Culture Editor Olivia Boyce interviews playwright David Edgar, discussing ‘Maydays’, his professional acting debut and advice for aspiring playwrights
David Edgar is an award-winning British writer and playwright whose works have been staged and published all over the world. His play Maydays is currently in performance at the RSC’s Other Place in Stratford, in a new version marking the 50th anniversary of its setting, and he is also performing ‘Trying It On’, a new solo show that marks his professional performance debut. He is an honorary Professor in the Department of Drama and Theatre Arts at the University of Birmingham and was instrumental in the founding of their acclaimed MA Studies in Playwriting course. Culture Editor Olivia Boyce sat down for a discussion of his work, its status in the current political climate, and much more.
Q: Your play Maydays is currently being performed at the Other Place at the RSC in Stratford. For those readers who may not be aware of Maydays as a play, could you give a quick summary in your own words as to what the play is about and what it aims to do as staged today?
A: Maydays was first written in the early 80’s. In the 70’s I wrote a play about the National Front, the 70’s equivalent of the BNP, which was done by the RSC in the mid-70’s and then transferred from Stratford to London. I think that played a part in the campaign against the National Front, which led to their being wiped out, happily wiped out, in the 1979 election. But, the other thing that was clear was that there were other things going on in the right – particularly the rise of Thatcherism and Reaganism as more than just a continuation of the conservative tradition – it was something quite new.
One of the striking things was the number of people who were involved, as intellectual gurus of both campaigns, who had been on the far left in their youth, and so I became interested in defectors and people who’d shift from the far left to the conservative right. I started speculating as to what might happen to people from my generation – I was 20 in 1968. By that stage, there hadn’t been a lot of people who had been caught up in the events of 1968 who’d moved to the right, though a lot more have now. It was a kind of thought experiment to work out how that might happen to me, almost to stop it happening to me.
The play went on in 1983, and was controversial in a number of ways. The theory of the play is that people who move from left to right tend to do so because they’re appalled by the authoritarianism and the ruthlessness and the cynicism of the left, and then when they get to the other side, the only thing they’ve got left in their suitcase is precisely ruthlessness and cynicism and authoritarianism.
The play wasn’t produced again, but, because we were coming up to the 50th anniversary of 1968, I thought it might be a good moment to consider reviving it. I put that to the RSC, and they decided that the best thing to do would be to hold an experimental workshop that would act as a form of development for a revised version of the play, but also a kind of audition for a new version of the play.
What we were striving to do were two things – one, to make the play accessible to a contemporary audience, because when it was written there were many things that were just in the ether of the times which by now have become part of history, often obscure history, so we had to find a way of giving enough context to the audience for them to be able to understand what is going on.
Secondly, we wanted to draw resonances with today. A lot of things that are now very dominant in politics began then, including the rise of a new right which has anticipations of the populist right at the moment, but also a left that was young and theatrical and certainly non-Stalinist, not committed to the Soviet Union, quite various and fragmented, as well as particular issues which emerged in the late sixties of which feminism and gay rights are the most obvious two, but also anti-racism and the birth of identity politics. Those are relevant now, and in editing the play I wrote a kind of coda where we discover what happens to the characters after the end of the play, which I’ve taken on to 1984, incorporating reference to the 1984/5 miner’s strike, but I haven’t, I hope, drawn false analogies. In editing down and focusing on the political arguments of the play and the 70’s/80’s, I’ve focused on things I think are recognisably of today as well as then – the issue of peace and war, and identity politics. We convinced the RSC on the basis of the workshop that it was a good idea to go ahead with a production, we managed to come up with a way of doing it with 10 actors in the Other Place, and so we’d presented the package that was possible.
Q: You mention this workshop process – as a playwright, what is it like to return to a piece you wrote decades previously and in a different context?
A: It’s very difficult actually, it is new wine in old bottles. In fact, I think what’s happened is we went further away from the original play and came back to it. I distinguished between two things. One is that I’ve written and clarified in order for the play to speak to today, and then I hope that I’ve just made the play better, with changes I would have made even if we’d have been back then. I’ve enjoyed it – there are a lot of long speeches, some of which remain, a sort of rhetorical overdrive which I think is less fashionable now. I think I made it a bit more human. Oddly enough, in a way. I’ve made it a bit more conservative as a play, in that I’ve made the character arcs a bit stronger and characters that had disappeared that I’ve brought back. It is actually a more old-fashioned sort of playwriting. I think it is successful, so that’s been enjoyable.
There are some lines and some speeches which are new, and which I’m really proud of, but it was a labour of love, reworking a play I was very fond of, and I admire my writing. In that sense, it was nice to revisit it and I didn’t want to muck it up.
Q: You mentioned the play having its genesis in a time when you as a young person were amongst a generation trying to find their feet politically and socially, in a very tumultuous time. Do you think there is something in that which chimes particularly with young audiences today, similarly to perhaps then?
A: That’s what we think. If you look at the rise of the movements that have occurred over the last 10 years, from Occupy to the Arab Spring, you find quite a lot that addresses an interest in identity that comes out of the 60’s and 70’s. Also, stylistically, the theatricality of it, in the idea of occupying space is really important – especially student occupations and the later factory occupations in the early 70’s, that’s something that wasn’t part of the political menu really in the 50’s or 60’s. Yes, I do think the play probably has more meaning now. Lots of people who are now teachers in universities, who spent years berating student apathy, are noting a political enthusiasm and commitment which really hasn’t been seen since the 70’s.
Q: Is there anything in particular that you hope audiences take away from Maydays, whether it be a particular message or feeling or identifying with a particular character?
A: It’s been interesting to do as I’ve done it in conjunction with a new play, a solo show called Trying It On. That’s actually autobiography as opposed to being fake autobiography, and is the true story upon which Maydays is based. I think both have come to strangely similar conclusions, which is that the necessity for an active left politics is much greater now than it has been for a long time, because we see the rise of the far right, a very successful far right, for the first time since the 30’s, with the collapse of the social democratic consensus which has dominated for all of my lifetime.
It’s very possible to say that there were very important gains made, and very important battles to be won, very important things to be defended like various gains for the women’s movement and gay movement in the 60’s and 70’s, but now there is this sense of urgency that it’s all going to collapse and that we’re going to see movement backwards. Now I think the danger is very real. I don’t think the national-populist right is going to be defeated by international globalist hedge fund managers. I think it’s going to be defeated by collective action by large numbers of people including, if not led by, young people. There’s a kind of urgency about what’s happening, which oddly enough has become the end of both Maydays and Trying It On in quite unexpected ways.
Q: You mentioned Trying It On, which is not only a new piece you’ve written, but also where you will be making your professional performance debut. How have you found the experience of moving towards both writing and acting?
A: I wanted to do it, partly because I enjoy performing. I used to act at university, so I’ve got experience with that and I enjoy it, and I thought that I’m 70 this year and I thought it would be better to do it now or I’m never going to do it. That was a good idea, it seemed to me, but also – solo work has now emerged as a kind of genre of itself for various reasons, including economic, and what is striking about it is that you can put it in the same basket as devised or collaborative work, but in fact of course you couldn’t get more authorial. You couldn’t get more individually written than something you are performing yourself, as I am finding. But, the techniques that you use – I’ve learned to call it “making” – I’ve worked with two directors, one in the Research and Development period and now on the production period, and in both cases we were doing stuff that, if you walked into the room, it would look like devising. We were producing a lot of material without always having a very clear sense of how it would all fit together, and then we were exploring how to put all of that together to make it work in a room. To that extent, it has been a very different experience from that I’m used to.
You are also aware – making things actor-proof would be a terrible way to put it – but, you want other people to take it on and complete it, that’s why you write plays and not novels. On the other hand, there are various things that I do in the play which I knew when I was writing was the way I’d do it, in terms of how to convey meaning, and therefore in a funny way it is quite a delicate piece of writing; I knew how I was going to complete that piece of writing as I was writing it. That said, I’m working with Christopher Haydon, who is a very good director, and I’m learning a lot about acting, and the play is very much moved under his hands. I enjoy it – we’ve done a run at Warwick University and a couple of shows at the REP, and one at the mac, with the RSC and the Royal Court upcoming. I’m enjoying it a lot, and it has been quite a good learning curve.
Q: Do you find that this experience, particularly working with directors as an actor as well as a writer, has changed the way you view acting, writing or both?
A: Yes. I’ve seen a film of the show, which a lot of actor friends thought was a terrible idea, but we filmed the last performance at the REP, largely to make a trailer, and actually I found it really useful to see it. What was most striking was that the play is not homogenous – there are bits of it that are anecdotal, bits which are more lecture-y, there are bits of acting, some interaction with the audience, and I was convinced that the hinges between those sorts of performance were starkly clear, and yet when I saw it I realised that it was much more homogenous. I understood that the way it leaves you and the way it arrives at somebody else are two quite different things, which is very good to know. My understanding of actors, and perhaps patience with them, has increased dramatically through the experience, and also being directed is, as somebody who talks to directors about how things might change in productions, an illuminating and informative experience, so I’m very glad that I’ve done it.
Q: You mention this workshop period, and working with various directors. Do you have a favourite part of the process so far, or are you enjoying the whole experience more generally?
A: It was difficult, some of it. I thought that in the R&D period that we didn’t get as far as we should have done. The play is a conversation between my 70-year-old self and my 20-year-old self, and for a lot of the play that is a metaphor, but there are scenes in which one talks to the other and the other talks back, and we’ve now found a way of doing that, but we didn’t solve various problems the first time around. Now though, I look back at the script, and at that first session of work, and I realise that we learned a lot more than I thought we would. It went up and down, and there were moments where I thought that we’ve not got anything here, and that was dispiriting. Of course, with Maydays, a version of Jekyll and Hyde that I’ve done for the RSC which was an unexpected amount of rehearsal work, and then A Christmas Carol, it has been a hugely busy year. There were moments where I thought, I haven’t got time to process all this stuff, in both Maydays and Trying it On, but I think we’ve got there with both plays, and the luxury of the gap in performances with Trying it On.
Q: You mention A Christmas Carol, returning this Christmas to the RST stage. Do you think there is something about Dickens, particularly this story, that continues to capture the popular imagination?
A: I think, like Shakespeare, it is infinitely malleable. When it first came out it urbanised Christmas – though Dickens didn’t invent Christmas, he did invent an urban version of Christmas, as though it was big in the countryside manufacturers in towns didn’t want people to take 10 days off, and so the traditional Christmas was rather frowned on. He invented an urban way of celebrating Christmas. It then becomes a religious tract in the 1870’s, and in the early 1900’s it becomes a children’s story which it really wasn’t before then. In the 1930’s it is a critique of capitalism. There are versions of it in the 1980’s which are saying that Scrooge has a perfectly sensible business model, and in the 1950’s it was, the Alistair Sim film in particular, very Freudian, about a man who has to confront his past to come to terms with his true nature. It is infinitely changeable, and that is why I think it continues to be popular. Of course, it is also about redemption. We like things about redemption.
Q: You are currently the RSC’s most produced living playwright. Do you think there is something about your work in particular that lends itself to the RSC, its ethos and its aims?
A: I think the conventional things to say are, big scale political plays and language, and I think they are both true. Particularly Shakespeare in his history plays starts quite a long time in the past and almost comes up to date with Henry VIII, and I think that is what a lot of my plays, and a lot of other plays of my generation by writers like David Hare and Howard Brenton, do. In terms of language, most of my characters know how their sentences are going to end when I start them, and one of the things I’ve done with the new Maydays is make that a bit less so. I think it also builds upon itself, so – all of my major awards have been for stuff I’ve done at the RSC, though I’ve done stuff at the National too. I tend to take stuff to the RSC, and there is a difficulty there as it doesn’t have a permanent London home any more, so if you want to be seen in London, which is kind of a fact of life… we don’t yet know if Maydays will have a London outing, although we hope so, and A Christmas Carol probably won’t because there is a very good version in London at the moment. However, the RSC is a wonderful environment to work in, so that’s one of the reasons I’ve carried on writing for the company.
Q: Finally, you mention being involved in the setting up on the MA Playwriting course at the University of Birmingham. For prospective students, who are thinking about or are currently writing and devising work, what advice would you give?
A: It would be to create circumstances in which you could hear your play. So, even if it is with people in your front room, and even if they are not doing it very well, it is fantastically eloquent. If you’ve got the luck to work over a couple of days with good student actors and a director, then you will learn a fantastic amount. I’ve been doing it for very nearly fifty years now, and you should be able to hear it in your head and not need that, but you still learn so much about it when you hear it. It is partly because the people reading become an audience, so you can hear their responses to it. That would be one piece of advice. The other is to go to the theatre a lot, for two reasons. One is to see a lot of different plays from which you will learn, but also when you start trying to get plays on, you won’t waste a lot of time pursuing theatres who don’t do the sort of play that you are going to write.