'The Cord' writer Bijan Sheibani on returning to the Bush Theatre

The acclaimed director of shows including Barber Shop Chronicles, A Taste of Honey and Till the Stars Come Down talks to London Theatre about breaking into writing.

Olivia Rook
Olivia Rook

The Cord writer and director Bijan Sheibani knew he could never settle for a “sensible job”. He explains: “I didn’t want a job that I was doing so I could pay for the rest of my life. I wanted to pursue something that I loved.”

He attended Oxford University, studying English Literature, and got involved with the drama society, appearing in a few plays before directing Harold Pinter’s The Lover at the end of his degree. “Everything clicked,” he says.

Sheibani’s career took off and he directed a number of shows, including Barber Shop Chronicles, A Taste of Honey and Till the Stars Come Down – all at the National Theatre. He was nominated for an Olivier Award for Best Director for Our Class in 2010, and has also recently moved into screen work, writing episodes of the hit Netflix series One Day.

In 2019, Sheibani broke into the writing world with his first play The Arrival, about a complex reunion between two brothers, which premiered at the Bush Theatre. Now he is back at the same venue with his new play The Cord.

Sheibani spoke to London Theatre about his latest project, returning to the Bush, and the beginning of his writing journey.

What is The Cord about?

It’s about a new dad and his relationship with his new baby, his wife, and his own mother. As the weeks go by, he starts to feel like he's not coping and he can't understand why. It becomes clearer as the play goes on that there's stuff from his own childhood that is rearing its head. He has to look to his relationship with his mother in order to come through that period. It tracks the joy and the challenges of those early weeks of parenthood.

What's unusual about this play is that it's from the point of view of a father. It began as just an investigation into the relationship between a guy of a certain age and his mother, but it became clear, as those conversations and pieces of dialogue started to take shape, that they were orbiting around the subject of parenthood.

It's about one of those periods in one's life when you go from being a son, and then you become a dad. And that's happening for all three of the characters in the play. So his wife, who's now become a mother, and his own mother who has now become a grandmother. There's a sense of that conveyor belt of life, and what that does to the tectonic plates underneath the family.

Where did your inspiration come from?

It's often just a feeling that I start with. I've only written two plays, so I can't talk yet about how I work. I didn't know I could write a second play until I had finished this!

This play isn’t autobiographical, but I definitely draw on memories. That will be the starting point — tapping into something that I might be wrestling with. I just started writing dialogue. I'll write pages and pages and then cut most of it, and then I try to spot what's recurring in that material. I try to be as organic as possible and just let it take shape.

How did your writing journey begin?

I did a Royal Court writers course years ago with Simon Stephens, and I learned so much about plays. I was starting out as a director and I wanted to write, but I felt very worried about sharing work. I found it very difficult to complete anything. I was so passionate about working in theatre that I thought there were these brilliant pieces of work that I could work on that had already been written. That drew me and I continue to work as a director on other people's work.

But there was a point about 10 years ago where I felt that appetite to write hadn't gone away, and it was getting stronger. I really forced myself to try and complete things. I wrote a play that I shared with debbie tucker green, and she gave me such good advice. I didn't take that particular play any further, but it definitely inspired The Arrival.

I've worked on so many great plays and, in a way, that felt like a hindrance. Anything that came out on the page, the director in me was judging. So I had to give myself a break and not judge or reread stuff too often. It's a bit like trying to be a patient rather than a therapist — to just say stuff and not have to analyse it.

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You often explore male vulnerability in your work. What attracts you to write about this?

I'm really interested in how men struggle to talk. I always look at the way female friendships have so much more openness. Women are better equipped for talking about how they're feeling. I also hope I've represented the female voice well. I hope that the mums that come and watch it will also feel like the mother's story is very truthful and authentic.

The Cord sees you reunite with Irfan Shamji. How is it to be working with him again?

I had Irfan in mind throughout the writing process. I didn't tell him about it though, I just waited until I had something. I've known him since he was at RADA because I met him when I directed the third year show there in 2016. And we've worked together five times now. We know each other really well and we’re really close.

Why did you want to return to the Bush for your second play?

They're producing such exciting contemporary work. I love the team here and I really love their taste. Obviously they liked my play, which helps! Their audiences have got such an appetite. It feels like an audience that reflects London and it feels very open-minded as an institution. Incredibly rigorous and serious artists are running it, so you feel really safe.

It is a big deal handing your work over to producers. You've been with it on your own for a long time — the work is precious to you.

Book The Cord tickets on London Theatre.

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Photo credit: Bijan Sheibani, The Cord (Photo by Manuel Harlan)

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