West End interview with writer Alistair Beaton
Writer Alistair Beaton is widely regarded as one of Britain's top political satirists, whose work spans theatre, film, television and radio. His work on TV includes 'A Very Social Secretary' which launched More4 in 2005, along with the Channel 4 film 'The Trial of Tony Blair' which was nominated for a BAFTA award.
His work on stage include 'King of Hearts' which ran at London’s Hampstead Theatre in 2007, directed by Max Stafford-Clark and Ramin Gray, as well as the West End hit 'Feelgood' which won the Evening Standard Award for Best Comedy in 2001.
He returns to the West End this summer in a collection of five brand new political satires commissioned by director Max Stafford-Clark and Out of Joint Theatre Company collectively known as A View from Islington North. His play, 'The Accidental Leader' takes a timely look at what happens when a political party is suddenly led by a rank outsider, and a potential political coup to overthrow them.
He is also in mid auditions for a new full length play Fracked! or, Please Don't use the F Word which takes a timely look at the conflicted core of planetary energy and earthly power, and opens at the Minerva Theatre, Chichester in July 2016. We spoke to Alistair about both productions, and why he feels satire continues to delight audiences.
DOH: Dom O'Hanlon
AB: Alistair Beaton
AB: A phone call from Max! He's directed two plays of mine in the past and we have a good vigorous professional and personal relationship – so to be asked by someone of his status to take part was quite attractive. And also I love doing things that are topical. There was a fairly wide choice about how I approached it – I said I would like to do something about Corbyn and an attempt at a leadership coup, which couldn't be more topical as each time I open the paper I see that it's going to happen next week, or tomorrow, but it hasn't quite happened yet. I'm hoping it doesn't happen before the play ends! It's about Corbyn in a very indirect way, there's no mention of Labour or Corbyn, it's slightly coded, but it's not very difficult to break the code. In fact if you can't break the code you've probably not been out of the house for a couple of years.
DOH: How did Max pitch the project to you and inspire what to write?
AB: He gave me a very free choice – he said he'd like something about contemporary politics and that they were calling it 'A View From Islington North', and I said I'd like to tackle the issue head-on whether a seriously left wing leader of a social democratic party can hack it. Is this a radical new politics to save us from the dreadful Blair years or the dreadful Cameron years that we're living through, or is this a dead end? Is this a man who can lead the party to victory or not? I find that question very interesting, because on the one hand I feel we need fresh politics and we need something new. It's happening all around us, whether it's Bernie Sanders or, god save us, Donald Trump, there's something stirring in politics where the public is demanding something new and I find that a really interesting phenomenon, and that's what I want to explore in a way that's quite entertaining.
DOH: I read this weekend that American satirists are finding their job becoming increasingly more difficult thanks to Donald Trump...is this something you've also found?
AB: I occasionally felt that when George Bush Jnr. was in the White House – I had a novel coming out at the time set in America and I did occasionally wonder whether the satire could outflank reality. It's probably the case with Trump, since he paints in such bright colours the satirist has to paint in even brighter colours, and that's the challenge. I don't think it's the case with Corbyn, I think of him being in grey and beige myself, so I don't think that's a problem with what's happening in the Labour party.
DOH: Were you in any way encouraged by the result of the past election?
AB: I was encouraged by Sadiq Khan winning in London – I think it's great that our capital city has a Muslim mayor, I think that's terrific. It was also lovely to see Zac Goldsmith getting his comeuppance after running such a shabby campaign. The man who was once the shiny golden boy of the Tory Party – I think that was the most encouraging part of it. There were other results shall we say were less encouraging, speaking as an exiled Scot.
DOH: Does Islington North offer a wide spectrum of political comment or is it fairly narrow in its exploration?
AB: It's not narrow – that was slightly my fear. I didn't want to be part of an evening where there were five 'lefty' writers ranting, no thank you! To my great relief having read them all, it's a very wide range of style and type ranging from mine which is very specifically about the leadership of the Labour Party right through to David Hare's which is about the Conservative notion of freedom. I suppose the others range from the effect of the Iraq War to how capitalism is making us into brands or commodities. It's nice, it's not a sour evening of angry lefties.
DOH: So a mixed bag so to speak?
AB: I don't like venting my anger on the audience, I like to entertain them. There will be a few laughs along the way – it's not a heavy weight five course meal, think of it more of a tapas evening. My play is about 25 minutes and the others vary quite a lot in length. Every playwright finds Act Two difficult, so there was a bit of a joy in only having to write Act One. I've been tweaking it to keep it up to date. There might be a longer play in there, but that takes time to mount a full evening play. The joy of doing this is it's a moving target, on an almost daily basis we're waiting for a coup. The joy of this is between writing and seeing it on stage, it's a very short period of time and that's terrific – it's really fun.
DOH: What is it about the current political climate that makes audience really crave new satire?
AB: I think it's quite strong at the moment because there is a sense that conventional politics is not delivering for us – the big issues are just not being addressed. You don't feel when you go out to vote that any of the big parties are dealing with huge issues such as climate change. I think that includes Corbyn's Labour party to an extent too – it's depressing. The huge issues facing society like inequality and poverty, climate change, the war in Syria, the refugee crisis...I don't see an answer coming from any of the big parties and that causes a frustration. Going to the theatre to see some good rollicking satire is a good release for the audience I think, and an encouragement in a way. I'm often asked “does satire change anything” and my answer usually is nobody really knows. But even if it doesn't change anything it's good to give heart to people, and I think that's important. If it changes something that's a bonus. If it doesn't it's still giving people heart and that's worth writing for.
DOH: Looking ahead to your new play Fracked! or Please Don't Use the F Word which opens in Chichester, were you conscious of the very specific audience it would have at least on its initial run, and did that change how you wrote?
AB: Actually no – because I don't think it works. You have to write the play you want to write. Fracking is a big issue in Sussex and there's a huge interest in the subject matter. The entire run sold out months it advance, it was really blink-and-you-miss it. So that was great, and I think partly it was due to the actors and partly to do with the subject matter. I initially wanted to write a climate change play, and I think the words 'climate change play' almost guarantees empty seats. Fracking is interesting because you can encapsulate huge issues on a small scale, in a village caught up in fracking. The play is basically about an older couple who have never been very radical and are radicalised by the threat of fracking in their vicinity. I did a lot of research visiting parts of the country where fracking was expected and I was very stuck that the issue crossed political lines, class lines and age lines, and I found that very interesting. I could do a political play that wasn't about party politics – you're likely to find a Telegraph reader standing next to a Daily Mail reader, next to a Guardian reader, next to a Sun reader on the picket line and that was extraordinary.
DOH: Does this play blend the more 'human' element of drama with the political issue in quite a different way?
AB: I think maybe people are a little tired of political plays that are political power plays. This takes place with ordinary people who find themselves politicised, and I find that very interesting. When someone has led a quiet life and kept their head down, suddenly is on the protest line, chaining themselves to a fence....the process that turns people from quiet well-behaved citizens to citizens who are demanding their rights, I find that really interesting and it's a nice break from party politics as such.
DOH: As an audience member what type of plays do you prefer to watch?
AB: I think a play that challenges me without preaching at me. I always think the great modern playwrights like Arthur Miller encapsulate huge issues in a human drama. You care about the people and the characters first then later on care about the issues. The Crucible for example is a perfect example of that. It's often decoded as being about McCarthyism, but it could be about any society that turns on the innocent and victimises them. They start as human dramas, and I suppose I like that. I also like to be entertained, and I like to laugh. At Chichester with a bit of luck we'll be making them laugh as well as making them think. I don't want to be preached at and I don't want to preach at anyone else.
DOH: How has director Max Stafford-Clark been working on 'The Accidental Leader'? Has he been 'actioning' it?
AB: Yes – he always does, although he's quite flexible. It gives solid ground under the feet of the actors, and there's not a sentence where the actors don't understand the intent. Max nowadays mixes it up – he'll do some actioning and blocking and the combination of that works really well I think. I always find if an actor says in rehearsal "what am I intending with this line?" it's always a good test, as if you as a writer can't answer that, it's probably not right. You as a writer then get that early testing by choosing a verb that indicates intent towards a character on stage. It's testing the script as well as the actor, it's quite a tough process and it's not always fun but it does I think deliver something very solid. Even with a comedy. I hope they'll be a few laughs in there, but whether you write something that's a comedy or a play with some laughs here and there, I think actioning is very useful.
DOH: What's the biggest piece of advice you could offer to new writers?
AB: Just keep writing. The biggest enemy of success is when you write twenty pages then you look back at it and think it's crap. Maybe it is crap but just keep on writing. Maybe over the twenty pages you've written there are two that are great, so you keep them. The worst thing is to make judgements about what you've written. Just keep writing. Take a step back later when you've finished it and then decide what's good and what's bad. Writing is about re-writing.
The production includes plays by Alistair Beaton, Caryl Churchill, Stella Feehily, David Hare and Mark Ravenhill and runs at the Arts Theatre in London's West End from 18 May to 2 July 2016.