Playwright Mike Bartlett talks to Andrew Haydon
25th May 2007
INTERVIEW: MIKE BARTLETT
The playwright talks to Andrew Haydon, theatre editor of Culture Wars, about his 40-minute debut, My Child (Royal Court), and about life at the Royal Court under Dominic Cooke’s new regime.
The family is the place where you find unconditional love, but it’s also a place of maximum danger and violence.
INTERVIEW: MIKE BARTLETT
The playwright talks to Andrew Haydon, theatre editor of Culture Wars, about his 40-minute debut, My Child (Royal Court), and about life at the Royal Court under Dominic Cooke’s new regime.
Recorded: 25 May 2007.
Transcribed by Tom Atkins. © theatreVOICE.
Andrew Haydon: Hello and welcome to TheatreVoice. Today I’m talking to Mike Bartlett, the writer of My Child which opened at the Royal Court recently and plays ‘til the 2nd of June and is virtually sold out for the rest of the run. So I’ll begin by asking you Mike…tell us, just describe in brief words what the play is like – what it’s about.
Mike Bartlett: The play is about a father who is trying to hold on to his son. The son lives with his ex-wife and she is trying to keep the son away from the father. She is trying to erase the father from the son’s life basically and the play charts his struggle to maintain some influence over the child. Eventually, he can’t do that so he kidnaps the child and takes him to Scotland in order to have some quality time with him and is then tracked down by his ex-wife’s new partner who retrieves the child. I suppose it’s a play about trying to be good, about masculinity, about fathers and sons – those relationships, and how important they are. And about maybe the way in which our values have changed post-Thatcher, that maybe it’s a play which looks at how society used to be about the things we strived for, about the things we used to think were good, and now maybe we’ve got a society of choice and success that works against that – and the play maybe stages those two things. In terms of its form, it’s a series of scenes which are a bit like bouts of wrestling characters – they get at each other, they are violent, they’re abusive, they’re nasty. But all because they want to lead good lives and often because they love their family. In terms of writing it I suppose, one of the intentions was to show that a family is somewhere where you do find the most unconditional love but its also the place where you find the most violence, the most danger and the problem with someone knowing you so well is that they can crush you so completely.
AH: What was the original genesis of it? I know it’s awful to ask where your ideas come from, but what prompted this particular kind of Fathers 4 Justice style storyline in a way – it sort of taps in to it…
MB: Yeah, in a way. It didn’t really come from that so much. As with most things I’ve written, it just came from different things being placed together. So somebody told me a story about when they were working on a farm and they had to fend a cow away – because they had to take the calf away to get milk from the cow. But when they do that, the cow goes crazy. And whereas normally if you hit it with a cattle prod once, it just runs away. When this happens, when the calf is taken away, it just goes mental and won’t stop until it’s bleeding and on the ground. I thought that was really interesting and I did see a link between that and these men dressed as Batman standing on the Houses of Parliament and Buckingham Palace and I thought – there’s something that’s driving those men to do things that is quite odd. It seems we understand and we completely get the relationship between a Mother and a child, but there’s actually maybe a very fundamental relationship between a Father and a child. And when that’s disrupted by society or by relationships or whatever, that’s when something goes wrong and a man can really use it when he doesn’t have access to his son and doesn’t feel that he’s being brought up as his son.
AH: There’s one of the most interesting points of the play – an almost idealogical clash between the two models of Father the child has. There’s the breadwinning hunter-gatherer almost macho kind of father that the mother is now with. And the, I suppose he seems like the a perennial kind of loser – disorganised, and who the mothers come to despise, but he still has this very firm take on the way that his son is being brought up. Being wrong. He says ‘You’ve spoilt my child.’ at one point, he’s really resistant to that.
MB: Yeah, and there are these words which are often used in the play. Like ‘good’. And is good a sort of value thing about being good, about doing the right thing. Or is good about success, about getting it right and having the right things, and living the right life. And ‘right’ is another word, so these words are used throughout and they represent the idea that life is about society possibly, and about loving each other and about trying to do the best you can in that sense. And then another way of living that I think seems to be becoming a bit more prevalent now, which is about looking after yourself, looking after your family, and that love comes from being able to give your family what you want, to make sure they’re safe, to make sure they have everything. The two father figures in the play, I suppose in a sense represent those two sides but of course they are a contradiction. So the man who lives by ideals and tries to be good is flawed, and is flawed throughout the play. And actually the man who is perhaps richer and has made harsher decisions in life is maybe not a bad father at all, is actually maybe a fantastic father. So it is all complicated like that and I think that’s really important, that none of the people in the play are symbolic of anything. It is just a story, and it’s a story about a family that’s gone a bit wrong.
AH: Although beyond the fact that the characters arn’t symbolic, there’s a lot of use of metaphor. To go back to looking at the play structurally – as well as being enormously inventive, there are pages where if you took away the names it would read like ‘Crave’ where people are having conversations over one another and there are four-way conversations going on. Textually, it’s probably quite difficult to understand maybe on first reading, if you haven’t seen the production I think. But there’s also this metaphor of the child’s arm going black isn’t there?
MB: Yeah, I think that’s probably the only properly symbolic thing in the play is the child’s arm. In terms of the scenes cutting between each other, and dialogue being cut up, it is tricky to read on the page but I think actually when you see it it’s quite simple because we have a language of that cutting up from film and television and we can have two scenes in our head running at the same time, cutting between them line by line. Films do it all the time. 24 even puts two shots next to each other and we can follow both of them and we actually enjoy making the effort of constructing the story out of different things. We enjoy being bombarded with that – with all that sort of stuff. Certainly for me, structurally although it’s perhaps innovative in the theatre, the language and the pace of the form and all that – it just comes from American TV shows, where they know how quickly you absorb information and they don’t wait around. They give you a 45 minute experience which doesn’t feel too short, it doesn’t feel rushed, but it feels exciting, it feels dynamic and it tells a story with depth and hopefully you don’t have time to be bored because you’re working so hard to construct what’s going on and to understand everything. I love television, I’ve always watched television. It felt like theatre was often ignoring the fact that most of its audience go home each night and watch television. They don’t go home each night and watch Chekov. They don’t go home each night and watch Shakespeare. They watch television, and they watch actually increasingly good quality television, and they have preferences on that. And that’s the dramatic language that they generally use, so I thought why don’t I write a play which engages with that language, tries doing more with it – tries to make it a very lively experience – and tries to make it a thing where you’re in the room with them and use all the things that theatre can do that television can’t. But in terms of storytelling, in terms of character development – it doesn’t mess around, it doesn’t wait around – it just gets on with it. And it gives you what you want often, and there’s nothing wrong with that as long as you’re in the story, you’re thinking, you’re feeling and it does all that. I think that’s what people feel coming out of it. They don’t feel confused, they don’t feel that it’s being overly arty. They thought they’ve just been told a story and it’s been a bit of a rush and they feel braced by it, I think – from what people have said.
AH: Do you have wider questions that you want the audience to come out with?
MB: I think to me, one of the things that I love theatre doing, and I hope this sort of does it, is that you see the world as it is before you go in and then you go in to the theatre and when you come out the world looks a little bit different. People have spoken about this. One of the reference points for the set is a tube, which is many ways for people in London the place where they are at their most public, they are at their most communal. At no point else in the day are they squeezed in such a small space with so many people. So people have commented on the fact that they get on the tube, they come to the Court, then they go back in to the space – it’s like they’re back on the tube. And then they have to do the reverse journey, but on the way back they’re looking at the people on the tube thinking they’ve all got a story, they’re looking at the adverts in a different way, they’re being more critical towards the world. And I hope that, for me that’s one of the aims of the play – is to sort of make everyone think about things, contextualise the world, make people a bit dissatisfied with the world. I don’t think it’s a play which gives any answers but I hope it asks questions and I hope it encourages people to not just accept that this is the way things have to be. That actually there might be things that are wrong, that need to be sorted out.
AH: There seems to be an ongoing theme as well as you’re work, with what’s being put on this season at the Royal Court. Yours is possibly the fifth or fourth in a series of first plays by new writers. New artistic director Dominic Cooke I think deserves an enormous amount of recognition for the writers he’s been staging. They’ve had effectively hit after hit with first time writers. What’s it been like working there?
MB: It’s been fantastic. I think what was really lovely to discover – when I was a bit younger you read about how the Court would stage Osborne play after Osborne play when they were badly reviewed and no one was coming because they believed in him as a writer – and I think that what was great was going there and finding that that was now completely alive and well and that actually if they like you as a writer, they will back you to the hilt and they want you to do the play that you wrote. It’s so exciting there now I think, to have all those first time writers – to have that energy, to have the bar full of younger people, of people who look a bit more cool and actually a complete mix. Then also The Seagull audience who are perhaps a bit older but are completely coming to these new plays, are loving That Face thinking that that’s a great play. To me, the thing that links a lot of these plays – is that for a while the Court hasn’t done that many first time plays. They’ve done maybe one or two a year. And so there’s been a build up of writers who are actually working and thinking and writing, but haven’t been able to get on some of the stages that they might have been able to get on in the mid-90s. So it feels to me that there’s an explosion of truth in this writing. These are not plays which aim to present an ideology or aim to say this is how the world should be. But they’re the beginnings of a project saying can we just present the world that we’re seeing on stage as it really is, and if that’s uncomfortable – if that means that the play leans a bit more towards the right than the left, then that’s okay. Because what we need to do is to show the world as it really is, before we can even start to think about what we want to do with it. I think Gone Too Far did that, I think That Face certainly does that and I think that the play that’s opening there at the moment – Alaska – does that beautifully, and refuses to shy away from the fact of what people are doing just under the radar. I think that’s exactly what the best plays have always done – is to take things you can’t quite see, you can’t quite pin down but you suspect are going on – and bring them out and say this is going on and maybe it’s not right, do we approve of this, what can we do about it. The dialogue of some of these plays, Alaska particularly I’m thinking about, it sounds different. It just has a different rhythm to it. I think that is really exciting and that’s one of the real things you get from having first time writers and new plays like that.
AH: We were discussing just before we started recording, it’s in a way it’s slightly wrong to discuss you all as new first time writers, because obviously you’ve been writing for a long time, since university, and with The Apathists group which we’ll talk about in a moment at 503, there’s that kind of motor behind a lot of young writers when the Court maybe wasn’t staging them and when they maybe weren’t getting through at the Soho. There’s been maybe that kind of backchannel when there’s been people were making their own groups. Tell me briefly about The Apathists and how that came about…
MB: The Apathists was myself and five other writers. We’d met on various things, we met on the Young Writers Program at the Royal Court, we’d met on the 24 hour Plays at the Old Vic. We felt that we were beginning to get interest from theatres, in terms of starting to think about maybe commissions or getting our plays on. But actually we hadn’t had much stage time, we hadn’t had much experience of having our work on. So we set up the first Monday of every month at Theatre 503 for a year – we did a night where all six of us wrote pieces that weren’t works in progress, that weren’t ever to be done again, that weren’t script in the hand, that didn’t have the safety net of anything. That were just six 10-minute bits of theatre that tried things out and the whole point was that we were allowed to fail. So we played with form, we played with content, we tried different things, we pushed our writing and a good 50% of it was rubbish. But another amount of it was quite interesting and quite good and certainly that led to us being a bit more confident in our writing and discovering those voices. For me, My Child is my first play in as much as it’s my first professional production. Looking back, I’m quite pleased that that’s only happened now. Because this is a play I’m really proud of and I feel that it’s something that I really wanted to write, and I feel in charge of it. That’s come from experimenting with work, doing lots of short plays, lots of other bits, lots of readings and stuff like that for quite a while and I think there’s a mixture of those two different sorts at the Court at the moment. DC Moore has written Alaska – he’s been around for a couple of years writing, a bit like myself. Whereas Polly Stenham and possibly Alex Wood have not written so much before and these are properly their first plays. I think that’s great. But its lovely that that culture which has been around for a couple of years of a whole load of writers; Simon Finnegan, Duncan Macmillan, Rachel Wagstaff, Nick Gill, Morgan Lloyd Malcolm and lots of people who have had plays on at the Finborough or at Theatre 503 who are now getting plays on at these slightly bigger houses, which is quite exciting actually.
AH: From The Apathists, Duncan has got a play on at the Manchester Royal Exchange starting shortly, if it hasn’t started already. And other writers from that elk. It feels like people are finally starting to pick up on that – this new kind of movement. It is very interesting the way the work is so diverse. Do you think there is, beyond what we were talking about where you describe it as an attempt to look at the world and just describe it, do you think is more of a project common to the writers than that or is that the movement?
MB: I don’t know. I don’t think you can tell until afterwards really. But I think simply, for me yeah – that’s what I found. With the plays of these people, they do want to look unflinchingly at the world. They don’t want to look at it through a prism of what they hope the world is or what they believe the world could be. At the moment, they just want to present the world that they see and they have a problem with that world – there’s something not quite right with it. Or some of them celebrate it in many ways, but generally speaking they’re plays which are not content with the world – that’s the only thing that I can see which links them at the moment.
AH: What writers would you count as influences, either form your own contemporaries or older playwrights?
MB: Obviously Shakespeare is probably one of the first playwrights that you’re aware of. I’ve sort of read it, got bored of it, come back to it. But I’m particularly interested in the form of that theatre. Actually the form of that theatre is great, because it’s just really quick. People come on and say ‘We’re outside a castle’ and you know we’re outside a castle. They don’t bother about scene changes, they don’t worry about set, about lights – they just get on and tell the story. And they tell it often very quickly, but they also have a theatre which can go in to mind space which can be imaginative, which recognises the metaphorical link between the distance on stage and the distance between characters, the idea that the globe is representative of the world, but it can also be a brain, it can also be England. That form of theatre to me seems very modern actually and quite underused and I think the Globe has done a really interesting job in showing us that again. That’s there, and I suppose Beckett and Harold Pinter definitely. Then recently for a couple of years, I was really in to Tony Kushner mainly because he succeeded in being both popular and profound and that combination is the thing that I would love to be able to be. A theatre where you absolutely don’t have to bring anything in with you, you just need to enjoy it and watch it and get it. And it’s not difficult, it’s not clever. Well it’s not difficult in terms of its form at all. It allows everyone who comes to see it to enjoy it, and think about the subject of the work and therefore think about the world. I’m not interested in art which either through the content or through the form only speaks to a small sector of society – I’m not that interested in that. I recently directed a couple of plays by Keith Drewhurst who worked at the Court in the early 70s and his philosophy is exactly that. He speaks about how when he wrote plays for the Court and then he wrote episodes of Z Cars – he would write in exactly the same way. He didn’t see any distinction between writing for television or for theatre in terms of the audience he was writing for and I think that’s really exciting. And that is the way theatre will become popular and less elitist is if we stop thinking of the audience in theatre as being in some way different or of a different class or of a different intellectual capability and we realise that actually the best theatre that we see is often the one that appeals to the most people. Brecht has said the same thing. That’s what I think, that’s always what I’m going to aim for. Obviously those people are very different – Brecht, Chevov, Kushner and Pinter all do very different things in some ways, but they’re all popular or they were in their time, and they all have moments of being profound and I think that would be great, so I suppose that’s the main influence.
AH: I was talking about your play on 18 Doughty Street which is a politically conservative TV channel and the majority of the guests on the chat show are also politically conservative and your play certainly spoke to them completely. They were happy to take it on board and at no point did they feel preached at by some kind of left-wing ideologist. I suppose that’s another interesting way in which you’re communicating what you want to say in such a way that it’s not hitting people over the head dogmatically. It obviously seems to be working and a lot more popular.
MB: I believe in political plays – I think political plays are really important and I always try and look at the stuff I write through a political prism. But actually if you think about what politics means to most people at the moment, it means specific issues. It doesn’t mean ‘I am left’ or ‘I am right’ – most people I meet don’t really think about it in those terms any more – unless that’s their specific interest. So I think that plays, in order to be political, need to reflect that actually it’s more complicated than that and they need to strive to get people to think about the systems that are behind our life. And you don’t do that by showing the whole system. I think at the moment this is what I’m thinking; you do it by showing the problem and then encouraging the audience to work back themselves and not presenting you as a writer as either left or right, as that inevitably then gives you a safety net. You think that despite what the characters say, or what the play does – this is coming from a left perspective or this is coming from a right perspective. I think it’s far more interesting and it trusts people’s intelligence and it trusts people much more if you don’t let them know what, as a writer, your perspective is. But you encourage the characters to be absolutely political in what they’re doing and in the way you set it up, you encourage the thoughts about the play to be political. To me, that encourages people to perhaps work towards political change better than just saying ‘here’s an ideology – that’s what I think.’ Or ‘here’s an ideology that I don’t agree with.’ That doesn’t give any room for anyone to do any thought, and they’ve got to think – that’s got to be what’s going on.
AH: Although your pay ends with a very explicit statement in the form of a question doesn’t it. The character having come to a certain point in his life speaking to his dead parents who are also on the stage – another brilliant form of innovation – goes ‘It doesn’t work, does it?’ That, for me, was an enormously powerful moment and it’s a question. Did you want the audience to agree or really think about that?
MB: The fact that it ends on a question is absolutely important. And it ends on a question and a quick blackout. We’re really keen on that quick blackout because if you left a moment after that it would become a rhetorical question. If you blackout straight away, it is a proper question which requires the audience to then at least start to think about whether they have an answer. Some people will come out and say they know the answer to that question. It does work in some situations, or say I don’t believe in turning the other cheek or I believe you do have to stand up for yourself. Or they say well actually I do believe in all of that Christian turn the other cheek and treating other people with respect and love people before anything else – I do believe in all of that, and I don’t mind if I get beaten up, I don’t mind if my family doesn’t have all the things they want because it’s better to be good for society than to be good for myself. Hopefully what the question is trying to do is to then engage the whole story you’ve been told with that question. And that last scene is a bit like a moral at the end of a fable – it’s set up like that. But actually it doesn’t give you that at all. Hopefully it does the opposite – it encourages you to work back through all the things that happened in that play and try and figure out which one of those characters you’re most like, what you think they did wrong, what you think they did right, what caused them to act like that. Having that question at the end hopefully makes you reflect back on the whole play.
AH: It’s almost like that kind of Boal Theatre of the Oppressed thing where you could have a forum afterwards and you could ask… but maybe that wouldn’t appeal.
MB: You could, but I think the bar does that. You go down and chat in the bar or you chat on the way home. But certainly it’s not a play which gives you time to think about that stuff when you’re in it. Hopefully it moves quicker than that and you actually have the experience of being in that space with the audience and you just have to try and keep up. Then only afterwards do you then go back and think about it. That’s how stories like that work on television. I’m not saying that’s the only way of doing it – I love three and a half hour epic plays – I think they’re fantastic and they can give you more space to think about stuff within it and then change it, and change your allegiance and change what you think. I don’t think that’s what this play does particularly. Although I think within a scene, it never tells you who is right within a scene. I know it’s something that the company in rehearsals were trying to find how to do this – it’s not that the company wants the audience to feel something. One character wants the audience to feel this, and the other one wants them to feel that. And they are struggling to make the audience think this is funny, or to make them think this is awful. Again, encouraging the audience to think and to make up their mind, who do you agree with and to be working all the time. To be thinking and working and trying to work out what they think and trying to work out where the story is, and who’s the hero and who’s not. I hope that works.
AH: I think it works brilliantly. So thank you very much Mike Bartlett. My Child is on until the 2nd June at the Royal Court. Is it virtually sold out apart from Saturdays apparently. So thank you again.