Never one to shy away from a challenge, playwright Alice Birch portrays women and children separated by the criminal justice system in her latest play. She tells Andrzej Lukowski about insisting on accuracy when actors perform her texts, regularly collaborating with Katie Mitchell and living with the ‘tortured artist’ stereotype
Alice Birch is the first to admit that she doesn’t make things easy for herself, which goes some way to explain why we’re sitting in the British Library – where the very acclaimed, very pregnant playwright is holed up trying to hit some deadlines before the birth of her second child – discussing [Blank], a play she accepted the commission for because she couldn’t see how it was possible to do it.
[Blank] consists of 100 scenes on the subject of women and their children separated by the prison system. A co-commission between National Theatre Connections and Clean Break, a theatre company that works with women who have had experience of the prison system, the director gets to choose which scenes are performed, in what order, and who the characters are.
“They said: ‘Would you be interested in a co-commission?’ And I suppose that felt impossible because Connections is for kids and Clean Break is for adult women. And that appealed, there being a logical problem to solve.”
‘You only have to type a few words into Google to see that there’s a massive flaw in the criminal justice system’
The solution came in making it modular, so it can be tailored to the company. Two ‘finished’ versions of [Blank] exist so far, one performed by National Theatre Connections in 2018, and one set to premiere at the Donmar Warehouse as a Clean Break co-production this month.
On the page, they come across as almost completely different works. The sheer care and effort pumped into this enormous play that Birch is wilfully ceding control of is flabbergasting… I have never read anything like it and imagine not too many have. “Oh, I’m sure people have,” she shrugs, “and I’m sure I read something and stole something somewhere along the line and am not giving someone due credit somewhere.”
Birch feels strongly about the subject matter: “You only have to type a few words into Google to be conscious of the fact that there’s a massive flaw in the criminal justice system. We send women to prison, very rarely for violent crimes, and then something like 95% of children whose mothers are in prison end up in homes.” But although she’d worked with Clean Break before, she’d struggled to come up with a new play for the company that was compatible with her increasingly experimental sensibilities. But the provocation of making a work for both it and Connections did the trick.
What was your first non-theatre job?
I worked as a waitress for a catering company.
What’s your next job?
I’m writing a new play that will open in Vienna. It’s a Katie [Mitchell] thing.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
I think it’s all right to take it really, really seriously. It’s good to take it really, really seriously – it’s okay.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
It’s got to be Caryl Churchill.
If you hadn’t been a playwright, what would you have been?
I have no skills at all. I don’t know what I’d have done. I’d be a different kind of writer. I’d say novelist, but that’s much harder.
Soft-spoken and approachable, with a ready line in self-deprecation, the West Midlands-raised Birch is not the person many would picture as the author of the furious experimental feminist drama Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again. in 2014, the devastating and complex Anatomy of a Suicide three years later or her acclaimed film: the smart, savage period thriller Lady Macbeth in 2016.
At the same time, her affability probably offers a clue to why she makes such a good collaborator. Aside from the choose-your-own-adventure style of [Blank], she has worked with feminist physical theatre troupe RashDash on We Want You to Watch in 2015, and director Katie Mitchell, with whom she has collaborated four times, most recently on Orlando at the Schaubühne in Berlin, coming to the Barbican in April.
It would be a mistake to confuse Birch’s pleasantness for being a pushover, though. She is deadly serious when she says the wording of her plays is not subject to change by those she works with. “I know whether it’s an ‘it’s’ or an ‘it is’ and I know why and we could talk about that for three hours and I’m really clear that it’s really important.”
She has also been determined about seeking out collaborators. When signing with her agent, Birch said she wanted to do a play at London’s Royal Court, and work with Clean Break. Anatomy of a Suicide realised the former ambition, while [Blank] marks the second time she has worked with Clean Break, following her debut Little on the Inside. That first play was commissioned after a three-hour chat with the company’s then artistic director Lucy Morrison, whose daughter was off sick with chickenpox.
Likewise, becoming a frequent collaborator with British theatre’s revered European exile Mitchell came about because Birch put herself out there. “I was always a huge fan of hers,” she says, “and I had obviously mentioned that to several people.” Playwright Simon Stephens introduced them over email. “I said: ‘I’d just like to hear about your process.’ So she said I could come and meet her for lunch. And that was it. Two years later, completely out of the blue, she emailed me to say: ‘I’m working on this project with Chloe Lamford at the Schaubühne called Ophelias Zimmer. It’s Hamlet from Ophelia’s point of view and the set has already been designed: do you want to come?’”
Before Lady Macbeth, Birch never saw herself as a screenwriter, but director William Oldroyd talked her into it. That led to more screen work, although she wryly points out that none of it has actually been broadcast yet. Indeed, she received a rude awakening when a widely announced TV adaptation of Mary Gabriel’s Love and Capital (with her as the writer) didn’t end up happening at all. “It’s a totally bizarre industry,” she says. “I assumed it would get made because I was writing it. But it turns out you write so much stuff that doesn’t get made. I mean, I’m sure Jack Thorne doesn’t, but that’s what the job is.”
She’s more philosophical now. Her writing will be on British screens in early 2020 with a 12-part BBC adaptation of Sally Rooney’s acclaimed novel Normal People, which is just wrapping up filming. “I think she’s such a beautiful writer,” enthuses Birch.
Still only 33, Birch’s recent plays Anatomy of a Suicide and [Blank] both seem to represent a writer at the very peak of her powers: maybe she’ll do work as good, or better, but in terms of emotional heft and technical virtuosity, she is fully formed. As well as joining Mitchell’s inner sanctum, she has successfully moved into film, has worked as a story editor on HBO’s hugely acclaimed Succession and adapted the hottest novel of the last year for television. While she may not yet be a household name, she probably will be. Some are already naming her among the greats of her generation, though this suggestion prompts a small freak-out.
“No. Oh, God. Wow. I think that’s lovely – that’s extraordinary. I cannot get my head around that,” she says, visibly awkward. “But as a writer I can’t give myself the privilege of imagining I have an audience. I feel like I wouldn’t know how to do it, I would suddenly have an immense pressure. I’d feel a responsibility to those people and I’m terrified of letting people down, or getting it wrong. Also that doesn’t motivate me, that’s not where the ideas come from. It is a really self-involved, solitary process.”
Asked if she will take time off after the baby arrives, Birch sighs and says no, she’ll just work late into the night; she’ll probably work late into the night tonight. She jokingly refers to herself as a tortured artist; but she’s not so very far off. At the same time, there’s something reassuringly grounded about her clear-eyed perspective on herself.
“I find it really, really, really hard. But I don’t think it has to be that way and I’d hate somebody else to think it did. It’s not life and death,” she says, before adding: “Well, it’s life, but it’s not death.”
Born: 1986, Malvern
Training: BA in English literature, University of Exeter
• Ophelias Zimmer, Schaubühne, Berlin (2015)
• Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again., The Other Place, Stratford-upon-Avon (2016)
• Anatomy of a Suicide, Royal Court, London (2017)
Agent: Giles Smart at United Agents
[Blank] runs at the Donmar Warehouse, London, until November 30