Mike Bartlett: In Conversation

Writer Mike Bartlett and Rupert Goold discuss working together following collaborations on Albion and the internationally acclaimed King Charles III, the role of the writer in the room and what makes a great play.

Listen to highlights of their conversation through Soundcloud, or read the transcript below.

Podcast transcript:

Rupert Goold: Afternoon everybody. Thank you for coming to this chat about ‘the garden’. So this is really just a chance for you guys to hear a little bit about the making process and where the play came from. And get inside Mike's head really. So, Mike, I mean obviously I know the answer to this, but tell me where the first idea came from and how the play came about.

Mike Bartlett: When we were doing Earthquakes in London, which was in 2010, I had this idea about a sequel, which was set in a Chekhovian style English country house. The characters wanted to get to London and found it difficult and had that sort of Chekhov-Moscow feel. But apart from that, I didn't have anything else so I'm [wasn't] going to write that.

And then it was sort of knocking around my head for ages, this idea of writing a pastoral, British-English version. So just as Chekhov used that world to talk about a lost Russia, there's a lost Britain that I feel like, my parents’ generation, my mother talks a lot about and feels like she really misses it. And it's half one step in it and then one step in a progressive sense of what Britain is.

And I certainly feel I was brought up in that - that half of me loves old country houses and that nostalgia, and half of me, intellectually, absolutely knows it's built on death and power and mainly white colonial male past, and all of those sorts of things. So that makes it a really an interesting subject for a play. But then I didn't have any reason to write it as a play. I didn't know the story. I didn't know what the reason to write it now was, and then when Brexit happened, and I sort of thought, this is a divided country and I spoke to some people who had voted for leave. And they said we feel like we're losing a sense of what our country is.

Then suddenly I went, okay that's the content to fill that form. And that was in the beginning of the year I think. And I wanted to write about it. But I was writing on television, I was feeling... in television there's a two year lead in time at least. So you can't respond to the world. And the great thing about theatre is if you've got a theatre that's able to respond quickly, then you can actually get something which is responding to the world as it is now. And so I mentioned it to you and you said, well if you can deliver it by the end of March, then there's a slot in October, so I got my skates on and wrote it.

Rupert: When did you move out of London?

Mike: Two and a half years ago.

Rupert: Because you're from Oxfordshire originally?

Mike: Yeah.

Rupert: And you've moved to... back home.

Mike: Yeah.

Rupert: But the play is set in Oxfordshire?

Mike: The play is set in sort of Cotswoldy... Yeah.

Rupert: So talk to me about your own relationship with the country and... What was it like having been in London for a while and going back? Did that affect the play at all?

Mike: Yeah. I mean, definitely. You can feel that, I mean the whole play is full of people from London mocking people from the countryside and people from the countryside mocking people from London. And me, existing as this sort of, I'm not part of any of that thing. But, of course, I am. I mean, I grew up in Abingdon. Which was a sort of small town, market town as it sounds, new build housing estate. But then I went to a private secondary school which was in Abingdon. And suddenly I had friends who lived in big houses in the country and in this sort of village, in a village, very middle, middle class world. Obviously I wouldn't have identified it at the time but I think I was sort of lower middle class, lots of dogs everywhere and, you know, all that sort of thing...

And so I was always slightly outside it, but then my mother is from that side of things and her family are from that side of things. And our shelves were stacked full of Agatha Christie and P.G. Wodehouse and so that is where I came from, in a way, and in London... It was brilliant for 15 years. And then we moved out, out of practicality. But then going back to it you suddenly go, this is another world. And suddenly when I had friends in London going, I can't understand why the country voted that, you know, to leave, I'm looking around going, I completely get it.

This idea of nowheres and somewheres. That half the people are not connected to their roots in the ground, they're connected to their roots in their lives. Whether it's their journey or their decisions. And then the other half seek their identity through where they're from and their family and where they grew up and it feels like that as an argument and as a contradiction was very noticeable when I moved out of London. And again it's something that is in the play.

Rupert: As a writer is there something you want to try and do operatively with the play? Obviously we live in these very divided political times and we talked about making a play that could speak to the leave and remain sides of the country. Do you feel it's the duty of a play to try to change people's minds, or do you have a sense of political purpose about it, or is it just a story that captures them?

Mike: For me it's not... If I knew what I definitely thought and wanted to change people's minds I'd write an essay. I think there's something about... There's this expression like woke or waking, and that's a really great articulation for me of sort of what a play should do, is ask for a bit more engagement, to complicate, to interrogate, and also to listen. I think we all spend increasing amounts of time talking and actually, it's very unusual to be forced to sit for nearly three hours and listen, and that's one of the joys of theatre, is that you can't argue back in the middle of it. You know, if you have an impulse to go, "Ooh ah, I don't agree", you've got to contain it at least until the interval. And hopefully then, what that means is that you can allow thoughts to percolate, be argued against, to ruminate it yourself.

And I think that, you know, the other purpose that I think about every play is that it should be a prism to understand the world, or your world, in a different or better way. And that it's... You can then use it in the world. My hope would be that when you think about Brexit and you think about British identity and where we're going, where we've been and what you think of as being your British identity, then maybe Albion can help you with that. As well as having a night in the theatre and drama, and a family drama and all those things, which are very important.

Rupert: And so, one of the things that I'm always struck by in your work and the way you talk about your work is the importance of form. We did King Charles III here and that was a blank verse play and a Shakespearian idiom for a royal family and Chekhovian form and Earthquakes in London that we did at the National was a sort of attempt to stage the, I guess the sort of urban excess of the first world. Where did that come from, this interest in form and is it where plays start for you?

Mike: Yeah, definitely. I mean I did a course in Leeds, English and Theatre Studies, but it was a... There were 18 of us in a year and we were given this church building with three studio theatres to just make work. And, I wanted to be a director at the time, so I was really interested, and I was interested in form then and they were really only interested in form. There were a few playwrights talked about in some modules but they were looked at as very old fashioned and very, you know, authorial and not collaborative and not avant-garde and not post-modern. So the work we made involved gauze and paint and taking your clothes off and all that sort of stuff. And so in a way that came first.

It was only then going to do the young writers programme at the Royal Court that Simon Stevens, who was teaching it, took all these people wanting to write plays and went, there is a craft here, there is... In a way that spirit of being avant-garde and new, you must preserve that but if you can develop a craft as well then you can actually, sort of know what you're doing and combine the best of both worlds. And so he, sort of taught me that.

But it is such a weird thing for everyone to come together in a room and watch a play now and suspend our disbelief and do all that. And I think that one of the best things about it is that you don't know what it's going to be when you walk through the door. You don't know what your relationship is going to be to the production or the actors or the text or what's going to be asked of you. So the more that that can be different each time and the more that you can read the metaphors and the meaning into the physical nature of the production, then the more you're going to get from it. And I think the days of having a standard version of what a play is are happily in the past.

Rupert: And tell us a bit about... Obviously you've had huge incandescent success with TV recently, Doctor Foster and all these other things you're doing. How has that informed your playwriting?

Mike: I think I've tried to make sure it doesn't. I think there's a danger, we've spoken about a little bit, which is in TV you rewrite all the time. So, there's a... you know the locations changed, so in the scene you set in a living room now needs to be set in a café. So you have to rewrite that overnight, or we have to cut the scene in half, so you have to rewrite that. You're rewriting constantly and I think there's a danger in... You know, we were rehearsing my latest TV while we were rehearsing Albion. I'd go from the rehearsal room on the TV where the actors would be going, "Do we need this scene?", "Can we rewrite a new scene?", "Can we...", everything was swimming around. I come into the Albion rehearsal room and they'd go, "We've got a big problem, we're not sure this comma was in the right place.”

And I actually think that is the right thing for both those forms, but you have to be very careful not to... I don't know if you agree with this, but I think there's a real validity in going in the theatre, certain actor goes, “what does this line mean?”, and you go, I don't know. I wrote it in a flow, it's got a subconscious meaning, I don't know, I didn't write it all consciously. But you've got the rehearsal room, you've got that time to try and find out what that is, and if it really doesn't work then you can rewrite it and you do. But there's a real danger in running around fixing all the problems, because often it's where the problem is, the resistance, it's where the drama is and the most interesting -

Rupert: Which do you find harder work? Writing an episode of Doctor Foster or... because you wrote this quite quickly, didn't you?

Mike: Yeah. I find TV is much harder work day to day, especially if you're exec-ing and you're also across everything else and casting and all of that. But on the other hand, you sort of sit down and you know, right, I'm going to write episode three now. And you've got a structure by which you are going to write an hour of drama. Whereas it's very important for me for plays, to never write a play because I have to. I've got a commission so I need to write it by, you know, whenever... It's only when the play arrives, and actually, if the play - I find that if the play is organic and the form and the content are fitting well together, it's a joy, and I do write them quite like Charles. I think I wrote this and Charles in about the same time. Which was about two and a half months. And both processes I loved. I loved writing this play and I loved writing Charles, because I'm discovering it and it’s organic and there's no point at which I'm going, I have to do anything. I could just stop. At any point I could've come to you go actually it doesn't work. There's a real joy to that. It's much more organic.

Rupert: And do you write in big, long, eight hour sessions or you only start an hour a day or an hour a morning?

Mike: Well, both Charles and this were written in a similar way, which is unusual for me so I planned a lot. Planned and planned and planned it. And then when I started it, I did like, just a chunk a day. So I did 3000 words a day, 2000 words a day. And then left it, and then came back to it in quite orderly and enjoyed it because I think both plays... I've written a lot of plays which are quite quick. They move very fast and they're written in a moment. But these plays aren't like that. They require a bit more thinking space and structure and... And so actually taking a little bit of time over it is...

Rupert: One thing I've never asked you about actually is where did the characters come from and did they lead it? I mean a character like Audrey, who's the dominant character in this play, like, where did she spring from as a...? Because I'm always amazed how plays often, particularly over time become more and more associated with certain characters, they sort of... The Jimmy Porter as it were. And Audrey obviously does capture a lot of, particularly the leave agenda, but a certain sort of English zeitgeist. But was she the physicalisation of some ideas or was she a real person you were observing or did she...

Mike: I think she's sort of a voice. I think that's where they tend to start, is that... Yes, it's sort of like a voice in my head. And it's probably a mix of all those things. And also a mix of Penelope Keith in To the Manor Born or... You know ... And I think it's important for play like this that they're familiar and that they're recognisable and it means... I mean often I get into a character through a slight sort of comic way. So Charles starts off actually quite comic in the play. And Audrey does in this play. And often I start with them performing as well, like, it's easier to get a character when they're having to perform to someone else. And also, you tend to warm to characters more if you find them a bit larger than life, or endearing or whatever. And then once you've got that, then you can deepen it and deepen it. But I don't think I've ever considered that before.

Rupert: That's interesting. And one of the things I hugely admire about this play is the, in craft terms is, and I know this sounds a really banal thing, but the way you get people on and off. The rhythm of how... For those who haven't seen it, it's four acts in a Chekhovian form, and the reasons why people come on and off, how long they stay together, how the two handers relate to the five handers... Is that part of the planning or does it just happen as you're writing and go, Oh, I think it's time for her to leave or come back?

Mike: No, it's definitely part of the planning. But also what's great is reading Chekhov and going, how arbitrary some of those are, its sort of, it gives you ... Like again reading Shakespeare for Charles, it's so bad some of it, it gives you license to be bad yourself. And then you sort of tidy it up. And also I think with this there's a moment where Audrey orders her husband off stage because she has to have a scene with the other character and he goes, oh okay, I'll go then. Almost drawing attention to the convention. Because we're all sophisticated and we know that. But equally I think that's part of the... I've seen a lot of plays like this where, I've never written one, but where you have to get characters on and off stage and I think as long as... It's like the audience is complicit in understanding that language, so as long as you're playing into that language then I don't think people are going to think ‘what a coincidence’.

Rupert: But that craft, you know, what people used to call a well-made play of the Priestley, Rattigan like... Was that something ... I mean were you studying that? Were you going back through the Chekhovs and going, Oh, I'll steal this act from The Seagull or that bit of The Cherry Orchard, before you started or was it sort of subconsciously there?

Mike: I think I read The Cherry Orchard. I knew The Seagull pretty well actually. The Cherry Orchard I read, but not... I read them once and then... Because you don't want to copy it and you don't want to steal wholesale. You want to steal the flavour of it, and the feel of it. And also in a way, I suppose the best way to talk about it, is it's like a tool kit for me. It's like actors and directors get to do Chekhov and they get to... They learn it and they've done - a lot of older actors have done lots of productions of Chekhov. I've never done Chekhov. I don't get to do that as a writer. And so what fun to read those play and go, right, that's how they do... That's the tool kit. Now I'm going to use it on my own original play.

Rupert: And how do you... I mean if anyone wants to be a writer but, you talk really eloquently about tool kits and craft and learning your craft and yet also writing is such a pure imaginative... I mean you have such confidence to be a writer, to be completely do it... I mean you're so brave in like taking on Chekhov or Shakespeare or these big state of the nation plays. Did you always have that confidence or did it come through doing plays or...?

Mike: No, definitely didn't have that confidence at all. When I went to do that young writers program at the Royal Court, I remember going to the tube barriers and my heart just like pounding. Literally pounding. And walking in and the room being full of very clever, good looking, well dressed people. Duncan Macmillan was one of them. And, you know, if you hear Duncan talk about plays, I just shrink into a ball and go... I literally don't know anything. Even now... He's incredibly well versed. I just don't understand a lot of it.

So, no I never felt empowered in that sense. It came to writing. It came through doing short plays and writing bits and getting better and slowly getting confident. And particularly other people, like the Royal Court in one year said we're going to put on your play, your first proper play downstairs. So we'll get money from that. We're going to give you a Pearson Bursary to be writer in residence, and we'll give you a commission for another play. Which meant I had suddenly enough money to stop all other work and be writer for a year. And that was everything. That was the moment that changed it. Because, not just because of the money and all that but because of the gesture of £20,000 worth of confidence has sort of seen me through to now. That's still what I go back to and go, I'm okay to be doing this job. You know...

But I also think a level of insecurity, quite a huge amount of insecurity, is vital, and I think that's another reason why I try and change up what I'm... You know, shake the Etch A Sketch every play. Because the moment I get comfortable and go, I know how to do... Like I felt with some plays that I was getting into a thing of doing quite fast, clever, Mamet-y dialogue, so I tried to avoid that now and write a play where, like this play, where there's not really a place for that. And having written this I don't think I'll go back to this territory again.

Rupert: So, how can you say that and then do multiple Foster series? I mean like, it's the same thing happen on telly or is telly just a different thing?

Mike: No, I think that is the same thing. I think the second series of Foster is quite different to the first one, maybe too different for some people. And certainly we'll only do a third one if I can think of a similar thing. A new form, a new way of doing it... I would get bored. Exactly that and I think that's why I'm not made for series television. I get as bored as the audience would really. It's about form as well as narrative.

Rupert: And staying on writing, I mean, one of the things that's distinctive about this play is how much people talk about writing. I mean there are three people who actively either are or want to be writers and there's discussion... I mean a Chekhovian way about the craft of writing, the identity of writers. Did you feel self-conscious about that or was that exciting to write about?

Mike: It was great. I love it. It's so seductive and brilliant. I get to talk about what I do. I've had a rule since I started, which is not ever to write theatre about theatre, because we should be looking further than the walls. I think writing about writing is about as far as I'll get to that. But you can see why it's so good, because you go, ooh is that, does he, is that the writer, is that what the playwright thinks about writing? It's like Shakespeare's advice to the players or... You know, we love that because it's... Are we watching the very thing that we're...?

Rupert: So, I'm going to ask you another question on that, in terms of advice to the players. One of the characters in the play says, "Creative writing courses don't have value, or are unlikely to have value and you're better off doing an English degree". Do you want to share what you might feel about that?

Mike: Well, that came from a friend of mine who is probably the cleverest person I know and she's now a novelist. But her problem was she came from a, again, a lower middle class background. She literally didn't know anybody in the industry. She could write as well as she writes now, then. The only way she could get people to read it was to do a years creative writing course, where agents would read it at the end. That was the only way she could do it, and so she did it. She did a whole year just going along with it, and then the agents read it and then she got an agent and she's had two novels published and been hugely successful. But it was totally about her class.

And so, and the number of people, you know, when people are a bit sniffy about creative writing courses, it's interesting how many of them are coming from a middle class/upper middle background where they have lots of contacts with people. They know that world. And I think it's really crucial that, that's the difference between those two characters, is Gabriel, that's his only way in. So actually, I sort of think, if you want to be writer, anything that gives you structure and a place to do it is fantastic. And, you know... But probably there's good ones and bad ones.

Rupert: And did you feel... You know with your hip Royal Court credentials... How did you feel about the sort of quite middle class nature of this family and this play sort of, I mean I know Love Love Love was a similar, but not quite, but similarish... Because you're so interested in class and you write so brilliantly about class and... Is that something that you're sort of self-conscious about when you're doing it or... ?

Mike: I think if I think it's the right form and the right story to be telling now then it's fine. I had a friend come in who found it very difficult to get past the, how middle class it was, how white it was, the world of it. And said that's not what theatre should be doing now, and I think that's right. If all theatre was this, if all my work was this, then that'll be a big problem. But I think if it's the right story at the right time then that's great. But I mustn't... It is a world that's probably closer to me, it's easier for me to write this than it is for me to write worlds that I don't know so much about. So, again that's seductive. But it's very important I think now, after I've written this that I go and write a completely different world and a different experience.

Rupert: And what do you hope that actors will bring to your work, either on stage or screen? Is that something that you... You write wonderful dialogue and but, what extra percentage as it were do they add in or change or reshape the work?

Mike: I'd love to say none. But no, I love it... And again that's the big difference... I mean it's not a difference in how much they bring, but it's a difference in how much you get to enjoy it. As in theatre you get five weeks rehearsal of four weeks rehearsal, in TV you get a day. Which means that in rehearsal you get to enjoy the sheer skill of an actor, and you get, that I really felt with this play, the moment when it's not yours anymore. When the acting company totally takes it and goes, thanks very much we're going to do it now. And actually it's the same with the director doing a production... All I want is, I want everything I've written, as long as I've got everything I've written, then if there's 100% more on top of that, that's joyful for me. Like things in this production every time we've worked together that I never imagined and often my parents come and point to the things you've suggested and say that's their favourite bit. That's really annoying! But it's the same with actors. I can be quite strict on rhythm but only in search of the intention of the line or the laugh. But apart from that I love working with actors. If you didn't love working with actors you wouldn't work in theatre.

Rupert: So, let me play that game I play with James Graham when we're doing Ink in the tech which was... If you were to wander around and people weren't to recognise you at the end of the show, what would you most be pleased to overhear about the play and what would most annoy you or upset you?

For example, I said to him would you rather hear, "It's hilarious" or "It's really politically insightful"? And, in spite of everything, he said, gags, I want to make them laugh.

Mike: Normally I would definitely be, I want to make them laugh but this play, I think actually with this one, I think, again, with Charles, I unexpectedly I'd love them to be moved. Actually. You write this stuff and you talk so much about the theme and the political content and everything, but it is drama at the end of the day and actually both plays are family dramas. Charles is a play about fathers and sons and this play is a play about, ultimately about death and loss. And if you write a play about death and loss and people aren't moved then you probably got it wrong.

And probably, to try to fully answer your question, what would I dislike the most, what any playwright hates is when someone has walked in with their set of ideas of what the play's going to be and then selectively heard the play and missed bits out so that they can preserve their view when they leave, which is... you know, say something just didn't happen in the play or they missed a bit or they deliberately... But it sort of feels like that's there to protect their view and you sort of go, well what a waste of money. They shouldn't come. You have to go... To behold a shared thing is you have to come into a theatre on some level open, otherwise you are literally wasting... Either you're there just for entertainment in which case, don't come here, or I don't know why you're there. So, yeah...

Rupert: Why Chekhov?

Mike: I didn't understand Chekhov for a long time and I remember saying at university that it's really boring. I think it was partly because a lot of theatre then was so slow. Like, plays that weren't supposed to be slow were slow. When I went to see theatre in the late 90s it was deathly slow, like there were pauses all over the place and so Chekhov just stood out as being extra slow with extra pauses.

I think now everything is so quick, screens, information and also dialogue, like TV dialogue, even theatre dialogue has, for me anyway in the last ten years has sped up hugely. You go... You get Chekhov when it's done brilliantly... I saw Peter Stein's Seagull, Fiona Shaw in Edinburgh, well whenever that was, 15 years ago, and that was the first time I suddenly got it. In a massive theatre, you could hear a pin drop in a pause, and the sense of atmosphere in a play, whether you call it naturalism or whatever, it felt unlike any other writer and unlike any other form of theatre. And I feel like now in a world where we don't concentrate, we don't do one thing, we don't do things collectively and we don't think, we don't give ourselves time to think, or we don't give ourselves time to remember or ruminate or forget or discuss, it feels a very contemporary, provocative form to write in for me.

Rupert: How difficult was four acts? Because that's not a common, contemporary drama form is it?

Mike: No, it does feel weird. You feel like you want a fifth, either a fifth or one less. But again that's good, it's like I can feel that's unusual, and then you start to go but why is it four acts? And I suppose with this and with The Cherry Orchard, the fourth has a sort of dying form, which again the seasons help with that. But I don't think it would have that structure if it had a more conventional... You know what I mean, I don't think it would have got there if it wasn't a weird four act structure.

Rupert: Good. I think we're going to wrap up there because the actors have to get ready and the show's on. But hope that was useful. Thank you very much for coming and thank you Mike.


Albion  runs from 10 October - 24 November
Click here for more information and to book online.


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