Playwright David Edgar: ‘Becoming an actor has given me an insight into my own failings’
Over more than four decades, the playwright has become the Royal Shakespeare Company’s most produced living writer, penning original plays and adaptations including Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby. He tells Mark Shenton how his career was built on luck, timing and loyalty and about making his stage debut
If playwright David Hare is synonymous with the National Theatre – I’m Not Running, his 18th play for the company, opened this week – then so too is David Edgar with the Royal Shakespeare Company. Over the past 42 years, he is the venue’s most produced living writer with a total of 13 original plays and adaptations.
“David Pountney, the opera director, has said that one of the responsibilities of subsidy is to create careers,” Edgar says, adding: “F Scott Fitzgerald said there are no second acts in American lives, and there are lots of playwrights who didn’t have second acts.
“In order to have second acts or indeed third acts, you need help around the corners. David Hare’s relationship with the National has provided that for him, particularly with his trilogy in the early 1990s. The RSC has similarly kept faith with me, and that is important.”
Over more than four decades of writing, often with the RSC, Edgar has combined the personal and the political, with a penchant for sweeping historical narratives that often take the pulse of the nation, both in the past and the present.
The RSC has just revived Maydays, which the company first staged at the Barbican in 1983. As The Stage wrote of this revival, the play tells an “epic, decades-spanning story of youthful idealism colliding with human nature”. Its protagonist goes from revolutionary communism to comfortable conservatism, from liberal to libertarian. The review added that the play drew resonance “between the seismic political shifts of the late 1960s, and the polarising uncertainty of the present”.
Edgar has an academic, patrician demeanour and speaks with a deeply measured intelligence; at times it is like being in a political history tutorial. It’s clearly a subject that fascinates him – he says a regret is not having a political career – especially when discussion of Maydays turns to how it resonates today.
He brings up the EU referendum and how Nigel Farage, who had been a free-market libertarian, said the vote was “a bash in the eye” for state bankers and big business. He adds: “Populist parties, from Law and Justice in Poland to the Republicans in America under Trump, have been moving to the left on economics in all sorts of ways. Things have been dumped for much more interventionist stuff. Ukip is slithering away from its hostility to the NHS and Trump is promising the biggest programme of public works since the New Deal – whether it will be achieved is another question.”
Maydays – a timely revival
Edgar points to the play being revived at the RSC. “So I think there is this great change and it’s an interesting echo of something that happens in Maydays: my defector starts out saying: ‘I’ve left the left because it is authoritarian, and now I’m a true free-market libertarian.’ But gradually he gets pulled into a much more traditionalist and authoritarian position. We forget that Thatcher had a lot of opposition from traditional conservatives, who said that the market is not the be-all and end-all, and that in some ways it leads you to over-expectation and legalising drugs and so on.”
Theatre is a useful tool for trying to get to grips with “things you don’t understand”, he says. “Maydays was my big attempt to do that and to understand Thatcherism and Reaganism.” Edgar is getting into his stride on the issues and there’s no stopping him now. But in 2018, he sees cause for optimism. “One of the exciting things that’s happening, though it depends on what polls you read, is that British social attitudes have moved to traditional left positions on things like gay rights and capital punishment,” he says. “Britain has changed phenomenally fast. Who would have thought it? That a Conservative government would bring in gay marriage was unthinkable 15 years ago. Of course, that’s hardened people who don’t like those changes, too.”
Change is inevitable, of course, and necessary not least in the theatre. Before this new production of Maydays, the RSC held a workshop to see how the work held up today. “A group of actors was assembled to do it and most of our cast wasn’t born when the play was first done,” Edgar says. “Anyone under 40 had severe problems with understanding the references to stuff that, in 1983, was just part of conversation. Things like Hungary in 1956 and the Heath government had disappeared off the map of understanding, or memory. So a contemporary play had become a history play.”
There was also a technical challenge: to shrink the size of the cast, but not the scale of its themes and reach. “I had to turn a play that had a cast of over 20 at the Barbican to one with half that,” the playwright says. “So I introduced a chorus, which gives us not just the information that we need but the context of what is going on and what the characters feel about it. And in editing it down, and choosing which arguments and speeches to use, we’ve looked at things that have echoes now.”
Stressing the importance of making plays legible to contemporary audiences, Edgar references his most recent original play for the RSC: Written on the Heart, which was first produced in Stratford-upon-Avon in 2011 before transferring to the West End’s Duchess Theatre. “It was about the King James Bible and looked at disputes of Reformation England. I tried to avoid transubstantiation and that we just don’t have any notion of why people were burned for their beliefs.”
Edgar is a champion and a leader among contemporary playwrights, as well as a teacher who has nurtured many. He was president of the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain from 2007 to 2013, and remains co-chair of its theatre committee. “As someone who has fought all my life against too many revivals, particularly Shakespeare, I now feel, along with Michael Billington, that the non-Shakespeare revival is an endangered species.”
Revivals, of course, are the principal way for writers to earn more money from their work after the original commissioning fee, so they’re important. Under his watch, the Writers’ Guild worked to ensure that writers were paid properly in the first place. He was involved with the initial negotiation of two of the guild’s three theatre agreements, and is proud of his work there. “Without these agreements, playwrights would not be guaranteed upfront fees,” he says in a statement on the body’s website. “They would pay a proportion of their future earnings to theatres that did their work from the first pound; they would have no right to attend rehearsals or to be paid for so doing; or to be consulted over casting or text changes. Improving and policing these agreements is vital for playwrights and the health of the theatre.”
Q&A: David Edgar
What was your first job?
Journalist on the Bradford Telegraph and Argus in 1969.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
The honest answer, although there are lots of reasons for not doing so, would have been to move to London. I come here a great deal, but there are disadvantages to not being here.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
Anybody who writes political theatre would have to say Brecht. I have lots of problems with him personally, but a sufficient number of his plays are great enough to keep him on my pedestal.
What’s your best advice for auditions?
One thing is to read the CVs of those doing the audition. In one audition, someone mentioned that they had been in Nicholas Nickleby in drama school, without realising I’d written it; she was covered in apology when she found out.
If you hadn’t been a writer, what would you have been?
I regretted not having a political career – I think I’d have been quite good at that.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
I didn’t, but I do now. My wife tends to give me a pair of first-night socks.
Embarking on a distinguished career
Edgar attributes his career in theatre to luck, timing and loyalty. The luck was coming into the industry at the right time, after graduating from Birmingham University and beginning his career as a journalist on the Bradford Telegraph and Argus. “I came into theatre when three things were happening that were mutually dependent,” he says. The first was the abolition of theatre censorship – which was exactly 50 years before the week we meet. That led to the second development, the fringe, “which would have been bureaucratically impossible before if censorship still existed”, and third was Arts Council subsidy.
“It was a period when there were lots of small theatres, and they were all crying out for new work,” Edgar says. “It was theoretically possible to write a play for five characters that lasted under an hour that was so terrible that no one would put it on, but it was very hard and I never managed it. It was a wonderful period to start.”
He wrote – and was produced – prolifically. Between 1970, when he started writing, and his RSC debut six years later with Destiny, he wrote nearly 40 plays. “There’s a joke in a Howard Jacobson novel where one character talks about seeing three David Edgar plays and walking out of all of them. There were a lot of them. Thankfully, most of them are not published. You could do that, and it was a wonderful learning curve.”
Destiny, which charted the early rise of the National Front, forged a relationship for him with both director Ron Daniels and the RSC that has led him to develop a closer bond with the company than any other living playwright.
The company delivered him his biggest commercial success, with the adaptation of Charles Dickens’ The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby. The show, which opened at the Aldwych Theatre in June 1980, was split into two parts and ran at over eight hours. It starred Roger Rees, David Threlfall and Ben Kingsley and became one of the most successful productions in the RSC’s history.
“I was in America for a year, and got a call from Trevor Nunn who told me he wanted to do a big show that involved the entire company of 40 actors, and said they’d narrowed it down to Nicholas Nickleby and Our Mutual Friend,” Edgar recalls. “I rang my wife in England and asked her if Nickleby was the one with Mrs Gamp in it, and she said no, it was Our Mutual Friend, so that’s the one I wanted to do. Then Trevor rang again, and before I could say anything, he said they’d decided to do Nickleby. I accepted anyway. It was a good re-entry after a period away, and a wonderful thing to do.” It became an Olivier-winning triumph in London in 1980 and then a Tony-winner on Broadway when it transferred there the following year. Today, he reflects: “It’s good to have one big hit – particularly if you do sensible things with the money.”
Edgar’s adaptation is still produced regularly, and this Christmas he returns to Stratford with his adaptation of another Dickens work, A Christmas Carol, which premiered at the venue last year. Reviewing it for the Daily Telegraph, Dominic Cavendish wrote that, after setting the benchmark for ensemble-based theatre with Nickleby: “Now, almost 40 years on, he has set to work on A Christmas Carol. Even if the result can’t be expected to match that award-winning magnum opus, it’s still a magnificent achievement.”
Between the two, there have also been a slew of original plays, including the Evening Standard Theatre Award-winning Pentecost in 1994. “It was written for the National, but for various reasons their heart was not in it and the RSC did it instead.” It was directed by Michael Attenborough, whom he cites, along with Ron Daniels, as one of his most important collaborators. “If it wasn’t for Ron suggesting I came to the RSC, I wouldn’t have been there, so I owe him a huge amount. And as for Mike, I remember an actor saying to us in a rehearsal: ‘You two are so married.’ ”
David Edgar’s top tip for aspiring writers
Stick with the theatre and don’t leave it too early. Don’t do your first successful play and then accept all the television you’re offered. It is possible, because of the Writers’ Guild agreements that I’m very proud of, to make a living out of writing for the theatre; that is what you should stick at until you’ve established yourself.
Performing on stage for the first time
As part of the RSC’s season with Maydays, Edgar will also be bringing his recent solo show Trying It On to Stratford too. It premiered at Warwick Arts Centre in nearby Coventry in June. A few years earlier, he had been talking to Alan Rivett – the centre’s long-standing director who retired this summer – who asked what the playwright was doing next.
“On my second glass of wine, I said I would be 70 in three years’ time, and how I’ve been jealous of people I’ve seen doing solo shows, and thought it would be interesting to write a play that is a conversation between my 70-year-old and 20-year-old selves. He said that he’d commission me immediately. I could hardly say I wasn’t serious. But a little bit of me hoped he wouldn’t be able to raise the money.”
But, working with new-writing company China Plate, Edgar submitted a grant application himself. “Organisations that were already funded couldn’t apply for Grants for the Arts then, so I had to do it myself, and it means that theoretically I’m producing it myself.” He has learned a lot by doing so, on both sides of the footlights. “Having watched myself doing the show on video, I realise how the gap between how you think it sounds and how it actually sounds is so wide. Becoming an actor, albeit only a temporary one, has given me an insight into my own failings. And you’re so vulnerable – both to the audience and to yourself. It’s completely terrifying.”
So, of course, is the writer’s daily prospect of facing a blank page or computer screen. In the late 1980s, he found himself “on a hinge” – a lot of younger directors only wanted to do the classics. He says: “I’d tried to break into television but had not succeeded. I was already teaching a part-time module for undergraduates at Birmingham University and my then head of department asked if I would be interested in setting up a post-postgrad course. I thought it might be good for me – that by teaching others I’d teach myself.”
It was a huge success and its influence is clear. Playwrights such as Sarah Kane and Steve Waters were tutored under his watch (he did the job for a decade), while others that followed included Duncan Macmillan and Anthony Weigh. “From that little acorn, a vast, probably over-large, set of creative writing courses in playwriting has emerged,” he says.
It also led to another great success for Edgar: his book How Plays Work. He says: “It’s my most successful publication. There’s a story that one day the National Theatre literary department all went on an awayday, and they shut the door and just leant a copy of How Plays Work up against it.”
CV: David Edgar
Born: 1948, Birmingham
Training: University of Manchester
• Destiny (1976)
• The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby (1980)
• Maydays (1983)
• The Shape of the Table (1990)
• Pentecost (1994)
• Albert Speer (2000)
• The Prisoners’ Dilemma (2001)
• Playing With Fire (2005)
• Written on the Heart (2011)
• A Christmas Carol (2017)
• Trying It On (2018)
• John Whiting Award for Destiny (1976)
• Olivier (1980) and Tony (1982) awards for Nicholas Nickleby
• Evening Standard Theatre Award for Pentecost (1995)
Agent: Alan Brodie
Maydays runs at the Other Place, Stratford-upon-Avon, until October 20. Trying It On runs until October 27. www.chinaplatetheatre.com/trying-it