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The Big Interview: Robert Holman

Robert Holman

On his very first day in London, Robert Holman went to the theatre. He had come down by bus the day before, a 19-year-old from North Yorkshire: “Gauche, innocent, stupid,” he now says. A teacher had turned up at his parents’ house the previous year and said he ought to “go to London and write plays”. So he did.

And the first thing he did on arrival – “the very first thing” – was head to the Old Vic box office. This was 1972. The National Theatre was still in-house on the Cut. Holman went straight there and bought a ticket for that evening’s performance of a play called Jumpers by Tom Stoppard.

Screen Shot 2015-03-13 at 18.31.58“I walked in wearing jeans,” he remembers. “You may think I’m scruffy now, but back then I really was, and I was on the third row back and everybody – everybody – was in suits and bow ties. Turns out it was the press night. I had no idea. No idea at all.”

It’s hard to imagine an image that better sums up Holman’s relationship to British theatre. He’s always been a peripheral figure and, though he’s written plays for the Royal Court and the Royal Shakespeare Company, he’s never become anything close to a mainstay of new writing. Actually, that’s not even the half of it. In the last 25 years, Holman’s only written six plays – one of them a collaboration – and his early work hardly ever gets revived. As his long-time publisher Nick Hern puts it: “Robert’s the play-writing world’s best-kept secret.”

Nowadays, there’s something a little hipsterish about being a Holman fan. His plays are so unfashionable that there’s a kind of cultural capital to be gained from them. They do their own thing and the appeal isn’t immediately obvious. They’re difficult and oblique and complicated: a reminder of a less commercially minded moment. You have to be a bit of a purist to enjoy them, something of a connoisseur. A lot of them are pretty hard to track down too, many having long since fallen out of print.

Simon Stephens and David Eldridge were among the early adopters, and their three-way collaboration for the Lyric Hammersmith in 2010, A Thousand Stars Explode in the Sky, about a world on the brink of the actual apocalypse, is largely responsible for bringing Holman to the attention of a new generation.

His name gets passed between playwrights like a secret handshake. Alistair McDowall tells me he first heard of Holman from Duncan Macmillan, who had borrowed a copy of Across Oka from Stephens during the Royal Court’s young writers scheme. Holman is sometimes referred to as the playwrights’ playwright. That, I think, is because his plays manage to wring a huge amount of poetry and poignancy from actions and dialogue that nonetheless seem entirely psychologically sensible. He writes with absolute care, so that each line follows easily on from the one before, even as his plays meander into some quite extraordinary places. Holman doesn’t do narrative drive. His plays undulate. They are, as The Guardian’s Lyn Gardner once wrote, “a slow burn, not a fireworks display”.

Eileen O’Brien in Rafts and Dreams, at the Royal Exchange in 2003. Photo: Jonathan Keenan
Eileen O’Brien in Rafts and Dreams, at the Royal Exchange in 2003. Photo: Jonathan Keenan

Rafts and Dreams (Royal Court, 1990), for example, starts with a marriage strained by severe obsessive compulsive disorder, and ends with a living room floating south through a flooded world. Across Oka (RSC, 1988) follows a boy travelling from Yorkshire to Siberia to return a handful of eggs to their natural habitat. Other Worlds (Royal Court, 1983) is about a talking monkey that gets hanged as a Napoleonic spy – manna for sceptical critics. Fast-forward a few decades and Anthony Neilson is writing glum polar bears and McDowall, irritable seagulls.

Even where he doesn’t drift deliberately off into credible fantasies, Holman manages to spin extraordinary moments out of ordinary lives. Making Noise Quietly (1986), arguably his best-known play, revived at the Donmar Warehouse three years ago, is a triptych of tiny, tender encounters born out of war. Jonah and Otto (Manchester Royal Exchange, 2008) lets two perfect strangers meet, a lapsed priest and homeless father, and has them swap clothes while one sleeps. Bad Weather (RSC, 1998) sees a 69-year-old woman and a 19-year-old boy, an ex-offender, forge a genuine, loving relationship.

The thing is Holman’s plays aren’t really about anything per se. They’re about themselves, their characters, the encounters and events they contain. They don’t have subjects as such and they’re neither directly political nor overtly metaphorical. It’s why he sits so outside of the commissioning process. “I have nothing to say,” he tells me. “As a playwright, I have absolutely nothing to say.”

It’s a crisp February morning and the sky is as grey as the NT. Inside, Holman is in the bookshop. It’s where I guessed he’d be. We hadn’t fixed a precise meeting point and Holman doesn’t have a mobile phone. Like his plays, he takes some tracking down.

Screen Shot 2015-03-13 at 18.32.19Today – as, I suspect, almost always – he’s wearing a large beige and red outdoor jacket, the sort you’d have found in Millets 10 years ago, before breathable fabrics and Gore-Tex made weatherproofing fashionable. He keeps the jacket on throughout, as we sit drinking coffee in the Shed foyer. It never seems to occur to him to take it off. You can’t help but think of Yorkshire, Holman’s homeland, with its wily, windy moors.

Aged 62, his hair is thin and grey, combed forwards in a Brother Cadfael fringe, and he has the same kindly, rounded features as the late Richard Briers. He looks both weather-beaten and schoolboyish – a product of the oversized jacket, but also of his eyes. Grey-blue and clear, they instil a sense of innocence. He coughs a lot. “Too many cigarettes.”

He writes, he says, because it was the only thing he could do – and the only thing he really wanted to do. “I was a dunderhead at school,” he says. “I failed all the exams.”

Holman grew up in Guisborough, Yorkshire, raised on a farm by Quaker parents. Just before his A levels, though, he discovered writing “by fluke”. He started a comedy sketch, about two girls with a goldfish on a bus to London, and didn’t stop until he’d filled a notebook. That was when his teacher pointed him London-wards. “People have said, ‘Blimey, that was courageous’. It wasn’t. I couldn’t do anything else.”

These days, writing comes a lot harder. Holman quickly made a mark in London, living above a Camden knocking shop, and had several plays staged by 25 before winning the George Devine Award for German Skerries in 1977. However, that success proved paralysing. “I got it into my head that I should write a great play, so I didn’t write anything for three years,” he says. “Every play now is a surprise. It’s a bonus.”

The latest bonus is A Breakfast of Eels, Holman’s first new play in seven years, which opens at the Print Room later this month. It wasn’t written on commission and Holman didn’t even approach a theatre or a director about it. “I knew full well nobody would go for it,” he says.

It’s a play about two half-brothers, one 21, the other 35, whose father has just died. Mostly, they talk their way through grief and memories, and the play touches on London, brotherhood, childhood, family, love, loss, time and more besides. It’s a soft, wise and thoughtful play. “I don’t know whether it’s good, bad or indifferent,” says Holman. “Time will tell.”

The play exists only because of its actors, Matthew Tennyson and Andrew Sheridan. It’s something Holman has done for years: Making Noise Quietly was penned with Paul Copley in mind; Jonah and Otto for Sheridan. “I’ve never completely written for myself,” he explains. The process has refined. “It’s my play, but they have informed it in a very concrete way. In the end, it’s just a practical process.”

Sara Kestelman and Lewis Andrews in Holman’s triptych Making Noise Quietly at the Donmar Warehouse, London, in 2012. Photo: Johan Persson
Sara Kestelman and Lewis Andrews in Holman’s triptych Making Noise Quietly at the Donmar Warehouse, London, in 2012. Photo: Johan Persson

Tennyson appeared in the Donmar’s revival of Making Noise Quietly, playing Eric in its first short, Being Friends. Holman, in and out of rehearsals, got to know the cast. Though he knows it’s “terribly wrong of any writer to have favourites”, he was drawn to Tennyson. “During the run I was at home doodling – I doodle a bit, just doodling, just write anything really, it doesn’t matter what it is or what it’s about, it’s got no end really – and I started to doodle for Matthew.”

Doodling, incidentally, is how Holman writes. He does so longhand – apparently in the same pen he’s had since school – without any pressure to come up with anything. In the past he’s spoken about writing, almost free-writing, until one of his characters says something that takes him by surprise. The play proper only comes together in an editing process whereby those jottings are compiled, on computer now. (He avoids the backspace key where possible, an attempt to recreate the discipline and precision of a typewriter.) For Jonah and Otto, he worked entirely on computer. “A Breakfast of Eels is a better play because I started longhand.”

Incidentally, most of these doodling processes don’t make a finished play. “Around every third play I work on comes through,” he says. “The other two will be thrown away. That can be months and months of work and I’ll just throw it away.” Does anyone else see them? “Nobody. Because they’re my business. What I choose to say about myself and make public is my business.”

Playwriting, for Holman, is a fundamentally personal activity; exhaustingly personal, even. “If there is a view of the world in my plays, it’s something that’s personal. The theatre has always dealt with politics and it always will. It’s not my way. My plays are a mixture of memory and imagination.”

I don’t care, you see. I don’t care what they think

Even so, they depend on others: those actors. Holman took Tennyson for tea, “to get him to talk about the theatre and most specifically what parts he’d like to play”. Over the following months, once Holman had come clean about the doodling, the two would go for long walks. “I’d need to talk to him and hear his voice, and to ask him what he might like to do.” He did the same with Sheridan.

In a way the process is about constraints. Rather than inventing from scratch, Holman has to sew the actors into a coherent, credible play. They choose a name – Tennyson chose Penrose – and something they’d like to do on stage (both said sing). Holman asked to be taken to their favourite London spots. Tennyson took him to Highgate Cemetery. “I lied and said I’d never been,” Holman reveals. “Actually, when I first came to London I lived nearby and knew the area quite well.”

The doodles already had a death in them, but Holman’s job is to fold all those elements into a single story and a script. “What they [performers] give me are very practical things. I try and lay down a challenge for them as actors, and they lay down a challenge for me as a writer.”

What is it about Sheridan and Tennyson, I wonder. “I’ve been asked, ‘Are they my muse?’,” Holman starts, “And I don’t quite understand the phrase. Because for me, it’s something more practical in a way. In the end, what it is – though this is a simplistic way of putting it – is that we all have the same courage, Matthew, Andy and I. The other thing is that they’re able to land as actors in the place that I write for them; that’s in the body, not in the head.”

Screen Shot 2015-03-13 at 18.34.47Nonetheless, the play stands on its own. It has to, says Holman. “I hope, in the end, that the piece is bigger than them, bigger than me. I’ve tried to write for them as actors, so I’ve failed them if it can’t be done by two other actors in the future.”

On the whole, the industry isn’t really open to this sort of process: slow-cooking, uncertain, fragile. “I don’t think you can walk into many theatres and say, ‘I don’t know what my play’s about’.” Holman’s made his peace with that and now claims to “feel much freer” about his writing. “I don’t care, you see. I don’t care what they think.”

What does troubles him is the thought of other, younger writers held back by an inflexible system. “I can think of a couple of writers that the theatre isn’t treating very well, because they just don’t fit that mould. They’re incapable of writing things that they think the theatres want.” Much preferable, he says, were the days when playwrights were commissioned, as opposed to plays. “The writers fundamentally decided what the theatre’s policy was. What happens now is that theatres have a policy and the writers have to fit into it.”

The result – at the very least, the risk – is a certain cultural hegemony, one that says, ‘This is what a new play looks like’. It’s something that’s being challenged, admittedly, by a new wave of free-thinking artistic directors and a new generation of adventurous young playwrights. Holman is in contact with a few of them and he’s hopeful about the future. It’s questionable, though, whether his own style of playwriting – let alone his process – would have made it through a more meddlesome writing culture.

“My natural inclination was to have plays about a younger man and an older man sitting on a hillside, talking about the world and not getting up for three hours. Then, eventually, they get up and that would be the end.”

A Breakfast of Eels is at the Print Room, London, from March 16-April 11

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