Nicholas Wright interview - The quiet elder statesman of English playwriting

Nicholas Wright

Some playwrights burn like fire: names like Tom Stoppard, David Hare, Alan Bennett, Michael Frayn, Jez Butterworth and Martin McDonagh have a celebrity profile of their own so they're forever being interviewed, quoted or given awards of some sort (Hare just received at the Shakespeare Guild's Gielgud Award at the UK Theatre Awards last weekend). Their names alone have their own box office marketability. 

But then there are other more discreet but no less diligent writers working regularly at the coalface of British theatre, keeping a succession of new plays, adaptations and translations flowing through its seams. The elder statesman of this sort of playwright is surely Nicholas Wright, affectionately known in the business as Nicky, who next year marks his 40th anniversary as a professionally produced playwright; yet he also came to playwriting fairly late, when he was already 38. 

Yet the trim, lively and charming man sitting opposite me on a sofa in the foyer of Hampstead Theatre could easily pass for 60. This week he has returned there for the 3rd time with a new play, the world premiere of The Slaves of Solitude, adapted from a novel by Patrick Hamilton and set during  the wartime Britain of the 1940s. 

He identifies strongly with both the writer and the period: "I was born in 1940 and the play is set in 1943. I realised the other day when the tech rehearsals began and all the actors appeared in costume for the first time that it was a powerfully nostalgic thing for me: these figures were the first people I saw through my little bassinet. I also find a glamour in the seediness and drabness of the surroundings. There's a seedy, anxious, shabby, genteel middle-class environment and it's one I was brought up in in Cape Town in South Africa."

Fenella Woolgar
Fenella Woolgar in rehearsals

Set in a boarding house in Henley-on-Thames, where some of its residents have sought refuge from the bombing of London, it revolves around Miss Roach (being played by Fenella Woolgar) and her evolving relationships with the unbearable Mr Thwaites (Clive Francis) and an American lieutenant (Daon Broni). "I love the idea of these extremely obscure characters becoming important in the story, and this obscure and humble and rather timorous woman slowly breaking through the oppression of things around her, and what Blake calls the mind-forged manacles of her own inhibitions of what she feels she can't do. When Clive Francis came on in a beautifully creased flannel trousers and blazer, he was the image of my cricket coach at school who was also strangely also called Mr Thwaites, so it was unbelievably evocative to me!"

He'd previously adapted the book for an unproduced television screenplay some years ago: "I skimmed the screenplay once before I started and I haven't looked at it since. It's totally different - it is a different medium and I've got much bolder as I've got older. The part that Daon Broni plays is hardly characterised in the book - he's very shadowy. So I had to write him."

But Wright admits that he almost always writes his plays based on existing stories or real-life characters. "I don't really trust myself to invent stories. I don't know how people do it!"

By a coincidence of scheduling, he's also got another new work in rehearsal just a couple of stops up the Jubilee Line, in the West Hampstead studios of English National Opera who on 18th November will offer the world premiere at the London Coliseum of his libretto for Nico Muhly's new opera based on Winston Graham's novel Marnie. "Working with Nico has been a complete delight," he says. "And I did smile when I went to the first rehearsal and the door opened and 60 chorus members walked in. I've never had that before - plays are far smaller!"

He's delighted to be back at Hampstead Theatre. "It's a very nice place to work - you get very well looked after. You can tell how well a theatre is run during rehearsal because its a question of what the stage management are like, and that's very good."

The Slaves of Solitude was commissioned by the theatre. "It's how theatres work more and more. I've been slow waking up to it, but theatres really want to pencil it in their programme before the plays even exist, so they have control over what they are doing. When I was starting, it was completely the opposite - what the writers brought to the theatre is what they'd do."

He saw this from the inside, as a former literary manager at both the Royal Court and National Theatre. He was also the first artistic director for the Royal Court's upstairs studio theatre, and it was on his watch that the original production of The Rocky Horror Show premiered there. 

He's also had a number of his own plays and adaptations premiere first at the National, including Mrs Klein and Vincent in Brixton, both of which transferred to the West End and then New York, as well as the stage adaptation of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials and a new version of Three Sisters. "One of most interesting times I've ever had was working on script of Three Sisters with [director] Katie Mitchell - she's so indefatigable and punctilious and won't let anything go by. With Chekhov, here are layers and layers and layers - so if you work long enough, you dig out these extraordinary layers of hidden stuff which is completely fascinating."

The experience of being a playwright, however, is that "you're starting from scratch every time." But the important thing is to keep going. "Because I'm old now, I often think of youth and writing plays - but Sophocles wrote Oedipus when he was over 90, as did Euripides with The Bacchae. So you can just go on doing it!"


The Slaves of Solitude is at the Hampstead Theatre until 25th November. 
Marnie is at the London Coliseum from 18th November to 3rd December. 

Photos courtesy Manuel Harlan

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