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Timberlake Wertenbaker: ‘My plays aren’t getting any less ambitious’

Timberlake Wertenbaker. Photo: Jenny Lewis

Though she is best known for the frequently revived modern classic Our Country’s Good, Timberlake Wertenbaker has written some 30 plays, the latest of which, Winter Hill, opens at the Octagon Theatre in Bolton this week.

The new play is, in the best sense, site-specific, in that Wertenbaker, having accepted an invitation from the Octagon’s artistic director Elizabeth Newman to write a play specifically for that theatre, decided to set it in the town.

“I didn’t know Bolton so I thought I would go there and find out more about it,” says the London-based Wertenbaker when we meet at the Riba coffee lounge near Oxford Circus. “I got the idea for the play as I was walking on Winter Hill, just outside Bolton in the West Pennines. It is about eight local women in a reading group who decide they want to stop a hotel being built on Winter Hill. How far are they willing to go to prevent this from happening?”

The unassuming, quietly spoken writer met Newman when Out of Joint took its tour of Our Country’s Good to the Octagon in 2012. “You don’t say no to Elizabeth,” she smiles. “She is a force of nature. Since she commissioned the play she has become artistic director, which was no surprise to anyone.”

A long-time admirer of  Wertenbaker’s writing, Newman says the new play poses questions “we should all be asking ourselves every day as we try to make sense in a difficult world”.

Suzanne Packer, Amanda Redman, Mossie Smith and Julian Wadham (front) in the Royal Court production of Our Country’s Good at the Garrick Theatre, London, in 1989

It turns out Wertenbaker is every bit as exotic as her name suggests. Born in New York, she grew up in the Basque country in between France and Spain, lived in Greece for a while, looked after horses on Exmoor for a year in her 20s, then came to London with a view to becoming a playwright. Now in her 60s, she has a very individual sense of style and an understated charm.

She returns to the Basque country – an autonomous community with its own flag – often and must be one of a very few people in the UK to speak Basque, a completely separate language from either French or Spanish. Some years ago she was commissioned to write a play based around Basque mythology, which is dense and elaborate, but it has yet to materialise. “It is very hard to write about something that’s so personal to me yet so unknown to most people,” she explains, “It always takes me a long time to write any play, but I’m finding this one especially difficult.”

Difficulty is one thing, work ethic another. “I like to have a couple of ideas in my head at all times,” she says. “The plays aren’t getting any shorter or less ambitious as I get older. I can only recall one year when I didn’t do anything because nobody seemed interested. I’m better if I have someone nagging me to get on with it. I won’t ever stop, because I love writing for the theatre so much.”

Educated in France, Wertenbaker grew up not with Shakespeare and Dickens, but with Jean Racine, Pierre de Marivaux and Pierre Corneille. “I actually refused to take an exam on Corneille, my first revolutionary act, because I didn’t like his plays. I came to Shakespeare later and fell in love with his plays of my own accord. I also went through a Brecht phase, as well as falling in love with Chekhov and Eugene O’Neill.”

She discovered a love for producing theatre while living on the Greek island of Spetses in the 1970s with a group of like-minded friends. She wrote and produced some plays for children before deciding this was her vocation.

Her first significant professional relationship was with Max Stafford-Clark when she joined London’s Royal Court in the mid-1980s as resident writer. It was Stafford-Clark who first directed Our Country’s Good at the Court in 1988, with a cast that included David Haig, Jim Broadbent and Ron Cook. Based on Thomas Keneally’s novel The Playmaker, it concerned a group of criminal deportees in 18th-century Australia putting on a production of George Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer.

Not surprisingly, given that it won an Olivier for best play and the Evening Standard Theatre award for most promising playwright, it put Wertenbaker well and truly on the theatrical map.

Its universal theme of redemption through creative endeavour has ensured a worldwide audience, academic status and many revivals, including a major one at the National last year. This has been both gratifying and frustrating for the playwright, since her subsequent plays have not enjoyed the same popularity.

Kids who study Our Country’s Good in school think I must have died centuries ago

“It’s nice that actors and directors enjoy doing it so much, but I don’t have anything left to say about it,” she shrugs when I bring it up. “Kids who are called upon to study it in school think I must have died centuries ago. However, I did enjoy Nadia Fall’s revival at the National. I tweaked it in a couple of places and Nadia created a truly original production. It was like seeing a different play.”

The enduring success of Our Country’s Good has ensured that Wertenbaker’s subsequent plays get produced, even when they are determinedly uncommercial. She adheres to the notion of theatre as a forum for debate and the exploration of ideas, which isn’t always consistent with box office bounty. One of her recent plays, Jefferson’s Garden (2015), was about the clash between idealism and pragmatism in the founding of America.

“Our brains are designed to cope with narrative complexity,” she says. “I’m not a fan of technology in the theatre because you need to immerse yourself in the storytelling. You don’t need technology and cameras to enhance narrative.”


Q&A: Timberlake Wertenbaker

What was your first non-theatre job? Taking care of horses on Exmoor.

What was your first professional theatre job? Writing Case to Answer for Soho Poly.

What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? As a writer? Don’t allow yourself to get discouraged – keep going.

Who or what was your biggest influence? Greek drama and Chekhov.

What’s your best advice for auditions? Read the whole play, not just the part you’re up for. Engage with the play and, if it’s a new play, try to understand what it’s saying.

If you hadn’t been a playwright, what would you have been? I would probably have stayed with horses. I liked the outdoor life.

Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals? None

It is no surprise to find that Wertenbaker is a big fan of radio drama, perhaps the purest form of storytelling, and garnered excellent reviews for her 10-hour adaptation of  War and Peace two years ago. She is currently working on a four-part radio adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet, which was recently the subject of the stage play, My Brilliant Friend. The radio version is being produced by Celia de Wolff, who also produced War and Peace.

“The language and the writing for radio gives you a free rein. Ferrante’s quartet is about the many roles women have to play in their lifetime. I like the fact that she doesn’t romanticise her heroines. They’re not particularly nice, they’re just themselves, good and bad, but always truthful.”

As chair of playwriting at the University of East Anglia, Wertenbaker tries to encourage her students to write for radio as well as the theatre. “Actually, most of them want to write for film and TV, but I try to persuade them their work will be more respected if they write for stage and radio. Besides, I think theatre is more challenging for the writer. When I started out, the demarcation lines between theatre and TV were stronger, now it’s much more fluid.

“In the theatre, your work is more respected – you’re the one in charge of it. In television, you’ve got 10 people over you telling you what to do, which can be very dispiriting for a writer. You can also write a lot of things that never get made. That’s what put me off.”

Can playwriting be taught?

“It can be encouraged,” she says. “In my experience, most playwrights need courage to find the play they want to write. At UEA we try to get our playwrights working with the drama department so they can have experience of the give and take of theatrical collaboration.”

CV: Timberlake Wertenbaker

Born: New York, year undisclosed
Training: None
Landmark productions: Theatre: The Grace of Mary Traverse, Royal Court, London (1985), Our Country’s Good, Royal Court (1988), The Love of the Nightingale, Royal Shakespeare Company (1988), Three Birds Alighting on a Field, Royal Court (1991), Jefferson’s Garden, Watford Palace Theatre (2015). Radio: War and Peace, BBC Radio 4 adaptation (2015)
Awards: Plays and Players most promising playwright for The Grace of Mary Traverse (1985), Olivier for best new play for Our Country’s Good (1988), Evening Standard Theatre award for most promising playwright for Our Country’s Good (1988), New York Drama Critics’ Circle award for best foreign play for Our Country’s Good (1988), Whiting award for drama for The Love of the Nightingale (1989), Critics’ Circle award for best new play for Three Birds Alighting on a Field (1991), Susan Smith Blackburn prize for Three Birds Alighting on a Field (1991), Writers’ Guild award for best West End play for Three Birds Alighting on a Field (1991), Writers’ Guild award for best play for Jefferson’s Garden (2016), Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature (2006).
Agent: Julia Kreitman at the Agency

Winter Hill runs at the Octagon Theatre, Bolton, from May 11-June 3