I try to get under the skin
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Nancy Harris’ adaptation of Tolstoy’s The Kreutzer Sonata opens on 6 January 2012 at The Gate Theatre, London, directed by Natalie Abrahami. 

Her new play Our New Girl opens at on 17 January 2012 at The Bush Theatre, directed by Charlotte Gwinner.


Main image: Hilton McRae in The Kreutzer Sonata. Photo: Simon Kane.

Left: Nancy Harris.

I try to get under the skin

Fintan Walsh interviews Nancy Harris, whose play No Romance premiered at the Peacock earlier this year and discusses her adaptation of Tolstoy’s The Kreutzer Sonata and her new play Our New Girl, both of which open in London in January.

Fintan Walsh: Most readers of Irish Theatre Magazine will have encountered your writing when No Romance, your first full length play for the National theatre, was staged at the Peacock in March 2011. Among the most striking aspects of that production was the play’s nuanced episodic form, its centralising of female representation, and its treatment of social alienation, in witty though serious terms. How did these ideas marry together in the development of the piece, and did you feel there was a particular urgency for the dramatic treatment you provided?

Nancy_Harris.jpgNancy Harris: Well it’s a strange thing because writing a play is both a highly conscious, rigorous process where you’re interrogating yourself and your ideas all the time, and it’s also – for me at least - quite an unconscious, instinctive thing where you discover things in yourself that you weren’t aware that you knew or felt deeply about, or even wanted to write about, but which bubble out onto the page and are suddenly there in front of you demanding to be dealt with. And it’s always something of a fusion between the two.

So in truth when I set out to write No Romance, I wasn’t trying to write a play centralising female representation or social alienation or any of those things explicitly – all I knew was that I wanted to write a play about Ireland at that particular moment. And I knew that I wanted to write about it by examining relationships and I guess sex and sexuality.

And it’s funny, because there really is such a taboo about saying you want to write a play about relationships and sex – I even feel tentative saying it now - because there’s this sense, not just in Ireland but in the UK too, that relationships aren’t big or important or worthy enough of theatrical examination especially in a national theatre.   And yet in a country where we still have a way to go in terms of gay rights and women’s equality, where abortion is illegal, where divorce is still relatively new and where the church has held such an influence for so long, I felt there was a need to examine relationships and not to shy away from that or apologise for it, but just to go for it as truthfully as I could.

Then the play was commissioned, the country was, as it still is, completely in the grip of shock about the economic crisis. It was all we talked about, it was all people in other countries wanted to talk about when they met you and discovered you were Irish, it was suddenly part of our national identity. And I remember feeling very keenly that what was actually getting lost in all this, was people.  So I wanted to write something that foregrounded relationships and moments of crisis in ordinary lives, but all the time outside the walls the other crisis is a lurking presence affecting them both directly and indirectly.

No_romance_script.gifNone of the stories in No Romance would be taking place and none of the characters would be trapped in quite the way they are, if the country wasn’t in the situation it’s in. But I never wanted that to be heavy handed or what the play was ‘about’ necessarily – because we all know that reality – but I wanted it to be there and quietly palpable. And the form allowed me to do that because a triptych lets you be focused and incredibly detailed, while at the same time being quite panoramic. It means that three seemingly small stories can add up to one quite big story and I found that idea exciting…and a bit exhausting to write.

F: Although you studied Drama and Theatre Studies at Trinity College, it appears that much of your formation as a playwright has taken place in England, where you have frequently had your work performed. Could you give us an insight into what life as a young writer has been like in England - in terms of opportunities, funding and support structures - and maybe suggest how different it is for someone writing in Ireland?

N: Well yes, I guess it’s true to say my formation as a practising playwright has taken place in England but my love and passion for theatre absolutely started in Ireland and so I would always say that Ireland was the place that formed me and still does.

In terms of how it’s different, I think a lot has changed in Ireland, and actually despite funding cuts there seems to be more opportunities for playwrights now than there were when I was starting out. I went to England to study playwriting at the University of Birmingham mainly because there was no Irish equivalent at the time which is no longer the case. I stayed after being taken on attachment by The Soho Theatre in London which was a bit like Rough Magic’s Seeds Programme.  Basically a year long relationship where six playwrights were given some money to write and we had the chance to do things like monologues, sketches etc. at the theatre which got our work out in front of audiences which was great. After that, I sent two plays to the Abbey and got a commission to write a piece for their 20:LOVE season.

But to be honest it was all pretty incremental and took a really long time and I can’t say there weren’t times where I felt disheartened.

I think one of the best things about Ireland is that we have such an exciting and vibrant fringe culture. It’s not easy, but if you put on your own work here, you probably have a much better chance of getting the right people to come and see it than you do in London where it’s so easy to get swallowed up in the masses.
Over the years I have had some pieces performed with a company called The Miniaturists in London which was started by a group of playwrights. They perform new one act plays every few months on a Sunday evening at The Arcola when the theatre is dark. Everyone works for free, you organise your own cast, director etc and rehearse for a few weeks and then the plays are performed. I’ve seen some really beautiful and exciting new work there by both big name and unknown writers and it’s actually kept me going at times when I had nothing else, because it’s a brilliant opportunity to just write something and get it on. 

There are opportunities in the UK but there’s not a not a vast amount of funding and support – you have to be resourceful and it is tough. There are foundations like The Peggy Ramsay Foundation which are there solely to help struggling playwrights – which are so important. But you need to have had a production to avail of them, so it’s tricky when you’re just starting out. There are also courses like The Royal Court Young Writers' Programme that can lead to productions and that’s a route a lot of playwrights come through. But there’s a lot of competition - and as I said it can be easy to get lost. Often getting produced is so difficult that sometimes it’s about creating opportunities where you can – like The Miniaturists or producing your own work – so at least you are getting stuff out there.

F: Many playwrights, especially Irish ones, are eventually drawn to adapt the great Russian writers. But few take on Tolstoy as you did when you adapted his novella The Kreutzer Sonata for the Gate, London in 2009, in a production soon to be remounted in January 2012.  What was it about this text, and its fierce male protagonist, that made you rework it for the stage?

N: Well actually The Gate approached me about this. I had written a piece for The Bush’s Broken Space Season called Little Dolls. And the artistic director of The Gate, Natalie Abrahami read it and called me in for a meeting and gave me The Kreutzer Sonata. She was interested in trying to do something with it but she wasn’t sure what form it would take.  She just knew that she wanted to do it with live musicians playing Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata onstage and she wanted a writer to collaborate with. I read it and was utterly gripped, especially because it was not at all like anything I had ever associated with Tolstoy.

It’s an unsettling, disturbing piece about a man who murders his wife, written late in Tolstoy’s life where he really had some dark ideas about men and women and marriage. It is, as you say, fierce and made me very angry in parts and yet in other ways it’s quite proto-feminist and disturbingly truthful about relationships and sexual jealousy. So I had this very strange reaction to it where at times I wanted to fling it across the room, and then I’d turn the page and couldn’t put it down. And I thought that was actually great place to start from.  I wanted to take the audience on that journey in the theatre.

It was a huge challenge for me because not only is it Tolstoy, but I’d never written a long monologue before – it’s not a form I gravitate to naturally. I really wrestled with the idea of how to keep someone talking about something that has happened in the past, active and alive in the present. I tried to make it so that not only are we dealing with a potentially unreliable narrator but we are dealing with a narrator not quite in control of his own narrative. So it fragments and breaks apart when he gets to bits he can’t quite rationalise. 

It’s quite a free adaptation but the architecture of the story was there from the novella and I stayed true to that, so it was very much about creating tension through rhythm and language which was actually a big job.  I listened to the Kreutzer Sonata every day for about 6 months like a complete compulsive obsessive because I wanted the music to become part of the shape and to inform the language of the piece as much as possible.  I was also nervous about it because music is so powerful. It can take us to places that words can never get to and I was afraid that it would engulf and overwhelm it, so I had to be sure to leave enough space for music at all times. But Natalie and the musical director Tom Mills worked really meticulously and cleverly with the music anyway. And we have a brilliant actor Hilton McCrae performing it too, so in the end it all came together.

F: Could you tell us about your current Residency at The Bush – how did that came about and what does it involve or allow you to do?

N: I have had a relationship with The Bush since they commissioned me to write for The Broken Space Season in 2008. They put me forward for the Pearson Playwright’s Scheme last year where four playwrights are awarded a bursary by a panel to write a new play and a year’s residency at a theatre.

It was exciting because obviously I have been a huge fan of The Bush for years and they have such a great history of producing Irish playwrights.  But it was particularly good because the theatre has just moved buildings so it is now in a much bigger space. I’ve done a lot of script reading over the year, I’ve sat on judging panels for first time playwrights and I’ve obviously been writing. I guess what it’s really allowed me to do is feel like part of a building. Which is invaluable really because as a writer you are so often working in isolation - it can feel a bit like shouting into a void. The residency gives you a home and a bit of structure and not unimportantly, a place outside of your bedroom in which to work!

F: Our New Girl, your new play for the Bush, centres on what happens when a Nanny arrives unannounced to a busy, middle-class London family.  First impressions suggest that it shares an interest with No Romance in stretched rather than simply dysfunctional personal relationships. Is it fair to say that this is an idea you’re exploring in your writing?

N: Yes that is fair to say, though actually I think Our New Girl explores the dysfunctional probably a little more directly and in a slightly different way than No Romance. It’s a play about a damaged and distressed relationship between an educated, middle class woman and her eight year old child, intensified by an absent husband and the arrival of a nanny.

I suppose it looks at sexual politics, and the dilemma of what happens if you don’t bond with your child. But yes, in terms of stretched relationships, I think that probably is something I’m interested in exploring in my work.  I try not to judge my characters if I can, so that even if they appear awful or do terrible things, I try to get under the skin of why someone might do that, rather than just blame them for it. It’s the great thing about theatre, it allows you to see things from the other’s point of view and have compassion for that which you’d ordinarily be quick to judge and dismiss. It can force you to go to dark places in yourself too of course, but that’s why I love it!

F: Finally, are there any plans in place to have more of your work staged in Ireland in the coming year?

N: Well the Abbey have commissioned me to write a new play for them which I'm really pleased about, though that could take awhile. I wish I was faster but I'm just not. But other than that no other plans for anything in the near future just yet...

 Fintan Walsh is Lecturer in Drama, Theatre and Performance at Queen Mary, University of London.


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