Humble Girl, Huge TalentDate: 6 August 2001
Mark Shenton meets Charlotte Jones, whom the Critics' Circle named Most Promising Playwright in 1999 for her second play, In Flame, and who is now about to see her fourth play, Humble Boy, premiered at the National.
"I'm wary of analysing my own work," says Charlotte Jones, a fast-tracking young playwright who, in just three short years and four plays, is now seeing the latest of these premiere at the National Theatre. "But I'm definitely attracted to dysfunction and dysfunctional families in particular."
The person sitting opposite me in a backstage office at the National Theatre seems paradoxically functional and analytical too, as she details her slow emergence but subsequent rapid rise as a playwright. After graduating from Balliol College, Oxford, in 1989 where she read English but confined her writing to essays, and participated in a lot of student drama, she went on to do a postgraduate course in acting at Webber Douglas drama school: "My happiest time acting was at University, though, and afterwards I realised I couldn't walk or speak or do those other things they make you do."
Her six years as an actress were "very frustrating", and she reflects now, "I don't miss it at all". But she learnt both about the nuts and bolts of the theatre - "There are some playwrights who have never been inside a rehearsal room, but that holds no surprises for me, and I also know lots of plays as a result now" - and the experience led directly to her becoming a writer.
Frustration & temperament
"Starting to write was more to do with being frustrated at my acting career and not having control over being able to work all the time," she says. "I did lots of rep and it was that thing of waiting for someone to give you a job. I didn't have the right temperament for it, and spent my twenties thinking that perhaps I should become a teacher or go into advertising instead. But then I sat down with another actress and we said we would write something and then put it on; but she got a job somewhere else, and I ended up writing it myself."
The result was her first play, Air Swimming: "Writing it was a real honeymoon period. It's a cliche, but I felt I was in the right place, and was desperate to get back to my computer to work on it. Of course it's different now, having to meet deadlines and do things for other people." But this one was for herself: literally so, in as much as she formed her own company, Sweet Desserts, to put it on, and appeared in one of its two roles herself, for its Battersea Arts Centre premiere in January 1998. "It was quite a tricky thing to do to act in it as well: I found myself monitoring the audience's responses to the play as well as trying to perform within it, which was a bit of a nightmare."
Pleasure & promise
But the writing was a pleasure. "Quite quickly I started to think that this is what I should be doing. But I hadn't sought it. I wasn't someone who from when I was young was desperate to write." She started to prepare a second play, which turned out to be In Flame. It premiered at the Bush Theatre exactly a year later, in January 1999, and won her the Critics' Circle Award for Most Promising Playwright: "Although awards shouldn't be that important, when you're starting off it's a great affirmation. I'd written both of my first two plays not knowing where they would be performed, and it was good to get that sort of acknowledgement. I also met Trevor Nunn that day, which has proved to be useful!"
Her next play, Martha, Josie and the Chinese Elvis, was written during the time she was writer-in-residence at Bolton's Octagon Theatre, and she says, "It was lovely writing it, knowing it was programmed and would go on and had a date. That makes a big difference. But apart from that, I haven't been affiliated with a building, like a lot of young playwrights are."
As a result, she's experienced the kind of insecurity associated with her former profession in wondering if and when she would see her work actually performed: "Writing plays is not like writing novels, you need that other dimension - actors performing it in a theatre - for it to live. So I had a very nerve wracking time after I'd written In Flame and we were trying to find a theatre for it and waiting to see if the Bush would accept it; and similarly with Humble Boy, the National were sent the play and liked it, but didn't know when they could schedule it, and it's such a machine which we were on the outside of."
What brought Jones and the play inside was a chain of fortuitous coincidence: her husband, the actor Paul Bazely, was cast as Guildenstern in the National Theatre's production of Hamlet, directed by John Caird and starring Simon Russell Beale who are both reunited for this play. "Simon had always been him my head when I had been writing it, even though I didn't know him. When Paul got the job, I thought it was a sign, and later on, he gave the script of my play to Simon, who read it and loved it; and Simon gave the play to John, and it became a package and helped the process towards getting it on."
Image & imagination
So that's how the play has ended up there. But where did it begin? "I often start with an image in my head. In the case of Humble Boy, it was the image of a bumblebee. I'd read somewhere that they're not supposed to be able to fly - that aerodynamically speaking, they're all wrong and defy physics. So I had this man in my head, stumbling around a garden like a bumblebee, as my starting place. And I made him an astro-physicist, and looked at what happens when he has to go home to his mother after his father dies." Russell Beale is playing the scientist, and Diana Rigg is his mother in a cast which also includes Denis Quilley and Marcia Warren.
Though she hasn't begun another stage play yet - "It's hard to start writing another, because I'm still full of it, and I find it hard to hold onto different things in my head" - she's been busy instead working in other mediums. "I'm written a screenplay, and I've always got some radio on the go; I like having the contrast. Radio is the most writer-friendly medium there is: you can have lots of words, you work with one person who is the director and the producer; you don't have to worry about the visuals; and from the time you write it to the time it gets recorded and broadcast is a much quicker turnover and it's great, even if the commissioning process is getting harder and harder." She's written six radio plays, and says, "But I'm looking forward to the time when I have some space to think about a new stage play."
She knows that a lonely job is even lonelier for a woman, and quotes something that was said to her: "I won't tell you who, but quite a famous writer said to me, 'There have been no good women playwrights except Caryl Churchill and that's because she writes like a man', which is something you come up against all the time". But I suspect she'll be around for a while, challenging that verdict.
Humble Boy opens at the National Cottesloe on 9 August 2001, following previews from 3 August.