In Conversation with playwright Duncan Macmillan
Playwright Duncan Macmillan, one of Britain's brightest writers, openly admits that he had previously lost faith in himself and had given up writing. Facing the realities of paying his rent, starting a family and simply getting from A to B, it's a story that he shares with many creatives of his generation who find themselves locked out of succeeding primarily due to financial and practical reasons, as the industry tightens and getting your 'big break' seems harder and harder.
Speaking to him mid-rehearsals for the West End transfer for his 2015 hit People, Place and Things, he appears down to earth and decidedly relaxed at being nominated for an Olivier Award. “I'm not the most sociable person” he laughs, “large numbers of people and high levels of anxiety are not necessarily my cup of tea, but I've got a young kid at home so it's nice to be out the house!”
Whilst the National Theatre may not have swept up at this year's nominations, it's Duncan's play that has barnstormed the awards in multiple categories, and is the favourite to take home a number of key trophies. The pressure doesn't seem to affect Duncan who strikes the balance between modesty and pride in his work, and feels the greatest responsibility is to the work itself and the search for an authentic representation of the issues faced by his central character. “As a playwright you don't really get an office party, so it's nice to get together and celebrate the fact that we've all been acknowledged in some way and sort of celebrate what goes on in the industry that can only be a good thing” he states. “There are so many people working very hard for very little reward, and so it's nice to give those people some recognition and get together to celebrate our industry which is really worth celebrating”.
Whilst the past year has certainly been a whirlwind for Duncan as a writer, he appears to be under no illusion that this level of success all at once is something of an anomaly. “I'm not very good at acknowledging when things are going well” he explains. “I'm surprised perhaps, and it's an ugly word, but smug with where I'm at. I wasn't expecting to ever really be here and it wasn't a career strategy.” I'm keen to unpick this idea and ask Duncan about his career path, and if writers set themselves clear goals and benchmarks in order to keep them on track.
Throughout the interview Duncan is quick to highlight Denise's performance as being one of the key factors in making the show such a success. “I wrote this play believing very strongly that there were a lot of brilliant actresses who just weren't getting parts that would push them and that they could excel in” he explains. “No one accounted for someone like Denise coming along and grabbing it by the throat in such a way. I'm under no illusions that we wouldn't be transferring if it weren't for Denise's performance and her being at the centre of it – it's one of the greatest performances I've witnessed and it just so happens to be in the middle of something that I've written.”
Since the play premiered at the Dorfman Theatre, the National's most intimate and versatile performance space, much of the hype surrounding the production has pinned on the fact that the central character, one who is going through an extreme example of recovery, is a woman. The column inches and preoccupation in reviews at that fact alone must certainly be disappointing in 2016? “I find it massively disappointing” he replies. “You have to embrace it – it's an important conversation that is happening and it does feel like that's very much in the cultural 'Zeitgeist' at the moment, that people are talking about women and feminism in a slightly different way. It's great to be behind that as a self proclaimed feminist and to have been a protagonist in this story, but it's disappointing sometimes when you just realise we're not there yet.”
What is it about the story I ask that makes gender even feature as an issue? “I did quite self consciously want to make her gender accurate as a woman going through that process, because it is a different process for women” he answers. “I also wanted her gender to be just one of the things that defines her personality and the situation that she's found herself in. I wanted her to be angry and intelligent and afflicted and ambitious and talented – all of these things but also a woman.”
Regardless of gender, People, Places and Things deals with a somewhat sticky subject and one that isn't often portrayed so effectively on stage. I wondered what the pressure of presenting such a topic applied to both the writing and the performances. “It's not about advocating or proselytising for a particular process” he explains, “it's about representing all the complexities, all the debate and all the confusion that these processes and approaches bring. It's a huge responsibility – there will be people in the audience every night who this will be their life. It's about getting that right without being inaccurate or too sentimental or being too simplistic or too bleak or too cynical.”
With the National Theatre facing significant Arts Council cuts, it relies on the commercial potential of its productions in the West End and around the world, which for the past number of years has accounted for around one third of the venue's income. With War Horse bowing out after a considerable run at the New London Theatre, the venue is obviously keen to fill that commercial gap. Although it's only running for a limited period, I wonder if that additional commercial pressure is playing on Duncan's mind in any way.
“I generally like to be much more private, but I feel I have an obligation for the company to put myself out there a bit more to try and bring people in” he replies. “Being in the West End does change the critical expectation of the audience and the quality of the attention adjusts.” I ask if the show has had to change due to the transfer, which sees the physical production placed in a much more traditional space performance space. “It was really important to us to find a venue that would allow us to keep that subjectivity and that proximity to Denise” he answers. “We had a really different demographic for the National – a much younger audience. We wanted to make sure we were accessible and to be able to make cheap tickets for each performance. It also helps the show in quite a self conscious way and it helps the atmosphere of the show – a lot of the best seats in the house and the onstage seats are some of the cheapest. I can't really afford West End prices, like many people who work in the industry!”
Our conversation comes full circle back to the impending Olivier Awards, and the doors that winning such an accolade could potentially open up. I ask Duncan where he's hoping to go next, and how as a writer you find your next idea. “The thing is to try and find the best form to articulate how it's like to be alive form your perspective right now” he replies philosophically. “Awards are lovely and nominations are lovely but the idea is to reach out to one person in the audience every night and to say you're not alone, you're not crazy and here is how I've been feeling. That for me is theatre at its best.