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.
The 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.
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.)
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.
At 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
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