Joe Penhall’s new play explores attitudes toward pregnancy by depicting how different things would be if men could give birth. He tells Al Senter why personal experience inspired this latest in a line of allegorical work
It’s impossible to resist drawing parallels between playwright Joe Penhall’s recent fecundity in the fatherhood stakes with his equal productivity in the day job. Not six months after London’s Royal Court presented his last play, Haunted Child, Penhall, the doting father of two small boys, has returned to Sloane Square with Birthday, directed by Roger Michell. Whatever they’re adding to the water supply in his part of west London, it clearly works wonders for creativity.
In Birthday, Penhall asks us to believe that thanks to the wonders of medical science, ultimate gender equality has been achieved. Men are now as capable as women of carrying the child and then giving birth after a nine-month term. The hapless house-husband Ed, played by Stephen Mangan, undergoes all the invasive procedures which women have endured since the dawn of time while suffering the inevitable pain of delivery. He and his bread-winning wife (Lisa Dillon) come in the course of the play to resemble powerless consumers, the playthings of an erratic and at times indifferent health service.
Much of the play is drawn from first-hand experience, the result of what Penhall and his girlfriend, now wife, encountered during the arrivals of their children. He says it’s no coincidence that his relatively late taste of paternity has been accompanied by a surge in his creative powers.
“Haunted Child was written just as we found out that we were going to be parents and, by the time it had been produced, I’d written a second play and we had a second child,” Penhall says. “Becoming a parent is a pretty profound experience, of course, and I felt it was something I wanted to write about. Both the births were quite difficult – every bit as frantic as it appears in the play. My partner was lying on her back, full of drugs, and I felt that somebody – me – had to help out as much as possible. I kept an eye on the monitors, talked to the midwife and the anaesthetist. You have to penetrate that veil of professional secrecy; you have to figure out if they’re withholding the truth from you for their own good or for yours.”
Birthday, says Penhall, is like a lot of his work in that it has a double function. “I’m writing about two things at once,” he says. “In Blue/Orange, I wanted to write about mental health through the story of a man who claims to be the son of Idi Amin. When I wrote the screenplay for The Road, I saw it as a movie about the current financial meltdown as much as it was about a post-apocalyptic world. In Birthday, I’m looking at the problems of the NHS through the idea of what would happen if men had to give birth.”
It’s only relatively recently, arguably in Penhall’s generation, that childbirth has become a much more hands-on experience for fathers. For most of the history of mankind, the delivery of a baby has been largely a female preserve.
“I don’t think the human race would have got off the ground if men knew first-hand what was involved in childbirth – the insertions, the bodily fluids, the endless lack of attention, the humiliation, the horror. When your child is being born, you, as the father, revert to basics. You become the aggressor, you fight your corner on behalf of the mother who’s likely to be lying on her back with her legs in the air.”
Self-evidently, no man can ever write from any personal experience of labour, of the emotional, psychological and physical aspects of childbirth. But Penhall cites the 17 hours he spent in the delivery room when his first son was born as a reasonable preparation for the task. There are also some hilarious moments in Birthday as Penhall takes a comical look at gender stereotyping. For all his PC pieties, Ed is enough of a traditional male not to compare his own stoical acceptance of the pain of childbirth with overheated female accounts of the same experience.
“I grew up surrounded by women and now that many of the males in my family have died, I’m still surrounded by them. I’ve always been aware of questions of equality. Birthday is an allegory – I believe in allegories – and I’d originally intended to set the play in the near future. But Roger and the cast asked if I couldn’t locate it in the present and so I agreed. I hope that I’ve realised this different world in a witty and a subtle way.”
Haunted Child and Birthday, as their titles would imply, share several preoccupations. “Haunted Child wasn’t really about religion and the faith which the father had discovered. It was about what happens when you turn your back on the family. Birthday, by contrast, is about a man who is as involved in the process of childbirth as it’s possible to be.”
For obvious reasons, discussion about giving birth tends to be exclusively female. It’s as if women, like old soldiers, prefer to share their thoughts only with those who have undergone the same experience.
“It’s a taboo subject,” says Penhall. “You’re not allowed to discuss how viscerally and how emotionally upsetting having a baby can be. There are times when it doesn’t seem to be worth all the pain and all the humiliation involved. But you’re not supposed to think such thoughts. It’s as if we’re programmed by evolution not to remember the pain of childbirth so we can have another baby and so propagate the species. And, of course, if you’re affluent and live in west London, you can afford to be much more utopian in your relationships with your children.”
During the course of the play, the bond between Ed and Lisa is sorely tested. “In the end they come to realise, as we all do, that it’s always worth it. To an extent, the play is about having thoughts and feelings that exist only in the moment. Characters in plays and films are often strictly defined. They can only think or behave or talk in one way. But in life what we do is often inconsistent. Ed’s position changes. Like most of us, he’ll think and say things that are only true for him in the moment. I love the way in which great actors can articulate those contradictions and paradoxes in a character.”
Penhall’s best-known play is, arguably, Blue/Orange first seen at the National Theatre in 2000 with a strong cast of Bill Nighy, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Andrew Lincoln and directed, like Birthday, by Michell. Penhall thinks fondly of himself and Michell, a frequent colleague, as “one of those wonderfully creative gentlemen couples like Harold Pinter and Joseph Losey”, citing the two plays (Blue/ Orange and Landscape With Weapon) and the film (Enduring Love) on which they have collaborated.
Blue/Orange dealt, among other things, with the incidence of mental illness within the black British community, a subject which needed careful handling on Penhall’s part.
“I did think that I was going to be accused of writing about something which I didn’t know about but that turned out not to be a problem. I like to challenge myself when I’m writing and, to an extent, writing is a form of ventriloquism in which you speak in someone else’s voice. Birthday is more personal, however, and it’s that autobiographical element which has given the play its supply of rocket fuel.”
Penhall says he prefers plays not to be written to a particular agenda, but to be organic. “I love stories, I love writing stories and so I’m wary of working on something that is issue-led,” he says. “I want to write something about poverty and I’d like to write something about inequality but I’ve yet to figure out how to do it.”
He complains about London theatre forming “a very small, self-regarding and insular world”, and asserts that he’d be uncomfortable “if I were simply writing for audiences of affluent west Londoners like myself. My plays are built to go anywhere and there have been 24 productions of Blue/Orange around the world, 16 or so of Dumb Show and about the same for Some Voices.”
Perhaps Penhall’s impatience with the enclosed culture of London theatre is explained by his increasing profile in international films where he is currently working on a werewolf film for Ridley Scott, a cowboy film for Sam Mendes and a project for David Fincher, not forgetting a stage musical with Ray Davies, once the moving spirit of The Kinks.
He confesses to holding a few prejudices during his early dealings with the movies. “When I first started working in the film business, I felt that it was all very much about the film as product.
“But I’ve come to realise that there are also many people making profoundly clever and thoughtful works of art which resonate on all sorts of levels and which challenge an audience in a way which theatre seldom does. At the same time, I’m very choosy about the films I’ll do, choosy to the point of driving my career to extinction. I’m very very snooty about what I’ll do and with whom I’ll work.”
Penhall clearly flourishes on the rich diet offered up by his various work strands.
“I like to keep all the plates spinning at once and that is very liberating and invigorating. In Hollywood they only know me as a screenwriter and have no idea that I also write plays. In London, it’s as a playwright that I’m known rather than for my films. And what is useful about this constant arriving and departing is that you’re never around long enough for them to get bored with you. I love the fact that it’s a complete mystery – that I have no idea what I’m going to be asked to do next.”
As for prizes, Penhall has already collected a few baubles for his stage and screen work. Surprisingly, he’s not anxious to acquire any more.
“If you get one, you’ll only want another one,” he warns. “It’s a curse.”
* Birthday runs until August 4 at the Royal Court, London www.royalcourttheatre.com
Our critic’s verdict: www.thestage.co.uk/reviews/review.php/36645/birthday