Once described as “the doyenne of political theatre”, the playwright has lost none of her drive in the 32 years since her breakthrough play Our Country’s Good was staged at London’s Royal Court. She tells Emily Jupp about imagining life as a bee in her new play, Being Human, and how she hopes the crisis will shake up theatre
Timberlake Wertenbaker has become fed up with humans lately – they keep destroying the planet and each other. She is on a creative hiatus from people. “I was just beginning to feel a bit desperate about human beings,” she sighs. Instead, she’s writing about other, more hopeful creatures.
A few years back, she made a documentary about bees and although it is yet to see the light of day, she has remained fascinated by the insects and regularly observes them when staying at her second home in France.
They are the subject of her new play, Being Human. It is a new commission for a national project called ImagiNation – an online theatre event created by Theatre Centre in collaboration with Theatre503 – which evolved during the lockdown.
Nineteen notable playwrights, at different stages in their careers, have written scripts to be recorded by non-actors in their homes. They are invited to send in their recordings, which will be edited into a film of each play – a patchwork of the strongest, most fun or most interesting submissions.
Rob Watt, artistic director of Theatre Centre, who has joined us on the call, says of the project: “If you look at the 19 plays, for me, they’re all political. They’re all either reflecting on or reimagining the world.”
The playtext for Being Human is told from the point of view of a bee and explicitly states it can be performed “by anyone of any age, shape, colour, mobility or gender”. Wertenbaker adds that she would like to see it performed in sign language. “There was a production of Our Country’s Good that had a lot of deaf people in it, and it was wonderful. There’s no reason why a bee can’t be translated into sign language.”
The only thing the performers really must do, when performing the text, is to embody the essence of a bee. A bee who is pretending to be human. Through this conceit, the bee poses questions about humanity and its place on the planet. It is confused by humans, their screen habits and where they fit into the ecosystem.
“The thing is, I can’t figure out exactly what you do. That is, how you keep the planet going, which is what every living thing does,” the bee states. Reading the lines is to feel judged by the bee.
“It’s meant as a challenge, just to make people think a little bit about how they behave,” says Wertenbaker, who sees
Covid-19 as the dark messenger making us aware that we are living in a global, fragile, interconnected ecosystem. “I just felt we can’t keep thinking about ourselves as separate from every other species. I’ve felt for a while that the planet was fighting back and finally we did feel that we were disposable.
“I notice that the Extinction Rebellion people have been very quiet because there’s an incredible amount of grief, and we’re talking about human death [due to coronavirus], but I just wish there had been a longer period of reflection [about climate change in lockdown]. The virus has taught us that we do exchange things – we exchange good things and we also exchange terrible things, but we’re not these divine Trumpian beings who are supposed to dominate everything.”
Wertenbaker’s breakthrough hit was Our Country’s Good, first staged at London’s Royal Court in 1988 before being nominated for six Tony awards on its transfer to Broadway three years later. It is about the first wave of convicts to arrive in Australia, the death of indigenous people and the redemptive power of theatre.
The play helped to establish her as one of the pre-eminent writers of political theatre of the time – in 2015, the Financial Times described her as “the doyenne of political theatre of the 1980s and 1990s”. She is no less political today, weaving in her views on unequal power dynamics, diversity, Black Lives Matter, capitalism and Extinction Rebellion throughout the interview.
When we talk, the lockdown is easing, cinemas are about to reopen, but there is no timetable for the return of live performances. The £1.57 billion emergency funding for the arts has not yet been announced. The uncertain future of the theatre is the thread that runs throughout the conversation.
Theatre Centre is well placed to respond to the challenges of Covid-19, Watt believes. “We’ve been around for 70 years,” he says. “We’re a national theatre company that tours. To me, theatre should start with communities. Theatre should be a place anyone can access, and that needs to shift.”
Wertenbaker nods in agreement. “I see that everybody wants to go back to where they were and that’s the theatre as well, where the prevailing attitude seems to be: ‘Let’s try to make it as it was before, only a little bit less good.’
“Theatre has become very hierarchical and very expensive. When some theatre tickets cost the same as one or two weeks’ worth of food, that’s just not balanced. We need a return to the roots of what theatre once was, which we’ve abandoned.”
The concern for Wertenbaker is not that the crisis will provoke immense change in the way live performance venues are run, but that it won’t change them enough. “This is a pivotal moment for us to shift and, unfortunately, I feel there are certain people who will really dig their heels in and won’t want to shift because it serves them really well.”
‘Theatre should start with communities. It should be a place anyone can access, and that needs to shift’
– Theatre Centre artistic director Rob Watt
Many would dread the dismantling of theatre in its current form, but Wertenbaker sees hope in the prospect; one in which the ‘safe bets’ of a canon of dead white men aren’t the only sanctuary to rebuild profits. “When theatre becomes commercial, you do throw a bit away and you keep what certain people have decided must be kept,” says Wertenbaker.
The killing of George Floyd and the ensuing Black Lives Matter protests have just begun to shift conversations in the arts, despite initiatives to create more diversity and fairness existing in the industry for some time.
“If the pie is three-quarters white male, then everybody else has to scramble for the rest – that means black men and black women and Asian men and women and [others],” says Wertenbaker. “I mean, we probably will go back to the same as before, but I hope not, because then we really have failed to learn the lessons of the last two or three months.” She adds: “Women are still underrepresented, and I think with women’s voices there’s a kind of disposability.”
So, in terms of diversity, how would she change as a writer or how she writes plays? Is the answer to designate more roles explicitly to be played by black actors? She responds by citing the character Duckling Smith from Our Country’s Good, played by Alphonsia Emmanuel in the 1988 production. “I did think of saying Duckling is black, right? But then people are going to think that no other part can be played by a black actor.
‘If the pie is three-quarters white male, then everybody else has to scramble for the rest’ – Wertenbaker
“So I didn’t write it, but I’m rather sorry I didn’t write it, because what did happen was then everybody was white, so one does really have to make it more specific. I will try to do that in future because most of the plays I’ve written – except for Jefferson’s Garden, which has black characters specifically written as black characters – can be played by anyone.”
She muses on the current situation of being creative and writing in lockdown while dealing with these global issues. “I don’t think of myself as being able to save the world or having the solution for the world, I just think there are certain
questions that disturb me,” she says. “I don’t feel I have a specific political solution; in fact, I don’t think any of us do at the moment, because look at the mess we are in.”
Wertenbaker adds: “I think the playwright has to keep asking questions about how to do this and how to do it in as interesting a way as possible.” Imagining life as a bee pretending to be human is a good start.
The deadline for submissions to ImagiNation at Theatre Centre is July 20. Details: theatre-centre.co.uk