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James Hugh Macdonald, the 91-year-old playwright making his debut: ‘The script has to be scrupulously wonderful’

James Hugh Macdonald James Hugh Macdonald

James Hugh Macdonald is having his debut play produced at the age of 91. He tells Giverny Masso about the ideas behind Happy Warriors, which is running at the Gatehouse Theatre in London…

What inspired you to write Happy Warriors?

I’m a great admirer of Evelyn Waugh’s prosaic style, I think he is the prose stylist of the age in England. I was reading somewhere how he visited [journalist and politician] Randolph Churchill in Yugoslavia during the war. That got me thinking about Waugh’s waspishness, in conversation with someone as bombastic as Randolph. The question was – how do I make it into a stage play?

How did you construct the play?

I read up on the background of the pair, and, after a lot of consideration, thought of the idea of a bet starting between the two of them while they were billeted together in a Yugoslav farmhouse – putting them in opposition. Everything followed from there. I felt I had to introduce a third character because I’ve been to quite a few two handers and, firstly, the script has to be scrupulously wonderful. Secondly, no matter how brilliant the script is, about 60 minutes in, the audience thinks they need to see someone else.

Who is the third character?

A partisan called Zora Panic, the daughter of a wealthy landowner who has rejected her father. Zora is employed as a cook and housekeeper to the two Englishmen and she does everything she can to get them to fire her. [Writer and producer] Richard Price was the first person to read the script and he said the character who appealed the most was Zora, who is the only one I had invented.

What other careers have you had during your life?

When I was young, I worked for six months as a journalist at the Coventry Telegraph. I’d previously been rejected from the army on the grounds of eyesight, but when the physical standards were lowered I was able to join. I spent nearly four years in the army in the 1940s and I was very grateful to it for what I learned. When I left I went to Oxford University and studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics and after that I worked for the civil service and learned Mandarin. I later went into university administration in Edinburgh and Cambridge and became a lecturer in Chinese and British politics.

How long have you been interested in theatre for?

Always. The first one-act play I wrote was when I was 14. I also played amateur parts as a younger person.

What made you decide to have one of your plays produced now?

I was a good deal younger when I wrote and thought of it. It was an August bank holiday and my partner had died a couple of years before and my wife had died years before that. The position is vacant but the omens are poor. I was visiting the Norfolk coast and I went to stay at a place called the Smuggler’s Inn where I met a man at the bar. I told him I’d written a play and he said “you’re wasting your time if you haven’t got a producer”. As soon as I got home I got on the phone.

Happy Warriors is running upstairs at the Gatehouse Theatre in London until April 22

Happy Warriors review at Upstairs at the Gatehouse – ‘a witty and intelligent debut’

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