20 Questions With ... Matt Charman
Date: 9 July 2007
Award-winning playwright Matt Charman, whose second play The Five Wives of Maurice Pinder recently premiered at the National, discusses polygamy, the faultlessness of The Phantom of the Opera & his Whatsonstage.com past.
Playwright Matt Charman won the prestigious Verity Bargate Award in 2004 for his debut play A Night at the Dogs, which he finished writing while working at Whatsonstage.com. The play was later produced at Soho Theatre, where he went on to become a writer on attachment and win the Peggy Ramsay Award.
His second play, The Five Wives of Maurice Pinder, premiered last month at the National Theatre, where Charman is currently writer in residence (supported by the Pearson Televsion Award).
The play, directed by Sarah Frankcom, takes a provocative look at married life and its alternatives. In an ordinary house in a tree-lined street in Lewisham, pregnant Rowena is unprepared for her first meeting with Mauriceís other wives and teenaged son. Larry Lamb plays Maurice, in a cast that also includes Steve John Shepherd, Adam Gillen and, as the titular harem of wives, Sorcha Cusack, Carla Henry, Clare Holman, Martina Laird and Tessa Peake-Jones.
In his review, Whatsonstage.com chief critic Michael Coveney deemed The Five Wives of Maurice Pinder ďone of the best, and most promising, plays of the year so farĒ.
Date & place of birth
Born 5 June 1979 in Crawley, West Sussex.
Lives now in
I studied English at University College London (UCL).
What made you want to become a playwright? Itís an ambition I think I always had I just didnít know how to go about making it happen. I always loved theatre. I was one of these naughty people who sneaks in in the second act of a show so I wouldnít have to pay for a ticket. I saw a lot of theatre Ė but I never knew how a lot of the plays started. After I left University my brother got me a job washing cars, because he knew I wouldnít stick at it and he wanted me to make up my mind about my future. I spent all my time sneaking to the loo and making notes in a little book, and I thought, I canít spend my life making notes in a loo, I have to get out of here. That was the final push.
If you hadnít become a writer, what might you have done professionally?
I think I could be happy doing other things but none of them spring to mind. It might have to be something in the business. It was The Phantom of the Opera that made me fall in love with theatre. I remember seeing it when I was eight. I got bought this little waistcoat and tie Ė in my house it was a real event. I thought it was absolutely amazing. This is magic, incredible. It was that thought: they get to do this every night! To this day, Phantom and Les Mis, theyíre somehow weirdly faultless as far as Iím concerned. Like Gone with the Wind. And there goes the little street cred I had!
First big break
Definitely winning the Verity Bargate. It just opened this door. I got an agent as a result. I got to meet with people at the National and talk about ideas. Iíd always had ideas and suddenly there were avenues and possibilities for them. Suddenly the road cleared.
You were working at Whatsonstage.com when you wrote your Verity Bargate-winning play, A Night at the Dogs.
Yes, I submitted it under a pseudonym. I was finishing the play very early in the morning and at weekends while working at Whatsonstage.com during the day. Being around theatre all day and talking to people about shows really drove me on. It energised me I think. I loved meeting normal theatregoers, talking to people in the bar on the Outings about the shows. Very often you go to see a show on your own or with just one friend. Itís really nice to get down to the nitty-gritty with lots of opinions. An audienceís reaction to a show can be wildly different to the critics and, good or bad, itís important to feel that.
Itís a long list and itís always changing. James McAvoy is exceptional, Iíd love to write something for him. Douglas Hodge is brilliant. Imelda Staunton too. I like anyone who, it doesnít seem to matter what they do Ė Shakespeare, a musical Ė thereís an authenticity to them. Those two have that in spades. I saw Hodge in A Matter of Life and Death recently and couldnít take my eyes off him. I do sometimes work with an amalgam of certain actors in mind when I write. Other times, itís nice to have a completely blank canvas. If you get too set on someone, you can get your heart broken.
Iíd love to work with Howard Davies, I thought Philistines was absolute perfection. Marianne Elliot would definitely be on the list, her stuff is so classy but with so much heart as well. And Nicholas Hytner - thereís something about Nickís shows, they just dance. And Iíve had so much fun with Sarah Frankcom. Iíd love to work with her again.
Arthur Miller is my first love. He was the first person I read and it didnít feel like school work. I remember reading All My Sons when I was 14 or 15 and thinking, this is too painful and too real. He really turned me on to dramatic writing. And I love how passionate Tennessee Williams is and also how messy too. I think plays should be emotional and messy and not too stream lined. Of modern writers Ö I love the way Joe Penhall puts an argument on stage and dramatises it, Simon Stephens, Georgia Fitch - Iím first in line for their stuff.
Whatís the last thing you saw on stage that you really enjoyed?
Philistines. It was perfect. There isnít a thing that you would change about that show. The design and direction, the whole thing had this synergy. It felt like the same person must have rushed around and done everything because it was just so seamless.
If you could swap places with one person (living or dead) for a day, who would it be?
Lewis Hamilton, the new Formula One driver. But only on race day, not just a general Monday when heís trying to avoid photographers.
The Old Man and the Sea, American Pastoral and Arthur Millerís autobiography Timebends.
Favourite holiday destination
Cornwall. Iíve been going since my brother and I were kids. This year we went with my brotherís two-year-old son Zach. It was incredible. Even when itís raining Iím not sure thereís a better place to be.
Favourite after-show haunt You should ask me this when Iím 60 because right now itís only my second play so I donít really know many places. I guess the green room bar at the National. It feels like a school canteen, with strip lighting and uncomfortable seats and I quite like that.
It hurts that you even have to ask me that! Whatonstage.com, of course. I love the new design.
In a nutshell, whatís The Five Wives of Maurice Pinder about?
Itís about an unusual family, a bunch of people who come together for the right reasons but who canít quite make it work. We join the family at the point that things are starting not to work, we see the falling apart of the balancing act theyíve managed to keep going for a couple of years. A young girl arrives at the house with Maurice seeking sanctuary. We enter the house through her eyes as she meets the other wives and his son.
What inspired you to write the play?
I wanted to write a play about a family. I love the way that families talk to each other and what blood ties mean. But I didnít want a skeleton coming out of the closet kind of family play. The idea of families changing is whatís interesting to me. Divorce and re-marriage is much more the norm now so families are changing hugely, plus the idea of partners for life is out the window. If we live to 120, do we really want to be around the same person for 90 years? The playís not really about polygamy. Itís about an unusual family. Itís important to take religion out of it and make it a lifestyle choice.
Was there a particular incident that sparked your imagination?
A friend had her first baby after a difficult labour. The first few weeks were really tricky. We calculated that she had maybe nine hours of sleep over eight days. I remember her saying about the baby, I love him but I wish someone would come in and take him away. Obviously she didnít mean permanently. And she wasnít a bad mum, she was just so desperate for help. That started me thinking: what would happen in this situation if you had introduced another woman to this set-up Ö and then another and another?
What does being a ďwriter in residenceĒ at the National entail?
In a practical sense, being writer in residence means they give me an office, desk space at the studio and they give me some money to write something else, which Iím halfway through writing now. But for me, the really interesting thing is that Iím able to go to associates meetings every fortnight with Nick Hytner, Nick Starr, Howard Davies, Tom Morris, Marianne Elliott. We read new plays and talk about possible revivals. I get to soak this up. Itís amazing. Iím learning so much just observing how people dissect a play, what they focus on. Thatís the best part.
How do you feel having your second play receive its world premiere at the NT?
Itís slightly overwhelming. Press night was amazing. My mum and dad came and a lot of friends there. It means so much the National, it always has. At university, when I would come across the bridge, I was just excited to see the light board flashing what was on that night. Thereís something about the place, it sets the tone for all of theatre in this country. To walk into the foyer with music playing and with people waiting to see shows and to know youíre a part of that is still hard to take in.
Whatís the oddest thing that happened during rehearsals?
For me the funniest moment came at the start. At different times, three members of the cast all picked a moment to ask me, delicately, whether the play was autobiographical. Was I brought up in a house with five mums, like Vincent, the 17-year-old in the play? I think they were scared that I was this damaged lad writing plays about my own experience. It was actually quite sweet, they were trying to be very cool about it. I should have strung them along!
What are your future plans?
Another play which is in slightly different territory for me. Iím writing a film for the American director Roland Emmerich, who did Independence Day. Itís an adaptation of a book, but thatís all I can say. Iíve had to sign so much secrecy crap. They want to move on it sometime next year. With screenplays, youíve got to take the form and realise itís a different kind of storytelling. You have to unlock a different part of your brain, use different instincts. I like jumping between media, I like the challenge of it. But as much as film and TV stuff is great, theatre is where my heart is. I canít wait to finish this new play for the National. Itís something Iím passionate about, and I really want to make a good job of it. The National have put a lot of faith in me and I want to make them proud.
The Five Wives of Maurice Pinder received its world premiere on 20 June 2007 (previews from 13 June) in the NT Cottesloe, where it continues in rep until 27 August.