LOOKING BACK: PLAYWRIGHTS AT THE ROYAL COURT 1956 – 2006 A collection of interviews by Harriet Devine
Published by Faber and Faber 2006
ISBN: 0-571-23013-X (9 780571 230136)
UK RRP: £14.99
Review: Rod Dungate, 17 December 2006
Interesting for all, essential for some
I have frequently said to people developing their own playwriting skills, ‘Go and listen to playwrights speaking whenever you can – you’ll always learn something.’ In this collection of interviews, Harriet Devine encourages thirty playwrights to speak and every single one of them has something to say that we will find valuable.
It’s an impressive list of interviewees – from the early Court days of John Arden, Ann Jellicoe and Arnold Wesker, to Leo Butler, Lucy Prebble and Simon Farquhar of recent times.
Harriet Devine is the daughter of George Devine, who, with Tony Richardson, opened in 1956 a new kind of theatre. ‘Ours’, he said, ‘is not to be a producers’ theatre or an actors’ theatre; it is a writers’ theatre.’ That the Royal Court still has this reputation is a tribute to these two men and to the many people who have steered the Court since. Devine celebrates 50 years – 1956 – 2006.
In these interviews she wisely steers clear of questions about specific plays preferring to concentrate on the writers, ‘more on their experiences of writing and of the theatre in general.’ This proves to be a wise choice; everyone interested in the processes of creativity and imagination will be intrigued by the variety of responses. For instance – where do plays start? There are writers who start writing and wait to see what happens, there are others for whom structure is important, others start with a ‘collage of ideas’, while Terry Johnson has to wait for the ‘car crash’ – the moment when two ideas collide. It’s Johnson who comes up with the most graphic metaphor for the writing process – it’s all to do with his irregular colon! Johnson puts forward a passionate argument for comedy: ‘It does make my hackles rise a little that it’s still regarded as a ‘lower form’, because it’s more popular than the ‘higher form’’.
Hanif Kureshi speaks fondly of the days he ran writing workshops at the Court; David Edgar, who affirms ‘I’ve never had a full-length play produced by the Royal Court’, elegantly argues the case for writing courses – ‘I think we’ve got much more open to the idea that dramatic structure has rules . . . that’s one thing, and the other is that you do have to pay some attention to what the audience is wanting to see.’
Devine asks the same questions to many writers – their combined answers are instructive. Many find it difficult to say, simply, if there are common threads in their work, or even what a play is about. Good for them – playwrights shouldn’t be backed into simplistic corners. Leo Butler, however, has a terrific answer: ‘I think for me . . . the only theme is really myself’. Asked if they remember the first time they went to the theatre, you’ll be surprised how many of the writers say it was to a pantomime.
Some people may like to read this book straight through, others may choose to dip into it as time offers opportunities or occasion demands. Whichever method you choose, the experience will be well worthwhile, and this is an essential book for theatre, and theatre writing, reference.
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