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Royal Court Playwright's Podcast

Updated 5 days ago

Arts
Performing Arts
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Royal Court Associate Playwright Simon Stephens talks to some playwrights including April de Angelis, Rachel De-lahey, Tanika Gupta, David Hare, Robert Holman, Dennis Kelly, Alistair McDowall, Anthony Neilson, Joe Penhall, Lucy Prebble, Anya Reiss, Polly Stenham and Enda Walsh.

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Royal Court Associate Playwright Simon Stephens talks to some playwrights including April de Angelis, Rachel De-lahey, Tanika Gupta, David Hare, Robert Holman, Dennis Kelly, Alistair McDowall, Anthony Neilson, Joe Penhall, Lucy Prebble, Anya Reiss, Polly Stenham and Enda Walsh.

iTunes Ratings

28 Ratings
Average Ratings
25
2
1
0
0

Wonderful podcast

By imstayingforlunch - Sep 29 2019
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Simon Stephens is a warm and engaging host, and his glee for playwrighting and its practitioners is infectious. Looks like there are just three series. I hope it will come back soon.

Every Episode a Masterclass

By genius4mow - Nov 20 2017
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So excited for Season 2! An incredible line up of writers. Thank you for this!!!!

iTunes Ratings

28 Ratings
Average Ratings
25
2
1
0
0

Wonderful podcast

By imstayingforlunch - Sep 29 2019
Read more
Simon Stephens is a warm and engaging host, and his glee for playwrighting and its practitioners is infectious. Looks like there are just three series. I hope it will come back soon.

Every Episode a Masterclass

By genius4mow - Nov 20 2017
Read more
So excited for Season 2! An incredible line up of writers. Thank you for this!!!!

The Best Episodes of:

Cover image of Royal Court Playwright's Podcast

Royal Court Playwright's Podcast

Updated 5 days ago

Read more

Royal Court Associate Playwright Simon Stephens talks to some playwrights including April de Angelis, Rachel De-lahey, Tanika Gupta, David Hare, Robert Holman, Dennis Kelly, Alistair McDowall, Anthony Neilson, Joe Penhall, Lucy Prebble, Anya Reiss, Polly Stenham and Enda Walsh.

Rank #1: S3 Ep1: Jez Butterworth talks to Simon Stephens

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The following content may contain strong language.

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Full introduction by Simon Stephens:

“One of the most important figures in the recent history of the Royal Court is the playwright Steven Jeffreys who for fifteen years worked as the Literary Associate here throughout the nineties and the start of this century. He was the mentor to a generation of playwrights including myself and the champion and agitator to his Artistic Directors Steven Daldry and Ian Rickson. He was also one of the most searing readers of new plays I have met.

He tells the story of one script meeting here at the theatre. Steven Daldry was struggling to find plays to programme. While there was an increasing sense that a generation of writers like Sarah Kane, Joe Penhall and Rebecca Prichard were energising the form Daldry needed a play for the Theatre Downstairs. Steven Jeffreys walked into the weekly script meetings one Friday morning with a script in his hand. He declared that he had found it. The play that would run in the theatre downstairs for the summer. A guaranteed hit. The first time a debut play would play in the Theatre Downstairs for a generation.

The play, Mojo, was written by a young writer called Jez Butterworth and Steven Jeffreys’ brilliance as a reader was proven. Mojo, a play set in a fifties Soho of violence and sex and rock and roll was a massive success. At a time when many theatres were closing for the summer the Royal Court had a hit on their hand and directed by Ian Rickson, the Court had in Butterworth an arresting and brilliant new voice. The qualities that astonished and sparkled in Mojo, a linguistic verve and audacity of observation that crackled in tension with a dramaturgical assurance have defined Butterworth’s plays.

After a seven year break from playwriting in which he established himself as a screenwriter of note in the US and the UK alike he returned to the Royal Court in 2002 with the brilliant Night Heron. 2005’s the Winterling also debuted at the Court. In 2008 his haunting Parlour Song opened at the Atlantic Theatre in New York and in 2009 it was given its European premiere at the Almeida. All of the plays were directed by Ian Rickson.

But it was the play he opened at the Court that summer that arrived like a thunderbolt into the heart of English playwriting. Jerusalem, was a vibrant dramatisation of the defiant last stand against rural petty officialdom of alcoholic, drug addled, poet, charmer, mystic and myth maker Johnny “Rooster” Byron. It starred Mark Rylance in a multi award winning performance that articulated the verve and honesty, brutality, wit and sadness of Butterworth’s play with humanity and directness. It played for a year in the West End and was a soaring success on Broadway.

I loved the unnerving arrest of his next play The River in 2012 and was left reeling by 2017’s The Ferryman. A play that was ostensibly an interrogation of the Northern Irish troubles of the early eighties, was to me more a play about commitment. Commitment not only to an ideological organisation, but to a marriage or a family and the political and psycho-spiritual obstructions that dog that commitment at all turns. For all its epic scope and hinterland of magic The Ferryman was, for me, an astonishing play of breadth and ferocity about a man trying to be good.

Jez Butterworth hasn’t written prolifically for theatre. In fact he has written seven stage plays in nearly twenty five years but four of those plays have played sell out runs in medium scale theatres on both sides of the Atlantic and three of them have been, arguably, the defining plays of their decade.”

Jan 03 2019

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Rank #2: S1 Ep5: David Hare talks to Simon Stephens

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Introduction by Simon Stephens:

“The plays of David Hare have dramatised and counterpointed the political and moral landscape of Britain and its position in our world for nearly fifty years. As a young Cambridge graduate towards the end of the sixties he practically stumbled into playwriting while director of the touring theatre company, Portable, when a commissioned writer failed to deliver a script and so, with four days to go until the start of rehearsals, Hare himself wrote his first play How Brophy Made Good, as he calls it: “a one act satire on the absurdity of left wing self-regard”. He may be slightly scathing about his debut now, but it led to his first commissioned play Slag and from then onto a career that has seen more than twenty five plays produced all over the world. He has won Olivier and Tony Awards alike, been nominated for three Oscars for his screenplays, is a celebrated journalist, essayist and political commentator. His memoir The Blue Touch Paper was published last year. His versions of plays by Brecht, Lorca, Ibsen, Schnitzler and Chekhov amongst others have been widely lauded. This year alone has seen a celebrated production of his version of Ibsen’s Master Builder at the Old Vic Theatre, his trilogy of early Chekhov plays originally produced at Chichester is about to be revived at the National Theatre where his newest play The Red Barn, an adaption of Georges Simenon’s novel La Main, will be directed by Rob Icke later in the year.

He was one of the earliest Literary managers of the Royal Court towards the start of the seventies and his relationship with this theatre has juxtaposed, at times happily, at times with a certain attrition, with his fundamental role in the establishment of Joint Stock Theatre Company and central role in the opening of the National Theatre building at the South bank and his glittering, and ultimately knighted, career in commercial theatre. A handful of plays at the start of the 70s including Slag and also Knuckle and Brassneck culminated in Teeth ‘n’ Smiles, a play which saw Helen Mirren fronting a proto-type punk rock band. But this was to be his last play at the Court for some twenty years until Stephen Daldry invited him to make his stage debut as an actor in his monologue Via Dolarosa. Since then the theatre has seen him return to the stage with 2000’s My Zinc Bed and The Vertical Hour.

Of all the writers I have spoken to he seems to most clearly personify the writer as playwright. His plays read beautifully and unveil themselves in their language as fully as in their form or their images. He is a playwright, I would suggest, fascinated by the force of the things people say to one another. He imagines and captures their utterances beautifully and in so doing has explored those curious states of Englishness, Britishness, Europeanness and just what it bloody well is to be human with extraordinary grace and anger for five decades.”

Jan 06 2017

1hr

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Rank #3: S1 Ep3: Dennis Kelly & Joe Penhall talk to Simon Stephens

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The following content may contain strong language.

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Introduction by Simon Stephens:

“This afternoon’s recording is going to be something of a break from convention. This afternoon I won’t just be interviewing one of the world’s leading playwrights, but two of them together.

Joe Penhall first came to wide recognition in 1994 when his play Some Voices was produced down the corridor from this room in the celebrated Theatre Upstairs. A passionate, bruising study of love and brotherhood and illness and survival, it launched a career that has seen Joe work in the world’s leading theatres and write with phenomenal success for television and film. His musical Sunny Afternoon is thriving in the West End, after cleaning up at last year’s Olivier Awards. His films include Road and Enduring Love, he has seen massive acclaim for his television series’ Moses Jones and The Long Firm, his multi-award winning 2000 play Blue/Orange has just been revived with startling force at the Young Vic. But it is here, I think, at the Royal Court with plays like Pale Horse, Dumb Show, Haunted Child and Birthday that Joe has continued to push himself and cement his reputation as one of the world’s leading dramatists for stage.

Dennis Kelly too is, I think, one of Britain’s most significant living playwrights. It’s something of an anomaly, and I think a fascinating one, that his work has rarely been staged here. His Royal Court debut, his first play produced by current Artistic Director, Vicky Featherstone; The Ritual Slaughter of Gorge Mastromas, opened here in 2013 but it was actually his ninth major play. His coruscating, lyrical debut Debris opened at the Theatre503 in 2003 and in the following 12 years his plays, amongst which are Orphans, After the End, Osama the Hero and Love and Money, have been celebrated for their savagery and intelligence, searing wit and restless formal exploration and produced all over the world. His television series’ Pulling and Utopia have been hailed as masterpieces of the form. His musical collaboration with Tim Minchin, Matilda, a musical based on Roald Dahl’s much-loved novel, has been a magnificent success, both commercially and critically, on the West End and Broadway for the duration of this decade.”

Dec 23 2016

1hr 22mins

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Rank #4: BONUS TRACK! S2 Ep16: Simon Stephens talks to Anoushka Warden and Emily Legg

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I first met Simon Stephens in 2011. I was an intern here at the Court and was tanning in the garden in my lunchbreak. Simon was here with his play Wastwater and was taking a moment’s break from rehearsals. I had watched a preview the night before. So I asked him about the ending which left me needing to know for sure whether the character of Jonathan was up to no good or not. I didn’t want to decide, I wanted the facts, and here was the writer himself. Simon graciously told me what I needed to know. I now realise after several years of working at the Court (and getting to know many writers) how potentially annoying my question was and how generously Simon answered it – a truly accurate representation of this mighty writer.

By his own admission Simon stumbled into adolescence as a lanky specy nerd in Stockport. By the time he arrived at York Uni to study history in the late 80s he had reinvented himself as a lean contact lens wearing indie kid from Manchester. His natural progression from Uni was to join a band, obvs. And he became the bassist in The Country Teasers where they recorded such classics as Hairy Wine and Go Away from the Window.

Failing to achieve the worldwide domination they so richly deserved Simon opted to study for a PGCE at the Institute of Education which began his career in teaching. I don’t know what went down there but in 1997 Simon wrote his first professional play Bring me Sunshine which premiered at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Over the next 2 decades he wrote shitloads more – plays as varied as Bluebird and Birdland, Port and Punk Rock, on the Shore of the Wide World and Carmen Disruption, Pornography and Motor Town, Harper Regan and Herons, Wastewater and Nuclear War, Fatherland and Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle. As well as his adaptations of The Curious incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, A Doll’s House, The Cherry Orchard, I Am the Wind and The Seagull.

Many of his original plays have premiered at the Royal Court.

He was writer’s tutor here for the Young Writers’ Programme from 2001-2005 and has held artistic positions at Paines Plough, the Court and the Lyric Hammersmith. He’s won some awards too.

All of Simon’s plays, despite their differences in form, focus on the ferocity and fragility of being human. He excels at the presentation of small moments of behaviour which have huge theatrical impact. Fascinated by transgression, violence, fear and our great capacity for love he has proven himself to be a prolific and provocative voice central to modern theatre culture.

Part of this centrality lies in his whole-hearted support and encouragement of other writers. From his time at the Royal Court as leader of numerous writing workshops his enthusiasm and influence have inspired several generation of writers.

A testament to this is the range of writers who have appeared on this podcast willing to be interviewed by him.

Now it’s his turn.

In the Country Teasers song Golden Apples there’s a lyric that says “Simon can’t walk properly he has trays instead of feet” but luckily for us all his fingers aren’t tea cups. And, oh yeah, in case it wasn’t clear music has influenced everything he has ever done EVER.

Simon Stephens welcome to your own podcast.

Mar 09 2018

1hr 16mins

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Rank #5: S1 Ep4: Polly Stenham talks to Simon Stephens

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Introduction by Simon Stephens:

“Few playwrights that arrived on British stages in the last ten years have provoked more fascination or excitement than Polly Stenham. Few writers in that time seem to have written with such frankness or drawn so apparently from their own lives to make their plays. Perhaps there is a relationship between this frankness and the heat that she has provoked. A writer for a time that is both searching an authenticity and making sense of an instinct to insist upon the validity of the individual’s voice. Or perhaps it’s just that, however instinctive or articulate, intuitive or crafted her process might be, Polly Stenham has continued to write deeply exciting plays.

She made her debut, to universal acclaim, in 2007 at the age of 20 here at the Royal Court, with the blistering That Face, starring Lindsey Duncan and Matt Smith, it was famously or notoriously described by Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph as “one of the most astonishing debuts in thirty years” and went on to win the Evening Standard Award for most promising Playwright and TMA and Critics Circle Awards. It transferred to the West End where it sold out and prompted Stenham to leave her University degree and propelled her to the nation’s attention.

Her second play Tusk Tusk returned to the territory of the abused children of England’s affluent classes – this time dramatising the world of a household of children abandoned by their parents. Taking its name from a David Mckee story, it was a play scorched by comedy and tenderness as much as it was the heightened nightmare of a children’s tale.

My favourite of her plays to date was her third play No Quarter. Set against the dilapidated backdrop of a fading country home, it charts the despair of the son of a woman suffering from dementia who propels himself on a journey of haunted self destruction.

2014’s Hotel, at the National Theatre, marked a bracing change of subject and tone, moving away from what she has described as her trilogy of plays about the despair of England’s rich to interrogate the political ideology of westerners’ luxury holidays in the developing world. As well as writing for theatre she has written for cinema, co-scripting this summer’s the Neon Demon with Nicholas Winding Refn; started directing for screen and opened a gallery, The Cob Gallery in North London, which is also where she keeps the office she writes out of.

For me, she’s something of a paradox of a writer. She’s often been dissected for the celebrity circles of her friendships but her work has a ferocious excavation of the private and the afraid. She’s celebrated for the incision of her insight into the social class from where she came but is, I think, startling for the way she can build a heightened almost expressionistic terror out of that which is perceived to be born of observation. It makes perfect sense to me that she should be identified by Winding Refn as a potential writer of horror. Her work taps into the unreality of the children’s story and the nightmare. I admire her work deeply.”

Dec 30 2016

1hr 5mins

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Rank #6: S2 Ep4: Nick Payne talks to Simon Stephens

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The playwright Nick Payne started his professional career in London theatre in one of the most vital and fertile hotbeds of theatrical creativity in the city. Working at the National Theatre bookshop. He started writing at York University but it was after moving to the city and working at the bookshop that he wrote his first plays. Flourless and Lay Down Your Cross enjoyed readings at Soho theatre and the Royal Court respectively and SWITZERLAND was produced at the 2008 Hightide Festival.

It was 2009 that saw the production at the Bush theatre of the beautiful and beautifully titled If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet. I saw the play in its opening production and, directed by Josie Rourke, it broke my heart. It is a play of real intelligence and real humanity as two brothers struggle to make sense of their differences and make sense of their lives under the shadow of an encroaching ecological catastrophe. How do you live a life with grace when the world is edging closer to its end? It asked its questions with rigour and compassion. It is a beautiful play and was revived by Michael Longhurst in New York City a couple of years later starring Jake Gyllenhaal.

Payne followed If There Is with his debut production for the Royal Court Wanderlust directed by Simon Godwin the following year. He adapted Maurice Maeterlink’s Interior for the Gate, wrote one of the 66 Books in response to the King James Bible for the Bush and had his One Day When We Were Young staged at the Paines Plough Roundabout in its opening season in 2010.

But it was 2012’s Constellations, again directed by Michael Longhurst, and starring Sally Hawkins and Rafe Spall that really brought Payne to international attention. It charts the simple and moving story of two characters as they meet and fall in love, become a couple and deal with her terminal illness. But the play’s genius lies in its continual re-invention as, investigating the ideas of a theoretical multiverse, it stops and re-starts, positing re-imagined possibility after possibility. It is a play that is as funny as it is intelligent, as formally bold as it is emotionally truthful. It was produced in the West End and enjoyed a soaring revival on Broadway again with Gyllenhaal and Ruth Wilson.

Payne has performed his own work, the startling monologue The Art of Dying at the Royal Court in 2014 a brave consideration of the nature of our mortality. His plays Elegy and The Same Deep Water as Me saw him reunited with Josie Rourke, this time at the Donmar Warehouse. Incognito, a formally playful and inventive exploration of the relationship between the human brain and human behaviour, was staged at the Hightide Festival and then at the Bush Theatre and, along with the entire oeuvre of Ali MacDowall, marks yet another play that my eldest son Oscar prefers by some distance to anything I’ve ever written.

Payne has written for television, film and radio. He is a writer of rare compassion and boldness and it is a real pleasure to welcome him here to the Royal Court.

Dec 08 2017

1hr 22mins

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Rank #7: S1 Ep8: Lucy Prebble talks to Simon Stephens

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Introduction by Simon Stephens:

One of the most enjoyable periods in my working career was the five years I spent between 2001 and 2006 working as the Writers’ Tutor at the Royal Court Theatre’s Young Writers Programme. It was great fun because I worked with great people like the legendary Ola Animashawun, who set up and ran the Programme, and the staff he put together. It was great fun because I got to be part of the Royal Court’s staff for five years but it was also great fun because of the writers I got to work with there over the course of that half a decade. I think I worked with about 800 writers in various capacities. I worked with young offenders and 12 year old school children, business executives and international aspiring artists. Some of the writers I worked with have gone on to work in theatre, some to write professionally and some, a handful of who I will be talking to in these podcasts, have gone onto dazzling success. When that happens I often find myself thinking about the first time they came into the Site across the alleyway from where we are here, in what is described as the “Red Rehearsal Room” on Level 1 of the Royal Court with the window open; you can hear the noise coming in from the alleyway, The Site, across the alleyway from the Court where I used to run the groups. It is always fascinating to ask myself if I had noticed anything in the spirit of say Jack Thorne, for example, or Mike Bartlett, Laura Wade or Chloe Moss that even in their early career marked them out as likely to succeed.

With the case of Lucy Prebble my answer is unequivocal. Some writers have a spark of vitality about them from the start that marks them out as exceptional. She came to the Young Writers programme in the autumn of 2002, shortly after her play Liquid had won the Most Promising Playwright Award at National Student Drama Festival. I worked with her for ten weeks and at the end of those ten weeks she handed in the first draft of her next play The Sugar Syndrome. It was a startling read; alert and sexy, dark and searching. It explored the humanity of paedophilia and the transgressive nature of trust and tenderness. It was quickly programmed by the Court, opening in November 2003, winning her a handful of awards and launching her to national attention. The following decade saw her write with great success for television and also for computer games. Notably for television with a TV series she has confessed to a complicated relationship with, The Secret Diary of a Call Girl, and my 14 year old’s favourite first person shooter, a game that I’m not allowed to name for contractual reasons. She didn’t write a third play, though, for some six years. In 2009 Headlong Theatre launched her extraordinary Enron at the Chichester Festival before it transferred to the Court Downstairs. A theatrically audacious study of the corruption and fragility at the heart of the collapsed Enron organisation, by the time it opened it felt like a searing interrogation of the 2008 economic collapse. It ran for a year in London’s West End and for a week on Broadway. She followed it up with the play that I think is her most brilliant; The Effect is a heart breaking exploration of the nature of emotion. It is a play that sits in the space between its formal clarity and the deep level of feeling in the writing, asking brave questions about what it is to experience love. It opened at the National Theatre in 2012 and at New York’s beautiful Barrow Street Theater earlier this year.

Jan 27 2017

1hr 16mins

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Rank #8: S2 Ep1: Alice Birch talks to Simon Stephens

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Full introduction by Simon Stephens:

“The play that lives with me most this year, as I talk in August 2017,  is Alice Birch’s remarkable Anatomy of a Suicide. Produced in the late spring here at the Royal Court Theatre Downstairs and directed with exquisite detail and elegance by Katie Mitchell, in its humane and fearless study of despair and love it feels like a thrilling continuation and extension of Alice Birch’s first seven years in playwriting.

Raised in the Birchwood Hall Commune in the Malvern Hills, Alice’s parents gave her and her sister the name Birch in honour of the celebrated Mansion community home. She first came to my attention in 2010. I was working with David Eldridge on A Thousand Stars Explode in the Sky and he was raving about the most brilliant debut play he’d read in some time. A play called Little Light by a writer fresh out of University, Alice Birch. I met Alice at 1000 Stars. She sent me Little Light. And David was right. It was a play of extraordinary poise and wit; of real anger and strangeness. Her eye for alarming stage direction was matched only by the taut poise of her dialogue.

That play remained criminally unproduced for five years but she made her professional debut the following ear with the similarly arresting Many Moons at the Theatre 503. In the following years she wrote Astronaut in collaboration with the much vaunted Islington Community Theatre, wrote Little on the Inside for Clean Break and adapted Malcom Saville’s Lone Pine Club for Pentabus Theatre.

But it was the electric Revolt she Said, Revolt Again, written for the Royal Shakespeare Company, that saw her work reach outside of the studio theatres of London. A play that sparkled with savage wit and formal explosion and culminated in one of the most viscerally anarchic scenes I’ve seen at the Theatre Upstairs here, at the point when it visited in 2015, it marked the arrival on the national stage of a writer of real confidence. Her collaboration with Rash Dash We Want you to Watch was produced at the Temporary Space at the National Theatre and in 2015 she made the first of three shows with her hero and mentor Katie Mitchell. The poised, searing consideration of the sexual politics and isolation at the heart of Hamlet, Ophelia’s Zimmer was co-produced by Berlins Schaubuhne and the Royal Court. Alice’s adaptation of Elfriede Jelinek’s Shadow (Eurydice Speaks) was produced last year at the Schaubuhne and then in the spring, Anatomy of a Suicide.

Her work has been produced widely throughout Europe and recently at the urgent and super cool Soho Rep in New York.

Alice is a writer of exquisite poetry and unerring savagery. She returns again and again to excavate the violence of patriarchy in its many forms. She is also a writer of real wit and humanity and formal exploration and it is a real pleasure to welcome her here.”

Nov 17 2017

1hr 6mins

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Rank #9: S2 Ep 6: Mike Bartlett talks to Simon Stephens

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I’m not sure I remember the very first time I met Mike Bartlett. I know he was a participant in one of the Young Writers Groups that I ran at the Royal Court in the early years of the last decade. After a few weeks I became quietly aware of his wry humour and quiet but forensic and determined intelligence. I do remember one early encounter with his work very clearly. I was sitting outside The Site in the back garden having a cigarette and reading students plays. By this stage Mike was in what we called the Invitation Group.  He had delivered an early draft of his newest play. I opened it to read and was slightly taken aback and then thrilled that Bartlett seemed to have written a play imagining the future life of Prince William. A life, in my vague memory, of political edge and sexual adventure. I was struck by its audacity and its daring. At a time when most students were handing in repeddlings of Sarah Kane or Leo Butler plays here was a writer who was writing with wit and insight, compassion and audacity about major political themes and containing that within the unlikely gesture of a play about an imagined future of our Royal Family.

Sometimes, in jobs like mine, you just now you’re in the presence of something special. Well I think it is fair to say that Prince William has let those of us who read Mike’s early play down by avoiding a career of political edge and sexual adventure. Mike Bartlett very much hasn’t.

Over the last ten years he has established himself as one of the most confident and authoritative voices of his generation. He has written widely and with great success for television and film and become a playwright of international significance.

He was the Resident Dramatist at the Royal Court in 2007 where his play My Child restructured the Theatre Downstairs. And while he went on to write brilliantly for the Hampstead Theatre and the Young Vic (his play Bull is one of my favourites of all his work); the National (Earthquakes in London and 13 at the Olivier provoking widespread acclaim). He has returned again and again to the Royal Court. His play Artefacts turned the third floor rehearsal room into a tense and taut reimagining of an office space. Paines Plough’s Love, Love , Love was a historical drama charting the shifting entitlements of a generations of a family formed in 1968 and Cock, a masterpiece of a chamber play – a tender three hander exploring the agonies and difficulties of love and commitment.

Bartlett won two Olivier Awards in the same year and he has directed with great success. He has seen his plays produced all over the world. But, I think the achievement of his I most envy is the review he got in the Daily mail for the sparkling television reimaging of Charles 3rd. They described it as “”shameful, vile, pathetic tosh”.

I think if those are the kind of notices the Daily Mail are giving you then you are definitely doing something roundly, resiliently, brilliantly right.

Dec 22 2017

1hr 6mins

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Rank #10: S2 Ep11: Penelope Skinner talks to Simon Stephens

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The experience of watching a play that seems in some way to speak directly or resonate in a way that feels disarmingly personal has lead many playwrights to write for the first time. So it was with Penelope Skinner whom, in 2004, was so startled and moved by Jack Thorne’s When You Cure Me at the Bush theatre that, having spent years writing, as she puts it “the first chapters of novels and bad poems and a diary” she started writing her first play. The play she wrote Fucked was a striking success. Its production at the Old Red Lion in 2008 not only lead to a successful revival at the next year’s Edinburgh Fringe but brought her to the attention of London’s new writing theatres. She joined the Royal Court Young Writers Programme, saw early plays Don’t Look Back produced at the Young Vic and Eigengrau produced at the Bush and co-wrote the National Theatre’s exploration of the dangers of climate change, Greenland.

I first came across her writing when her beautiful noir play The Sound of Heavy Rain was produced by Paines Plough on their first Roundabout Season. It was an underrated piece. A play of as much humanity and fearlessness as it had literary wit. But it was her first play for the Royal Court The Village Bike that won her the George Devine Award and the Evening Standard Award for Most Promising Playwright and really brought her to international attention. In the years since that play she has written with success for film, co-writing How I Live Now, and TV as a writer on Fresh Meat. She has also seen her theatre produced with real success on both sides of the Atlantic. Her relationship with Manhattan Theatre Club echoes her increasingly important relationship with the Royal Court. Here, her play Linda was a forceful and eloquent examination of that startling injustice of a structural patriarchy, the ageing process. A writer of remarkable formal confidence and striking anger, what I loved abut Linda, my favourite of her plays to date, was its capacity to dramatise that injustice with a confidence and panache that released its rage rather than diluting it.

At what has felt like a thrilling time for new women writers she has been described by the Independent as Britain’s “leading young feminist writer”.  For my money she is a writer of searing formal elegance, clear compassion and piercing, honest humour and it is a pleasure to have her here.

Jan 26 2018

1hr 5mins

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Rank #11: S2 Ep5: Abi Morgan talks to Simon Stephens

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Abi Morgan is one of the most prolific and celebrated dramatists of her generation. While she has reached international acclaim for her startling television and film work she began her trade in the theatre and has, over the course of the past two decades, made plays of formal confidence, emotional incision and darting theatricality.

There are few screenwriters of such importance to have emerged in the UK this century. Bafta and Emmy winning work includes the television drama Sex Trafficked, a single film that launched her screen career. White Girl, Tsunami and The Royal Wedding followed. Her work reached its highest range with the multi award-winning series the Hour at the turn of the last decade. For cinema Morgan has written about sex addicts and neo-liberal tyrants alike in Shame and The Iron Lady.

Morgan was born into a family which was almost the stereotype of a theatrical family. Her father Gareth Morgan was the Artistic Director of the Gulbenkian Theatre in Newcastle and her mother Pat England was a successful repertory actor.

She made her debut for the stage with Skinned at Nuffield Theatre, Southampton in 1998. Fast Food at the Manchester Royal Exchange studio in 1999 was followed by Splendour for Paines Plough in 2000 and revived at the Donmar Warehouse in 2015. 2001’s Tiny Dynamite saw the start of a collaboration with Frantic Assembly that has graced both her career and the life of that company while that year’s Tender at the Hampstead Theatre earned her a nomination for Most Promising Playwright.

Her most recent collaboration with Frantic Assembly Lovesong opened in 2011 at the Plymouth Drum before touring internationally with that company. She made her Royal Court debut on the opening season of Vicky Featherstone’s Artistic Dirctorship with her sharp study of sexual mores, The Mistress Contract in 2014. Adapted from an anonymously published set of recorded conversation between a couple in the throes of a decade long affair, it bore many of the hallmarks of Morgan’s stage writing. A dramatization drawn from an actual event, it was formally searching and unflinching in its examination of sexuality and sexual politics. It placed the vicissitudes of identity and empowerment against the complicated backdrop of human relationships.

In an Abi Morgan drama the humanity and the disempowering nature of ideological structures are in a dance of constant tension with one another.

Dec 15 2017

1hr 13mins

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Rank #12: S1 Ep7: Alistair McDowall talks to Simon Stephens

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The following content may contain strong language.

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Introduction by Simon Stephens:

“One of the experiences I have enjoyed most as the Writers’ Tutor here at the Royal Court, or later as Associate at the Lyric Hammersmith and back here at the Court again, is the experience of reading a very early play by a writer largely unknown to the world outside their immediate peers and friends and finding something extraordinary in it. It’s happened a few times but never with more force than the first time I read the plays of a young North Eastern playwright I met at the 2009 Manchester Evening News Awards, Alistair McDowall. We had both, I think this is right, been nominated for an award that year and at the drinks ceremony afterwards he gave me a copy of a collection of short plays he had written. The plays, largely monologues in form, crackled with an energy and a darkness that was legible. We started a correspondence. I don’t start correspondences with every writer who gives me their play but I did with Ali. I had a hunch he might write something special one day. That potential was legible in the next few plays of his I read, Plain Jane and Jennifer Jane, but it was in the fourth play of his, or the fourth that I read at least, Brilliant Adventures, that the potential was unleashed. A play that starts off like an excellent example of British social naturalism, a study of two brothers living in a Middlesbrough Council House, has its head blown off and its heart blown open by the revelation that one of these brothers has invented a working time machine. A nuanced, compassionate, political play exploded into a wild and humane exploration of the way in which poverty decimates potential and the emotional pull of families holds together the most broken souls. These themes have returned in his subsequent plays. I have rarely cried so openly in a theatre as I did sitting with my son watching McDowall’s devastating monologue Captain Amazing produced by Newcastle Live Theatre that I saw at Soho theatre in 2014. His next play Pomona originally written for the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama was brilliantly directed by Ned Bennett at the Orange Tree in 2015 and largely considered to be one of the year’s most thrilling plays. It moved to the Temporary Space at the National Theatre earlier this year. He made his Royal Court debut as part of the Open Court season in 2013 with Talk Show, a tender exploration of a teenage fantasist. His most recent play X enjoyed massive success in the Royal Court Theatre Downstairs earlier this year.

For me, there is a fundamental tension in Ali McDowall’s writing that renders it extraordinary. A compulsive cinephile and reader of comic books, he is fascinated by genre. Whether he is writing plays under the shadow of time travel, superheroes, HP Lovecraft-esque horror or science fiction though this genre fascination is always counterpointed by a tender understanding of the heart breaking grip of family and a genuine political rage at the injustices of poverty in England.

An auto-didactic scholar of contemporary playwriting he is a compulsive reader and a hugely prolific writer. Few writers have the heat around them as he does around him this year. He remains to this day, and to my intense irritation, my son’s favourite playwright.”

Jan 20 2017

1hr 12mins

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Rank #13: S2 Ep15: Timberlake Wertenbaker talks to Simon Stephens

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The plays of Timberlake Wertenbaker have been a presence in British theatre since the turn of the 1980s. Since that time she has produced work that is as defined by its sense of poetry and linguistic precision as it is by her characters’ yearning for justice or a sense of a home.

Born in New York she was raised in the Basque fishing village of Cibure. She arrived in the fringes of London theatre when her first play, the brilliantly titled This Is No Place for Tallulah Bankhead, was produced at the King’s Head Theatre in 1978. She made her Royal Court debut in 1984 with her play Abel’s Sister. She became the theatre’s resident dramatist in 1985 when her play The Grace of Mary Traverse also opened here winning her the Plays and Players Most Promising Playwright Award, the first of the many awards that have graced her work.

She was at the vanguard of a generation of female playwrights championed by the theatre’s then Artistic Director Max Stafford Clark who also directed two of her most celebrated plays.  1992’s searing parody of the London Art World Three Birds Alighting On A Field transferred from the Royal Court into the West End and was then remounted in New York at the Manhattan Theatre Company but it was her play from 1988 – her adaptation with Stafford Clark of Tomas Kennealley’s novel The PlaymakerOur Country’s Good that she is most famous for. It is a remarkable play. As searching as it is eloquent, in its dramatization of the impossibility of articulating experience in language and the isolation of the displaced it typifies many of Wertenbaker’s key themes. She claims that it is her most often remounted plays because it is about theatre and theatre producers like plays about theatres. I think that while there may be truth in this it is also a play that is remarkable for the eloquence of its celebration of the defiance in the human capacity to tell stories.

Revived at the National Theatre in 2015 it is a contemporary classic and as a staple of drama teaching in schools it is many peoples first introduction to contemporary playwriting.

Her work at the Royal Court continued into this century with 2001’s Credible Witness. Her 2015 Royal Shakespeare Company production The Ant and the Cicada visited the Theatre Upstairs in 2015. She is one of only a handful of playwrights to have had her work produced at the Royal Court in four different decades. She has written for theatres throughout the country, for radio and for opera producing a body of work that is frankly unarguable. Her most recent play Winter Hill opened this summer at the Bolton Octagon.

As I enter my third decade of writing for stage I find the longevity of any playwright inspiring. It is difficult to sustain a career writing for theatre. For female playwrights working in patriarchy it requires a particular sense of determination and a voice of clarity and force. Such characteristics define Timberlake Wertenbaker’s plays.

Mar 02 2018

1hr 10mins

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Rank #14: S1 Ep10: Anya Reiss talks to Simon Stephens

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The following content may contain strong language.

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Introduction by Simon Stephens:

“Anya Reiss’ debut play Spur of the Moment opened upstairs at the Royal Court Theatre in 2010 when she was 18 years old and in the throes of the weeks leading up to taking her A Levels. A spiky and tender excavation of the need and inability of parents to acknowledge the awakening sexuality of their daughter when a new lodger comes to stay; it felt like the arrival of a startling new voice. It was a huge success, receiving the TMA Award for best new play that year and the Evening Standard and Critics Circle Awards for most promising playwright.

The daughter of a former Canon at Westminster Abbey she first came to the Royal Court when she was 14 to take part in a half term playwriting course she was protected and developed by the theatre and by the Young Writers Programme there and exemplifies the generation of writers first produced at the theatre by Dominic Cooke. Along with Polly Stenham, Bola Agbojee and Rachel De-lahey, she was part of what felt like a bracing new generation of writers for stage.

She followed Spur of the Moment in 2011 with The Acid Test, also in the Theatre Upstairs. A play re-interrogating the pain and embarrassment of the relationships between kids and their parents this time from the perspective of a woman in her early twenties whose night in with her housemates is interrupted by the arrival of her recently evicted father.

She has spoken frankly about her complicated relationship with her school life.  Her public decision to not go to University but instead to pursue her career as a writer struck me at the time that I learnt about it as an impressively confident gesture of defiance to Tony Blair’s fantasy of a pan-graduating Britain.

The years following The Acid Test have seen her make a confident and successful foray into writing versions of classic plays. Her sparkling version of Frank Wedekind’s classic study of teenage despair Spring Awakening was produced successfully by Headlong Theatre Company and, more strikingly perhaps, her versions of Chekhov’s masterpieces The Seagull, Uncle Vanya and Three Sisters saw her relocate those plays into a contemporary England of Land Rovers and iPads and receive widespread approval, not only from national theatre critics and my own son who much preferred her versions of Chekhov to mine, but also David Hare in the recent introduction to his collected Chekhov versions.

She has also written regularly and with real range and success for Eastenders. Including, I am told by a very excited producer, Anoushka, the New Years Eve episode of Eastenders of 2016.

A writer of vitality, wit and compassionate tenderness she makes a natural translator for Chekhov. She identified in him the capacity to create characters defined by their complexity of grace and cuntishness and she captures that contradiction with as much vitality as any of her peers.

She’s not even 25 years old. I hate her very much indeed.”

Feb 10 2017

1hr 9mins

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Rank #15: S2 Ep10: Roy Williams talks to Simon Stephens

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When Roy Williams’ first play No Boys Cricket Club launched him into the London theatre world in 1996 it was celebrated for the audacity and range of its theatrical imagination. At a time when new playwrights were often being encouraged to write simple plays for studio theatres, Roy Williams wrote a play that travelled across oceans, across continents and back in time charting the life of a woman inspired by his own mother. He was part of a generation of playwrights, many of whom wrote with different agendas and with different perspectives, who together re-energised British playwriting forever. The play was the start of a career that has been defined by its prolific energy, dramaturgical range and insistent interrogation of the existential nature of identity.

His early plays for the Royal Court Lift Off in 1999 and Clubland in 2002 marked a bold and compelling interrogation of young London men trying to make sense of their relationship to their own race. Compassionate and flinty by turns they established Roy as a writer of real significance. But it was his next play for the Royal Court, the coruscating Fallout, a dramatic investigation of the policing of hate crime and his plays Sing your Hearts out for the Lads for the National Theatre and Days of Significance for the Royal Shakespeare Company that saw him stretch the political and formal considerations of his work write, in the space of a few years, three of the most significant political plays of the last decade.

Roy Williams marked himself as a dramatist who looked as unflinchingly at nationalist politics as he did at the brutality of militarisation, at violence in policing, as he did at murder on London streets and at the pathos and failure of Kevin Keegan’s management as he did at the possibility of tenderness in a city defined by violence.

The following decade has seen his search expand. He has written adaptations of films and novels for theatres on both sides of the Atlantic. He has also written for young actors and a musical biography of soul legend Marvin Gaye. His most recent play produced by the Royal Court, the ferocious and tender Sucker Punch, brilliantly directed by Sacha Wares in 2010, saw his typical tenderness and savagery staged with a deftness and ambition that matched his writing.

He is a writer compelled by many ideas and many worlds and has, also,  been celebrated for the honesty and dignity with which he has dramatized Black Britain. His presence as a role model for young Black theatre artist has seen him lauded at international level.  But for me it his insistent fascination with the same existential questions that define his early plays, with our sense of self when our identities sit so harshly at odds with the cultural constructs of what we’re meant to be like whether those constructs are established on racial, gender, sexual, economic or professional lines that unify his work and make him one of my generations most important playwrights.

Jan 19 2018

1hr 7mins

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