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Playwright Cordelia Lynn: ‘It’s amazing to see my text being turned into living theatre’

Cordelia Lynn. Photo: Johan Persson Cordelia Lynn. Photo: Johan Persson

After making her debut at the Royal Court with the acclaimed Lela and Co in 2015 and winning the 2017 Pinter Commission, the up-and-coming playwright returns to the venue with her latest offering One for Sorrow. She tells Bridget Minamore how the decision to be a writer and forgo music, her first love, seems to be paying off

When playwright Cordelia Lynn talks about her career, the Royal Court Theatre in London comes up over and over again. At 22, she bombarded the Court’s literary manager, Chris Campbell, with emails so he would see her play Believers Anonymous during its short run at Islington’s Rosemary Branch Theatre. “I was completely unknown,” she says. “It was on the opposite side of London, pouring with rain the night he came… but he just got on his bike to check out this writer, because she’d invited him and he thought the play seemed interesting.”

Campbell was impressed and Lynn gained a place on the Royal Court’s famed Young Writers Programme. A few years later, she made her debut at the Court with the acclaimed Lela and Co, an exploration of women in conflict, which recently won a slew of awards in Chicago. Now, thanks to her winning last year’s Pinter Commission, Lynn returns to the London venue with her new play One for Sorrow.

Directed by ex-Royal Court associate James Macdonald, the play is about a man thrown together with a family during a violent attack in London. “It’s about fear, really, and fear culture,” Lynn says. “How, in these brutal worlds that are dominated by fear, it’s really hard to put your beautiful theories into practice, even with the best possible intentions.”

Lela and Co. review at Jerwood Theatre Upstairs, Royal Court – ‘fable-like account of abuses suffered by women in wartime’

Lynn says the idea for One for Sorrow came “totally whole” on November 13, 2015, with the Bataclan attacks in Paris. “Something that playwrights do is we respond and filter things that are happening in our society, and try to deliver them back to society, back to our audiences,” she says.

“I’d been thinking about the ideas that ended up in the play before that, and then they were consolidated by reading about this extraordinary gesture of bravery where many invited people into their homes during [that] horrible, terrifying event.”

The moment she read about it, the themes for the play clicked into place. Still, she did not write it for another year.

Lynn says: “I was just letting it build and grow in my head. Then I got the Pinter Commission, and I was like, ‘Well that’s nice. Better carry on writing this.’”

Born in London, Lynn spent her childhood moving country every few years thanks to where work took her journalist father. These days, the 29-year-old’s “embarrassingly supportive” family watches all her work, and she considers their support a large part of why she was able to make the decision to be a writer and forgo music, her first love.

A trained pianist, Lynn began studying at a Moscow conservatoire at five years old, eventually leaving music school at 16. “I started to notice that instead of practising the piano I was hiding in cupboards, reading and writing books. You sort of can’t do both [music and writing] when you’re committed to that level of training, so I left.”


Q&A: Cordelia Lynn

What was your first non-theatre job?
Life model. I’ve been modelling for the same artist since I was 18, and I don’t think I’ll stop because we’re basically mates now.

What was your first theatre job?
I wrote this play called Believers Anonymous that my collaborator, Holly Race Roughan, and I put on the London Fringe. We had absolutely no idea what we were doing, so we were wildly ambitious.

What’s your next job?
I’m hoping to do an adaptation of one of my favourite plays by one of my favourite playwrights, for a director I think is really brilliant… I’d love to say more, I want to do nothing but talk about it, but it’s not confirmed yet.

What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
The best piece of advice I’ve ever been given is from Katie Mitchell – a bit of a Katie classic: “Hold your nerve.”

Who or what is your biggest influence?
I tend to be very influenced by whichever director I’m working with at the time, so right now it’s James [Macdonald]. Possibly the most important relationships I have in my life are with the directors who are directing my work. It’s not something I take lightly at all.

If you hadn’t been a writer, what would you have been?
A pianist, or a novelist, but even that feels far away now. For years I said I’d get back to novels, but I’m not sure if that will be the case. I’m very out of practice.

Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
I think we all have funny ticks to manage life, but I don’t have any actual theatre ones.

She started writing plays at the age of 21, having previously written only prose and thinking “that was going to be my form”. She continues: “At university, I had this idea I got really excited about but I weirdly couldn’t make it work. Then I went: ‘Oh, this is not a novel it’s a play.’ I’d never thought of writing plays before, but it just came like that. After that, all the ideas I’ve had have been plays.” Now, with a two-month run at the Royal Court, the decision to switch genre seems to have paid off. “Yeah,” Lynn laughs. “So far.”

Lynn has not left her musical background behind totally. Last year, she wrote the libretto for the Katie Mitchell-directed opera Miranda at Opera Comique in Paris. “Opera is actually a bridge between these two things that were forced to separate – my music world and my writing world – and so to be able to work on opera bridges my divide,” she says.

She does not think a musical background is a requirement for librettists. In fact, having no musical training could be a bonus. “It’s actually quite good if people don’t because they’re not swamped by these inherited ideas about opera,” Lynn says.

Director James Macdonald (left) and Cordelia Lynn in rehearsals for One For Sorrow. Photo: Johan Persson
Director James Macdonald (left) and Cordelia Lynn in rehearsals for One For Sorrow. Photo: Johan Persson

“Opera needs – and is coming to admit it needs – a shake-up, and I think text writers coming in without the weight of that history can only be a good thing. But I personally do have that history. I love opera, I love opera the way I love theatre, so it would be strange if I didn’t want to write for it.”

Would she ever use her background to write the music for an opera, too? Lynn looks horrified, and laughs. “Oh my God, no. I can’t compose at all. Absolutely not.”

Chatting at the Royal Court, she reveals her delight that One for Sorrow’s director Macdonald told her she was welcome in the rehearsal room as much as she wanted, and so she’s been in “most days”. She says: “I just love watching it being made. It’s the most extraordinary thing watching these people turning a text into a living, breathing piece of theatre. They’re creating a world and they’ve got a month to do it; I created a world in two years.

“The intensity of what they’re doing is mind-boggling. I just saw the first stagger through and it was, y’know…” She trails off. “I get really lovey if I talk about them too much. They’re an amazing group of people. James is obviously extraordinary as well, so I feel the work is in the best possible hands and they’re making this very beautiful thing. I could just watch them work for hours.”

CV: Cordelia Lynn

Born: 1989, London
Training: Royal Court Young Writers Programme
Landmark productions:
• Lela and Co, Royal Court (2015)

• Miranda, Opera Comique, Paris (2017)
• One for Sorrow, Royal Court (2018)
Awards: The 2017 Pinter Commission
Agent: Kirsten Foster, Casarotto Ramsay and Associates

One for Sorrow is at London’s Royal Court Theatre from June 20 to August 11

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