At 70, the playwright Bryony Lavery continues to add to her repertoire of more than 50 plays. With Frozen, her biggest and most well-known title, playing at the Theatre Royal Haymarket and featuring Suranne Jones, she tells Nick Smurthwaite about her ‘public shaming’ and why she is sceptical about the #MeToo movement
With three plays opening in as many weeks – and another announced last Thursday – Bryony Lavery may not be as calm and collected as she appears when we meet in a bar next to the Theatre Royal Haymarket.
It is at this theatre that her riveting 1998 play, Frozen, has just opened for a limited 12-week run, with Suranne Jones – following a star turn in the second series of Doctor Foster, Mike Bartlett’s BBC1 drama – as the mother of a child who was murdered, trying to work out her feelings about the killer.
The play is a compelling examination of how the human mind deals with something so heinous – and it immediately struck a chord. Since the play opened at Birmingham Rep two decades ago, winning the Theatre Management Association best new play award in 1998, there have been eight overseas productions.
It transferred to the National Theatre – and what was then the Cottesloe – in 2002 and opened Off-Broadway in 2004, later transferring to Broadway’s Circle in the Square Theatre for three months. Nominated for a Tony award for best play, Frozen came away with a best actor statuette for Brian F O’Byrne as the child killer.
If it all sounds like a seamless story of success, the reality was rather different. In September 2004, not long after Frozen closed its hugely acclaimed production on Broadway, Lavery was accused of plagiarising a 1997 article in the New Yorker about the work of the noted psychiatrist Dorothy Lewis, author of Guilty by Reason of Insanity.
It was a tumultuous time for the playwright. On the one hand, she had experienced the biggest critical and commercial success of her career up to that point, on the other all the pleasure she ought to have derived from it was dissipated by what she now calls her “public shaming”.
Clearly still uncomfortable talking about it, she says: “It was horrible. I made a mistake but I’ve moved on. I can’t tell you how many letters and emails I had from writers who understood.”
In a 2006 interview with Lyn Gardner, Lavery admitted she had been “immensely naive and very stupid” in drawing on the article quite so heavily. “Frozen’s subject matter was so thorny I wanted it to be completely accurate, but that meant I wasn’t as careful as I should have been.”
In the play she set out to dramatise what she calls “the banality of evil”. She says: “As part of my research I watched The Silence of the Lambs, which portrays Hannibal Lecter as devilishly clever. Actually there is nothing less clever than murdering an innocent person. I also watched a TV documentary about the parents of the victims of the Moors murderers and one of them said: ‘I’m a forgiving woman but I can’t forgive what they did.’ In other words she was not a forgiving woman.
“Then my mother died unexpectedly, having gone into hospital for a simple operation that went wrong. To my surprise I wasn’t angry. I understood the doctors had made a mistake. I became very interested in the nature of forgiveness, which is a huge area of complexity. Forgiveness is a gift you receive. You can’t consciously decide to forgive somebody. The play doesn’t come to any conclusions, but I hope it makes people think about the gift of forgiveness.”
Lavery grew up in Dewsbury, West Yorkshire, and later Durham where her father was principal of a nurses’ training college. As a child she was taken to Dewsbury Empire and in her teens would take a bus into Leeds to see the likes of Laurence Olivier and Maggie Smith on tour at the Leeds Grand.
At 18 she gained a place at Middlesex Polytechnic (now Middlesex University) to read English, and stayed in London. “I realised very quickly I was a city person and a theatre person. It was the 1960s and I was enjoying myself hugely at the expense of my studies. ”
She wrote a play for the National Student Drama Festival, inspired by an erstwhile actor called Edward G Stanley, who was one of her tutors. “He was this short, unattractive middle-aged man and he would read Olivia from Twelfth Night and just become someone else. He taught me about the transformative power of drama. He was a complete guru to me.
“I had no idea then that you could earn a living as a writer, so I became an English and drama supply teacher. Then I got a job teaching cultural studies at the London College of Fashion in the early 1970s, and I had the best time. I also got married and started to think about writing plays.”
In the mid-1970s, Lavery applied for a job as administrator of the experimental touring company Incubus. “My life utterly changed,” she recalls. “The twin torpedoes of theatre and feminism capsized my life and my marriage at a stroke. I went from married lady to what my mother used to politely call ‘a career woman’. You could say I was a late developer.”
It turned out theatre administration wasn’t a good fit for Lavery, so she linked with Monstrous Regiment, the pioneering feminist company, as a freelance writer.
“I learnt how to write on the job, trying to work out how to do it,” she says. “I contributed to a cabaret-style show called Floorshow, a play about a frontier women called Calamity, and a show called Time Gentlemen Please!, which furious feminists pulled the plug on because they thought it was too glamorous and too funny for their remit. There was a lot of furious debate and side-taking.”
Since she is clearly someone with a well-developed sense of fun, I wondered if she found the earnestness of 1970s’ feminist theatremaking hard to take?
“It focused me to make the humour in my writing pointed and political rather than writing to amuse myself,” she says.
“I used it as a tool to challenge notions and orthodoxies one didn’t agree with. Yes, some of it was too earnest for me. As a writer, I never really did earnest. I come from a family of funny people and I grew up surrounded by storytellers and jokers. I use humour to reach out to others. I’ve never been through a dreadful experience without at some point having a really good laugh at something ludicrous.”
Yet she is probably best known for plays that address knotty problems of the human condition – bereavement, retribution, dementia, gender identity.
Her play A Wedding Story, written at the turn of the century, is a family drama about a female doctor with early onset Alzheimer’s, her husband’s faltering attempts to look after her, and the impact on their gay daughter’s free-wheeling lifestyle. Like a lot of Lavery’s plays it juggles life’s emotional unpredictability with a keen sense of absurdity.
Lavery sees playwriting as a process of self-exploration in which she “takes on” a difficult subject in order to find out more about it, knowing that the director and actors charged with bringing it to the stage will also shed new light on her findings.
It is one of the reasons she is passionate about seeing her work in rehearsal, not for reasons of protection or vanity, but because of needing to feel part of the whole process of bringing her plays to the stage.
Having to divide her time between three plays in rehearsal – Frozen, Balls and Brighton Rock – has been deeply uncomfortable for Lavery. “In each of the rehearsals I feel like I’m not there long enough. It’s not that I distrust anyone, just that I love getting stuck in to rehearsals, watching it all come to life.”
No doubt this dates back to her time as producer of her own company, Female Trouble, in the 1970s and 1980s, conceiving original shows with like-minded feminist writers, actors and directors. She was also co-writer, with Patrick Barlow, on a number of the National Theatre of Brent shows in the 1980s, including The Charge of the Light Brigade in 1980, Zulu!! the following year, and The Black Hole of Calcutta in 1982.
While she has always been prolific – her CV boasts more than 50 plays over four decades – it was Frozen that marked a change of direction, going somewhere “deeper and darker” .
In some ways Balls, which she co-wrote with American writer Kevin Armento, is a throwback to the kind of feminist drama she was doing 40 years ago. Its starting point is the famous Battle of the Sexes tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs in 1973 – a story recently adapted for the screen in a Hollywood movie starring Emma Stone and Steve Carell. “We use the rules of tennis to investigate gender politics,” Lavery says. “The set is a tennis court and it’s very theatrical.”
The reviews of Balls were, to say the least, mixed, praising its originality and execution but regretting its lack of subtlety. “Balls is a sports metaphor wrapped in a cosmic allegory tied with an intersectional ‘Battle of the Sexes’ ribbon,” wrote the critic at Theatermania.
What was your first non-theatre job? A bingo caller’s assistant.
What was your first professional theatre job? Administrator, Incubus Theatre Company.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? I could earn a living from writing.
Who or what was your biggest influence? Edward G Stanley, my drama lecturer at Middlesex Poly.
What’s your best advice for auditions? The good auditions are all about getting to understand one another.
If you hadn’t been a writer, what would you have been? An archaeologist.
Do you have any pre-show theatrical superstitions or rituals? I always forget that intense panic will hit me an hour before the audience arrives, but up to that point I don’t need help from the spirit world.
Does her involvement with Balls suggest that Lavery wishes to align herself with the #MeToo movement?
“I’ve been through quite a few false dawns when it comes to changing attitudes,” she says wearily. “In any revolution there is always a great outpouring of passion and good intent in the beginning. I shall watch with interest to see if things change. It’s about giving up power, and nobody likes to give up power. I remain sceptical but optimistic.”
It is hard to imagine someone as formidable as Lavery standing for any nonsense. “I can be a pushover at times,” she smiles. “I’m a woman of my time and I’ve conciliated too much over the years. Of course I will rock the boat if I have to, but I prefer the boat to be equally manned and womanned from the outset.”
No boat-rocking has been required in her third project, an adaptation of Graham Greene’s 1938 novel Brighton Rock for Pilot Theatre, just opened at the Theatre Royal York, under the direction of Esther Richardson.
How is adapting an iconic book different from creating an original piece of drama? “Well, for a start you are not alone. You’ve got a spectacularly good co-writer,” she says.
“You already have the plot, the characters, the location. We’ve set it all on Brighton Pier, which changes configuration to present the pub, the boarding house and other settings. It is just a question of transferring it to another medium.”
Her approach was to read and re-read the novel, then go through the work highlighting the dialogue. “Graham Greene was good at dialogue. By the third or fourth draft it becomes clearer what new material you need to bring,” she says.
The director Richardson said working with Lavery was “a joy,” adding: “Not only is she is a fantastic writer, she is an extraordinarily collaborative theatremaker. She has a wicked, brilliant sense of humour, so she’s wonderful with the company.
“She is generous and sensitive and responsive to the work on the floor. Even when she’s away – sometimes in another country – we keep her in touch through videos of our rehearsals. She does rewrites at the speed of light. I have no idea how she juggles all the plays she’s working on but she has an amazing ability to make you feel like yours is the most important project.”
On Thursday it emerged she was to adapt The Lovely Bones, the novel by Alice Sebold, which opens at the Royal and Derngate in Northampton later this year and goes on tour. Once again Lavery is returning to the subject of bereavement.
“I felt happy to take on another project about grieving and death. I feel comfortable [as a writer] in those areas because, of course, I’ve had a lot of experience of both in my life,” she says.
I ask Lavery whether, at 70, there is a sense of time running out? So many plays to write, so little time left? “Who said I was going to die? I still believe I will live forever,” she says.
“I’m ambitious to work with people whose work I admire. Playwrights never believe they have made the perfect play. We are constantly trying to get better, whatever age we are. Age is a prime tool for any writer. You draw on the pain creatively. You use everything.”
Born: West Yorkshire, 1947
Training: Middlesex Poly
Landmark productions: Floorshow, Monstrous Regiment (1977), The Catering Service, Monstrous Regiment (1976), Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Monstrous Regiment (1979), The Two Marias, Theatre Centre (1988), Goliath, Bush Theatre (1997), Frozen, Birmingham Rep (1998), The Magic Toyshop, Shared Experience (2001), A Wedding Story, Soho Theatre (2000), Illyria, National Theatre (2002), Kursk, Young Vic (2009), Beautiful Burnout, Frantic Assembly (2010), Balls, Stages Theatre Co, Houston, Texas (2018), Brighton Rock, York Theatre Royal (2018)
Agent: St John Donald, United Agents