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Mike Bartlett on his first stage play, Not Talking: ‘I like that my career has been out of control’

Mike Bartlett Mike Bartlett
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As the multi-award winning writer’s play Not Talking finally finds its way to the stage, 13 years after it was written, he tells Nick Clark how he found it difficult to interest theatres in his debut work in 2005 and why the idea of form has been and will continue to be important throughout his career

When Methuen Drama talked to Mike Bartlett about publishing a collection of his early plays, he “cheekily” asked if he could add in Not Talking. Cheeky, he says, because the Olivier-award winner’s first play had never been staged, though it had been broadcast on BBC Radio 3.

“I always thought of it as my first stage play, it just happened to have been done on radio,” he says. “In asking Methuen to put it in, I was just hoping someone would notice it.” And a few years after publication in 2011, someone did.

James Hillier, artistic director of theatre company Defibrillator, stumbled across it when reading Mike Bartlett Plays: 1.

It was one of the books that had been sent to him in apology after his name had been misspelt in the play text for Hard Feelings, which he put on at Finborough Theatre in 2013, the first time he had directed professionally. “I was reading hundreds of plays, looking for inspiration and to learn. I was looking for gems,” he says, and was immediately struck by Not Talking. “I loved it, it’s absolutely beautiful.”

After realising it had not been staged before, Hillier set about putting together a production himself. And after a few years of trying, received permission from Bartlett’s people.

This month, 13 years after Bartlett wrote it, Not Talking opened in its professional debut at the Arcola Theatre in London, and received strong reviews. “This is no ordinary play,” Hillier says. “It’s almost like four one-man shows, but they interweave in an extraordinary way.”

Not Talking review at Arcola Theatre, London – ‘a sensitive staging of Mike Bartlett’s first play’

It is about communication and silence; about what happens to relationships when talking to each other becomes impossible. It also explores bullying in the army and issues around being a conscientious objector.

Bartlett says: “My granddad was a conscientious objector in the Second World War, a decision he had to make at the age of 22. It wasn’t until I had reached that age that I realised how young he was and what a big decision it was to go against the prevailing tide of public opinion.”

Bartlett kept thinking about what he would do in the same position. He adds: “I didn’t know a huge amount about it, and I find when I don’t know about something a good thing to do is write a play about it.”

After university, and a failure to launch a career in theatre directing, he did not know what to do “so, I thought I’d give writing a go” .

Part of what makes the play stand out is its extraordinary form, with the characters delivering monologues directly to the audience rather than each other. “It was a play about people not talking, and the form and content related to each other,” Bartlett says.

“The idea of form became very important to me and would continue to be important through my career. It can articulate not just the words but the shape of everything. With plays, I’ve been looking to do that ever since. The tough thing is to find a new form to articulate each different subject.”

Lawrence Walker in Not Talking at Arcola Theatre, London. Photo: Lidia Crisafulli
Lawrence Walker in Not Talking at Arcola Theatre, London. Photo: Lidia Crisafulli

While some of Not Talking’s influence can be seen in Bartlett’s later work An Intervention, usually he does not return to the same theme or style. “When I do something in a play, normally that’s it. I try to move on. I don’t find a form then do it again and again.”

The now hugely successful writer of Cock, King Charles III and Albion – as well as hit TV drama Doctor Foster – found it difficult to interest theatres in his debut work in 2005. Most suggested he should adapt it into a radio play. He disagreed: “What’s really important in this play is what the other character is doing while one is speaking. The other actor is crucial.”

But that was how it turned out. It was picked up for BBC Radio 3, and he worked with producer Claire Grove. “She was the first person to produce a play of mine. She asked for my ideal actors and I said Richard Briers and June Whitfield thinking, ‘Yeah right’. Sure enough, she got them,” Bartlett says.

Not Talking went on to win the Imison Award, a prize for a writer new to radio, and the Tinniswood Award for the best original audio drama script of the year.

Not Talking was the first work he was paid for – “which is massive; £3,000 was a lot” – and was pick of the day in the Radio Times when it was broadcast in March 2007. Two months later, Bartlett’s first ‘official’ play to be staged, My Child, premiered at the Royal Court Theatre in London.

Bartlett is delighted his debut play has finally found its way to the stage in 2018. Normally he is very hands-on in the first production of his work, but most of the dramaturgical work was done for the radio production.

“There wasn’t a huge amount to change,” Bartlett says. “But for the bits that needed rewriting, it wasn’t hard to tap back in.”

Above all, he wanted the production to be faithful to his younger self. “There are things that I wouldn’t write now, both good and bad. The storytelling has a boldness to it, and smashes two plays into one. I love it. I would hesitate to do that today.”

James Hillier in rehearsal for Not Talking. Photo: Lidia Crisafulli
James Hillier in rehearsal for Not Talking. Photo: Lidia Crisafulli

The writer of the play “felt different to me”, Bartlett says after watching the first preview. “But where it came from is a very personal place, it’s one of the most personal pieces I’ve written.”

Hillier says: “It dawned on me during rehearsals how young Mike was when he wrote this. Then I realised he really is the business, he has a natural talent. We’ve all seen loads of his work, and it’s always fresh, and from this you can see it was there from the start. It’s in his bones.”

Bartlett is a unique “triple threat”, the director adds, hailing his brilliant narrative skills, his empathy as a writer, and his talent in creating a text that stays fresh. “It always feels relevant to the world we live in. It feels like Not Talking could have been written five minutes ago.”

The return of the play pleases Bartlett in another way. “There’s a narrative of playwrights having a linear trajectory to their career,” he says. “I like the fact that life is more complicated and that my career has been more complicated and out of control. That my first play isn’t being put on until now, that’s a more honest narrative.” He pauses, before adding: “It was my first play intended for the stage. It just took 13 years to get there.”

Not Talking is at London’s Arcola Theatre until June 2

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