Friday, 13 September 2013

Goodbye summer (also vanity 10: Dennis Kelly)

As autumn drizzles in, these are the things I want to remember:

tramping through Wales

making ice-lollies with mashed-up strawberries

paddling in icy rivers

the best day ever in Brighton: fish and chips and rock pools and giggles on the pier

being held on a quiet morning in the Traverse when it all spilled out

those moments, on my own at the computer, when everything felt right with the world.

Not the falling apart or the shouting or the frustration. Summer holidays with two energetic, demanding, crotchety, wilful, imaginative children are an endurance test; this was my first and I pretty much failed. The last two weeks, writing saved me. And nearly broke me: too many deadlines, too many late nights. One of the things I wrote was for the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, my third (I hope not too repetitive) piece about Nature Theater of Oklahoma: if I spend the rest of my life coming back to this company, I'll be perfectly happy.

The Walker's website, by the way, is AMAZING. Honestly, it puts most British institutions horribly to shame. The performance work they programme is mostly experimental, upstream, challenging, unconventional – you get the idea – and instead of just putting up a few promotional sentences about each show, they commission writers to interview and/or write about the makers, to begin opening up debate around the work, to inform and, to whatever extent feels appropriate, critique. The brief I was given by the editor there was wide open: I could take my essay in any direction I chose. But it was an essay they wanted, with a decent number of words. And – this is the incredible part – they actually paid, a proper sum of money. Where are the theatre organisations with websites in the UK supporting writers in this way? OK, they commission programme essays – but those only reach people who are watching the shows. Or am I missing something?

The other thing I stayed up late to write was the interview with Dennis Kelly for the Guardian. For a multitude of reasons, most of them classified, I enjoyed writing it more than anything else I've written for the paper this year. So much so that I overshot my word limit and got my comeuppance: about 300 words had to be cut. So this is the original version, published here mostly because I liked the way he responded to me suggesting that lies are central to most of his work, and because it amuses me how abashed he was about posting a comment on the Guardian website.


Playwright Dennis Kelly is sitting in an office at the Royal Court in London, looking pleased as punch. He's just noticed a stack of flyers for his new play, The Ritual Slaughter of Gorge Mastromas - “George,” he corrects; “I don't know why I haven't put an 'e' in, it's definitely an affectation” - which opens in the downstairs theatre a few days later. “I can't lie, being here is the thing I've probably wanted more than anything else in my professional career. If you're a playwright like me, this is where you want to be.”

Some people might have encountered Kelly as the writer of the musical Matilda, for which he won a Tony award earlier this year. Some people might know him for his TV series, Pulling and Utopia. But in his own mind Kelly is first and foremost a playwright, with a number of jagged, acerbic, political and often violent works to his name. His 2003 debut, Debris, began with a father crucifying himself in the family home; Osama the Hero showed how a climate of terror can lead neighbours to torture; The Gods Weep recast King Lear as the chief executive of a rapacious multinational. Prime Royal Court material – except his plays have been staged by the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Royal Exchange in Manchester, the touring company Paines Plough, anywhere but here.

To be fair, the Court's previous artistic director, Dominic Cooke, did commission him, but Kelly failed to deliver. His explanation says a lot about the 42-year-old. It's cheerful, garrulous, a touch self-deprecating, and reflects a manifesto he's adhered to since he became a writer 12 years ago: if you're not writing with passion, don't write at all. “I was going to write a play about assisted suicide, and started researching, which isn't what I usually do. I tend to use research to back up the lies I've made up after I've finished writing a play. I'm not really a researchy writer, not because I'm lazy – I am lazy, definitely – but also because if I do research, I stick it all into the play and it becomes dry and crusty. Also, I interviewed a lot of really interesting people, but then realised I had nothing to say. You can't just do it because it's something you think you should have an opinion on.”

Gorge Mastromas is the first full production from the Court's new artistic director, Vicky Featherstone, someone Kelly admits he found terrifying when he first met her nine years ago. The play traces the life, from conception to old age, of a man born in 1974: a man who, in his 20s, is told by a businesswoman that life is unfair, and if he takes advantage of that, wealth and power can be his. So Mastromas decides to dedicate his life to lying, manipulation and acquisition. Watching rehearsals has shifted the play for Kelly. When he first wrote it, he says, “I thought it was about how capitalism had fucked things up. Then I realised it wasn't about that, it was more about corruption. Then I thought, it's not about that, it's about this bloke that learns how to lie. Now I don't think it's about any of those things. I'm not really sure what it's about, if I'm honest.

“I don't have a problem with that,” he continues. “There has been a tendency for plays to be theses, to make statements and answer questions. But a play can ask a question and not know the answer. For me as a writer, it's much more interesting, a bit more dangerous, to say something and not really know if I agree with it.” There is one such moment in Gorge Mastromas, when it's suggested that goodness and cowardice are actually the same thing. “That's really difficult, isn't it? The first time I saw that in rehearsal, I thought: fuck me, that is a shit thing to say. I don't know if I believe it, but I'm scared that it might be true.”

Lies are a driving force in almost all of his work. “Oh, really?” he responds to this suggestion, genuinely surprised. Well, yes: in DNA, a gang of teenagers lie to cover up a murder. In After the End, an office worker kidnaps a colleague, pretending he has saved her from a bomb. In Orphans, a blood-stained man appears at his sister's house, claiming to have seen off a knife-attack. “And I suppose Taking Care of Baby was all about lies – that was a fake verbatim play,” Kelly contributes. “What's all that about then? I think what I find really interesting about people is we're sort of liars. It's one of the things we learn really early; it's important in our culture that we can lie. The question isn't why we lie, but why we force other people to lie, because we can't accept that someone else believes something bad about us.”

“The quest for truth”, meanwhile, was central to a speech Kelly made at the Stuckemarkt theatre festival in Berlin earlier this year. It caused some controversy on its publication online, not least because of its tongue-in-cheek provocation of a title: “Why political theatre is a complete fucking waste of time.” Kelly is slightly embarrassed that he was moved to post a comment on the Guardian theatre blog for the first time to explain himself. All he was trying to say, he emphasises now, is that: “What's more important than being political is being true to yourself. That sounds so hippy, but you've got to write the thing you believe in. If you want to write a play about relationships, write it: don't write a play about Syria, because the play about Syria needs to be written by the person who cares about that.”

However, he also believes that overtly political theatre risks disengaging its audiences, simply by reminding them how powerless they are. “Very often you see plays about subjects that you agree with but you can do nothing about. But you can do something about your life and how you choose to live it.”

This is experience talking. Kelly didn't start writing in earnest until he was 31; he had spent the years after leaving school at 16 working in a market, then in Sainsbury's, packing vegetables, then packing art prints, and steadily succumbing to alcoholism. “I was always a drinker: it was the only thing I felt I had to offer people,” he says of his younger self, whom he'd now like to punch. “No matter what state I got in, I would always go for another drink.” He was in his late-20s when he noticed himself lying about the alcohol, hiding bottles and sneaking whisky into glasses of wine. Letting go of it allowed him also to let go of “fear and insecurity – which always comes out as arrogance, the need to prove yourself constantly. That was a good thing to do, you can actually start living your life then.”

In his early 20s, the one bright spot of the week was the night he spent with an amateur theatre group in Barnet, the north-London suburb where he grew up. Through acting, he discovered writing, “but it was a long time before I felt I had anything to say, other than putting characters together and seeing what they did”. When he got started, he made a rule for himself: “I wasn't going to write for money, because I was only going to write the things I wanted to write. By and large, I've stuck to that.” Does the success of Matilda, in the West End and on Broadway, mean he no longer has to worry about money? He laughs: “Not yet. If it closed tomorrow, I would still have to work. If it continues for the next 10 or 15 years, I may never have to work.”

Not that he wants to stop – however hard he finds it to buckle down to writing these days. Even when the interview ends, he continues chatting, trying to stall the inevitable moment when he has to get back to the scripts for the second series of Utopia. This is his cult Channel 4 series in which an unlikely gang of sci-fi fans find themselves caught up in a conspiracy to sterilise swathes of the global population, a storyline that was morally taxing, brutally violent, but also human and full of surprises.

The second series starts shooting in a few weeks and Kelly is finding the writing impossible: “I'm just at that moment where I feel like it's all fucked and I don't know what I'm doing.” Part of the problem is that he doesn't like to plan things out in advance: “I like the characters to tell you a bit about who they are.” The downside to this, he admits, can be a lack of clarity – he definitely thinks this was the case with the first series. “But I'd rather it was engaging than that it all made perfect logical sense.”

Whatever Utopia's faults, he says, he feels proud of its Britishness. “It wasn't like a British version of something the Americans have done, or someone else has done. You need to make original work, don't you?” Of all the maxims he lives by, this one might well be the key to his success.