I’m the playwright without productions,” Elinor Cook laughs, somewhere between a scoff and a giggle. “A lot of people know who I am, but everyone’s like, ‘Er, where are the productions?’ ” It’s true. Her career looks positively American – all development weeks, readings and attachments. At 33, she’s still very much an emerging artist, albeit one with several years of experience and a ‘small but loyal fan club’ in the industry. There have been awards – not least the George Devine award for promising playwrights, the past winners of which reads like a Who’s Who of British writers – but, to date, there has only been one production.
Don’t for a second think that she’s no good. Cook’s plays are clipped and complex, knotty but fleet of foot. The Girl’s Guide to Saving the World, staged at last year’s HighTide festival, manages to be intricately ambivalent about the fourthwave feminism it portrays, caught as it is between careerism and a bona fide cause. Pilgrims, as yet unstaged, is a three-hander about mountaineering that twists into a contemplation of colonialism, capitalism and the masculine impulse to conquer the world. Cook writes with real control and intelligence.
Productions, though, take chance as well as talent. “Being a writer’s really tough. You definitely have those moments of thinking, ‘Should I just pack it in and be a teacher?’”
Cook hasn’t and she shouldn’t. Good thing, too: production number two lands this month, with Image of an Unknown Young Woman opening at the Gate Theatre in Notting Hill.
Written on attachment at the National Theatre Studio, with a much bigger stage, cast and budget in mind, Image of an Unknown Young Woman starts with a protest – specifically with a girl in a yellow dress shot in the middle of a protest. “The video footage of this violent event takes off and goes viral around the world,” says Cook.
There are real-world equivalents: Neda Agha-Soltan in Iran, pictured with blood streaming from her mouth and nostrils, and pooling in her eye socket; Eygpt’s ‘blue bra girl’, caught being dragged by her jumper along the street by riot police; the woman in the red dress in Turkey, shot mid-blast of pepper spray. The last, in particular, is an extraordinary photograph. “The way her dress flew up. She’s turning away from the pepper spray, carrying a red handbag, and it looked really good,” notes Cook.
She found these photos fascinating and the closer she looked, the more she realised the distinction between the individuals and the images. “None of these women was particularly political,” she explains. “What I’m trying to wrestle with is this: on the one hand, how amazing that an image can galavanise something so huge, but at the same time, let’s look at the fact that it’s a young girl, who looks a particular way; a girl who is not doing anything, but having something done to her. What does that say about us and our relationship to a photogenic face?”
Cook has a breezy, good-humoured nature – she chats away as we try to find a coffee shop that takes cards near Clapham Common – but that’s somewhat at odds with her writing: questing, careful and uncompromising as it is. “What I want to do is grapple with a lot of big ideas, but in the most clear, economical way that I possibly can.”
After a postgrad in classical acting, Cook changed track. She honed her craft at the Royal Court, progressing up the young writers’ ladder, while also working as its senior reader for two years. The balance was tricky. “Being in that literary department, hearing them talk about plays, is incredible, but it’s also really intimidating. Everything you hear, you’re like, ‘Oh, my play’s not doing that. Maybe I should do it more like that.’ When you come to write, you’re second guessing what they want.”
Though creatively paralysing, it honed her approach. “If you can start reading a play and the writer’s voice just leaps out at you, you’re 80% there.”
Cook’s distinctive voice is immediately identifiable: “Vivid, unsettling, funny, precise,” she reckons – but the last of those is worth triple underlining. You can see it on the page: her dialogue is clipped and lines are often only a few words long. “When a line goes over two lines [on the page], I find that I want to whittle it. Rhythm’s a huge thing. It has to fit the beat.” Often, the audience has to fill in the blanks – literally reading between the lines. Caryl Churchill’s influence is very clear. “I have a horror of saying anything too overtly.”
In that, she’s very much of the new wave of young playwrights, at ease with using shape and form to tease out quite elusive, challenging ideas. “You can’t underestimate what people can take on – provided you can spark questions in an audience, I think you can be formally inventive and people will get it.”
At least, they will when they get to see it. No doubt about it: productions will come.