Peter Hall was once at a party where a woman collared him and said: “What would poor Samuel Beckett’s career have been like if Waiting for Godot hadn’t landed on your desk?” “My dear lady,” replied Hall, “imagine what mine would have been like if it hadn’t.”
All directors know that a fruitful working relationship with a fine playwright can be a real career booster. In his fascinating book Balancing Acts (just shortlisted for the Theatre Book Prize 2018), Nicholas Hytner admits: “Alan Bennett has been the best luck I’ve had.”
It was Richard Eyre who set the pair up, suggesting that Bennett might be the man to adapt The Wind in the Willows for the National’s Christmas show. It has led to an ongoing creative partnership that has delivered successes including The Madness of King George III, The Lady in the Van and The History Boys. Later this summer, Hytner will direct the world premiere of Bennett’s latest play, Allelujah!, at the Bridge Theatre in London.
But after their first meeting, a sort of creative blind date to see if they would work well together, Bennett complained about Hytner’s lack of small talk. If that really had been a deal-breaker then Hytner’s career may have been far less distinguished, and some of Bennett’s most successful plays may never have seen the light of day.
As the Almeida’s Rupert Goold has observed, getting a great play out of a playwright is like “tickling trout”. It requires patience and real care to get from first draft to first night.
But if discovering a playwright, or developing a long-term relationship with one, is good for a director’s career, it is essential for a writer to have a champion if their work is going to be programmed and widely seen. I was thinking about this when talking to Winsome Pinnock – whose 1986 play Leave Taking is being revived by Madani Younis at the Bush – earlier this month.
Pinnock told me that early in her career she was championed by Jules Wright at the Women’s Playhouse Trust, but when Wright moved on, she lost her best supporter. The doors that had been open were suddenly harder to get through and Pinnock’s career suffered.
We may claim that we live in a writer-led culture, but unless they are a really big name, writers have very little power in the theatre. Even Bennett still shoves the first draft of a new play through Hytner’s letter box as if fearing it is rubbish. In the end it is Hytner, not Bennett, who has the power to get it staged.
So, the ‘unchampioned’ writer is likely to be an unproduced writer. Particularly after they have ceased to be the kind of writer the theatre industry seems to like best: the young, dazzlingly talented debut writer who has apparently popped up fully formed overnight. I recently talked to a playwright who said that getting her first play on had been a doddle compared with her third.
But surely talent will out? Well, not necessarily. It doesn’t just need to be spotted – which many theatres are good at doing – it also needs to be nurtured and cherished. Playwrights and their careers can all too easily wilt, as Pinnock proves. Or at least never get the chance to fully bloom.
At the turn of the century, Vicky Featherstone championed Gary Owen at Paines Plough. Now running the Royal Court in London, after heading the National Theatre of Scotland, Owen’s work – great plays such as Violence and Son and Killology – is popping up there. Those plays may well have been at the Royal Court even if Featherstone wasn’t running it, but the chances are that the relationship going back over years smoothed their path and helped them jump the barriers.
In the case of Owen, it is not just his relationship with Featherstone that has been so fruitful, but also his wonderful collaborations with Rachel O’Riordan at the Sherman, including the mighty Iphigenia in Splott and The Cherry Orchard. Eventually O’Riordan will move on, perhaps to a place where she can continue that partnership. Now, Owen is sufficiently established to survive that, but a younger playwright might not.
Which brings us back to Pinnock. What her experience tells us is that without a champion it’s hard to develop and sustain a career as a playwright. And if you are a black female playwright – with theatres largely run by white men – then it is even harder. Because those leaders’ choices are influenced by where they came from, the culture in which they were raised, the education that they had and the aesthetic that they have developed along the way.
That’s given us Godot and The History Boys, which is great. But what we can never know is what was lost; the careers that languished and the plays that went unproduced for the want of a champion.