Since her breakthrough play Yen, Anna Jordan has gained a reputation for tackling grim subjects. She tells Lyn Gardner how new touring show Pop Music gives her a chance to show off her more playful side
By her own admission, Anna Jordan was a late starter. “I didn’t start writing plays until I was 26. I was already too old for some playwriting schemes, and I was 33 when I won the Bruntwood Prize for Yen,” she says. “At that point, I had been writing for seven years and I didn’t have any commissions, and theatres weren’t queuing up to work with me. I wouldn’t deny that there were moments during that time when I did wonder whether maybe my work just didn’t cut it.”
All that has changed. Since Yen – a tender, bruising story of two neglected teenagers fending for themselves in a filthy flat – which premiered at the Royal Exchange in Manchester in 2015 before transferring to London’s Royal Court – Jordan has been very much in demand.
“Winning the Bruntwood was a life-changer,” Jordan says. “If I hadn’t…?” She trails off. “I used the money wisely to pay off my debts.” It also opened doors, not just in the UK but also in the US where Yen had a successful New York run, after which she secured a US agent.
She has worked on the HBO series Succession, which premiered to rave reviews on both sides of the Atlantic this month, and in September she has two major plays opening: Pop Music, directed by Paines Plough’s James Grieve, opens at Birmingham Rep before touring the country, and The Unreturning, a play about young men coming home from war, written for Frantic Assembly. It’s co-produced by the Theatre Royal Plymouth where it begins its tour.
Then, next February, Jordan’s new version of Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children opens at the Royal Exchange in Manchester with 2018 The Stage Edinburgh Award-winner Julie Hesmondhalgh as the woman determined to turn a profit out of war.
‘People think I always write about sex and that my plays are grim – but there are always moments of humour’
We meet in London at the end of July, just weeks before the arrival of her first child. Jordan has written about her experience of repeated miscarriage on her blog, where she has also detailed the grief of losing her mother to cancer. “It’s been a traumatic few years,” she says quietly.
Jordan has always written about difficult subjects, even when the words don’t come easily. “Writing, when it’s not going well, can feel so isolating. So hard. But when it’s great, it’s really great, so great it makes you forget about the difficult times.”
A former actor, she scribbled her first play on the bus journeys to and from rehearsals. It followed two people on top of a tower block notorious for suicides. Two subsequent plays – Freak, about the sexualisation of teenage girls, and Chicken Shop, about the sex trafficking that happens under our noses – are proof of her ability to engage unblinkingly with the harder facts of life, to put the flesh on the bones of a news story. She has the gift of making an audience empathise. In Jordan’s work bleakness and compassion walk hand in hand.
“People think I always write about sex and that my plays are grim. But I think I am quite a funny writer. Yes, the things I look at are grim, but there are always moments of humour.” She is currently working on her first sitcom.
What was your first non-theatre job?
What was your first professional theatre job?
In the chorus at the panto at Watermans Arts Centre in Brentford.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
It’s a long game. When I did my first play it was so galvanising that I immediately wanted a play on at London’s Royal Court. If you had told me it wouldn’t be until 10 years down the line I might have been demoralised. But I did get a play on at the Royal Court.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
John Sullivan, the writer of Only Fools and Horses. People are surprised but it’s true.
What’s your best advice for auditions?
Actors shouldn’t be afraid to ask questions. Never feel you have to get it right. Even at this stage in the process it should be a collaboration.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
I used to think that if you hadn’t suffered during the process it wouldn’t go well. But it’s not true. You can enjoy your work.
Born into an acting family, Jordan was determined to follow in her parents’ footsteps, even when it took her three attempts to get into drama school. It wasn’t easy after she graduated either. “If you are a mid-blonde, mid-weight white female, you are entering a flooded market,” she says. “After a while, I realised that I was a good actor, but I was never going to be a great actor. But maybe I could be a great writer and director.”
Jordan founded her own company Without a Paddle Theatre and regularly directs and teaches in drama schools, which she loves and can’t imagine ever giving up completely. Not least because she recognises that having several strings to your bow can ease the financial insecurities that come with any career in theatre. “I never felt I failed at acting,” she says. “I got so much out of it, and I might never have come to writing and directing without it.” But, she adds: “I have never felt tempted to write a part for myself.”
Working with Frantic Assembly and Paines Plough offers what Jordan sees as a distinct break with her previous plays including Yen, Freak and Chicken Shop, which she describes as ‘early career’ works that were all written on spec.
She recalls once hearing Rebecca Lenkiewicz saying that later in their careers writers often look back with nostalgia to the beginning, when they could write what they wanted, unbound by a commission and deadlines or the need to write for a particular space. Jordan is aware of the danger of writing to order and of her “original voice being lost or diluted”, but writing for both Paines Plough and Frantic Assembly has been creatively invigorating. It’s nice to be commissioned, she says, after all those lean years.
The Unreturning, featuring four actors from Frantic Assembly’s Ignition programme – which seeks out disadvantaged male acting talent in unexpected places – tells the story of three young men coming home from different wars in Aleppo, Afghanistan and the First World War. It has allowed Jordan to flex new writing muscles.
“Because the production will have a strong physical aspect, writing for Frantic you can afford to, and should, do less as a writer. It’s given me a freedom to experiment with a more poetic style and work more with images. I’ve enjoyed that.”
If The Unreturning, a play about young men dealing with trauma and change, sounds typical Jordan territory, Pop Music, which premiered at Latitude Festival, offers a chance to show her more riotous side. “I’m a big fan of shows that use pop music but you so rarely see it properly integrated,” she says. “Pop Music, which takes place in the last hour of a disco at a wedding reception, is trying to do that. James [Grieve, the director] and I are trying to see how many different ways we can get the text to genuinely interact with the songs.”
Jordan says the aim is to tell the story of two people whose lives “are a bit of a mess” as they reach their 30s and discover that things haven’t worked out as they had hoped. They are having to cope with the accumulation of grief and loss that come with age.
If that makes it sound heavy, Jordan is confident that, on the contrary, this show about “the promises that pop music can’t keep and the way it even makes being dumped sound glamorous and exciting” will have the appeal of “a really catchy pop song”. It’s something that she is a sucker for herself.
“My love of pop has always been reflected in the climaxes and rhythms in my writing, and this was a way of bringing the music and the writing together. I love crappy dance music and chart music, but I am always slightly embarrassed to admit it because I think I ought to be more highbrow,” she says. “We all know how music from our past has the power to generate instant feelings that transport us back in time. The challenge in writing Pop Music has been finding a way to put those feelings into words.”
Born: 1979, London
Landmark productions: Freak, Assembly Rooms, Edinburgh (2014); Chicken Shop, Park Theatre, London (2014); Yen, Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester; Royal Court Theatre, London (2015)
Awards: Offcut award for Closer to God (2009); Bruntwood prize for Yen (2013) Agent: Camilla Young at Curtis Brown