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Interview with Olivier Award-winning writer of Rotterdam Jon Brittain
Jon Brittain's play Rotterdam has achieved unprecedented success in London over the past eighteen months. Originally opening at Theatre 503 in November 2015 where it was described by The Guardian as “a shiny study of love and sexuality” it later transferred to Trafalgar Studios 2 and last month won the Olivier Award for Outstanding Achievement in an Affiliate Theatre. As part of its triumphant journey it is currently preparing to open in New York as part of the 'Brits Off Broadway' season, and thanks to its award success is returning to London for a new run at the Arts Theatre this summer.
This overwhelming tidal wave of success may be inflating for a writer who is best known for penning witty fringe comedies, two of which concern the character of Margaret Thatcher in drag, but Brittain is deeply humbled and grounded about his achievements and Rotterdam's impending New York transfer.
“It was directly a result of the Olivier Awards that this transfer has happened” he explains to me as we meet mid-rehearsal at the Arts Theatre after a long week of juggling two productions simultaneously. “There were vague plans on the horizon, we knew we wanted to tour it but there were no solid plans in place. It just moved certain things into position, something that might have been too much of a risk suddenly became not so much of a risk. Luckily we have producers who were willing to take a chance and are really passionate at getting the show at there – they've made it happen.”
Winning any award can be surprising at the least and life changing at the most and I'm keen to understand how this recent Olivier Award success has shifted Jon's perspective as a writer.
“It definitely hasn't so far” he laughs. “I made a real effort after Rotterdam went on at 503, I said to myself and my agent that I'm going to carry on doing the same sort of work I was doing before, I've done a lot of comedy and fringe shows. A part of my brain was thinking I don't want anyone to think that they were just steps on my journey to get to the 'proper' play, I didn't want to impose anything on myself and think now I have to make this sort of work. There's a great quote by the comedian Demetri Martin which I sort of live by – he says “everyone in the entertainment industry wants to put you in a box, so the key is at the beginning of your career, when no one knows who you are, you have to do as many different things as possible so when they put you in a box you've got loads of room to move around”. I think that's a really great quote and that's how I felt in the year after Rotterdam first happened – I wanted to make sure I'm still doing the things I'm excited by and amuse me but aren't necessarily a two and a half hour 'proper' play.
With a background in comedy, in particular stand up, Jon explains how this experience helped prepare him as a writer to work in all aspects of live performance.
“You learn so much working in comedy about live performance that you don't learn in theatre” he explains. “I've always written and I used to perform stand up comedy at university. It didn't agree with me for various reasons, I didn't think I was bringing anything particularly special when I compared myself to other people. The people who succeed in stand up really want to succeed in stand up because you really need to put in the evenings. In theatre there are scripts and in the more rigid end of things there is a grid and actors have to stand in the exact place. You do learn about live performance but theatre doesn't always have the space to let you do that.”
Rotterdam was somewhat of a departure for Jon following a number of hit comedy productions, one of which, Margaret Thatcher Queen of Game Shows is also preparing to open for a new season at the Southbank this summer. Whilst it reads on the surface like an 'issue' play, he's keen to stress that part of Rotterdam's success is down to its tone which balances contemporary issues with comedy without trivialising its central message.
“I think it tells a story in a way that you really wouldn't expect it to be told” he admits. “It's a relationship drama but it's also a romantic comedy. In some ways it's an issue play but it doesn't feel like an issue play – it's not issue driven, it's driven by the characters and their relationship. It's warm and it's funny, it goes to more serious places and there is a sort of tragic element to it but I don't think its cynical. The characters don't take themselves too seriously – they're allowed to have fun and be funny. In that sense it's a serious play but it doesn't take itself seriously. That to me is why it's been able to go from a small theatre and grow bigger.”
Whilst the play is preparing to open in a larger London venue once again there's some comfort for Jon and the cast and creative team that it has been well received, something that can't be assured in its upcoming New York run, primarily due to the differing tastes between American and British theatregoers.
“I'm very much of the attitude that if you accept the awards you have to accept everything else that goes with it” he comments as I probe about the possible reception in New York, particularly in this heated political climate. “However the show is received, that's how it's received. The cast and production are superb and I'm very proud of it. If for whatever reason it doesn't connect it doesn't connect. There's nothing you can do about that. Obviously I want people to enjoy it but if an audience doesn't go for it that that's it really. You can go over to Brits Off Broadway with a show that's been a hit in London or at the fringe and the American audience just do not get it. Sometimes it's just a disconnect with different audiences. Even if it crashes and burns and people hate it, it's found an audience here and has connected.”
Part of Jon's motives for both upcoming runs is the play's ability to open up conversations about transgender issues.
“We're making an effort to see how we can have the most positive impact in that city aside from having people coming to the show and having a lovely time we're asking is there anything else we can do? Now we've got that spotlight, is there anything we can do with that spotlight? I think that's really important – I think you should take that responsibility no matter what your play is about – if you have that spotlight you should use it to make a positive change. But you don't want to come across as Bono – that's not our role. Our role is to find out what people want and working out how we can help.”
The Olivier Awards certainly shone a huge spotlight on Jon as a writer as well as the whole company of Rotterdam which will no doubt attract even more enthusiastic audiences to the Arts Theatre.
“It's apparently the first trans play to win an Olivier and I'm really proud of that – hopefully it's not the last” he tells me, trying to put into words what the award meant for both him and the show. “It was something that I was actively not preparing for. I was forcing myself not to think about it, it really was a shock to be nominated, I thought they had made a mistake. If you let yourself think about it you start to fantasize about it and no matter what happens you'll be deflated. My friend told me that in the video of me accepting the award I looked like I was on crystal meth because I just have the biggest grin on my face, looking like I've never seen the sun before or people before. It was a massive shock and obviously I'm incredibly proud of it. I can usually find the cloud in front of every single lining but that's one thing where I can't. This is an award – they can't take it back!”
Rotterdam runs at the Arts Theatre in London's West End from 21 June.
Margaret Thatcher Queen of Gameshows runs at the Udderbelly Festival from 12 May to 2 July 2017.