Who are you writing for?
Directors sometimes challenge playwrights with the question: ‘Who are you writing for?’ In my case it’s someone dead for over forty years, a man I was afraid of at first (he started his questions from the back of the class, and I was third in line): my first Grammar School English teacher, Tommy Kershaw. He started me debating, never quite my thing, but it got me on my feet. He encouraged my writing, editing my stuff for the School Magazine, pointing out the imprecise or conventional phrases, making me rewrite. Once he over-did it (as he himself admitted) at the expense of losing the initial appeal of the piece, a Christmas poem of the bells and holly variety. The School Magazine came out at Christmas, and I may, I suspect, have been writing with an eye on the market. There were few pieces I wrote that didn’t need a deal of subsequent work: I was (remain) a grafter. The acting came more easily. I find it extraordinary that - aged 17- I played the part of Macbeth. In the unlikely event of the part being offered to me now, I would unhesitatingly say ‘no’..walk away. The gall of it.. My old Headmaster, a man both kindly and severe, had me into his office after the cast list had gone up. It’s the most unusual interview I’ve ever had. ‘It’s a play that embodies evil,’ was his worry. The poor chap was concerned about the effect the part would have on me. Well, he was dealing with a teenage megalomaniac masquerading as a school prefect who, at the end of the run, refused to take his make-up off and walked home in it. Someone later told me, ‘You could be arrested for that.’ These days, if spotted, you’d get a record contract. I was so carried away by the part that one night I cut myself with a dagger on stage - real blood flowing. The large plaster had to wait, for obvious reasons, till after the curtain came down. On another night, towards the end of the play, I forgot my lines and made up a rough but much shorter speech – my first and last attempt at blank verse - to cover the gap. It meant I was yelling for ‘Seyton! Seyton!’ about a page too early. I could hear the kerfuffle back stage before Seyton arrived, breathless, to tell me: ‘The Queen, my Lord, is dead,’ and I was back on safe ground with the biggie: ‘Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow…’ I’ve written a tragedy recently: my first – in the unlikely slot of the Woman’s Hour Drama: ‘Mrs Tolstoy’ (available at Audible co.uk) .. You find what humour you can in the magnificent first hand material - diaries, accounts - that surrounds the Tolstoys’ marriage. One friend, writing to me after the broadcast, asked if he was supposed to laugh because, particularly with the character of Tolstoy, it was what he wanted to do. This pleased me. I’m going against the grain when I’m too serious. I tried back in the Nineties to write a play about the City. It was an easy idea to sell - City excess a hot subject then and now - and the RSC picked it up for a time. The trouble was with the play, mercifully un-performed, was that - apart from one or two scenes - it was never in my tone of voice. My plays are character driven, generally quiet. I’ve tried a more public manner with a couple of the stage plays and come up just short. Another problem: in the City play there was a central character, an enthusiastically drug taking homosexual, rather suspiciously like the author in his early Nineties incarnation. My first performed play – a three hander, for television – also had had a character too much resembling me. He was easily the dullest of the three. I should have learned the lesson. Mainly, I like to write away from myself.