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.

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.

THE GOD OF SOHO Special: with author Chris Hannan

Chris Hannan

Chris Hannan, author of The God of Soho (photo: Carol Gordon)

Chris Hannan’s new play for Shakespeare’s Globe, The God of Soho, is a wickedly funny morality tale for the modern world. Sexy, feisty and real, it is a story about love at its dirtiest, maddest and most bittersweet. Here, the author talks about writing the play specifically for the Globe’s unique stage.

When the Artistic Director of Shakespeare’s Globe, Dominic Dromgoole, asked me to write a new play for his wonderful theatre, I spent a couple of years finding polite ways to say no.

It seemed too odd to put contemporary characters in contemporary clothes onto an authentic reproduction of an Elizabethan stage. Wouldn’t it just look like some ropey time-travel story?

Clearly, this was a space that called for big characters and big emotions and I began to sketch out the idea for The God of Soho, setting the story in a celebrity world where my celebrity couple fought each other in the front pages of the tabloids, hoovered up cocaine in celebrity nightspots and rocked up to the funerals of celebrity friends in dark sunglasses.

Where the Elizabethans had put kings and courtiers on stage, I thought I would put their contemporary equivalents – stars and their publicists. The inherent theatricality of the celebrity world – the constant performing in public – had an irresistible attraction. And of course celebrity worship is now at the core of our culture and economy, so it seemed an ideal topic for such a public space.

Celebrities could not have become the gods and goddesses of our mags and the staple of our news and gossip unless they answered some core need in all of us and The God of Soho is about what that is. It’s about what we worship and do we even know.

The God of Soho: jacket

The God of Soho by Chris Hannan (£9.99)

I kept going to see shows at the Globe to learn about the space and how it works. And, whether it was The Merry Wives of Windsor or Henry IV, I was struck by the magical relationship which exists between the actor and the audience – a frankness, an ease, an equality. Time and again it is a relationship which throws up unrepeatable moments of ‘liveness’.

It happened again during a recent performance of The Mysteries. The actors were telling the story of the Crucifixion – the episode where Judas repents of his betrayal and returns the blood money to Pontius Pilate. 

In the Globe production, the thirty pieces of silver is represented by thirty pence, and the actor playing Pontius Pilate – Matthew Pidgeon – joked amenably with the audience that he didn’t need thirty pence and would be happy to give it to a groundling. But when he placed the coins under the nose of a woman leaning on the front stage she viscerally recoiled, wanting nothing to do with the money or the betrayal.

The actor almost rocked back in amazement, and for me – looking on – the two of them created a moment that was deeply touching because I felt the emotional power of the story and understood that it mattered.

Other playwrights will see it differently, but to me the Globe stage requires a non-realistic story that has grand scale. It is not interested in minor details; it gobbles up narrative at considerable speed and you have to keep feeding it more. It wants movement, sweep. Because there is no stage lighting, you cannot get actors on and off in blackout – they need to be driven by some inner urgency

I enjoyed that. The God of Soho starts out in a heaven which is losing its sense of reality, plunges into a fetishistic Soho and heads out to celebrity Essex. The characters are gods and homeless people and rock stars; and the stage allows those disparate worlds to coexist because the characters are motored by the same story and the same needs. There can be realistic elements, yes, but only so long as they don’t distract from the sense of storyness.

Sections of this post by Chris Hannan first appeared in The Independent (18th August 2011).

Chris Hannan’s new playThe God of Soho – opens this Saturday (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).

Have you seen the production trailer yet? Click here.

*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.

Coming up next…  THE GOD OF SOHO Special: with director Raz Shaw – on bringing the script to life for the first time.

Edinburgh Festival Fringe special: with Gareth Armstrong and HighTide’s Steven Atkinson

Gareth Armstrong

Gareth Armstrong

Rounding off our Edinburgh Festival Fringe special, our third and final post features writer, director, actor and Edinburgh regular Gareth Armstrong, whose newly published book So You Want To Do A Solo Show? is an essential resource for both aspiring and seasoned solo performers, especially those wanting to make it big on the Fringe. Also offering his behind-the-scenes insight is HighTide Artistic Director Steven Atkinson, whose latest production is Dusk Rings A Bell by Stephen Belber (published by NHB), opening this week at Assembly George Square.

Gareth Armstrong: There’ll be a ghost coming with me to this year’s Fringe.

A dozen years ago I was performing my one-man show Shylock at the Assembly Rooms. This year I’ll be watching my play Shylock at the Assembly Rooms, and I’m not sure which will be the more nerve-wracking experience. In between I’ve taken the play around the world several times, seen it performed in half-a-dozen languages and directed it in America. But seeing it back where the journey began will have me on the edge of my seat. That ghost will be up there on stage reminding me of one of the most rewarding months of my professional life.

The show had opened at Salisbury Playhouse where Guy Masterson saw it and added me to the bulging portfolio of plays he was taking to the festival. We played in the late-lamented Wildman Room – alarmingly intimate, unbearably hot and with an electric atmosphere of expectation. We pulled it off, Guy covered his costs, and I spent the next ten years making, for an actor, a reasonable living from that show.

So You Want To Do A Solo Show? jacket

So You Want To Do A Solo Show? by Gareth Armstrong (£10.99)

But the Fringe is a fickle mistress.  A one-man show that takes a revisionist look at a major Shakespeare character and plunders the original text for all the juiciest bits was, I thought, after my first attempt, a winning formula. After Shakespeare’s infamous Jew the magisterial Prospero seemed within my range and, two years after Shylock, working with a talented writer friend, we created a piece based on the man who many think inspired Shakespeare’s magus, Dr John Dee. Among many other things Dee was an astrologer and chose auspicious dates for momentous events. The omens were good. Ignoring Max Bialystock’s advice I used my own money to finance the project (Dr Prospero) and with high production values and high expectations we assaulted Edinburgh again. I lost £15,000.

It was no consolation to me that Dr Dee ended up broke too. He did at least hold the faith to the end of his long life. I am not made of such stern stuff and abandoned the capricious Fringe for a decade. And when I came back to it I was wearing a different and less conspicuous hat. As a director, with no financial stake, and without the burden of performing every day I could actually enjoy the festival for the first time. Once up and running the shows looked after themselves and even found some glory.

This year I’m a milliner’s dream because I will be wearing three hats. As well as being the playwright of Shylock, now performed with wonderful synchronicity and also with enormous verve by my original producer Guy Masterson, I have a production of The Rape of Lucrece playing at The Zoo space. Gerard Logan is proving once again that revisiting Shakespeare in an original way can still work. He is, as far as I know, the first actor to tackle this epic poem in a one-man performance and he proves that even in a text as obviously aimed at the reader as Lucrece, Shakespeare’s sense of theatre, his thrilling characters and his sublime language cry out for dramatisation.

My third hat makes its debut at this year’s Fringe. I’m promoting a book I have written called So You Want To Do A Solo Show? and as the title says it all, I am hoping it will speak for itself.

Dusk Rings a Bell production shot

Paul Blair and Katherine Kingsley in rehearsal for Dusk Rings a Bell

Steven Atkinson: Unlike other festivals and theatres, the Edinburgh Fringe can boast the most diverse of all audiences. It’s a premier platform to premiere a new play, thanks to the intense focus that the industry, press and audiences afford it. There’s the chance of winning a Fringe First or a Herald Angel or any of the number of awards that helps ensure the play lives on in the consciousness. There’s also the impact on audiences, and many a professional artist has been introduced to a writer at the Fringe whom they then go on to work with professionally. I saw Stephen Belber’s Tape several years ago, and comparable to Mamet, Stephen’s dialogue is unforgettable because it’s his own original voice. Dusk Rings A Bell is playing in a sizable three-hundred-seat venue at Assembly, so the show will be enjoyed by a large audience. But I hope it also inspires others to stage it and explore Stephen’s back catalogue, so that we see Belber rivals popping up on Fringes and campus scenes and, hopefully, future Edinburgh Festivals.

Gareth Armstrong has directed two solo shows for this year’s Festival Fringe, including a production of his own play Shylock (4–29 August, 3.45pm) at Assembly Hall, and The Rape of Lucrece (5–29 August, 5.15pm) at Zoo SouthsideHis new book, So You Want To Do A Solo Show? is available now. 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). Copies will also be on-sale at the Fringe alongside his two productions through the venues’ box office. 

Dusk Rings a Bell  jacket

Dusk Rings a Bell by Stephen Belber (£9.99)

NHB proudly publish the playscript alongside HighTide’s production of A Dusk Rings a Bell – 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).

Edinburgh Festival Fringe special: with Lynda Radley

Lynda Radley

Lynda Radley, author of Futureproof (photo: Simon Conlon)

In part two of our Edinburgh Fringe special, in which a handful of our authors involved in some way in this year’s Festival Fringe frenzy tell us what it all means to them, we hear from ‘rising star in Scottish theatre’ (Scotsman) Lynda Radley, whose latest play Futureproof premieres at the Traverse Theatre this week.

I started coming to the festival as a student. When I was nineteen I saved up the pennies I had made from my summer job in Cork and volunteered at The Quaker Meeting House Theatre. The venue was run as a charity and they gave me bed and board in exchange for four hours of front-of-house duties a day. It was a wonderful system, though I think the elderly couple who put me up might have been shocked by the late hours I kept.

The following year I returned as a performer with a group from my drama society. We had devised a play named after a Tom Waits’ song and it featured a whole section lit by torches; very cutting edge. I had a monologue entitled ‘Attack of the Five Foot Woman’. There were about eight of us in the cast and often less than that in the audience. Some foolish person allowed us to rent their beautiful New Town apartment, and between the cast, crew and various hangers-on there were as many as twenty of us sleeping in a three-bedroomed space. Needless to say, I don’t think we left it as we found it. I saw as much work as possible. I remember an epic day of seeing seven shows with a friend. We started with Shakespeare for Breakfast and criss-crossed the city till one in the morning. Every year I learned more; both about myself and about theatre. I associate the festival with growing up. I can vividly recall, during those years, seeing a one-woman show at the Traverse called The Gimmick and the profound effect it had on me. I remember thinking how wonderful it would be to write and perform for that stage.

By 2007 I had moved to Scotland, and spent two wonderful weeks at the festival performing my play The Art of Swimming in Traverse Two. I tried not to think about where I was and what I was doing – for fear of jinxing it – but I enjoyed every second of performing that year. A festival audience is something special; people who care about theatre, who want to know what you have to say, who are excited by the possibilities of performance and willing to engage with whatever you might throw at them. Speaking to them, and with them, every day was a pleasure. Again, I learned a great deal.

Futureproof playscript (9.99)

Futureproof by Lynda Radley (9.99)

And here I am now, three years later, about to have my first main-stage production premiere at the Edinburgh Fringe; in a co-production between Dundee Rep Ensemble and the Traverse itself. Futureproof, and its peculiar cast of side-show characters, has been with me for some time and as I write this I am in the process of handing everything over to the wonderful cast and production team. The festival has taught me the myriad possibilities of what theatre can be, and that it is at core a collaborative art form. I can’t wait for opening morning (ten o’clock? on a Sunday?) when I can sit among the audience and see what unfolds.

Lynda Radley’s new play, Futureproof, will premiere at the Traverse Theatre, 6–29 August, part of this year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe, click here to book tickets or call 0131 228 1404. NHB proudly 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).

Edinburgh Festival Fringe special: with Hywel John

Hywel John

Hywel John, author of Rose

To celebrate NHB’s involvement in this year’s vibrant Edinburgh Festival Fringe programme, we’ve asked a handful of our writers who have either performed, written, directed or produced work for the Festival Fringe to tell us what it means to them. First up is Hywel John, whose latest work Rose, a heartfelt study of heritage, grief and family, opens at the Pleasance Courtyard on 3rd August.

It’s been six years since I was last in Edinburgh for the Fringe. The Festival in 2005 has turned into a bit of a personal and professional benchmark: I’d recently left drama school and the theatre company I co-ran, MahWaff, took two shows up, Guardians by Peter Morris (which won a Fringe First) and Angry Young Man by Ben Woolf, both of which played to packed houses at the Pleasance. Before that heady summer, I’d performed or visited the Fringe every year since 2001, and my memories are the usual intoxicating Edinburgh brew of rain, battered haggis, all-night drinking, performing through sweaty hangovers, and wild uncontrollable euphoria at getting a three-star review or for having more than twenty people in the audience.

My first year in 2001 was a peculiar introduction to the Fringe. I was acting in a Bristol University production of Terry Pratchett’s Wyrd Sisters at C Venues. We had stoically prepared for our month-long run by regularly reminding ourselves that the average Fringe audience was about ten people, so if we did better than that we’d be doing okay. Our vigorously ambitious director had chosen a 250-seater theatre, so our stoicism seemed particularly necessary. Come first preview though, we were collectively a little unsettled when we were faced with a healthy crowd of twenty-five. None of whom we knew personally. Perhaps our four hours of flyering in the rain dressed in our homemade Discworld costumes had done the trick? The warm lager of the C Venues bar tasted sweet that evening. But then come show number two, we had a house of around forty. Show three, seventy people. By the end of the week, we were pretty much sold out to cheering crowds. Without a single review. It was extremely odd, but as we were all mostly drunk ninety per cent of the time, we didn’t give much time to consider why this might be. Our collective greatness, no doubt. Next stop the West End, obviously. It was only after someone mentioned that this was the first time that a Pratchett play had graced an Edinburgh stage and that Terry Pratchett was at the time the UK’s bestselling author, that the winning formula really became clear to us. I think the director had selected Wyrd Sisters because she thought it would be a bit of a laugh. And she was right, it was. But as for three weeks of sell-out crowds, it was an accident, and a glorious one. We all ended the run a few hundred quid better off. We felt like we had conquered the world.

Each year thereafter was wildly different from the last, but in some respects I look back at those initial years as unsteady, mostly drunken, but consistently determined steps towards working professionally. The Fringe is like an unholy theatrical Petri dish where anything can flourish, but for me by the end of August 2005 I felt like a proper actor for the first time, whatever that means.

Rose play script

Rose by Hywel John (£9.99)

The irony is that despite attempts to get myself cast in an Edinburgh-bound show several times since, I haven’t been back for six years, and now I’m returning as a playwright. I don’t really know what to expect, but I predict some fairly heavy doses of nostalgia. Certain aspects feels oddly aligned: the producers of my new play, Rose, Alex Waldmann and Jess Malik, are both friends and colleagues from 2005; and again we’ll be at the Pleasance, this time in the new Pleasance Forth venue. A homecoming of sorts then.

It’s impossible to predict how a play will go down at the Fringe, but we’re all hopeful we’ve got something good on our hands. I’m certainly lucky enough to have two amazing actors in Art Malik and Keira Malik, and an excellent production team led by the wonderful director Abbey Wright. Unbelievably, none of them have worked or performed in Edinburgh before, so I’ve been busy prepping them for the bear pit of the Festival, to lessen the shock. Taking a show to Edinburgh always feels like a big deal, a bigger deal I think than a more traditional run of a show in a ‘proper’ theatre, and I know we all feel like that in our team.

But I think if you treat the Fringe like you have nothing to lose, it will repay you handsomely. Although it’s true that the payback could possibly be penury, a two-week hangover, and in the case of 2003 for me, a hefty bout of non-specific urethritis.

Good times.

Hywel John’s latest play, Rose, will premiere at the Pleasance Courtyard, 3–29 August, part of this year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe, click here to book tickets or call 0131 556 6550. NHB proudly publish the playscript alongside this production, as well as the author’s debut play Pieces. 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).

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’s TALKING THEATRE: with Alan Bennett

In Part Four of our week-long Talking Theatre Special – Richard Eyre interviews playwright and actor Alan Bennett. 

Alan Bennett

Alan Bennett, 1934–

He has become part of the (quintessentially English) family, a familiar face, a national institution, adjectival: ‘Very Alan Bennett,’ people say. I interviewed him in the basement kitchen of my house. He wasn’t at his happiest when talking about his own work. He’s revealed a ‘self’ in his plays and his diaries, but when he was sitting in my kitchen uneasily facing the prospect of an interrogation, the ‘self’ couldn’t be disguised as a fictional persona. But he rallied generously and answered my questions with a practised ease.

What were your earliest experiences of theatre? When I was a boy in Leeds I used to go every Saturday matinée and see whatever it was that was on offer. Nowadays that would mean very little, because I think it’s mostly opera now and plays don’t tour in the way they did. But in those days you would get West End plays with their original cast coming round after their West End production. I saw a very peculiar collection of plays there. Of course, in my mind they weren’t distinguished one from the other; they were just things that turned up at the Grand every Saturday afternoon. They were all mixed together in my mind. I didn’t see them as school of this or school of that. They were just plays. I saw some Shakespeare, plays like Black Chiffon with Flora Robson, Daphne Laureola with Edith Evans, a play about a Labour colonial Governor with Eric Portman, His Excellency. And then I began to see plays like Waiting for Godot.

What impression did that make?
I didn’t find it at all mystifying, and I didn’t find it so plotless. I may have found it a bit dull, but then I often found plays dull. I found it quite funny as well.

But did you have any sense that it was a play about post-war Europe?
I was too young probably to think in those terms then. I just thought it was a play about very peculiar people, but then so was Black Chiffon in my view. They weren’t like people I knew.

In the fifties were you at all conscious of the Holocaust and the Bomb?
I remember in August 1945, when we were living in Guildford very briefly, coming back with the Evening News and reading about the first atomic bomb. And also in Guildford I saw the terrible newsreels not of Auschwitz, of Dachau, because I can remember it went up on the screen that children should be taken out of the cinema. And the trouble was in those days you had to queue for the cinema so long that nobody left—they didn’t want to lose their seats. So I saw that. But in a way the consciousness both of the Bomb and of the Holocaust occurred in a way ten, fifteen years after they happened. CND and so on. I once or twice went on CND marches.

When writing your plays, do you simply follow your nose with subject matter?
It seems to me what happens is that you’ve got something that niggles you, you’ve got something that you can’t resolve. In Forty Years On I think it was knowing that I was very conservative with a small ‘c’ and radical in other ways—knowing that these two feelings and concerns existed and not being able to reconcile them. And the play is an attempt to reconcile them. It’s also an attempt to write a funny play about a school. The plays about spies, I suppose, are an attempt to settle my ambiguous feelings about England. Of affection and identification, but at the same time feeling alienated from it. Every play I’ve written seems to me slightly to the side of the play I wanted to write. Maybe if you ever wrote a play that you actually intended to write then you won’t write any more plays. I always think that about The Importance of Being Earnest. It’s an absolutely perfect play, and I know it was Wilde’s last play because of the circumstances, but I think it probably would have been his last play anyway. Most plays are nearly completed circles and the production completes the circle, makes it a whole. The Importance of Being Earnest is completed there on the page; there’s nothing much you can do with it. It’s a wonderful play and absolutely perfect, but for that reason I think it marks the end of his artistic endeavour.

The thing that all your plays have in common is a view about class as the sort of engine of English society. Have you always felt that you’re imprisoned in it?
It’s never bothered me, I don’t long for a classless society. Since my strength is in dialogue, in the sense of hearing the cadences of people’s speech and so on, which is ineluctably bound up with class, you can’t separate the two. Of course, it would be disastrous if everything were flattened out. It used to bother me when I was younger; I’m still very awkward for some reason in the presence of the aristocracy—they reduce me to being seventeen again—but it’s not out of any undue respect for them. [laughs] I don’t know, but there’s something goes wrong there. But class doesn’t really bother me. I’m not a crusader anyway, but it’s not something that I’d want to see the end of. I can’t see how somebody of my generation writes as if one were outside it.

What did the 1945 election mean to you in the fifties? Did you have a sense that life was going to get better?
I was a terrible Tory when I was young. I was awful: conformist and censorious and full of religiosity. I was an awful youth, looking back. But I look back to the period 1945–51 as a kind of golden age. It’s absurd to say that, because it was the most drab and austere period. There was no colour in the world really, and there was no choice in the shops. Life seemed to be very simple then, and people very innocent. Again and again I find that period crops up. The pictures I like are often pictures from the late forties. And then, of course, at the end of the decade there’s this wonderful explosion of the Festival of Britain, when suddenly there was colour and design, and you thought that this was a vision of what the world was going to be like, when it wasn’t quite, of course. But it occurs in Getting On, my second play, where there’s a long speech about what life was like then and about the making of the Health Service. It’s deeply nostalgic, but it is something that I do feel strongly about.

What is it about theatre that attracts you?
I suppose I go to the theatre thinking anything may happen. I mean, quite apart from the play, somebody might collapse on the stage. I know that seems frivolous, but I think that’s an element in what an audience is there for—the possibility of disaster. And the possibility of triumph as well, but it’s the uncertainty. Having performed, I know the sheer terror of it: it is quite a perilous proceeding. If you’re in an audience and something goes wrong on the stage—you know, somebody dries, say, or whatever—the audience is like a cat suddenly seeing a bird: it’s on to it. There’s a huge tension in the auditorium. Quite frightening. I do think of an audience as slightly like a wild beast.

What is it that draws you to writing for the theatre?
I suppose it’s writing dialogue—I mean, plots are far harder to write for me than dialogue. And if you’re writing dialogue then obviously—unless you want to write like Henry Green, say, and write novels entirely in dialogue—you’re drawn to the theatre or to television. It’s as simple as that, really.

Is it also that whatever you do in the theatre it can’t be abstracted? There’s always going to be a human being.
There has to be a human being from my point of view, because they talk, and talk is what I’m interested in, and talk is what I deal in. It seems to me, when you talk about the future of the theatre and so on, it has a future so long as somebody’s going into a room and sitting down with a blank sheet of paper and trying to write lines that somebody else is going to say.

Talking Theatre (paperback)

Talking Theatre (paperback, £9.99)

This is an edited extract from Richard Eyre’s interview with Alan Bennett. The full interview is published in the new paperback edition of Talking Theatre: Interviews with Theatre People.

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.

Don’t forget to check back on the NHB blog TOMORROW for the final installment in our week-long ‘Talking Theatre special’. Tomorrow’s post will feature celebrated composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim pondering ‘the death of the book musical’…

Richard Eyre’s TALKING THEATRE: with Fiona Shaw

Fiona Shaw

Fiona Shaw, 1958–

In Part Three of our week-long Talking Theatre Special – Richard Eyre interviews actor Fiona Shaw.

Born in Cork, Fiona Shaw is celebrated for playing many classical roles—Medea, Electra, Hedda Gabler, even Richard II. Most good actors are highly intelligent; few are highly articulate. Fiona Shaw’s fluency never leads her into waffle, but as an actor she has often struggled to conceal her intellectual brilliance, like a great beauty concealing her glamour. With a film crew squeezed round the sofa where I was used to sitting watching TV with my family, I felt as if we were playing an ambitious children’s game. Of the future of theatre she said: ‘The theatre is a fantastic whore and could be anything. If a thousand atom bombs drop, somebody will stand up in the ashes and tell a story.’

Why do all the great Irish writers emigrate?
I suppose until this very decade [the 1990s] the whole nation emigrated, I don’t think it’s just writers that emigrated. Engineers emigrated, doctors emigrated. It’s partially the tragedy of the famine that the country just bred its nation for export. But Joyce of course said that it is the sow that eats its own farrow.

Is all Irish culture underscored by British colonial rule?
I think that temperament is history, and so in that way the Irish temperament has been fundamentally affected by being the baby sister or brother to this big island. The effect of London on Dublin has been enormous. It’s the jumping-off ground, isn’t it? It’s the Ellis Island of Irish culture. Beyond Dublin what made Ireland separate from England is that the Irish had no bourgeoisie. You had an aristocracy and a remarkably kept-down peasantry—in that way, very like Russia: the parallels between Russia and Ireland are enormous. We didn’t produce a Chekhov, but we produced an O’Casey. The other big effect of England on Ireland were the penal laws which forbade Irish people to speak Irish and which caused a sort of surrealism in the country, where people couldn’t own a horse worth more than five pounds, couldn’t own land or hand land over. So the average age of marrying for men in Ireland was fifty. And people attended mass on rocks and in caves and were taught in hedge schools. So the fusion of landscape with the metaphysical, or the fusion of landscape with learning, was not like any other country in the world. Irish English is, on one level, a language forced onto a country that was trying not to speak it, and it then became a sort of tool of revenge: the Irish have attacked the English with their own language. And on the other side you had this rural lost language of people speaking a sort of archaic English forced on them by early settlers, and people struggling with translations from the Gaelic and of course being laughed at by the English for speaking a peculiar English. In Gaelic you say: ‘Toin traich megonair,’ which is ‘I am after my dinner.’ That’s still used as the construction for that kind of sentence.

With the exception of Joyce, Irish writers—Congreve, Farquhar, Wilde, Beckett and so on—choose to write for the theatre. Why?
The theatre is immediate: it needs people. It’s not like a French literary tradition, which would be about intellectual thought. England is a very odd hybrid because I’d say the centre of the English theatre since the seventeenth century, maybe from Shakespeare, is antithesis, isn’t it? The notion that you can declare an argument: ‘To be or not to be’, and at the end of that you could’ve concluded something about the world. The Irish theatre is based on hyperbole and contradiction.

If it’s possible to talk about any national character with Ireland without resorting to stereotype, is there something about the Irish—I mean the Irish-Irish—that is more given to storytelling and to wearing your heart on your sleeve than the English?
Caesar wrote about going to Hibernia, and he said that they just talked and drank all the time, so I suppose it isn’t connected to recent modern history. Perhaps the relationship to alcohol is connected to the climate. There’s also great desolation in Ireland, people who don’t speak from September to springtime because there’s nobody to talk to. Religion is another big part of it.

But is storytelling something to do with having a verbal culture not a written culture?
The culture in cottages that was finally caught by Synge is interesting. Yeats provoked Synge to go to the Aran Islands. Synge went and observed this strange translation of a Gaelic into English and made a sort of heightened self-conscious poetry out of it. But there was a sort of truth in it as well. People were speaking in a language that was self-referential, because they had so little stimulus. I’m not sure that they’re using the language for reality. They couldn’t use it to negotiate, because there was nothing to negotiate, so they had to use it for the imagination.

Talking Theatre (paperback)

Talking Theatre (paperback, £9.99)

This is an edited extract from Richard Eyre’s interview with Fiona Shaw. The full interview is published in the new paperback edition of Talking Theatre: Interviews with Theatre People.

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.

Don’t forget to check back on the NHB blog TOMORROW and FRIDAY for more exclusive extracts from the book! Tomorrow’s post will feature ‘national institution’, playwright and actor Alan Bennett, explaining what it means to ‘follow your nose’ when writing…

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.