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theartsdesk Q&A: Playwright Richard Bean | reviews, news & interviews

theartsdesk Q&A: Playwright Richard Bean

theartsdesk Q&A: Playwright Richard Bean

Psychologist, stand-up comic, now inflammatory playwright

Richard Bean's monster mainstage play, England People Very Nice, was about immigration to London's East End - and was easily the most controversial play of 2009. He is a son of Hull (b. 1956). He is one of the most prolific and talented playwrights to emerge on the British new writing scene since the start of the new millennium. He is also a late developer: before becoming a playwright, he was a stand-up comic, and before that an occupational psychologist.

As a writer, he first came to attention with his play Toast at the Royal Court in 1999, one of his gritty work plays, which he once called "plays about hairy men in work situations", a phrase which also covers Under the Whaleback (Royal Court, 2003, joint winner of the George Devine Award).

In 2001, Bean was Writer-in-Residence at the National Theatre. His other plays include The Mentalists (National, 2002), Mr England (Crucible, Sheffield, 2003), Smack Family Robinson (Live Theatre, Newcastle, 2003), The God Botherers (Bush, 2003), Honeymoon Suite (Royal Court, 2004) and Harvest (Royal Court, 2005), which won the Critics' Circle Award for Best New Play. His is hugely prolific: five years ago, he crammed five new plays into a hectic 18-month period.

Bean has become so valued by the Royal Court that when they came to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Look Back in Anger in 2006, Toast was included as one of the mugs with theatre titles that they issued. Bean is also a founder-member of, and vocal spokesman for, the Monsterists, a group of playwrights who have campaigned to persuade theatres to stage more new writing on main stages instead of just in small studio spaces.

ALEKS SIERZ: Could you tell me how you started out as a playwright?

RICHARD BEAN: I had no connection at all with the arts until I was 30 or so. Theatre wasn't part of my life. I'm the same age as Johnny Rotten, and I was a punk. But I was a nice punk - I helped old ladies across the road. Then, in the mid-1980s, I started going to comedy gigs. I really enjoyed them and, at the back of my mind, I thought, "I can do that." Stand-up comedy was easy to get into, but much harder to keep going. I did stand-up for six or so years in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but I was comedy B-Team; I wasn't A-Team. My material was always better than my performance.

You became a playwright after winning a competition at a night class in drama at Middlesex University. Then your play, Of Rats and Men, went to Edinburgh in 1992.

Yes, that's right. I definitely started late. When my play, Under the Whaleback, was joint winner of the George Devine award, [director] John Tydeman, who was presenting the awards, let slip at the ceremony that they were set up to encourage young playwrights. I was 46 years old at the time, so my acceptance speech began with the words: "As a young playwright..." But I have no regrets about starting late. I was horribly arrogant in my twenties. And I remember being absolutely fucking clear about everything. I'm now ashamed about how cocksure I was.

You were born in Hull.

Yes. Born in Hull. My dad was a policeman and my mum a hairdresser. The police thing is very strong, and it gives the family more status than being working class. Lower middle-class with aspirations: work hard and save money were the values. I owe my parents a great deal - in terms of life skills. But it's hell having a policeman for a dad - underage drinking, and normal transgressions like that, become a big issue. Eventually, their aspirational drive paid off: they went from Crap Street to Nice Neighbourhood. And I finally lost my Yorkshire accent when I was doing training work and standing up in rooms talking - you don't get much respect when you talk like this (imitates a Hull accent).

I still have that work ethic. I'm very workmanlike about writing. For a while, I had an office in Chancery Lane [central London]. Rented it for £50 a week. Most appalling dump you've ever seen, but good because you couldn't do anything else there apart from write plays. I just got on the tube, went to the office and did an eight-hour shift and then went home in the rush hour. It was like a job. So I can't get away from the work ethic. It's a fault, but also a strength. I do work bloody hard, I really do. There's a romantic thing about writing all night, high on inspiration, but that's all shit. The best time to write is 10.30 in the morning. When your head's clear.

So what other jobs did you do?

I left school at 18, did my gap year in a bakery, working 12-hour shifts baking the bread. Nowadays I suppose I would have gone to Thailand. Then I did a degree in psychology at Loughborough University, followed by a postgrad diploma in industrial relations and personnel management [1975-79]. I was then an occupational psychologist for STC [Standard Telephones and Cables, which built telephone exchanges] in the 1980s. But that was mad: they had Rorschach tests with multiple-choice answers. It was crazy: does this ink blot remind you of: a) a lovely flower, or b) a car crash. If you answered a) you got the job; if you answered b) it meant you were a psycho, and they threw you out. Then I was self-employed as occupational psychologist and worked for organisations such as Amnesty International.

When did your writing career really take off?

I sent Toast, as an unsolicited play, to several theatres, and they all rejected it. But Jack Bradley, who was the literary manager of the National Theatre, liked it and he suggested that I work at the National Studio [where writers have facilities to develop their work]. While I was there, Toast was taken up by the Royal Court.

 

It's a work play about a night shift in a bakery in the 1970s, and it's set in Hull. You explored a crisis at the bakery through the eyes of its workers and the trick here was that a 1970s work play was presented with a 1990s sensibility.

Maybe. I'd just seen the Royal Court revival of David Storey's The Changing Room, and yes, I didn't want to give people neat answers. I wanted audiences to have a big argument about the play. Originally the title was Wonderloaf, but it had to be retitled when the owners of the Wonderloaf brand name (now defunct) objected because two men in their workforce had died doing exactly what happens in the play. So they threatened the Royal Court with litigation if it didn't change the title. But as well as being a work play, it's also a play about Hull.

I write about working men because, when I'm walking around, I can still hear the voices of the people I worked with in that bakery, as well as those of my uncles, so they are the voices that are in my head. If you live in Hull, the only language you hear is that. At that time, I don't think I could have written a middle-class metropolitan play because those were not the voices in my head, even though I'd already lived in London for twenty-odd years. The easiest thing for me is to write a 55-year-old working-class Hull bloke, usually played by [actor] Sam Kelly. So Toast was an obvious play to write.

It's an all-male play.

Yes. My life has been a blokey life. I went to a boys school, I played a lot of sports, all very blokey. Then I went to university, and became a born-again feminist.

But while Toast is a straight work play, Under the Whaleback is much more ambitious, especially in terms of its time lapses between its three acts. The life of Darrel, a Hull trawlerman, is shown first when he's 16 and a deckie learner on fishing boat, then when he is the only survivor after the trawler capsizes. In the final act, the boat has become a heritage museum ship and Darrel is attacked by the confused and rootless youth Pat.

Yes, it's all about how one character copes with the changing nature of a traditional industry.

Hull's trawler fleets also feature in your radio play, Unsinkable, which described the tragedy of three local ships sinking off Iceland in one week.

That was an old-fashioned drama, and when I took the script in the BBC told me they liked it a lot but there wasn't enough swearing in it. But then when I put realistic trawler swearing in, it was unbroadcastable.

With Under the Whaleback, I was inspired by the one-act plays of Eugene O'Neill. It was later revived by Hull Truck in my hometown, and that was a bit scary because Hull people know these stories better than the ladies of Sloane Square. I expected a lot of grumpy 50-year-olds in the audience, some of who might object to my version of events. But in fact they were very enthusiastic.

Talking of 50-year-olds, The Mentalists is about two men in a room, fiftysomethings Ted and Morrie. Ted decides to record a video which explains his plan for saving the world, and both men wrestle with big ideas about utopian aspirations.

The title comes from the behaviourist BF Skinner - Ted calls him "Fred" - who in his research decided to ignore the workings of the mind and concentrate on behaviour. According to him, the mentalists are all the people who look at the mind rather than behaviour, in other words Freud and Jung. Psychology is like many other academic disciplines - it's full of conflict between different gangs, a bit like episcopalians versus congregationalists. Having done psychology, I know a bit about the ins and outs of these rivalries, although my characters are not academics but a barber and company fleet manager. Based on people I've met. Ted decides that the answer to the world's ills is to reprogramme people in a behaviouristic way. The play is also a deliberate homage to Pinter's The Dumb Waiter [1957], which is the archetypal two-hander.

The play is full of ideas.

I saw the play as an argument between permissive and authoritarian values so, in a sense, Morrie represents community values and Ted authoritarian values. But he also comes from my feelings of dismay about the breakdown of some social values. If you sit in traffic and the guy in front of you winds down his window and throws an empty cigarette packet on the ground, you feel like smacking his face. You think: how can anybody do that? Or: how can people pick flowers from the park? So society's dead. But it would have been too easy to present Ted as a rightwing nutter. He's tried alternative foods and he really does want society to be free of pathologies, but he also has gone dangerously astray.

And the play also has that gross bit about a man putting his knob in a bottle.

The knob in the bottle comes from when I was at university and someone we knew stuck his knob into a bottle, photographed it and sent it in to this porn mag to earn 10 quid. They published it and we stuck the picture on the kitchen door. So we went through university with this greeting us every morning as we came down to breakfast. You don't need to see King Lear to understand the human condition - you just need to see that picture.

What about The Godbotherers, one of your most controversial plays, which is a comedy about foreign aid workers and is set in Tambia, an invented African country. Your characters criticise all religions, the idea of aid for Africa and other sacred cows of contemporary liberal life.

Just talking personally, I would say The God Botherers was my 9/11 play and I'm not going to write another one like that. We can certainly expect 9/11 to change the way that people relate to each other, and that's going to infuse all of new writing. Since 11 September, we have to stop writing plays about people's little personal problems. If I see a play about someone's private experience, I shrug my shoulders and say so what? I could blow you away with my problems. What I want to see in the theatre is something bigger.

I think it's difficult to be noisy at the moment; in the 1990s it was easy to be a brat. Now it's much harder to be provocative: in The God Botherers, there's a criticism of Islam; there's a severe deconstruction of Christianity in Africa. I use clitoridectomy as a plot device. I was expecting to be killed; I was expecting protests. But all the play got was nice reviews and a full house, which only proves that you can't excite anybody really.

I remember you once telling me that your dad was very anxious about your safety.

Yes, my dad was very worried. He said, "Don't give anybody your home address."

Now, Honeymoon Suite is set in a Bridlington hotel, and the play looks at three couples: at 18-year-olds on their wedding night, 43-year-olds on their silver anniversary, and 67-year-olds married for almost 25 years. But the trick is that they are the same couple, Eddie and Irene, and their lives at different times are shown simultaneously rather than sequentially.

It's basically about the deep, awful tragedies of love and relationships. It's a play about unconditional love, and whether it is possible or not. People expect a work play from me, but this is a play about love. And aspiration. Eddie is a docker and Irene worked in a chocolate factory. There's a bit of industry politics in the background - her dad has paid for this expensive honeymoon. They don't know how to open champagne. He goes out to buy chips because they are afraid of going to the restaurant. Their voices are Hull voices.

I liked the idea of three couples being on stage at the same time because it was a way of condensing three 90-minute plays into one play. While the 18-year-olds are on the bed, the 67-year-olds are discussing something else downstage. I hope the audience see that when these two are kissing on one side of the stage then you can also see those two refusing to talk to each other on the other side of the stage, and think about our own lives. But the play is not about the trick with time, it's about the characters' story. And it's a bit of a weepie.

Unlike some writers, I don't want to denigrate the well-made play. In the past few years, I've discovered the three-act play. Under the Whaleback was my first and I saw that you could get closer to the epic by using the three-act structure. Honeymoon Suite satisfies the three-act structure, and has a good climax, but there's something new about it too.

I always want to say the unpalatable thing - that's what fascinates me. I want to know whether women wearing full burkhas are allowed to drive big lorries.

Harvest is a comic epic. It has lots of scenes, and tells the story of a farming family and their pig farm over the whole of the 20th century, with scenes about the First World War and the Second World War, evoking a panorama of social change.

It is a long play, but all of the elements are important. Some people told me that I should have cut the last scene, which is set in today. In it, there's a brutal robbery carried out by a couple of young urban thugs. But it's not just gratuitous - I really wanted to show how all the social values of the countryside, which had been put under such strain during the play, had finally collapsed and that the image of rural England as a place of bliss was false. In theatre we tend to show the city as a place of horror, but the countryside is actually just as bad. That myth that rural England is a green and pleasant land - it's not.

The other thing to say is that I use comedy instead of sensationalism. In Harvest, my character Titch is more dangerous than someone getting his cock out. Because Titch is an honesty bomb. Also, the play explores that need to populate the stage and to get away from this idea that all plays now have to be cheap two-handers and that even if you have eight characters, only two are on stage at the same time. What a bore that is. No, I wanted to explore the interplay between several people in a family situation.

Talking of big plays, can you tell me about the Monsterists?

The name comes from the similarity between the words "monster" (as in large) and "montrer" (as in to show), and we formed in about 2002. We issued a manifesto in which we stated that the Monsterists not only want to put on big plays (though not necessarily with large casts) on main stages, but that we also have definite aesthetic designs. The manifesto advocates "large concept" work, which shows rather than tells, implies meaning by action and not by lecture, and which is inspirational but not sensationalist.

I'm certainly glad to get out of the ghetto of the studio black box to the main stage, but I don't think any of us Monsterists have written really big plays. It's a chicken-and-egg thing. Theatres want us to write big plays but don't want to risk commissioning them; writers want to write big plays but they can't afford to do this unless they are commissioned. If I don't write two plays a year, I'm skint. I'd have to get a job. So I have to write two plays a year. And even that only brings in £10,000 a year - try living in London on that. If you're writing for the theatre, I would say the first job is to pay the rent. Don't rely on theatre to pay the rent. Pay the rent first, remain sane, and remember that writing is not a romantic activity. It might be within your own soul, but if you start getting solipsistic about it you're finished.

I understand that there was some pressure to change your 2006 play, Up on Roof, after the controversy about the Muslim cartoons in Denmark.

Yes. There's a lot of pressure now about anything to do with faith and belief. So my play, Up on Roof, which is about a prison riot and is set in 1976, has suddenly become controversial. In it, a guy pretends to be a Muslim because it means he doesn't have to cut his hair. Then he makes a rooftop protest. In the original text, this character says the word "Mohammed" occasionally; it seemed like the kind of thing he would do. But the Hull Truck theatre management got a bit nervous about that so I had to cut any mention of Mohammed. Ever since Bezhti [a play which included sex abuse set in a Sikh temple] was closed by a mob in Birmingham, theatres are frightened of antagonising any religious grouping. The cuts in Up on Roof were very minor, but they do illustrate the climate of fear and self-censorship that is beginning to pervade the arts in Britain.

Yes, that's right. On another point: we don't really have dramaturgs in Britain, we have literary managers instead. Do you think their opinion is of any use to writers?

As writers, we mainly have relationships with our directors, and sometimes we may have a relationship with the literary manager, and some are more interventionist than others. For example, Graham Whybrow [literary manager of the Royal Court] has never ever said anything to me about changing anything in any of my plays. He just says, "Oh, nice rewrite, Richard." He hasn't told me what to rewrite; he's just said, "Well, we can't stage it at the moment", so that's a broad hint. But he hasn't told me what to do. Jack Bradley at the National, because he works with lots of young writers, not just for the National but for other theatres in London, he's a little bit more interventionist, but he never really tells anybody what to do either. He kind of says, "Well, I don't think you need scene one, but that's just my opinion", nobody's actually saying, "Get rid of scene one." And I think the balance in Britain is really very healthy actually, because as writers we need to be told which babies to slaughter. But it's left up to us whether we do it or not.

Have your plays been successful in Europe?

Not really. Not yet. Well, I tend to generally write in a naturalistic genre, with a very local voice, which the French hate and most Europeans kind of despise. I've had a play translated into French. It's funny, I was at the Motley Design College, which is a theatre design school, recently, and I just went in as a writer to talk about design. And the biggest conflict I had was with a German designer there. He did designs for one of my plays, which is basically a naturalistic play, and of course he'd just said, "Let's throw all this stupid naturalism out of the window and let's have a wonderful free, free design." So my work's not so well received in Europe. But America seems to quite like it.

How important has the influence of comedy been?

I get criticised for having too many jokes in my plays. It's something I've had to look at. I don't want to give people an excuse not to take me seriously. I always want to say the unpalatable thing - that's what fascinates me. For example, I want to know whether women wearing full burkhas are allowed to drive big lorries. The thrill for me is writing a line that does two things: makes the audience laugh and helps tell the story. If I can do that once a day, I could take the rest of the week off. My door is comedy, but I'm not happy just doing comedy. My way in is comedy. As I have written more, I'm no longer always running for the punchline now.

Do you still take your daughter to the theatre?

When my daughter Tilly was four and a half years old she loved the theatre, but she talked all the way through every show. One of the most thrilling things I've ever seen in the theatre was when I saw a show at the Unicorn Theatre yonks ago. There was an archetypal baddy in the cast and this four-year-old kid in the audience just threw himself at him and was punching him - it's the bravest thing I've ever seen a human being do. He must have believed he was a real baddy. Talk about suspension of disbelief.

 

If I don't write two plays a year, I'm skint. I'd have to get a job. So I have to write two plays a year. And even that only brings in £10,000 a year

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