With a series of well-received plays behind her, writer Moira Buffini deserves a heavyweight reputation but, as she tells Matt Trueman, she has long fought the male-dominated theatre establishment to champion women’s voices
When Moira Buffini calls her continuing career “unbelievable”, you might think she’s being modest. “I have failed big-time,” the playwright says. It’s a fair cop. For every big hit, Buffini’s had a fairly huge flop. “You know what though? I am really proud of my failures – really proud of them. Success was a bigger crisis for me than failure. When you’re successful, you’re part of the establishment. I didn’t know how to be that. I only knew how to knock it down.”
Buffini’s been writing professionally for 25 years, but even at 53 years old, with prestigious awards to her name, she struggles with the concept of being a “serious heavyweight writer”. She says: “I’m old enough to put myself in that bracket now. I can’t quite believe I’ve said that.”
The label’s right and proper, even if Buffini’s name does not conjure up a style in the same way as her male peers – Jez Butterworth, Martin McDonagh, Patrick Marber – but she’s not alone in that. It is similar for the women she has written alongside: April De Angelis, Zinnie Harris and Rebecca Lenkiewicz. All successful, but sporadically so. They’ve skipped between theatres, in and out of favour, shape-shifting from one play to the next. Are they lesser writers, or have they had fewer sustained opportunities? Surely it’s proof of structural bias: one path for male playwrights, another for women.
“When I was a young writer, I didn’t quite fit into the fashion of the time, and I found it very frustrating,” Buffini begins. As in-yer-face theatre was kicking off in the mid-1990s, Buffini was writing extended historical allegories: Gabriel, set in occupied Guernsey; Silence, about a same-sex couple in medieval England. It took years to find a producing theatre, but she says: “Weirdly, Silence has stood the test of time.” It’s true: its subject is more timely, its style more contemporary. “People can be very patronising to young writing. Unless you’re writing about the here and now in a very direct way, people just don’t get it.”
Her breakthrough came in 2002 with Dinner – an apocalyptic soiree with a suicidal hostess, Paige – at the National Theatre that transferred to the West End the following year, winning widespread acclaim. But it was never the comedy of manners it seemed. She says: “Really, it’s a medieval woodcut of death coming to the party. It’s a very metaphysical play.” Its success was surprising and “really difficult to cope with” – and, with two young children at home, Buffini went five years without producing a new play.
She frequently found herself sidelined in theatre, handed the Olivier stage for Welcome to Thebes, then shunted into a co-authored compendium on climate change, Greenland. Its failure is still “too painful to talk about”. Handbagged, her acclaimed head-to-head between Queen Elizabeth II and Margaret Thatcher, also began life as part of a package of plays. Has she felt as supported as her male peers? “Maybe people are less forgiving of failure.” Buffini never lays blame, but she does talk of gatekeepers: male literary managers, male artistic directors and male critics who miss the point.
Buffini’s musical spin on Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, reformed for the digital age on the Olivier stage as Wonder.land, “got sharked”, she says. It attracted more first-time theatregoers than any other National show. “They loved it. The critics tore it to pieces: ‘Damon Albarn – what’s he doing in theatre? Take him down. Rufus Norris – he’s not Nick Hytner. Take him down.’ ”
Buffini is proud of the show. Watched with teenage eyes, she thought it a joy, but she says: “I tried to watch it like a critic one night and it killed me.”
Breaking glass ceilings can mean bumping your head, but Buffini has always written with one eye on opening up opportunities. Whether creating great parts for female actors or pushing for a bigger canvas with the Monsterists – a group of playwrights who came together more than a decade ago to push big plays with big casts – her art is as much about extending possibilities as exploring ideas – hence her new abridged, re-gendered Macbeth for the National Youth Theatre.
“Shakespeare’s being reinvented across the board. We’re part of a much bigger movement”, she says and believes it is about time too. “It makes you listen to these plays afresh. I don’t think it’s a fashion. It serves audiences better.”
What was your first non-theatre job?
I worked in Tie Rack in Bond Street tube station.
What was your first professional theatre job?
Dresser in the West End.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
I wish I had realised sooner that exercise was an anti-depressant and essential for sedentary writers.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
My mum and my sisters.
What’s the best advice you’ve been given?
Never stay in a job that makes you feel sick.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
I don’t quote Macbeth in a rehearsal room or theatre… unless I am rehearsing it.
Why has gender equality cut through with Shakespeare? “He’s the super-brain, the humanist, the visionary,” she says. “But Shakespeare’s also the establishment – the male establishment. His understanding of humanity transcends gender, but his plays have historically been owned by men.” Shift that, she reckons, and you shift something symbolic. If Shakespeare can take it, entrenched as it is, anything can.
But Buffini’s Macbeth is personal too. When she was growing up in north Wales, the NYT was “a lifeline to the rest of life. It showed me a bigger, wider, more vibrant world”. After a tough year of university, not fitting in, then dropping out, she auditioned unsuccessfully for the summer season – no parts for girls. “It devastated me. To be told there’s nothing for you, you can work front of house – that was my value as a girl. I thought: ‘Fuck that.’ ”
Change, for Buffini, must be structural not superficial. A handful of high-profile gender-flipped Shakespeare productions won’t cement lasting change and, as it loses its novelty or fades from fashion, the risk is that theatres and artists move on. Securing a paradigm shift, she believes, means working across the board – in schools, youth theatres and amateur groups. Tomorrow’s actors need opportunities too.
This is now relevant more than ever, Buffini believes, given the “absolutely catastrophic” cuts to arts provision in schools. She thinks the emphasis on STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] subjects is “unbelievably shortsighted”, stripping schoolchildren of chances to be creative. “It takes all the joy out of learning to use language,” she says. Her own schooldays included an annual week of extra-curricular activities. “I wrote my first play at 14, another at 15 and, by the time I was in sixth form, writing plays was a habit.” As she sees it, artists have a duty to engage, workshopping with and writing for the young.
It’s one of the reasons Buffini’s work so often engages with history. “It’s absolutely a way of writing about now – reinventing what we think history is, you know.” Harlots, for example, her small screen period drama for Hulu about warring brothels in 18th-century London, was created with her old NYT mate, actor Alison Newman. It jumps off from what Buffini jokingly dubs “the Time Out guide to whores – reviews of local harlots”, written in 1763 to offer “a prostitute’s-eye-view of society”.
The jostling, diverse London it suggested took her by surprise. “There are black women in that list, Jewish women, Irish women, old dominatrices, two dwarves, women from all over Europe.” It was, in other words, everything the history books tend to skip past. “Forget Bute and George III. That’s the world I want to write about,” Buffini says. “This is a history I haven’t been taught and it is our history. This is who we are.”
Harlots runs counter to the ‘great man’ theory of history; the idea, born of Thomas Carlyle, that the history of the world comes down to the actions of a few individuals. Its endurance is baffling to Buffini, but it plays out in theatre too. Her career, and those of other “serious heavyweight” female writers, shouldn’t be too readily overlooked.
• Dinner, National Theatre (2002); Wyndham’s Theatre (2003)
• Handbagged, Tricycle Theatre (2013); Vaudeville Theatre (2014)
• Wonder.land, Manchester International Festival and National Theatre (2015)
• Susan Smith Blackburn Prize for Silence (1997-98)
• Meyer-Whitworth award for Gabriel (1998)
• Olivier award for outstanding achievement at an affiliate theatre for Handbagged (2014)
Agent: St John Donald, United Agents
The National Youth Theatre’s Macbeth runs at the Garrick Theatre until December 7