I was a writer. It’s not that writers are necromancers, but when I read the play I raise again the spirits of those characters. I hear their voices very clearly; I see my younger self consulting with my mother, asking her how you make chocolate tea, and hear her ribbing me all over again about the royalties I owe her or joking that I should credit her as co-writer. I experience again the writing of the scene where Enid breaks down. I know what that feels like now because I have lived through it. I want to ask that young woman if, when she wrote the play, she would ever have imagined that she too would one day howl with grief into a rainy London night after witnessing her mother take her last breath just as Enid howls for a mother she will never hold again.


Reproduced from the new edition of Leave Taking by Winsome Pinnock, published on 24 May 2018 by Nick Hern Books.

To buy your copy for just £7.99 (20% off the RRP), visit the Nick Hern Books website here.

Leave Taking is revived at the Bush Theatre, London, 24 May – 30 June 2018. To book tickets, visit the Bush Theatre website.

Author photo by Bronwen Sharp.

Advertisements

Ken Campbell: The True Spirit of a Prankster

Michael Coveney

Michael Coveney, biographer of Ken Campbell

Published today – April Fools’ Day – is Ken Campbell: The Great Caper, Michael Coveney’s biography of the one-man comic whirlwind who tore through the British theatre establishment using well-rehearsed anarchy and a genius for surreal comedy. Here, Coveney recalls Campbell’s fondness for a good wheeze – including his notorious Royal Dickens Company hoax…

If there’s one side of Ken Campbell that illustrates his insistence that theatre should be lived ‘in the moment’, it’s his penchant for the prank, his love of the hoax. The maverick director, who died two years ago aged just 66, was a sucker for stunts and wheezes of all kinds in his work, from the physical clowning in his early Ken Campbell Road Show, right through to the impossible feats and adventures in his great epics – Illuminatus! and The Warp – and his unstoppable flow of unlikely tall stories in his magnificent solo performances. He mixed vaudeville with science fiction, pratfalls with philosophy and physical fun with furious linguistics.  This is what made him so unusual: he emerged from the world of weekly rep and the first stirrings of the fringe as a provocative instigator of the unexpected, the outrageous and the downright disrespectful.  He really did believe that the only things worth doing were impossible, and that going to the theatre should entail taking your life in your hands.

He also felt that creating mayhem was all part of the serious artistic process. Thus the idea that the Royal Shakespeare Company should be put on hold in favour of a similarly dedicated Royal Dickens Company may sound ridiculous, or even far-fetched, but the whole madcap adventure had a serious undertone.

Many theatre directors, even RSC ones, have occasionally called for a moratorium on the Bard. One of them was Matthew Warchus, who directed the Alex Jennings Hamlet for the RSC and is currently responsible for their biggest non-Shakespearian hit since Nicholas Nickleby and Les Misérables, the Roald Dahl musical, Matilda.

Campbell’s RDC hoax, brilliantly conceived and inspirationally executed, was a response to the great success of David Edgar’s two-part version of Nicholas Nickleby in 1980, exactly one year after Ken had launched his ten-play, 22-hour epic The Warp on an unsuspecting public at the ICA Theatre in the Mall.

Ken with Werner, his dog, in Recollections of a Furtive Nudist (National Theatre, 1988)

Ken with Werner, his dog, in Recollections of a Furtive Nudist (National Theatre, 1988)

But it was also a dig at the RSC’s increasingly commercial ambitions in the rush for sponsorship and world domination, and a reminder that some people were capable of ambitious, glorious work without any subsidy to speak of and outside the citadel of the establishment.

He despatched a series of letters on authentically reproduced notepaper, apparently signed by Trevor Nunn, then the RSC’s artistic director, inviting leading directors and playwrights to embark on a series of Dickensian adaptations: Bill Bryden was asked to consider The Pickwick Papers; Peter Hall required to ‘have a look at’ Martin Chuzzlewit; and Trevor Griffiths urged to re-visit A Tale of Two Cities with Jonathan Pryce in mind as Sydney Carton.

Mike Leigh was offered twenty-three actors and a 17-week rehearsal period ‘to take on the challenge of Bleak House: looking forward to your reactions. Love, Trev.’ Mrs Thatcher’s arts minister, Norman St John-Stevas, was also kept in the loop: ‘Dickens will prove as big a draw as Shakespeare, if we can keep up this terrific standard…Any thoughts you have on this will, as always, be treasured. Love, Trev. PS: Perhaps we could get together for lunch some time soon to discuss this. The Pickwick Club would seem appropriate!’

Stories appeared in the newspapers and Trevor Nunn had to confirm, rather wearily, that no more Dickens adaptations were planned. He even told The Times that a lot of people had written back to him refusing his offers or, more embarrassingly, accepting them. Eventually, Campbell’s cover was blown by Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight and he emerged from a silhouette to make a confession, claiming that he’d been inspired to perpetrate the hoax in order to focus even more public attention on the excellence of the RSC’s work.

There are two things theatre is particularly good at: telling stories and making mischief. And Ken was an arch exponent of both. The Ken Campbell Road Show was planned to be an advertisement for the lively new work at the Bolton Octagon, but Ken made his own offshoot enterprise in pubs and clubs far more interesting and enjoyable than the stuff they were actually putting on the Octagon stage itself. This subversive campaign was rooted in a philosophy, deeply and joyously antagonistic towards all manifestations of official culture or indeed political correctness, and it burns through his work from start to finish.

Bob Hoskins in the Ken Campbell Roadshow

Bob Hoskins in the Ken Campbell Roadshow (Bolton, 1969)

The Great Caper of my book’s title is also the title of a play at the Royal Court which recounted the Search for the Perfect Woman across continents as far as the Lapland tundra. This was an orgy of tall storytelling that mystified most critics but delighted a few, notably Ronald Bryden, who described the play as an alternative version of Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days, with Warren Mitchell as its Phileas Fogg and Ken himself, appearing on the stage where he had once been rejected as a ‘career’ director, as his Passepartout.

Pranks and wheezes were pursued not only for the sheer hell of it, but as a means of challenging the status quo and subverting the laws of propriety. It’s amazing how little theatre does this nowadays in any serious way, and Campbell was the past master. In Walking Like Geoffrey, the inhabitants of the Nottinghamshire village of Gotham pretend to be mad in order to avoid paying their taxes, while a member of the aristocracy tries to ‘pang’ himself into another universe. He approached the task literally, just as Bob Hoskins in the Road Show used to invite his partner to stretch a huge length of very strong knicker elastic across the heads of the audience before unwittingly releasing it full on into the innocent mush of his cooperating partner. Sylvester McCoy used not only to put ferrets down his trousers, but also bang nails up his nose and explode small bombs on his chest.

And throughout his career, Ken was daring his friends and colleagues to go further than is strictly allowable, in both art and life. His solo shows were a perfect amalgamation of heightened, creative reminiscence and speculative narrative propulsion, brilliant compilations of words and images that leave you breathless with excitement and helpless with laughter. And he liked nothing more than watching a daring improviser compose a sonnet forwards on the spot while counting backwards in sevens from five hundred.

It simply can’t be done: which is the only point in doing it.

Michael Coveney is chief critic and blogger for Whatsonstage.com. To purchase your copy of his new book – Ken Campbell: The Great Caper – hot off the press at the special price of £12.99 with free p&p (usual price £14.99, UK customers only), click here and quote ‘blog offer’ in the comments field at checkout. You can also send a direct message on Twitter to @nickhernbooks quoting ‘THE GREAT CAPER’ and we’ll get back to you speedily to process your order!

Ken Campbell: The Great Caper by Michael Coveney

Also, to coincide with the book’s publication, Michael Coveney will be joined by special guests Richard Eyre, Jim Broadbent, John Sessions, Nina Conti and Daisy Campbell (Ken’s daughter), to talk about the maverick comic and his legacy, on Friday 8 April 2011 (5pm). Tickets cost £5 and can be purchased via the Royal Court’s website.

Ken Campbell: The Great Caper is the BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week for the week beginning 4 April 2011. For more information visit the BBC iPlayer website 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