Nine Night received rave reviews when it played at the National Theatre earlier this year – now transferring to Trafalgar Studios, it is the first play by a black British woman to be staged in a West End theatre. Eleanor Ross meets its author Natasha Gordon, who will also star in the production
This week marks a piece of theatre history. Nine Night’s opening at the Trafalgar Studios this evening marks the first time that work by a black British woman has been staged in the West End.
Natasha Gordon, the playwright, calls it an “honour”, but adds it’s an honour that “brings with it a string of complexities”. That it raises big questions rather than marks progress. “The answers lie with the gatekeepers, the holders of opportunity. The talent is there among black British writers, the work is outstanding and will continue to be – West End or not.”
Nine Night, which first ran at the National Theatre earlier this year directed by Roy Alexander Weise, is Gordon’s first play. It opened to a string of four and five-star raves, with The Stage calling it a “gift”. This was cemented last month when Gordon won in the most promising playwright category at the Evening Standard Theatre Awards.
Nine Night explores a family in the throes of traditional Caribbean mourning, an extended wake where the deceased is celebrated night after night before their spirit departs. At the National, it was a play both warm and familiar, but also, for many, educational. Even Gordon herself only learned about the Nine Night tradition four years ago when her grandmother died. Before then, it had never even come up in conversation.
Born: Finsbury Park, London, 1976
Training: Guildhall School of Music and Drama
Landmark productions: Nine Night, National Theatre,Trafalgar Studios (2018)
Awards: Evening Standard theatre award for best newcomer to playwriting
Agent: Acting – Eamonn Bedford Agency; writing – Katie Haines, the Agency
“I hadn’t realised what an important tradition it was until my own grandmother passed away,” she says. “At the time, I felt very alien to the whole process and was disappointed with my own Westernised self, right up until the end of the last night. It’s a very spiritual practice and I feel over the past couple of years there’s been a resurgence here in the UK.”
After the show, Gordon had so many people share their experiences with her. “I was amazed by the number of black families who came to see the show thinking: ‘Oh my God, that could be me, my aunties, my cousins, my nieces.’ But I was also as touched by middle-class white people who knew nothing about the practice. They would say: ‘What a healthy way to mourn’ and ‘I wish there was a way we spoke more openly about our grief and loss.’ Then there were the Irish who would say: ‘Ah, that’s so similar to our wake.’ I loved the way we all responded and connected on that level.”
Gordon came to playwriting late. She trained at Guildhall School of Music and Drama and worked as an actor for much of her career, performing in TV shows such as EastEnders and Line of Duty. On stage she was in plays including Mules at the Young Vic, Red Velvet at the Tricycle – now the Kiln – and As You Like It at the Royal Shakespeare Company. She was driven to write Nine Night not only because she had a story to tell, but because: “I didn’t feel like a very successful actor. I was starting to feel really frustrated.”
Hitting 40 was a turning point. Her friend Sharon Duncan-Brewster, a veteran stage and screen actor, gathered a few women “all of a similar age” and asked: “Are you frustrated and confused as to why the phone has stopped ringing? Where are our opportunities to lead the company? To take leading roles?”
She explains that Nine Night was born out of those questions. “I felt as though I had no choice but to write Nine Night. I didn’t sit down and say: ‘I’m going to write a play that must go on,’ but I said: ‘This story is in me and I have to get it out and I might as well get it out while everything is quiet’… That said,” she adds with a laugh, “I never in a million years thought my play would go on at the National.”
Female playwrights are often overlooked on big stages and to get the chance put added pressure on Gordon. “I came to this in my early 40s so the pressure to make this work and to make the play succeed is huge. It takes a lot to get your work ready for a platform [such as the National], and my God, you have to prove yourself.”
Its success at the NT brought the transfer to the Trafalgar Studios, where it runs until February. Gordon regularly attended performances of her play during its run at the National to gauge audiences’ reactions. But at Trafalgar Studios she will be at every single show, on stage.
Gordon will be replacing Franc Ashman, although she never wrote the play to be in it. But when the opportunity came up, her partner encouraged her to take the role saying she would regret turning it down in the long run.
The rehearsal period has been extremely short at two weeks, Gordon says, because Cecilia Noble, who plays the formidable Aunt Maggie, was still in Chicago. “We all worked as hard as we could. We had our first run-through yesterday and it was surprisingly solid. Surprisingly, because we didn’t know what to expect, it went with a kind of ease that was good for us all.”
What was your first theatrical job?
The No Boys Cricket Club, Theatre Royal Stratford East.
What was your first non-theatrical job?
Working in the local dry cleaners with my best friend on a Saturday.
What is your next job?
I have a couple of writing commissions coming up.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
Just how patient you have to be. If you go up for five jobs in a row and you don’t get them, it’s not a reflection on your talents, it’s a reflection on others’ tastes.
Who or what is your biggest influence?
My mother without a doubt. My work ethic comes from her most definitely.
What is your advice for auditions?
There’s a new thing that has crept in – asking people to audition off-book for theatre. If you have time then great, but going in knowing the character with questions to ask is just as important. Auditions shouldn’t be a memory test.
If you hadn’t been a theatremaker what would you have done?
I wanted to be a lawyer.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
I try to say hello to people before I see them on stage, so we don’t have our “Oh hello, how’s it going” for the first time when we’re in character.
Juggling being the playwright and the actor meant Gordon had to work twice as hard during rehearsals. She recalls hearing small things she wanted to change while in character but having to wait until the end of the week to tweak or make changes. She says it was simply about screwing one head on and taking another off depending on where she was. And despite writing the play, Gordon says she was “by far the worst there when it came to lines. They’d all remembered everything and I thought I knew it; but then I realised I was just paraphrasing the script”.
Gordon says the dynamic of her being a writer and actor on the show was no different to normal rehearsal rooms, mainly because it felt like being back in the folds of a big family.
“The original cast had created backstories for their own characters without my input, so my job was to find out about the new Lorraine and what my relationship with her was. It’s been really wonderful to bring their [the original cast’s] imagination into the room and combine it with my words.”
As well as showing a British audience how a different culture mourns, Nine Night also gives three generations of strong women a voice. Gordon is a passionate supporter of older female voices on stage, and thinks there are many more stories to tell from that perspective. “Just take Caroline, Or Change. Sharon D Clarke owned that stage, telling the story of the hardworking and tired rock, who keeps going for her family, who puts her own needs and passions aside. It’s a story many women know well.”
Gordon raves about Annie Baker’s John, which played at the Dorfman before Nine Night, and Winsome Pinnock’s Leave Taking. “When you see older women represented on stage, it feels like a small moment. We see mothers, aunties, nieces on stage showing us they’re the support system, holding everything together. It tells us so much about real life.”
Gordon is not one to sit on her heels and expect more success to roll in. “I understand that success can be fleeting, it captures a moment in time,” she says. “I am delighted to have this recognition at this moment but I’ve still got a lot of work to do.”
Nine Night is at Trafalgar Studios until February 9