Lucy Prebble, the award winning writer of plays, hit TV series and a video game with more than 10 million players, tells Natasha Tripney about why she writes multiple versions of her plays, her friendship with Marina Litvinenko
“I don’t do many plays,” says Lucy Prebble, “and, when I do, they’re important to me. They’re a major part of my life.” In a writing career that has encompassed television – she’s a writer and co-executive producer of Succession, HBO’s addictive portrait of power-playing within an insanely wealthy media dynasty – and video games as well as the stage, she’s written four plays. “I’m not bothered about being on the Olivier stage – that’s not my quest. I want to make work that’s not been done before.”
Following a revival of her first play, The Sugar Syndrome, at the Orange Tree Theatre last month, her third play, The Effect, first seen at the National Theatre in 2012, is being revived at London’s Boulevard Theatre in a production directed by Anthony Neilson. “I love that play and I’m proud of it,” Prebble says. “It’s one of the most intimate, personal things I’ve written. It has within it my feelings about love and depression.” Sadly, in line with much of the theatre industry, and shortly before going to press, the Boulevard announced that all productions were to be postponed.
The Effect is about the things that make us feel the way we do, in which two volunteers, Tristan and Connie, who are taking part in pharmaceutical drug trials for a new kind of antidepressant, fall deeply, intensely in love. Prebble questions whether their attraction is a consequence of proximity or altered brain chemistry and what role, if any, free will plays. It also explores the shifting perception of depression, the cultural acceptance of it as an illness, and how that informs our sense of self.
Intimacy is the key word here. The Effect is an incredibly intimate play about intimacy, both between the characters, but also between the actors and the audience. This makes it ideally suited to a space like the Boulevard. Opened last year, the new Soho venue is, says Prebble, almost “bizarrely intimate”. The size of the stage and arrangement of the seating means “you’re very aware of the rest of the audience and that’s useful for a play like this because the audience should feel as if they’re part of the trial, even as observers. What’s dangerous is for them to feel completely outside it and safe and non-complicit”.
It’s also a play about bodies, ideas wedded to flesh, about “whether we’re as defined by our biology as we’re taught – particularly as women”. For this reason, she says, The Effect plays best in-the-round “because there’s nowhere to hide… You see their bodies from all sides. There’s nowhere for them to go. No wings into which they can nip off. It’s like life. You can’t just stop it, you can’t just go: I won’t be alive for a bit.”
While The Effect could work on screen, it would be diminished. It would lose some of its power. This feels true of all Prebble’s plays. They are stories that necessitate being told on stage. “I think of myself more as a writer in general than a playwright,” she says, “but I’m fascinated by theatre’s abilities to do certain things.” Theatre is a collective act, a site of potential energy as well as a gathering place. “Getting a bunch of people in is a subversive act. I feel a romantic connection ton theatre. It’s like a bunch of people joining around the campfire. You start on your own, then you get a director, a cast, then the audience comes. The group keeps growing.”
When Prebble commits to a project, she approaches it with rigour, testing her work and herself. She wrote several versions of The Effect, a three-person version and a two-hander. “I like to make sure I’ve tried everything.” For a while she became “obsessed” with the idea there should be only three characters, two patients and one doctor, rather than two doctors, so she wrote another version, only to find it was “like a wonky table, with three legs when it needed four”. It was a long process, but it was something she needed to do if she was going to be satisfied.
The Effect is only eight years old but attitudes to mental illness have shifted considerably. Prebble expects that people’s sympathies to the characters and their arguments will also have shifted as result. The idea of depression as an illness is much more embedded into our way of thinking. We place less weight on social factors.
Prebble grew up in Haslemere, Surrey and studied English at the University of Sheffield. Up until that point, she had been writing, but just for herself, what she calls “under-the-bed stuff”. It was only when she was at university, surrounded by a group of creative people – she was there at the same time as Unicorn Theatre artistic director Justin Audibert, Slung Low’s Alan Lane and former Paines Plough artistic directors James Grieve and George Perrin – that she started to show her writing to other people, initially she says “to be useful”.
In 2000, she took a play to the National Student Drama Festival, where she won a PMA most promising playwright award, for Liquid, a play about management consultants. She found the experience of sharing her work, of making something with other people, both comforting and terrifying. Collaborating with a cast and director felt like “a combination of a fun workplace and a family”, and that held a lot of appeal to Prebble. Writing for TV and film are comparatively more solitary, she says. “Like planning a party and not going to it, whereas with theatre you get to go to the party.”
Prebble secured a place on the Royal Court’s Young Writers programme and it was here that she wrote her first full-length play, The Sugar Syndrome, about the relationship between a teenage girl and a paedophile that, like The Effect, picked away at ideas of intimacy and trust. It was staged at the Royal Court’s Upstairs theatre in 2003. Simon Stephens, her tutor at the time, called it “a startling read; alert and sexy, dark and searching”.
Her next play was 2009’s Enron, about the collapse of the US energy company. Using vivid visual imagery, magic and music, it turned an account of financial scandal into a bold, lucid account of corporate fraud and capitalist recklessness. The Guardian’s Michael Billington described its methods as “ultra-theatrical”.
Opening in Chichester, Rupert Goold’s production transferred first to the Royal Court and then to the West End the following year. A Broadway transfer followed but it didn’t ignite in the US the same way it did in the UK, the New York Times’ Ben Brantley issuing the rather vinegary dismissal of it as “all show (or show and tell) and little substance”. Audiences didn’t warm to it and it closed quickly.
Enron has since been staged a number of times internationally. Prebble went to see the production by Reykjavik City Theatre in Iceland. “It was fascinating,” she says, “because Iceland had suffered the most in the banking crisis – a massive collapse in a small country, so it had a particular weight there.”
In 2018, a student company at the University of Texas performed it with a cast of female and non-binary performers. “They performed it as a comment on masculinity.” Prebble adds: “It either needs to be a spectacle, or deliberately rough. Anything in between and it won’t work.”
Prebble’s most recent play is the Olivier-nominated A Very Expensive Poison. Opening last year at the Old Vic, it is based on the book of the same name by Luke Harding, the Guardian’s former Moscow correspondent, about the murder of former Russian secret service officer and critic of Putin, Alexander Litvinenko, poisoned by a highly radioactive isotope slipped into his tea by two assassins.
Once again Prebble’s approach was to test herself, to explore different ways of telling this story. The resulting play ended up being as much about narrative and truth-telling as it was about espionage. Picking up her award for best play at the Critics’ Circle Awards, she says she told Harding when she first set out to write it that she wasn’t sure how much like his book it was going to be, nor was she sure how much like a play it would be.
It was absurdist and hyper-real, with dancing Russian puppets, musical numbers, a gold phallus, and Reece Shearsmith as Putin – a watchful and disquieting presence trying to control the narrative. “It’s like a massive gleaming car pulling up and its suave driver saying ‘get in, we’re going for a ride’,” wrote critic Alice Saville, “but instead of a James Bond-style spy adventure, it takes you behind the scenes, dismantles the car from within.”
A number of people Harding interviewed for his book remarked on how the events resembled a John Le Carré novel. There are times when it reads disconcertingly like a thriller and there was, says Prebble, a version that operated like a thriller too. Much as she did with The Effect, she set about writing it while they were rehearsing at the Old Vic, having been urged to do so by director John Crowley, telling her: “I don’t want us to rehearse a play you don’t feel confident in.”
What was your first job?
I was a paid intern at London’s Bush Theatre literary department for a couple of months, which was an opportunity I won at the National Student Drama Festival. My next job was assistant to an assistant in the director’s office at the National Theatre, which I applied for in the media section of the Guardian.
What is your next job?
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
No one will ever give you permission.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
Self-doubt and Elaine May.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
I will vomit at a first preview and swear to never do theatre again, if that counts.
When he read it, he told her “this is a better, less interesting play”. They opted for the earlier version, a play that drew out the more absurd elements of the story – the blunders, coincidences, the events that would sound improbable if included in a work of fiction, like the woman who jokingly asks the two would-be assassins if they were with the KGB – while burning with anger about the inadequacy of the British reaction to the inquiry.
Prebble was inspired by meeting Marina Litvinenko and thinking about “what she had gone through and fought for”. She wanted the audience to have that same feeling. The play ends with an audience member being asked to read Marina’s words, to reclaim her story. Prebble has remained friends with Marina. “She’s one of the best human beings I ever met.” Some of the reviews questioned the tone of the play and Prebble understands why, but feels they were being “overprotective on behalf of someone who didn’t need that level of protecting”. Marina, she says, still believes in British justice and they’re now “having conversations with a lawyer about ways in which we can get the Russia report published”.
A Very Expensive Poison was one of a number of plays by women in recent years that played with form in interesting ways, I say, with Ella Hickson’s Oil and The Writer, Laura Wade’s The Watsons, Lucy Kirkwood’s The Welkin, not to mention the work of Caryl Churchill, and she calls me out on my
phrasing. “It implies that, firstly, form is something that exists and we all agree what it is.” The word ‘playing’ also has negative connotations. What’s happening is closer to reinvention or “even a destruction of form”, she adds.
Prebble says: “Form, as we understand it, is not solid; it is subjective, flawed, stale.” It doesn’t surprise her that it’s predominantly women who are doing the destroying. Given they’ve “had far fewer stories told, and heard many more from perspectives other than their own, it’s no surprise they’ve said: ‘Look at all the stories there are left to tell that are not those stories’”.
“It’s revealing and embarrassing how much better the work by these women is. It says: ‘Everything you haven’t been doing for hundreds of years… what have you been doing?’,” she adds.
The form of it attracted me. Everything was so broken up. I used it as a notepad for stupid dark jokes and random lines. I wasn’t using it as a social network but as a performance space and I loved that. It never occurred to me that people would think I was saying these things, but as time passed, I began to realise people absolutely thought I was saying these things. Now I sometimes say I’ll be ‘me’, but I don’t enjoy it as much. Something has happened on it in the last 10 years. It’s about identity and self-branding but I liked it better as shattered mirror, as poetry.
… streaming services
One of the benefits is that it’s possible to write episodes that are any length. As a writer it allows you to ask: “How would I tell this story if I could tell it in any way?” It makes you realise how restricted we’ve been for so long.
I’m fascinated by magic because it’s the only art form that is only really possible live. Nothing on camera can ever achieve magic for me because trickery is inherent in screen so it’s never free from technical suspicion. Only live theatre can create the conditions for magic. And it is dependent on a certain level of craft. You can be a natural performer, but no one is born a magician. It requires ridiculous, beyond sensible, practice. People talk about there being no female magicians but there are loads, we just called them assistants. They are the ones who actually perform.
Prebble’s first television show was The Diary of a Call Girl, an adaptation of the book by Belle du Jour, starring Billie Piper, who would also star in the initial run of The Effect. She is now a writer on Succession, having been asked to join the team by its showrunner, Peep Show co-writer Jesse Armstrong. In the US, she says, “the idea of the showrunner has had the most impact over the last 25 years on the quality of TV”.
Up until then the producer was king, now writers captain the creative process. This is an approach that has taken much longer to filter through to the UK, she says, “partly because you’re asking people to give up power, for producers to give up power to writers”. It’s a difficult role, balancing the artistic aspects of a show with the financial, and not one for every writer. “In theatre you’re treated like an artist, and you don’t get your hands dirty, which is good, but can also be infantilising, whereas in television you get your hands in the machinery more.”
Prebble’s interest in video games started when she was young. “It’s the art form of my lifetime. It started when I was born. From Pong to where we are now.” She used to write a column on gaming for the Guardian and during a period when she was struggling creatively, she took a writing job on a video game called Destiny. Games require a different way of thinking as a writer, she says, because “you need to think about the world of the game, its mechanics”.
She adds: “When you’re writing for film and TV, your protagonist needs to be a strong character, charismatic and interesting. They have to want something and they have to overcome obstacles to get it.” It’s different in games. “You want as little dissonance as possible with the person on the screen and the person on the sofa.”
This was a learning curve. There’s an interesting psychological side effect to playing games, she says; the protagonist’s experiences imprint on you. Memories of games can be incredibly strong. “That’s what makes it such a powerful art form. It matters what happens in those worlds.” She doesn’t think game violence has an impact on people – if anything the opposite is true. “Profoundly emotional experiences in games are more impactful than in any other art form.”
Prebble says she’s spent more hours in game worlds than in the theatre. “More people spend more time in game worlds. It makes a difference to people’s lives. That’s literally true. That’s the space I want to spend time working in.”
When we meet, she’s in the middle of editing her new television project, I Hate Suzie, a new show for Sky Atlantic, also starring Piper, with whom Prebble has a strong creative relationship. Piper plays an actor with a public profile whose life is turned upside down when very personal pictures of her become available online. “It affects every part of her life.” The pictures reveal the person behind the construct.
“We are all curators of a version of ourselves online – we all have an understanding of what it is to be famous.” As a woman, Prebble says: “I’m familiar with my self-curation. In terms of my appearance, how I come across, how I want to be seen.” Having reached her 30s, she’s more aware of “the lies I’ve been telling myself and the lies I’ve been telling people around me”.
Like most women, “I spent some of my 20s absorbing ideas of women-ness and as I’ve got older I’ve started to question where these have come from, to say these are things I need to get rid of.” I Hate Suzie is about what happens when you’re exposed in this way, where it can lead. She cites Joan Didion’s essay On Self Respect. “It’s about taking responsibility. Learning to know yourself.”
One of the reasons Prebble didn’t want A Very Expensive Poison to be linear is that, arguably, with so much of our lives taking place online, linear narratives have little in common with how we live, and think, now. In the course of normal conversation, rather than an interview (interviews are weirdly unreal when you think about it), she points out that we might have checked our phones several times, noticed who was in communication with us, who wasn’t.
“We’re able to hold all of these things in our mind. What we think of as being meta-theatrical is closer to our everyday experience.” The work we think of as bold and form-breaking “is more like reality, not less like reality”.
Born: 1980, Hitchin
• The Sugar Syndrome, Royal Court, London (2003)
• Enron, Chichester; Royal Court; West End (2009)
• The Effect, National Theatre, London (2012)
• A Very Expensive Poison, Old Vic, London (2019)
• Liquid – PMA most promising playwright award (2000)
• The Sugar Syndrome – George Devine Award; TMA award (2004)
• Critics’ Circle award for most promising playwright (2004)
• Enron – TMA theatre award for best new play (2009)
• The Effect – Critics’ Circle theatre award for best play (2012)
• Wellcome Screenwriting Fellowship (2019)
• A Very Expensive Poison – Critics’ Circle, Michael Billington award for best new play; Susan Smith Blackburn Prize (2020)
Agent: Charlotte Knight at Knight Hall
This piece was due to run ahead of The Effect opening at the Boulevard Theatre. The show has since been postponed due to the coronavirus