Is Shakespeare’s Rosalind too modern for Valentine’s Day? Oberon author Angela Thirlwell explores…

Do you love or loathe Valentine’s Day? If you relate to either or both these reactions, then clear-eyed Rosalind, the transvestite heroine of Shakespeare’s As You Like It, is the perfect role model for you. Her play comes with its modern-day message. Wherever love is to be found is more important than what gender you are.

The Royal Shakespeare Company has chosen Valentine’s Day 2019 to open its new production of As You Like It directed by Kimberley Sykes. The date, forever associated with romantic love, is a brilliant match for Rosalind, the play’s gender fluid heroine. Because 420 years since she first stepped on stage, Rosalind is still bucking the trend. What was transgressive about Rosalind at the end of the 16th century is still radical today. For Rosalind proposes to her man, not just once – but twice – in her play.

Jane Garvey on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour recently asked (Jan.21st) why do only a tiny proportion of women today pop the question to their boyfriends? Evidence shows that women still defer to men and wait to receive a proposal. They do not speak first. How extraordinary that in our so-called liberated world contemporary women – and men – still observe the unequal gender traditions of medieval courtly love? But over 4 centuries ago Rosalind, profanely dressed in drag, seized the initiative and toppled conventions.

Valentine’s Day in the middle of February comes heralding hopes for spring and romance. It’s part of the mythology of Valentine’s Day that if you meet someone new on this date you may have met your intended.

How many actors playing Rosalind have actually fallen in love with their Orlandos in real life? Edith Evans did. Of a certain age and a jolie laide, she was not an obvious candidate for the role but in 1936 at the Old Vic she gave a transfixing Rosalind with Michael Redgrave, twenty years her junior, as Orlando. He was not the first bisexual Orlando. Their Rosalind and Orlando electrified audiences with the frisson of their passionate off-stage affair.

Redgrave’s daughter Vanessa gave another benchmark Rosalind in the heady 1960s. Ian Bannen played Orlando looking like a character, she thought, out of a 1960s novel. She was, she said, ‘as every Rosalind becomes with her Orlando, in love with him.’

There’s no doubting the depth of Rosalind’s love for Orlando or his for her. Like the Bay of Portugal it has an unknown bottom. They met in dangerous times, at a Shakespeare's_Heroines_-_Rosalindwrestling match which Orlando won against all odds. This was the catalyst for love and inspired the miracle of mutual attraction at first sight.  Even though experience may have taught us to be disbelievers we may still hope for the same miracle each Valentine’s Day. And though love may strike like a miracle it can feel like being mugged.

Rosalind knows all this. She knows that falling in love is fraught with risks. Rejection is one. Falling out of love is another. In the Forest of Arden she lectures in her university of love. She understands what other people learn only later, that marriage itself can curdle love. Rosalind educates Orlando to re-examine his hackneyed claims for everlasting love. How long will you be faithful ‘after you have possessed her?’ she asks.  ‘For ever and a day,’ he claims. She ripostes, ‘Say “a day” without the “ever”. No, no, Orlando, men are April when they woo, December when they wed.’ Skies can change after the wedding.

In Arden, where erotic love flourishes, gilded snakes lurk in the forest floor. Since Eden snakes have had a bad press. This Valentine’s Day, Sydney Zoo is naming one of the world’s most venomous snakes after the candidate who tops its online poll for title of most toxic ex-partner. Love can turn poisonous, as Rosalind knows. Her un-blinkered approach to love is more valid than ever in our own times. Her aim is simply more equal love which she wishes you this Valentine’s Day.

Angela Thirlwell likes to push the boundaries of biography.  She used a thematic ‘spots of time’ approach in William and Lucy, and interpreted Ford Madox Brown through the lenses of the 4 women in his life in Into the Frame. This time she’s chosen Shakespeare’s inspirational heroine, Rosalind, a character who has never lived and therefore can never die.


Rosalind: A Biography of Shakespeare’s Immortal Heroine is out now at Oberon Books.

Theatre That Changed My Life: Foreign Goods Authors Share Their Stories

As we come to the end of 2018, it feels like it’s been a stand-out year for diaspora East and South East Asians in cinema, with the behemoth that is Crazy Rich Asians continuing to break records, and John Cho’s Searching also hitting number 1 in America.

Here in the UK, plays by British East Asians have been few and far between, but in the last few years the number has increased steadily. This year Daniel York Loh’s play Forgotten 遗忘 was at the Arcola Theatre, Alissa Anne Jeun Yi’s Love Songs played at the Edinburgh Fringe, Francis Turnly’s The Great Wave ran at the National Theatre, Amy Ng’s Acceptance was on at Hampstead Theatre, In-Sook Chappell’s Mountains toured the UK, and Jingan Young’s Pokfulam Road Productions ran its third Foreign Goods night at the Arcola in January, showcasing 10 new short pieces.

Foreign Goods was an essential introduction to the British East Asian theatrical community, and, edited by Jingan Young, a collection of full plays, short plays and monologues from a selection of those British East Asian writers was published earlier this year.

Here, book contributors Julie Cheung-Inhin, Lucy Sheen, Tan Suet Lee, Cathy Lam and Jingan Young talk about the plays that have had the greatest impact on their lives.

I think the piece of theatre which most changed my life would be Arthur Miller’s The

Julie Cheung-Inhin

Crucible. I was 15, my school was putting on the play, and I decided to audition on a whim. At the risk of perpetrating stereotypes I was, until then, studious, conscientious and reserved, but my audition brought something out that surprised me (and probably my teachers!). When offered the role of Betty I fully indulged myself playing the little one, and learned so much about the joy of working with other actors to bring something to life. Most of all I loved what the experience taught me: that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. – Julie Cheung-Inhin

For me, there are two that stand out: Peter Brooks, The Mahabharata, in 1985. White Woman Street by Sebastian Barry, in 1992.

Lucy Sheen

Brooks’ production of Mahabharata was like nothing I had ever seen. Not only was it an epic, but it combined movement and actors of colour in ways that I had not seen before on a British stage. There have been productions with actors of colour of in the UK, of course, but not in this manner and not on this scale.
White Woman Street by Sebastian Barry was a play written in a manner and using a poetry of language that I just fell in love with. It’s something that has obviously stayed with me and surfaced when I started writing professionally in 2010. – Lucy Sheen

After a number of years in the corporate world, I decided to reinvent myself and attend an acting class. At the end of the course I was invited to act in a play called Kundabuffer, written by a Singaporean playwright. The writing was in-your-face, real and raw.  From that play, I realized it wasn’t acting that interested me, but playwriting. – Tan Suet Lee

The play that changed my life is Our Town by Thornton Wilder. Writing for me is like putting pieces of life together with ink, the more you write the more you remember; life is full of details that needs our full attention. My favourite line in the play is:
EMILY: “Does any human beings realise life while they live it… every, every minute?”
It says all. – Cathy Lam

The play that changed my life is Mike Bartlett’s Cock, which I was lucky enough to see at the Royal Court Theatre starring Ben Whishaw, Katherine Parkinson, and Andrew Scott. Bartlett manages to underscore his plays with such urgent political or social subject matter through sharp wit, humour and sensitivity – all the while, maintaining a sense of narrative structure in such a minimal and visceral setting. I still love reading it.
– Jingan Young

Foreign Goods: A Selection of Writing by British East Asian Artists edited by Jingan Young is out now at Oberon Books
£16.99 | 9781786823588


Global Queer Plays: A Q & A with Jeremy Tiang and Danish Sheikh

Global Queer Plays, published next Monday, is a unique anthology bringing together stories of queer life from international playwrights. These seven plays showcase the dazzling multiplicity of queer narratives across the globe: the absurd, the challenging, and the joyful. Here, Jeremy Tiang, the translator of Taste of Love, and Danish Sheikh, writer of Contempt, talk us through the process of working on their plays, what it was like to watch the Arcola Queer Collective staged readings, and more.

Jeremy Tiang

Jeremy Tiang

Jeremy, how did you come to translate Zhan Jie’s play?

I find a lot of the work I translate through recommendations — particularly with plays, which are often unpublished. I’d just translated Wei Yu-Chia’s A Fable For Now (which has since had readings at PEN World Voices in New York and Yellow Earth/ Rich Mix in London), and I asked her if she could suggest some other Taiwanese work I should take a look at. She sent me Zhan Jie’s play, and I loved it.


Danish, could you talk about the origins of the play you wrote? 

In 2013, the Supreme Court of India upheld Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, effectively sanctioning the criminalization of the intimate lives of LGBT persons. The judges held that we constituted a minuscule minority and were thus un-deserving of constitutional rights. These words stung me at multiple levels: as a practicing human rights lawyer, a member of the litigation team that had fought the case and lost, a vocal queer rights activist and a gay man.

Danish Sheikh

Danish Sheikh

I knew that the legal battle would proceed and that LGBT Indians would continue to live their lives, but I needed to find a way to transmute the anger I was feeling into something resembling hope. I needed to dissent.  I’d done some theatre work before, but never something approaching a full play. It was under the guidance of Neel Chaudhari and the Tadpole Repertory, at a summer workshop on playwrighting in Delhi, that I picked up the skills and confidence to write a piece that I imagined almost as a direct challenge to the law.

Contempt began as a theatrical rendition of the Supreme Court hearings in the 377 case. I then placed excerpts from thousands of pages of Court transcripts alongside the stories of LGBT Indians that did not make it into the courtroom. I hoped to show the ways in which the Court used a distressingly narrow reading of the law and was unable to engage or account for the narratives of queer persons.

What was the reason for you submitting this play to the Arcola Queer Collective’s call-out?

Jeremy: I was very excited to hear of the call-out — I’m queer, and I’m a translator, but how often do I get to be a queer translator? — and knew right away that this script was the one most likely to resonate with a British audience. There’s something about the claustrophobia of the school setting and the challenges of dealing with “difficult” students that I thought felt universal.

Danish: I was interested in seeing how the work would resonate outside the Indian context – and what better place to test this out than the country which gave us the anti-sodomy law to begin with? There’s many points in the play at which the colonial origins of the law are referenced and the idea of imagining it enacted in London of all places was tantalizing. I was also curious to see what somebody outside the Indian context would make of the play in terms of interpreting the text on stage.

What did you think of the experience of seeing the staged readings, and what do you think of the plays being published?

Jeremy: The readings were GREAT. It was a thrill to see Taste of Love brought to life by a fine cast and director, but more than that, the plays collectively became larger than the sum of their parts. This festival was a powerful statement: look at all the voices being raised around the world, highlighting different challenges in different cultures, but all speaking of our shared humanity.

Danish:  It was revelatory. Back when I’d performed the play in India, I’d worked a lot with technical elements – using sound, light, stage design to bring out the text. The Arcola reading took away all the bells and whistles and focused purely on text and performance. I was delighted and moved by many of Tasmine Airey’s directorial choices here: the play seemed to acquire a more raw energy and a heightened sense of pacing.

What was also enjoyable was watching Jeton Neziraj’s absolute romp of a satire, 55 Shades of Gay, immediately after: the manic levity of his play was a perfect contrast to the weightiness of mine.  The fact that the play is seeing the light of day in a published book is huge for me – it’s very difficult to get plays published in India. To then have these plays part of a global conversation in an anthology that includes narratives from places like Taiwan, Jordan and Argentina is incredible.

Both India and Taiwan have made some significant moves towards legislating for queer rights in recent years (though of course, social attitudes will take longer to shift). How do you think this will affect queer artists and writers, and the work they do, in the future?

Jeremy: I’m hoping this means more queer artists and writers will feel able to come out of the closet, should they want to, which I think can only lead to better art — people being their authentic selves have more energy and clarity for the work. That said, the recent Taiwan local elections were a disappointment on this front, so it’s clear the struggle will continue for some time to come — but at least there are bright spots.

Danish: A lot of the queer theatre in India that I have observed can be read as a dissent to the narrative of criminalisation. This isn’t necessarily the creator’s intent of course, but the themes that are tackled often foreground the importance of expressing queer identity in a particular way, and make it central to the narrative. This has been immensely important, of course, given the specific way in which theatre provided a space for conceptions of justice that the law would not allow.

I wonder if with decriminalization and other positive shifts in the law, we might have narratives where queerness is a launching point for asking other questions. This is not to say that queer identity and its expression be rendered irrelevant, but rather that we’re able to look at themes that go beyond accounts such as coming-out, navigating sexual identity, state atrocity, to name some of the common tropes.

What are you working on now?

Jeremy: I’ve translated plays by Chen Si’an and Zhang Zai which are being workshopped at the Royal Court, so I’m part of that development process. I’m also translating a novel by Lo Yi-Chin, Far Away, and — more Taiwanese queerness! — slowly working my way through a collection of gay short stories by Hsu Yu-Chen, Purple Blossoms.   Plus some writing of my own, but I’m superstitious and won’t talk about that till it’s done.

Danish:  I’m writing a direct follow up to Contempt, this one taking off from the Supreme Court’s recent landmark decision decriminalising queer intimacy. Going with my response to the previous question, I’m trying to explore themes that are distinct from those in Contempt. The central idea in Love and Reparation (which is what the play is provisionally titled) revolves around how we construct narratives, in law and love, and difficulty of actually holding on to that kind of structured narrative as we live our lives, whether it comes to questions of legal change or how we think about love.

Are there any works by queer writers or artists that you’ve seen or read recently that you’ve loved?

Jeremy: I just saw Slave Play by Jeremy O. Harris, directed by Robert O’Hara, and it was one of the most intriguing pieces I’ve experienced in a while. It begins, provocatively, by looking at slavery through the lens of S&M, then layers on the other ways in which race and sex can intersect. There was a lightness to the play that I appreciated–it asked important questions, but never allowed itself to get bogged down by their seriousness.

Danish: So many! I’ve greatly enjoyed going through the other plays in the Global Queer Voices anthology. I recently came across the play Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde by Moses Kaufman which powerfully weaves together material from a range of historical sources to give us an insightful take on the events leading up to, and including Wilde’s incarceration.

Back home in Delhi I greatly enjoyed Gentlemen’s Club by the Patchworks Ensemble which looks at the stories of a set of drag kings switching between electrifying performances and fantastically written dialogue. Anirudh Nair and his company The Guild of the Goat, (who I subsequently collaborated with on Contempt during its most recent run in Delhi), gave us Sonnets c. 2017, a contemporary take on Shakespeare’s sonnets that plays fast and loose with questions of gender and sexuality, while also doing very interesting experiments with form.


Global Queer Plays is out on 10th December from Oberon Books. You can pre-order it at £17.99 here

Tickets for the Global Queer Plays book launch and Arcola Queer Collective fundraiser, which takes place on Sunday 9th December, can be accessed here

Oberon Books welcomes Royal Court’s Chris Campbell as new Senior Editor

Oberon Books are thrilled to announce that Chris Campbell, Literary Manager of the Royal Court, will be joining us as Senior Editor in January 2019.

Chris Campbell ;    Credit Helen Murray ;

Chris Campbell joins Oberon Books as Senior Editor. Image © Helen Murray

Campbell has managed the Royal Court’s literary department for eight and a half years, and was previously Deputy Literary Manager of the National Theatre for six years.

Chris replaces George Spender, who joins the team at Edinburgh International Festival, after eight years of successfully expanding Oberon’s new writing list.

Chris Campbell commented: “I’m looking forward more than I can say to this new act. I’ve had a wonderful time at the Royal Court and at the National before that and I’m ready and eager to put that experience of and commitment to writers into a new context.”

James Hogan, Founder Publisher, commented: “Experimenting with new forms of theatre and continuing momentum in the international book trade are Oberon’s strengths. I’m sure Chris will relish his new role.”





For The Love of Theatre – How the First Black Othello Changed My Life

Producer and Editor Titilola Dawudu talks about the moment that inspired her love of theatre, and led to the creation of the all-new monologue anthology Hear Me Now: Audition Monologues for Actors of Colour.

If I would choose one play that changed my life, I would have to say it was Othello.

Titilola Dawudu

Titilola Dawudu, Editor and Co-Creator of Hear Me Now

Classic Shakespearean jealousy, love and tragedy at its best. More significantly for a 15 year old black girl from south London, it was the first play I ever saw in the theatre.

As a bookish, often shy child who frequently wrote their own stories, my English teacher, Mr Martin, would give me books to read that weren’t on the curriculum. As such, I seemed a natural choice when a few of the people in my class were assigned mentors. That informal mentoring and insightful treatment was perhaps what led to me meeting Lucy Neal, the co-founder of the London international festival of theatre (LiFT). During one of our mentoring sessions, she told me that she wanted to take me to the theatre, and when the time came my parents dresses me up in a puffy dressed (having never visited the theatre either, they didn’t know what to expect) and Lucy picked me up and whisked me away in her shiny car.

What most stayed with me from that night was the fact that there was a tall, black man playing Othello, and there was a red handkerchief; I was aware that I was surrounded by older white people and that I was in this enormous theatre, and I

David Harewood Othello

David Harewood was the first black actor to play Othello, in the National Theatre’s 1997 production.

remember feeling mesmerised by this red handkerchief. Everything was dark and this piece of red material would float across the stage. Coincidentally, we had just been reading Othello in school and I couldn’t believe that the words I had read were now literally coming to life right in front of me.

Lucy Neal taking me to see this play would be the direct reason for why I am even writing this blog today. I did not want to become an actor, but I knew all the times I would write stories in my bedroom, was because of that very moment watching Othello at the National Theatre. I wanted to be a writer.

Years later I thought about the significance of David Harewood playing Othello, and what that did for a young black girl who wanted to write. I grew up in a tiny, all-white, village called St Neots, though I was born in Ibadan in Nigeria, and these two circumstances often had me confused about my identity. But not while I was writing. And not after I had seen David Harewood on this stage in my favourite Shakespeare play.

It was last month when, after 22 years, I saw Lucy Neal again. She had seen an article that I was featured in from the Guardian, where, I spoke about my love of mentoring young women and noted that Lucy was my first and my most important mentor. It was a full circle moment for me, for when we met; in my place of work, Ovalhouse theatre, where I now mentor young girls, whom I often take to see their own very first plays.

Hear me Now

Hear Me Now: Audition Monologues for Actors of Colour edited by Titilola Dawudu is Out Now at

‘There was no evidence that I was spying for Russia. I was just queer.’

Oberon founder James Hogan writes about his experiences as a gay man in 1960s London, and why he wrote his new play High Ridin’.

My queer life in London was dangerous from the start. In the early 60s I worked in the Foreign & Commonwealth Office in Downing Street. I joined when I was 19, several years before the Sexual Offences Act 1967 decriminalised homosexual acts between consenting adults. Yet homosexual scandals were always in the news. There had been several high-profile spy trials involving queer men accused of being traitors. Single young males like me were constantly under suspicion. Secret agents were everywhere. I knew I was being watched; not the sophisticated surveillance that exists today, but by some not so intelligent Intelligence Officers trailing me across London. One of them sat opposite me  on the bus every day for a week reading his newspaper. So, one day as I got off at my stop I pulled his paper down and said “See you tomorrow”. He grinned sheepishly and I never saw him again.

Ronnie High Ridin

Chi-Cho Tche as Ronnie in High Ridin’

Perhaps my carefree lifestyle made things easy for them. Despite the legal restrictions, I did not hide my sexuality. Still under the then legal age, I lived openly with a man ten years my senior in Chelsea. What’s more, he was the manager of a popular gay bar, the Gigolo on the King’s Road. The bar was regularly raided by the police. But it was all worth the risk. My boyfriend (now no longer with us) was one of the best looking guys in the neighbourhood with lots of charisma and a big smile.

High Ridin Stan and Ronnie

Ronnie and Stan (Tom Michael Blyth)

The crunch came at work when I received a grim notification that I was to be positively vetted by the security services. This means interrogated. Woah! The setting was awesome and intentionally intimidating. A grand room in the old India Office in Whitehall. There sat the Head of Whitehall security, flanked by two MI5 spooks in shabby suits. I was told to sit down, but before my butt touched the seat a terrifying voice boomed out “ARE YOU HOMOSEXUAL?” So loud he could have been in opera.  I simply answered “Yes” quietly, not knowing what the consequences might be. Much to my relief, there weren’t any serious consequences. I carried on with my career. My boyfriend wasn’t arrested for sleeping with a “minor”. Some may judge that this experience was mild compared to the horrors suffered by queer folk today, but at the time it brought home to me the uncomfortable fact that I was different, and always would be. Carefree no more.

High Ridin Ivy and Stan

Ivy (Linda Beckett) and Stan

Today, despite changes in the law, the dangers of Queerdom are worse than ever. As we know, in Chechnya queer men are slaughtered in concentration camps. In many countries they constantly live in the shadow of death and savage punishment. Leaders of the religious Right in America, that once liberal country, are calling for the mass extermination of queer folk. So why have I written a queer play which doesn’t discuss any of these issues? Instead, the play focuses on those anonymous queer men who leave home to face a hostile world on their own. Some of them stray into the drugs scene and may be swallowed up by it.

Dying while you’re having fun, all under the still disapproving gaze of religious and civil authority. As Stan tells us in the play, a policeman who was choking him yelled “In other countries people like you are lined up against a wall and shot!” This very abuse was hurled at me in London by a uniformed policeman in broad daylight, so it was inevitable this ugly incident would one day find its way into a play. The way I see it, queer folk must always find their happiness while living in Hell.

High Ridin’ is funny. The situation is a source of laughs and pitfalls. If you picked up a boy on the motorway who was out of his head on drugs, what would you do? Dump him on the hard shoulder or take him home? Stan takes him home. And then…?

High Ridin' Ronnie and Stan

It is my sixth production going back to 1978 when Peacefully in his Sleep was produced at the Gate Theatre, Notting Hill. In fact, that was the first original play produced at the Gate, a decade before I founded Oberon Books, specialising in new plays. There were many obstacles over 32 years investing in and consolidating the company. This is not the time to record them, but the workload has certainly got in the way of my compulsion to write. Now, with a bright young team leading the company I have more time and maybe a few more plays in me, if I’m spared. But I wonder how different things might have been if I had not been hauled up before a Kangaroo Court in Whitehall. There was no evidence that I was spying for Russia. I was just queer.

James Hogan’s High Ridin’ is on at the Kings Head Theatre until September 22nd, directed by Peter Darney. Cast: Tom Michael Blyth, Linda Beckett and Chi-Cho Tche. Get £5 off tickets with the code HIGHRIDIN5 here.


Chronicling a Century of Queer Performance: A Q&A With Serena Grasso

The Oberon Book of Queer Monologues
, released last Thursday, is an astonishing new collection which includes more than 40 pieces from a range of LGBTQ+ theatre. What began as a volume intended for auditioning actors, quickly became the first anthology of its kind, chronicling over one hundred years of Queer and Trans performance, including previously unknown and never-before-published works.

Here, Oberon’s Publishing Assistant Serena Grasso, gives us an insight into the process of helping to curate this incredible new book.



What were yours and Scottee’s aims for this book when you started putting it together?
I came on board the project a few months after its inception. Oberon has a long list of monologue volumes for practitioners, such as Monologues for Black Actors, so a queer collection had been in the pipeline for quite a while. Once the book started to come together it became clear that we were no longer making just an audition toolkit, but

Queer Monos Hand Snap

“We made a conscious choice to include voices usually excluded from the ‘gay canon’.”

creating a record of queer theatre history that we hadn’t seen before.  We made the conscious choice to especially include voices that are usually excluded from the “gay canon” – POC, women, anything beyond the “G” in the acronym, and every intersection of those. We debated whether to only include work by playwrights who were queer, but that got trickier and trickier as we moved further back in the timeline – playwrights who may have not have been out for safety, or who did not ascribe to gender and sexuality the same connotations we do now. So we got rid of that – but it was a very interesting discussion to have.


Talk us through the decisions the team made about which significant queer plays to include in the collection, and why.
There was a lot of back and forth on some of the better-known pieces, all boiling down to: is this necessary? Do we need to include this uber-popular, easily accessible play? We tried to create thought-provoking parallels with the pieces we chose – ie. Angels in America comes directly before Paul Boakye’s Boy with Beer, and both were written around the same time. We thought having them side by side offered an interesting look at differing experiences of the AIDS crisis in a (mostly white) New York setting versus that of a black British community. Neil Bartlett is another established writer whose work we were really keen to have – deeply political and in line with the themes of the collection.

Could you elaborate on the same process, but for less well-known plays?
This is really where our core aim came into play – spotlighting voices that have been side-lined within the queer community itself. It might sound obvious, but the venn diagram of “lesser-known plays” and “marginalised writers” is often a full circle – hence why we focused on rediscovering these works and bringing them to a new audience. To get back to the Boy with Beer example: why has this play, that was written at the same time as Angels in America and shares with it a lot of key concerns, gone mostly under the radar for over twenty years? We put the anthology together by answering a lot of these questions.

Some of the monologues are from spoken word pieces or are short monologues that haven’t been taken from plays. Could you take us through the reasons for going further afield than published plays or plays that have been produced?
Spoken word is where some of the most exciting stuff is happening! I think traditional definitions of “theatre” and “playwriting” have often been hostile to outsider voices, and queer performance has had to really f*ck with conventional theatre form to assert our own voices. Think of cabaret and drag, for example, not just spoken word – queer performance blends it all together. It would have been a huge disservice to our history to exclude them in favour of “plays”, in the more traditional sense of the word.

How did you find/discover particularly obscure/erased playwrights?
Scottee and I have both been immersed in queer performance culture for years (Scottee more than I, to be fair!), so it was interesting to see how much of what we both knew was oral history. I’d love for someone to create a free online directory at some point. Other than that, it was a lot of Googling and brainstorming.  It wasn’t so much finding out about plays that was difficult, but accessing the works. A lot of them were never published or have gone out of print. There were many sessions we spent scouring the British Library!

How hard was it to find queer playwrights or significant queer characters from early on the 20th century?
Very hard! Again, you’re treading a really tricky line when you try to assign modern-day definitions of sexuality to early 20th century playwrights, or assume that closet or censorship weren’t factors back then. We went looking for mostly queer characters for the first half of the twentieth century – and even then, it was rare that those plays made

Serena and Scottee

“Scottee and I have both been immersed in Queer performance for years.”

it into print. Plays like God of Vengeance and The Drag were even pulled from the stage, their writers and producers indicted on obscenity charges. Or you had the opposite – someone like Angelina Weld Grimké, who was the openly queer female figurehead of the Harlem Renaissance, but never wrote a play on the subject. There was probably a wealth of material that never got recorded, or got sanitised away – it’s sad and infuriating, but I think that’s why collections like this matter.


Were there any playwrights/monologues Scottee wanted from the start?
Scottee brought so many cabaret, drag, radical queer artists to the table – it was so exciting to work with the ideas he had, to give a fully-fledged idea of how queer performance has evolved and what it looks like now. He was very keen from the get-go to have artists like David Hoyle, Jonny Woo, Penny Arcade, Split Britches, Mem Morrison, Travis Alabanza, and a few others that we sadly didn’t get permission for!

Which is your favourite monologue and why?
Sharon Bridgforth’s the bull-jean stories. I’d never come across it before working on Queer Monologues and it’s now one of my favourite books of all time. Just some really evocative writing about an African-American butch woman – like, so good.

Which new play/writer/monologue is your favourite and why?
Jen Silverman, Mojisola Adebayo and Travis Alabanza are some of my favourite contemporaries. I think they embody that playfulness and humanity about queer performance so well.

Are there any plays that you wish you could have included?
Yes, there were a few cases where we could not get permission to use the material, couldn’t find a manuscript, or couldn’t get a hold of the writer in time. When I look at the collection knowing what happened behind the scenes I can spot a couple of glaring omissions – but we did all we could. Fingers crossed for Vol 2. PS. If anyone knows where to find Wallace Thurman’s Harlem, please let me know!

Queer Monologues WITH QUOTE


The Oberon Book of Queer Monologues edited by Scottee is Out Now at Oberon Books priced £12.99.

Simon Callow on Legendary Playwright Peggy Ramsay

Peggy Ramsay (1908-1991) was the foremost play agent of her time. Her list of clients shows her to have been at the centre of British playwriting for several generations from the late 1950s on.
To her remarkable array of clients, her letter writing was notorious, marked by searing candour, both a wondrous motivation and an unforgiving scrutiny to be feared. To mark the release of Peggy to her Playwrights, the new book compiling a selection of Peggy Ramsay’s most notable exchanges, Simon Callow looks back on his friendship with one of the most influential agents in theatre history.

Simon Callow

As one descends into the vale of years, family, lovers, friends, colleagues inevitably and increasingly fall by the wayside. This is a source of real distress, which becomes worse rather than better as time goes on. As the sonneteer says,

Then can I drown an eye, unused to flow,
For precious friends hid in death’s  dateless night,
And weep afresh love’s long since cancelled woe,
And moan the expense of many a vanished sight:

Among the most precious friends thus hidden are my grandmother, Vera; the playwright Simon Gray; the actor Angus MacKay; and the play agent Peggy Ramsay. There are many, many others, of course, but when I lost those four I felt with each one that something of myself had gone, an important  part of me that would never return. And so it has proved. Sometimes, without warning, any one of them will suddenly fill my mind and the terrible frustration of not being able to pick up the conversation where we left off gives me pangs of real physical pain. It passes, but, like the poet, I find myself drowning an eye. What’s to be done? Nothing, really; c’est la vie.  One can at least write something, try to catch them on the page, keep them alive, somehow, convey to others who never knew them what it was like to be around them.

I have, indeed, written about all of them: most of all about Peggy, who is the heroine of my memoir Love is Where It Falls. Our relationship was particularly intense, a sort of love affair, unconsummated, physically, but profoundly fulfilled in many other ways. She was 70 when I met  her – I was 30 – and within days and for the rest of her life we were as passionately close as any two people could be without actually being lovers. Knowing her was an intoxication: her beauty, her vitality, her mercurial impulses, her wisdom, her poetry, her pain. I wrote my first book as a result of her connecting me with my first publisher; at a stroke she gave me a career as a writer. By the time my second book appeared, she was in decline, though still devoured it as avidly as ever. But her input was merely that of an interested reader. The truth is that she was essentially a play agent, and there was little for her to do for me, professionally speaking.

I knew many of her clients, of course, had acted in or directed many of their plays – Bond, Hare, Hampton, Ayckbourn, Russell – and they had told me of her astonishing interventions on their behalf, her uncommon proactivity with managers, directors, critics. They spoke of (and sometimes showed me) astonishing letters, inspiring, berating, mocking, consoling. I knew already how exacting her standards were, both literary and personal: she demanded that her writers judge themselves against the most exalted models, that they live and write from a position of profound engagement with their own humanity. She was also a demon negotiator, seeing the bargaining process as great sport. I wrote a little about all of this in my book; Colin Chambers, in the authorised biography, covered it in much greater depth. But if you wanted to know about Peggy as an agent, as she understood the job, you really needed to have read her letters. Very shortly after her death, before I had ever thought of writing anything about her myself, Willy Russell suggested to me that someone should put together a selection of her letters. The idea – so obvious, and so obviously right – stayed with me, but for all the usual reasons I did nothing about it.

Meanwhile, Laurence Harbottle and I created the Peggy Ramsay Foundation, using Peggy’s fortune to benefit playwrights – with the additional purpose of keeping her name and what it stood for alive.  In this I think it has succeeded; over the 25 years of its existence, innumerable writers and theatres have been helped – in some cases, saved – by infusions of dosh in times of need or distress. But I have often wondered whether the recipients of the awards have any real idea of the woman after which they are named. Colin’s book and mine are a help, I think, in giving an impression of what she was like, but nothing we wrote can fully convey her unique approach to encouraging writing for the theatre, and how far beyond conventional agenting it went. Only her letters can really do that. And so I started, some years ago, to mount a campaign to get then into print, and thence into the hands of writers and managers and directors, and, yes, agents. Finally, after overcoming doubts, resistance, even, from various quarters – who, they not unreasonably asked, would want to buy a book of letters by a long-dead agent? – we have a splendid and representative selection of her correspondence, edited by Colin, which not only brings Peggy back to life, they give a glimpse of what being an agent could possibly be. Of course the world of the theatre has changed. The world has changed. Forces of nature like Peggy are no longer easily accommodated. Nor were they then, truth to tell: her passion, rooted in a hard-won sense of the meaning of life and the purpose of art, often prevailed, but she fought many desperate battles before it did. And when it did, her extraordinary charm made her victories endurable to the vanquished. All this is in Peggy to her Playwrights, to which I can now at last turn when I want to have a conversation with her. They ring out across the years; Peggy lives.

Peggy to her Playwrights edited by Colin Chambers and introduced by Simon Callow is out now at Oberon Books.


On Wednesday 30 May, join Simon Callow, Christopher Hampton, Maureen Lipman and Colin Chambers at the National Theatre to discuss and read some of Peggy Ramsay’s letters to her remarkable array of clients, taken from Peggy to her Playwrights.
Tickets can be booked here.

Oberon’s First Ever Digital Only Collection: Continued

Roy SmilesRoy Smiles is a comic playwright occasional actor. On 24th April 2018 we published Oberon Books’ first ever digital only collection, featuring ten of Roy Smiles’ never-before-seen plays. Following on from his blog piece last week, Roy continues to reveal the inspiration behind these fantastic pieces of work.

Roy Smiles: The inspiration for my play Working for Mammon came about whilst I was on a train with my son during the London Riots in 2012. The train had come to a halt as Hackney was involved in a riot below us. I was so afraid for my son I sent him home to his mother in Kent that very night. The shame of being afraid for my son in the city of my birth led me to write a very angry play on the subject. The teacher featured in the play is as close as I have ever come to writing autobiographically.

Reading Gaol allowed me to pay tribute to two of my play-writing heroes: Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw. The plays on Wilde are legion but I don’t believe there is Reading Gaolone set in Reading Prison or with Shaw. If I’ve got anywhere near their style I am most grateful to the writing gods. I found them both astonishing talents. Wilde went to jail because he did not believe he was guilty of any crime and British society punished him for it with hard labour that broke his health. He was a hero then and is a hero now.

The VIP takes me back to damaged genius. Richard Burton meant a lot to my family as a child; they were working class Geordies, and Burton was seen as one of their own, as, despite being Welsh, he’d come from the same background. His brothers, like my grandfather, went down the mines. His marriage to Elizabeth Taylor made him half of the most famous couple on the planet. But all the riches in the world could not temper his sense that he had betrayed his own talent. Nor could he forget the family he had left behind or the mother he never knew. The cameo from Peter O’Toole, by the by, is one of my most joyful pieces of writing in my career.

The Weight of Days is my tribute to Albert Camus. A man in conflict with himself over the Algerian Civil War. Camus was Algerian-French. His mother, brother and uncle still The Weight of Dayslived in Algiers as the war for Algeria raged. The play concerns his literary and political feud with Jean-Paul Sartre; A man who approved of the violence of the FLN terrorists in Algeria. ‘For anyone who is alone, without God and without a master, the weight of days is dreadful.’ Camus’s last days indeed weighed heavy on him. The conflict between love for his family and the love of freedom tearing him apart. He stands with Orwell as one of the two writing giants in my life. The play was a labour of love.

Waugh in Winter is a very different play for me. I was always used to writing plays about people I admired: George Orwell, Kurt Cobain, Spike Milligan, Bobby Kennedy etc. But Evelyn Waugh was an obnoxious snob and deeply appalling human being. I set myself the challenge of writing about someone I despised though I have always admired his literary talent. My way into sympathy for him was in his loneliness. Such was his contempt for the world he found himself in an ivory tower of his own making. Alone and looking down at a 1960’s world he loathed. Damned by his own contempt to be forever lonely. (Post-note: it’s funnier than it sounds…)

Well, that’s how my plays in the collection came to be. I am very proud of them. Most have only had readings, and so if they have a chance of further exposure that would be amazing. For, to paraphrase Arthur Miller, ‘they are all my sons…’

Roy Smiles: Ten Plays is out now. Click here to buy the collection.

Introducing Oberon’s First Ever Digital Only Collection, Roy Smiles: 10 Plays

Oberon Books is thrilled to announce the release of a hilarious new digital only Roy Smiles Ten Plays (2)collection Roy Smiles: 10 Plays. In a first for Oberon Books we have published straight to eBook format, giving our readers a chance to enjoy previously never-before-seen work. Smiles’ unique style of comedy unfolds as he asks his audience to think again about some of the celebrated figures that have come to dominate the collective imagination in recent history. Here, the author takes a moment to talk a little more about the project and reveals the stories behind the first five of these works.

“I have written often about comedians and comedy. For four and a half painful years I was a jobbing stand-up comic. This was after college and my attempt to get an Equity card and earn a living until I could become a writer. I was spectacularly unsuccessful, but coming home after many an indifferent gig I often took solace in listening to my Lenny Bruce albums. A childhood addiction to the movies of the Marx Brothers, encouraged by my grandmother and aunties, led me to the theme of my first play Schmucks, which charts a fictitious meeting between Lenny Bruce and Groucho Marx in a diner in New York City during the 1965 blackout. It was first performed at Battersea Arts Centre in 1992 but was significantly rewritten under the guidance of director Terry Johnson, while I had a writing attachment to The National Theatre in 2000. It was finally staged in the US in 2009 at The Wilma Theatre in Philadelphia. I suppose I have always been attracted to heroes who were flawed. This was certainly the case with Lenny Bruce, a long term drug addict who died too young.

My brother and I were obsessed with Radio 2 on Sundays because it repeated a lot of the classic radio shows of the 1950’s. This brought me to the comedian Tony Hancock, who inspired my play The Lad Himself. Although I wrote it with the intention of performing it myself, I never had the confidence to try it out; and it was staged excellently at the Brighton Festival in 2012 with the amazing Mark Brailsford as the lead. Tony Hancock’s problem was he reasoned his comedy to death. He could not leave well alone. Eventually he reasoned himself into such a position he had nothing left but alcohol and himself, hence taking his own life in Australia. Alan Galton and Ray Simpson, the writers of Hancock’s Half Hour, were very complimentary about the play which made my heart glad as they are two of my heroes also.

I am a history graduate and my next play, Bombing People, came about due to my obsession with the Enola Gay. I wanted to write a Catch 22 style piece about the atom bombing of Hiroshima and it worked very well when staged at Jermyn Street Theatre with the excellent Michael Fitzgerald in the lead role. I would say the influence of Joseph Heller is strong on the piece but also (once more) the Marx Brothers in their 1933 comedy Duck Soup.

Baghdad Boogie is a play set during the Iraq Crisis. I had a great success with untitledmy Kurt Cobain and Sid Vicious piece Kurt & Sid at The Trafalgar Studios in London’s West End and the acting of Shaun Evans and Danny Dyer was so astonishing I was eager to try another two-hander. Lenny Henry was very keen on being in this play and I nearly had a West End production with it but it fell through alas. It remains one of my more powerful pieces however and the two parts are tour de forces for actors of the right age and range.

Reno comes back to my interest in damaged people. Marilyn Monroe was a fragile butterfly nailed up on the cross of her own fame; I was fascinated by her marriage to Arthur Miller: ‘The Egghead & The Movie Star’. The play is set in Reno during the making of what would be her last movie: The Misfits, the filming of which led to her divorce from Miller. Miller has had a hard time from critics over the years over his abandonment of Monroe. But some wounds cannot be healed and the childhood she faced with an abusive mother and appalling step-parents sealed her fate. I hope I have been fair to them both. Again it was staged at the Brighton Festival – this time with an astonishing performance as Marilyn from Lauren Varnfield.”

Be sure to join us on the blog later this week as we delve into the heroes, riots, wars and damaged genius that inspired the remaining five plays in the Roy Smiles collection.

Roy Smiles: Ten Plays hits the shelves today – click here to buy the collection.