Characters for our times – The gender bending of Rosalind and Henry V

In this guest post, writer, biographer and author of Rosalind: A Biography of Shakespeare’s Immortal Heroine, Angela Thirlwell marvels at the actress Michelle Terry’s ability to capture the nuance and essence of a character regardless of their gender, and Shakespeare’s ability to write such rich a diverse roles, which are still being reimagined and recontextualised today. 

On a rare day of sunshine in this unreliable English summer I saw Shakespeare’s Henry V at the Open Air Theatre in London’s Regent’s Park. In a daring piece of cross-gender casting by director Robert Hastie, mesmerising Michelle Terry played the King. Only a year ago, at Shakespeare’s Globe on Bankside, she was a triumphant, exuberant and intelligent Rosalind, the heroine who finds her true self in drag as Ganymede. Here’s the first thing: As You Like It and Henry V were both written during the same season around 1599.

Michelle Terry as Henry V

Michelle Terry as Henry V

In both gender-fluid roles, Michelle Terry inhabits the dynamics of growing up, anatomised so powerfully by Shakespeare. As Ganymede, Rosalind makes on the face of it, ‘a pretty youth’. As Henry V, the boy-king too is ‘in the very May-morn of his youth.’ But both these apparently different characters mature, catapulted into roles of leadership. What unites them is their increasing self-knowledge.

During Wimbledon fortnight while I playfully wondered whether Rosalind played tennis, I noticed that real tennis balls actually feature in Henry V. They are symbolic of Henry’s new grasp on foreign policy. The French Dauphin sends Henry what appears to be a ton of treasure. When the chest is opened, the Duke of Exeter peers in to see only ‘tennis balls, my liege.’ It’s a diplomatic snub of breath-taking insolence which Henry instantly clocks. His witty riposte uses the technical terms of real – or royal – tennis as it then was (and is still played today at a few courts) the forerunner of modern tennis:

When we have matched our rackets to these balls
We will in France, by God’s grace, play a set
Shall strike his father’s crown into the hazard.
Tell him he hath made a match with such a wrangler
That all the courts of France will be disturbed
With chases.

Michelle Terry as Rosalind (as Ganymede)

Michelle Terry as Rosalind (as Ganymede)

The Dauphin’s mockery ‘turned his balls to gun-stones’ and to the horrors of the battle of Agincourt. I found it heart-breakingly poignant to see this battle choreographed onstage on the 100th anniversary of World War One’s Battle of the Somme. The actors stepped through water channels that were instant reminders of the mud of the trenches. My grandfather Joe Goldman joined the King’s Royal Rifle Corps, later the Machine Gun Corps, and was wounded at the battle of Passchendaele in 1917, another bloody battle a year after the battle of the Somme.

Angela Thirlwell's grandfather in the trenches in Flanders in 1917 holding a bomb.

Angela Thirlwell’s grandfather in the trenches in Flanders in 1917 holding a bomb

In this production of Henry V it isn’t only the king who is played by a woman. Some of the ordinary troops are also played by female actors, as is the wonderful Chorus of Charlotte Cornwell. Her authorial role threads through the play from beginning to end, putting a friendly arm round the shoulders of the audience and encouraging our imaginations to work. ‘Think when we talk of horses, that you see them.’ Today women are prominent in diplomacy, in government and in the armed forces so this cross-gender casting makes sense and makes for universality.

Regent's Park Theatre

Regent’s Park Theatre

As part of the peace settlement after Agincourt, Henry gets Katherine, Princess of France as his Queen. A male actor (Ben Wiggins) plays Katherine exactly as the role would have been taken in 1599. Their courtship scene – Ben playing Katherine, Michelle playing Henry – so often one of sheer comic relief, has a new, meaningful, dual-gendered gravity. I heard Henry unpick the old cliché about love, ‘to say to thee that I shall die is true, but for thy love, by the Lord, no,’ with exactly the same wry precision that Rosalind rebukes Orlando: ‘Men have died from time to time, and worms have eaten them, but not for love.’ Inspirational Michelle Terry makes both Henry V and Rosalind characters of our time.

Angela Thirlwell has written Rosalind: A Biography of Shakespeare’s Immortal Heroine, which is published by Oberon Books

9781783198559

Into the spotlight steps Rosalind, the actor-manager of As You Like It.
She’s alive. She’s modern. She’s also a fiction.
Played by a boy actor in 1599, she’s a girl who gets into men’s clothes to investigate the truth about love.
Both male and female, imaginary and real, her intriguing duality gives her a special role.
What is a man? What is a woman?
We are all Rosalind now.

Chemsex: in drama and in life

Sexual health and wellbeing clinic 56 Dean Street has revolutionised sexual services and become a pioneer in LGBT care and HIV awareness. For this reason it was awarded the Attitude Community Award in 2015. Writer and Attitude contributor Patrick Cash has written a play, The Chemsex Monologues, exploring the secretive and often dangerous world of chemsex, an issue which the staff at 56 Dean Street know all too much about…

56 Dean Street, opened in 2009, is Europe’s busiest sexual health centre. 11,000 patients use its services each month, 7,000 of whom are gay men. Part of its success is in its pioneering design. Unlike the ‘Cinderella’ sexual health services of the past, shoved away at the back of the hospital near the chapel, the Dean Street clinic resembles a boutique hotel: sparkling, light-filled and modern.

staff pic

But, as many of us on the gay scene will know, however good something might look means little without a supporting personality. Leigh Chislett is the clinic manager who leads a hardworking, friendly staff, many of them LGBT themselves. Joe Phillips is his second-in-command. “At 56 Dean Street we’re proud to provide sexual health and HIV care to the gay community,” says Joe. “All our staff, including those that don’t identify as being part of the community, try to go the extra mile to care for and support the people we see.”

cash

The Chemsex Monologues and Patrick Cash

These extra miles include outreach services, like instant HIV testing in the basement of G-A-Y, or offering hepatitis vaccinations at Ku Bar. And specialist weekly clinics like CODE and CliniQ: the first devoted to helping men struggling with chemsex in the capital, and the second only sexual health service specifically for transgender people in the UK. There are exciting future developments at Dean Street, including the launch of a new PrEP clinic to make the HIV prevention drug available to the gay community at a close to cost price.

This article was written by Patrick Cash, and first appeared in Attitude magazine. Patrick has written the play The Chemsex Monologues, published by Oberon Books. The Chemsex Monologues will run at The King’s Head Theatre in London 15th – 20th Aug.

The Chemsex Monologues might well be the desperately needed conversation starter we’ve been waiting for’  DAZED

‘an extraordinary tapestry of pleasure and pain, woven together with wit and weight by a master wordsmith.’ Gay Times ★★★★★

‘An incredibly powerful, moving and funny piece of writing, superbly performed throughout.’  EQView

’70 minutes of gold standard theatre. The Chemsex Monologues will make you laugh, cry, think, love, hurt and hope.’ QX Magazine

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Rosalind’s Daughters: from Joan Hunter Dunn to Serena Williams

Angela Thirlwell is an experienced and highly regarded biographer. For her latest book, however, in very creative approach to biography, she’s chosen Shakespeare’s Rosalind as her subject. The result is a playful, insightful, and impeccably researched glimpse of the real Rosalind… even if how ‘real’ she can ever be is still a matter for debate.
In this guest blog post, Angela’s excitement about Wimbledon prompts new ideas about Rosalind’s legacy.

It’s Wimbledon fortnight and my daughter and I are lucky enough to have won two tickets through the public ballot for seats high up on No. 1 Court. The combination of guile and aggression in the modern women’s game made me suddenly ask myself if Shakespeare’s Rosalind would have played tennis? Of course, on one level, she couldn’t have played lawn tennis as played at Wimbledon today. The game as we know it hadn’t been invented. Tudor men like Henry VIII played real tennis, a breathless version of the game with small-headed wooden rackets and hard balls ricocheting off indoor walls and roof – rather like to squash.  Women didn’t play lawn tennis at Wimbledon until 1884 about 20 years after the new game of lawn had become popular with men.

9781783198559

One of the chapters I found so much fun in writing for my book about Rosalind, the heroine of As You Like It, was my very personal take on her ‘Afterlife – A woman for all time – Rosalind’s daughters’. I realised that so many of Rosalind’s descendants had been part of my reading landscape since I was a child, from Jo March in Little Women to Lizzie Bennet in Pride and Prejudice. Neither actually cross-dressed as a boy called Ganymede like Rosalind but Jo sheared off her hair and sold it to pay the family bills, and Lizzie tramped the fields six inches deep in mud, vaulting stiles and charging through puddles with scant concern for her delicate Regency petticoats. Like Rosalind, both Jo and Lizzie both took command and found themselves liberated by claiming the rights of their boyfriends or brothers.

Rosalind

Wimbledon fortnight makes me remember one tennis-playing daughter of Rosalind I left out of my chapter on her Afterlife. She’s John Betjeman’s wartime beauty, Miss Joan Hunter Dunn, with her ‘strongly adorable tennis-girl’s hand!’ The young subaltern – or Betjeman himself – who worships her reminds me of Rosalind’s Orlando who played love games in the Forest of Arden and impaled his sonnets in her praise on its branches. Shakespeare’s love story unfolds through a series of duelling conversations – like the erotic geometry of tennis:

Miss J. Hunter Dunn, Miss J. Hunter Dunn,
Furnish’d and burnish’d by Aldershot sun,
What strenuous singles we played after tea,
We in the tournament – you against me!

Joan Hunter Dunn

Joan Hunter Dunn

Darting about the court in her daring culottes or shorts, Joan’s appeal is as homoerotic as Rosalind’s.  Betjeman’s subaltern almost swoons at the effect:

Love-thirty, love-forty, oh! weakness of joy,
The speed of a swallow, the grace of a boy.

In the year of Shakespeare400, who are the strong Rosalinds of the 2016 Wimbledon Championships? Serena Williams, Garbine Muguruza, Johanna Konta. You can make your own list!

Angela Thirlwell - https://angelathirlwell.co.uk/

Angela Thirlwell – https://angelathirlwell.co.uk/

Learn more about Rosalind: A Biography of Shakespeare’s Immortal Heroine HERE
Learn more about Angela Thirlwell HERE
Learn more about Joan Hunter Dunn HERE

The Student Guide to Writing: Playwriting: Part Three

Jennifer Tuckett, Course Leader for the MA Dramatic Writing at Central St Martins, and head of the new ‘The Student Guide to Writing: Playwriting’ competition, has kindly come back as a guest blogger for Oberon Books to update us on the next stage of the competition, what’s coming up for the winning playwrights, and how you can get your hands on the lesson plans and the wonderful writing they inspired… 

I’m pleased to be writing to let you know that The Student Guide to Writing: Playwriting, the new competition from the Bush Theatre, Oberon Books, MA Dramatic Writing at Drama Centre London at Central Saint Martins and Writers at Work Productions has announced the production of the winners’ play.

The winners’ play will be on the theme of what it means to be a student in the UK today, drawing inspiration from the Cultural Learning Alliance’s recent figures showing a decline in the number of students studying the arts at school level, the announcement of the end of the Creative Writing A level last year and the forthcoming debate on whether arts subject should be part of the EBACC, scheduled for July 4th in the Houses of Parliament.

The winners, hard at work on their play

The winners, hard at work on their play

The production will take place as part of a Student Guide to Writing: Playwriting day at this year’s London Writers’ Week, and the day will also feature free workshops with Associate Dramaturg at the Bush Theatre Rob Drummer on how we can create a more diverse theatre industry and Senior Editor of Oberon Books George Spender on how theatre publishing works, continuing the competition’s aim to provide access to the leading training coming out of the industry for writers everywhere to benefit form.

Winners include Vee Tames, a 17 year old student from Colchester who used the lesson plans from the competition to write her first play, Titilola Ige, a MA student from Croydon who also works in a charity for young people, Monique Geragthy, an undergraduate student from Queen Mary’s University who also used the lesson plans to write her fist play, and emerging writers Miriam Battye from Salford and Mufaro Makubika from Nottingham.

Jennifer Tuckett and winner Titilola Ige

Jennifer Tuckett and winner Titilola Ige

We’re delighted to be launching stage two of The Student Guide to Writing: Playwriting competition. We hope the day on July 5th will provide an opportunity to showcase the work of the winners of The Student Guide to Writing, alongside a second opportunity to offer free workshops and access to the leading training, this time on why its important to provide access and how theatre publishing works. Rob’s workshop will also offer tips on rewriting and where to send your work so all entrants to the competition can get further free advice.

We’re also particularly excited about the theme of the play – with the forthcoming debate on EBACC, we’re pleased to be giving the student winners a chance to have their say on this subject matter via their winners’ play, in-keeping with the theme of the competition to empower students and young people and encourage more diverse voices to be heard by providing access to the leading training coming out of the industry.

Lesson Plan writer - Fin Kennedy

Lesson Plan writer – Fin Kennedy

Fin Kennedy, Artistic Director of Tamasha Theatre Company and one of the lesson plan writers said: “The Student Guide to Writing: Playwriting provides important access to the leading playwriting training coming out of the industry and I am delighted to be involved. The innovative online format empowers writers, teachers and groups across the UK to take the initiative and start writing, whatever their circumstances, using new media to democratize vocational training. The implications for access and diversity are very exciting indeed, and I hope it inspires other initiatives of this kind”.

Ola Animashawun, founder of the Royal Court Theatre’s young writers’ programme said: “Craft, diversity and well told stories from a vast range of perspectives, experiences and individual voices capturing what it means to be human – these are my passions. Hence, The Student Guide to Writing felt like a great match.  The more people we can inspire to add their voice to the canon, the more we increase the chances of creating a more open, enlightened, incisive, insightful and equitable world for us all to play a part in.”

Lesson Plan writer Ola Animashawun

Lesson Plan writer Ola Animashawun

Vee Tames, schools winner: “Writing for the stage had always been something I wanted to try for a long time. However, I lacked the knowledge to know where to begin and the particular demands of the form. The lesson plans were very concise and provided you with exercises you could use immediately to spark ideas and clarify each element of your work such as structure, dialogue and character. The competition deadline itself is what gave me that final boost of encouragement to enter! I was pleased when I found out I won the Schools Category with my first ever play; it is immensely gratifying and such a confidence boost.”

Jennifer Tuckett and lesson plan writer Lucy Kerbel

Jennifer Tuckett and lesson plan writer Lucy Kerbel

Miriam Battye, emerging/general category winner: “I want to be a really great writer, the best I possibly can be. I’ve been given sage advice to just read, read and read. It’s a foolproof way to get better. Studying is much the same thing. It’s just getting as much stuff in your head so you’ve got more thoughts to work with.

Mufaro Makubika, emering/general winner: “This was a great opportunity to learn about craft from highly respected industry figures. It’s a fantastic honour. To me, all a playwright wants to do is get their work out and work more.”

 

For more information on the day or to book tickets, please go to: https://www.bushtheatre.co.uk/festival/the-student-guide-to-writing-playwriting-day/

Dramatic Writing Masterclasses: Key Advice from the Industry Masters” is also available to pre-order at http://oberonbooks.com/creative-writing/dramatic-writing and “The Student Guide to Writing: Playwriting” will be published at the end of 2016, which will include the lesson plans and winning writers’ work in one volume to provide permanent access to the lesson plans and the leading training for the first time. We hope you will join us in July to see the winner’s work and for the second stage of The Student Guide to Writing: Playwriting and the opportunity to get further advice and feedback on your plays.

The Student Guide to Writing: Playwriting – part two

Video

The winners of ‘The Student Guide to Writing: Playwriting’ competition, which has been running since January, have just been chosen! I’ll hand over to Jennifer Tuckett of Central St Martins to tell you more and to announce the names of the winners. 

I’m pleased to be writing to announce the winners of The Student Guide to Writing: Playwriting, the new competition from the Bush Theatre, Oberon Books, the MA Dramatic Writing at Drama Centre London at Central Saint Martins and Writers at Work Productions.

Entries were received from all over the UK for the competition, which provided writers with the opportunity to follow lesson plans written by those leading the way in the industry prior to sending in their play.

Workshop1There are 5 winners chosen from 4 categories: schools, Universities, emerging writer and general writer.

University entries included entries from Edinburgh, Manchester, Aberystwyth, York, Leeds, Reading, Greenwich, East Anglia, RADA, Birkbeck, Brunel, Central School of Speech and Drama, Durham, Central Saint Martins, Open College of the Arts, Queen Mary, Bangor, Cambridge, University of the Arts London and others. Schools entries included entries from schools in Colchester, Rugby, London and others. Emerging and general entries were sent from all over the UK.

One of the things we were most pleased about was how many entrants commented on how useful the lesson plans had been, which are written by those who have led the way in the industry in terms of playwriting training, including Ola Animashawun, founder of the Royal Court Theatre’s young writers programme, Fin Kennedy, founder of Schoolwrights, Lucy Kerbel, founder of the Platform project for writing for young girls, Rob Drummer, Associate Dramaturg at the Bush Theatre, Steve Winter, Director of the Kevin Spacey Foundation, and others.

As much of the training coming out of the industry hasn’t been published, it can be hard to know what is being taught and thought about, especially if you’re not based in London, so we’re delighted to be able to provide access to some of this training for the first time.

The Student Guide to Writing photoThe impact this can have is massive as well – for example at a University where I used to work I saw student numbers studying playwriting rise from 0 when I joined the University (which had attempted to teach playwriting before to no success) to 8 in the modules’ first year to 40 in the modules’ second year to 80 in the modules’ third year, with many of the graduates winning awards or securing attachment programmes at professional theatres.

And, so, without further ado, the winners from The Student Guide to Writing: Playwriting are….

Schools category: Vee Thomas, Colchester Grammar School

University category: Titilola Dawudu, Central Saint Martins, and Monique Geraghty, Queen Mary, University of London

Emerging/general category: Mufaro Makubika, based in Nottingham, and Miriam Battye, based in Salford, Greater Manchester

According to Rob Drummer, Associate Dramaturg at the Bush Theatre: “The breadth and quality of submissions has been inspiring and the five very different and deserving winners have written with real vibrancy. I was impressed and heartened to see so many writers asking big questions of the world we live in and am looking forward to getting to know them and their plays over the coming months. The Bush is proud to partner on a competition that reflects the plurality of our culture and shines a light on stories and writers that aren’t always visible. I can’t wait to join in celebrating all the winners at London Writers’ Week in July.”

George Spender, Senior Editor at Oberon Books, said: “It’s a delight to see so many entries, and for all these writers to be engaging intelligently with these lesson plans. The diversity, scope, and ambition of these winning plays is to be applauded.”

The personal favourite things I noticed from the entries were: ideas/plays that were about something (often this was an exploration of a theme or idea that it felt the writer was passionate about – I think Rob’s and Ola’s advice in lesson plan one and two to think about what issues you are passionate about and what would be the one play you’d write before you die was excellent advice), use of structure/plays that held our attention the whole way through, and use of theatricality/plays that used the stage/the medium of theatre in exciting ways.

Workshop2The winner’s work will be shown as part of London Writers Week at Central Saint Martins in July, whose full schedule will be announced in early May.

Following this, the lesson plans and winners’ work will be published by Oberon Books at the end of 2016, in addition to another volume “Dramatic Writing Masterclasses: Key Advice from the Industry Masters” which will provide key advice across all forms of dramatic writing from those leading the way in the industry.

For more information on the competition or to sign up for the mailing list to be kept informed on the forthcoming production, please go to: www.thestudentguidetowriting.com

Dramatic Writing Masterclasses: Key Advice from the Industry Masters” is also available to pre-order at http://oberonbooks.com/creative-writing/dramatic-writing and “The Student Guide to Writing: Playwriting” will be published at the end of 2016, which will include the lesson plans and winning writers’ work in one volume to provide permanent access to the lesson plans and the leading training for the first time. In the meantime, below is a highlights film from the launch event, which hopefully provides some more useful advice. We hope you will join us in July to see the winner’s work and for the final free workshop on The Student Guide to Writing: Playwriting and chance to get feedback on your plays.

Jennifer Tuckett

Arnold Wesker

There are numerous playwrights whose output includes masterpieces and other plays which are less well regarded. Pinero, Noël Coward, Terence Rattigan, Tennessee Williams included.

Arnold Wesker July 2007 ©NOBBY CLARK

Arnold Wesker by Nobby Clark

From history, Lope de Vega and Shakespeare are also “fine” examples of prolific playwrights, some of whose work attracts less interest today. How could it be otherwise? Lope, for example, wrote some 1500 plays, around 450 remain extant, but only a few remain in the repertory, notably Fuente Ovejuna. Perhaps Lope churned them out for money, recycled a good many too. Yet in death all these great playwrights are respected and revered. Where would theatre be without them today? Arnold Wesker has joined that distinguished company.

How easy it is, and glib, to say he wrote a few good plays and sneer at the rest? My response is ‘you try writing a few good plays!’ Arnold did more than that, he wrote several masterpieces.

Among the many playwrights I have had the privilege of publishing Arnold has a special place in my heart. With his wife Dusty he was a charming host and impossible not to like. The twinkle in his eye, and in his smile, his razor-sharp logic, told me that he knew himself well, and knew rather more about the possibilities of theatre than some of his critics.

Alongside his contemporaries like Osborne and Bond, Arnold was a leader, a political force whose plays transformed modern theatre. At times he was an energetic activist, never afraid to take on the establishment within the theatre – and, believe it, there is such an establishment which confers favour on the faithful and stifles opposition. I remember an actor who some years ago told me that among a cast of sixteen he was the only one who hadn’t been to Oxford. (The director also went to Oxford.) The outsider was cast (tolerated) for his regional accent!

Wesker photo by Leon Kreel

Arnold Wesker by Leon Kreel

Arnold was one of my heroes in the theatre. He was never one to roll over when angered or bullied. Some call it biting the hand that feeds you. Others call it telling the truth.

Sir Arnold Wesker always told the truth. I shall miss him.

James Hogan

Love, loss, grief, absence – Abi Morgan: Plays One

The first collection of plays by Abi Morgan – playwright and screenwriter of Suffragette, The Iron Lady, and Brick Lane – has just been published by Oberon Books. Abi has written plays for the Royal Exchange Studio Theatre Manchester, the Royal Lyceum Theatre, the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, the National Theatre of Scotland and the Royal Court, London.
In this piece, written to introduce the collection, Helen Lewis, deputy editor of the New Statesman, looks at these collected plays as a whole, and discusses the connections between the ideas, emotions and characters she finds within them, reoccurring across the five plays.

9781783191819The absence is hard,’ says Sister Ursula in 27, before qualifying her statement: ‘The absence of nothing is hard.’ This middle-aged nun might be talking about God, but she is also giving voice to a common sentiment in this collection of Abi Morgan’s plays. Again and again, Morgan constructs her narratives around losses and absences, hollow centres and negative spaces.

In Splendour, the earliest work published here, the absence at the heart of the play is immediately apparent. Four women are trapped together in a dictator’s palace during a civil war in an unnamed Eastern European country, united only by the missing tyrant himself. Kathryn, a photojournalist, has come to take his portrait; Gilda, the local translator, has driven her there; Micheleine, the dictator’s wife, waits for his return; Genevieve, her friend, was married to one of his lieutenants. Oolio – military leader, tyrant and husband – is a black hole in the heart of the drama, a centre of gravity that draws these four different women together.

The next play, Tiny Dynamite, is also haunted by a character we never see: the girl who was loved and lost by Lucien and Anthony, and who still binds them together, even though their lives have sharply diverged since childhood. Unlike Micheleine’s brittle, forced anecdotes about Oolio, Lucien and Anthony’s stories of their missing love spill out in a tumble of words. They cannot help talking about her: it’s their way of keeping her alive.

Abi Morgan

Abi Morgan

In Tender, the half-dozen characters whose lives brush past each other in chance encounters include one of the disappeared – Marvin, who has left his marriage with Gloria to live in hostels, scratching out a living as a domestic cleaner. But where we might expect yearning for the life and loved ones he has abandoned, we don’t get one. Like Anthony the drifter in Tiny Dynamite, Marvin sees dropping out as a renunciation, rather than a loss: he is free.

And so he resists rejoining conventional society, even when the outwardly successful but desperately lonely Nathan – who has experienced a loss of his own – tries to take him to dinner. He tells Nathan about the other men at the hostel. ‘Sometimes one of them will go and cry out in the night. Sometimes I just sit, even lie next to them, hold their hand, great big men holding hands, I never thought I’d see it, not like you think, just giving people company, being almost tender and I stay with them until the morning.’ Most times, he tells Nathan, the men wet the bed or wake up shouting for a drink, which jolts him awake.

‘Are you happy?’ asks Nathan. Marvin thinks only for a second: ‘…I don’t think I’ve ever been happier in my life.’

These unexpected words exactly echo those of Anthony in Tiny Dynamite. ‘Don’t be sorry,’ he tells Madeleine, the fruitseller who has disrupted his friendship with Lucien, just as the unnamed girl did many summers earlier. ‘The funniest thing is I’m happy. I don’t think I’ve ever been happier in my life.’ Both Anthony and Marvin have learned that clinging on to other people doesn’t bring them reassurance, or assuage their loneliness. Freedom is what brings them happiness. (And perhaps Marvin’s abandoned wife, Gloria, fears his return as much as she outwardly hopes for it? She has painstakingly rebuilt her life without him, after all.)27 Cover.indd

Fittingly, the collection has its own gap – a ten-year period between 2001 and 2011, during which Morgan wrote several screenplays, including Brick Lane and The Iron Lady. The first three plays in this collection – Splendour, Tiny Dynamite, Tender – date from 2000-2001, and the final two, Lovesong and 27, from 2011.

The temptation is, inevitably, to split the work into two distinct periods, or to look for traces of Morgan’s screenwriting experience in the later plays. But that is too simplistic an approach, particularly since there is formal innovation and an awareness of the visual in the plays from the start.

Tiny Dynamite crackles with electricity, both metaphorically and literally, through the stage lighting. Splendour is even more formally daring: a dynamic, densely woven play. The action regularly freezes and replays from another point of view, and each actor has a soliloquy addressed directly to the audience. When I saw its revival at the Donmar Warehouse in 2015, the staging was minimalist; as directed in the text, with the muffled sound of mortars punctuating the scenes. Against this background, there were vivid, specific objects – a red vase, a Lion King DVD – as well as the unseen painting that preoccupies Kathyrn’s artistic eye.

9781783199136At times, Splendour can feel like a high-speed ballet, or perhaps a cuckoo clock with the characters on tracks, moving back and forth on predetermined grooves. Ten years later, Lovesong develops this idea further, in a spare text which was accompanied in its first performance by choreography from the physical theatre company Frantic Assembly. The characters – a couple who are shown at the start and end of their lives together – can touch, but not speak, across the years that separate them. As the two timeframes weave past each other, the young Margaret and old Bill and the young William and old Maggie wind around each other in the physical space of the stage. The hollow centre here is the years that pass, unseen by the audience. We see Margaret and William’s hopes for the future, and we see what became of those hopes. The juxtaposition is heartbreaking. (The reviews focused heavily on the need to take a hankie to the theatre.)

In the final play in the collection, 27, the themes of loss and absence are muted, but still present. Sister Ursula fears losing her mind, following her parents in an early decline into dementia. She also feels that the nuns’ way of life itself is ebbing away, unsustainable in the modern world. ‘My greatest fear is to be left, the last nun standing, remote in hand, shouting quiz answers at the TV screen,’ she tells Richard, the scientist who has come to study her sisters’ brains.

Helen Lewis headshot by Charlie Forgham-Bailey

Helen Lewis – headshot by Charlie Forgham-Bailey

Love, loss, grief, absence – these are plays which are unafraid to explore emotions which are usually politely hidden. But the pathos never overwhelms you: spots of light and humour break through, even in the darkest moments.

And while the dramas here are often domestic, they are not small or insignificant. They prove the old adage: life is a series of goodbyes. As Gloria tells the pregnant Hen in Tender: ‘Kids and love and electric bills aren’t really that important. What’s holding us together is very fragile indeed.’

Abi Morgan’s single plays and new collection are all available from Oberonbooks.com