Dramatist David Eldridge wrote his first play, Serving It Up, while still at university. It was picked up and premiered by the Bush Theatre, which led to a playwriting residency at the National Theatre, where he wrote his second play, Summer Begins. This was originally seen at the Donmar Warehouse in 1997 and is now receiving its first London revival at Southwark Playhouse.
His play Under the Blue Sky won the Time Out Live Award for Best New Play, and has subsequently been produced on both coasts in the US. The premiere Royal Court production of Under the Blue Sky was directed by Rufus Norris who Eldridge later worked with adapting the 1997 Danish Dogme film, Festen.
The stage version of Festen had its world premiere at the Almeida Theatre in March 2004 and transferred later that year for an extended season at the West End’s Lyric Theatre. Amongst the production’s accolades are two Evening Standard Awards, a Critics’ Circle Award, several Olivier nominations and the Whatsonstage.com Theatregoers’ Choice Award for Best New Play. It is now touring the UK and has just opened on Broadway.
Eldridge’s other stage credits include Incomplete and Random Acts of Kindness, M.A.D., A Week with Tony, a new version of Ibsen’s The Wild Duck (seen earlier this year at the Donmar Warehouse) and the short plays Fighting for Breath, Thanks Mum and Cabbage for Tea, Tea, Tea.
Following Southwark Playhouse’s revival of Summer Begins this month, Eldridge’s next London stage offering, his latest play, Market Boy, sees him reunited with director Rufus Norris with both making their National Theatre main-house debuts staging the second production in this year’s Travelex £10 Season in the NT Olivier.
Date & place of birth
Born in Romford, Essex on 23 September 1973.
Lives now in
Walthamstow in east London. I’ve been there about 18 months. It’s great. I like being on the Tube and having a half-hour ride into town rather than an hour and fifteen, which is what it was when I was in Essex. I listen to my MP3 player, read the Guardian or read a book.
What made you want to become a playwright?
I did a degree in English literature and drama at Exeter University. It wasn’t a specialist playwriting course or anything, but I was doing almost entirely drama by the end of it. When I was 20, I decided I wanted to be playwright. I really wanted to be a director when I went to uni, but I couldn’t find plays I wanted to direct. I think I was angry in quite specific ways when I was a student, and there weren’t any plays that reflected my particular brand of anger about life in east London and Essex and about the Tory politics at that time. I tried to get a production of Julius Caesar going that was meant to echo the Tory internecine war. It was rubbish really. I’m glad I never did it. But that’s why I had a go at writing. I knew a Robert Patrick play called Kennedy’s Children, which was a series of monologues that took as their starting point where all these people were on the day Kennedy was assassinated. I had the idea of writing a modern version called Thatcher’s Children where people remembered where they were the day that Thatcher resigned. I did write that but I didn’t end up calling it Thatcher’s Children because Trevor Griffiths wrote a play called that. So I called it wankily, Dreams. I would consider that really novice work. I wouldn’t show anybody it now, but I did stage it a uni. After that, I wrote Serving It Up, which was my first play that was produced, at the Bush in 1996.
First big break
Serving It Up was definitely my first big break. I wrote it my second year at uni, revised it a bit in the first term of my final year and, with the encouragement of mates and a lecturer, I sent it off, in ignorance really. I knew about the Royal Court and a bit about Hampstead, but I didn’t really know the Bush existed. My lecturer said, there’s this little theatre in west London that does new plays, you should send it there. I didn’t expect to hear from any of them ever again. I just got on with my degree. It was a few months later, as the play worked its way through the various reading systems at the theatres, I started getting letters back saying, you know, we really like your play, we don’t like it enough to produce, but we want to know who you are, come in for a cup of tea sometime if you’re nearby. That went on for awhile, and the only theatre I hadn’t heard from was the Bush. I assumed that was because they thought it was crap, but actually it took so long because they were having serious discussions about producing it. So no news can be good news.
Career highlights to date
I’ve just had one: the reading of Under the Blue Sky for the 50th anniversary of the Royal Court. It completely took me by surprise. The moment Lesley Sharp starting writing the title on the back wall of the Theatre Upstairs … it was like play 47 out of the 50 read so the whole wall was full of the Royal Court’s history. I found that very moving. Also it was exciting hearing the play again. If you’ve had a play done well, there’s that playwright insecurity that the production is better than the play. If it’s done badly, you think, my play is better than that production. When Rufus Norris wasn’t available to do the 50th reading, I didn’t think it was fair on the new director, Josie Rourke, to have a reunion of the original cast so I said, let’s have a new cast. I wondered if it might not stand up with a new bunch. But it did. It’s great to have that experience of seeing it very differently but working well. The first preview of Festen at the Almeida was really good. We’d worked so hard on the show and we were being such absolutely massive perfectionists about it that we’d lost our sense of whether it was any good or not. I think that we were somehow expecting to fail. Then, when we put the show in front of an audience for the first time and magic happened, it was a bit shocking. It wasn’t a long play; it came down at 9.30pm. It took the hour-and-a-half until the bar shut for it to sink in to me and Rufus that we were onto something. Having Festen now open on Broadway is pretty amazing, too. I hope people like it there.
Sheila Hancock, who appeared in the original production of Under the Blue Sky. I have a play commissioned that I’m writing for Sheila. I’ve never written a play with a specific actor in mind before. I think she’s amazing. Watching her in Under the Blue Sky, it was like watching a highly trained classical musician. What she does a lot is comedy, she’s a great comedian - but her range is amazing. She’s got great courage as an actor, she’s pretty fearless. I love her. I would really like to work with Lesley Sharp. She was in my TV series Our Hidden Lives last summer, and I got to see her on stage in the Royal Court reading. It would be great to do a play with her sometime, one with a full run and a proper rehearsal period.
I hope that Rufus and I work together a lot more in the future. I had a fantastic experience working with Sean Holmes too, and I’m very much hoping Josie Rourke and I have a chance to do something more together. Out of the older generation, I’ve always had a fancy to work with is Richard Eyre. I don’t know whether he’d like to work with me or not! I’ve never met him, but I do like his work.
What other playwrights do you most admire?
Robert Holman is my hero. Robert, Simon Stephens and I are all good friends. I really like Roy Williams’ work and also he’s a mate. Rebecca Pritchard I think is pretty amazing. Caryl Churchill, Peter Gill. I’ve always been a fan of the Shakespeare tragedies, although I find the comedies quite hard work. Although I loved doing (the new version of) The Wild Duck and am hopefully going to do another Ibsen for the Donmar, it’s Chekhov that I’m always reading and re-reading. I think that The Cherry Orchard is remarkable and so is Three Sisters.
What was the first thing you saw on stage that had a big impact on you? And the last?
John Wood’s King Lear at the RSC in 1990. I think Nicholas Hytner directed it. It was revelatory. At that time, I’d just signed up to do GCSE drama. My mate was doing it and he didn’t want to be the only boy in a class of girls so I did it too because I didn’t want to do economics and thought drama would be a doss. It was the first theatre trip of term. I’d heard that the production was uncut and it was going to be four-and-a-half hours long and I had a really bad, 17-year-old, adolescent attitude about it. I thought it was going to be a boring. I’d never been to theatre before - I’d never even been to pantomime - and I was transfixed for four-and-a-half hours. I was even on the verge of tears because I didn’t know the story. The last thing? I thought Simon Stephens’ play On the Shore of the Wide World was sensational. I was thrilled when it won the Olivier because I thought it was really underrated. When you see a writer who you’ve admired and he hits it like that, flexing all those muscles…. because I do it myself, I know how difficult it is to write a play, let alone a good play.
What would you advise the government – or the industry - to secure the future of British theatre?
I believe passionately in subsidy. We all saw what happened to theatre in the Eighties when we had the Thatcher-instigated cuts, and we’ve seen a flowering in the regions when theatre was more generously funded. I’d like to bang a particular drum for playwrights. I cheered very loudly when I read Fin Kennedy’s recent piece in the Guardian. He talked very openly about money. There’s been this spirit of amateurism in theatre, this idea that writers can’t write a good play unless they’re starving in a hovel. Having been there, in a position where you can’t actually write because you’re so worried about where the next ten quid is going to come from, I can tell you that’s a myth, absolute bullshit. But lots and lots of playwrights are in that position. At the end of the day, if we were out simply to make money, we wouldn’t even go into theatre in the first place. It’s not like playwrights are expecting to get ludicrously big commissions or anything. When you think it could take a writer between nine months and three years sometimes – by the time you go through the whole process of rewrites and staging – to write a play, you realise that £5,000 or £6,000, it’s literally nothing.
If you could swap places with one person (living or dead) for a day, who would it be?
I would like to swap Shakespeare just to see what the Globe was like. It’s a great wheeze, Shakespeare in Love, but I’m sure it was a lot dirtier and grimier, madder and weirder. I just would love to go back 500 years and get a glimpse.
Favourite holiday destinations
I like the south of Spain. I like the climate and the food and the fact that everyone’s so chilled out. It makes me feel chilled out. For my honeymoon, I’m going to Malaysia.
As If by Blake Morrison is a book that I can say has definitely changed me. He covered the Jamie Bulger trial for the Independent on Sunday and it affected him so profoundly that he wrote a book about it.
If you hadn’t become a playwright, what might you have done professionally?
I would have been a teacher, probably teaching history and politics. I’d love to write a novel at some point if I had the right idea and the right amount of time. Movies are such a pain in the arse. Like a lot of writers, I’ve written four or five screenplays that have never been made. I’ve given up a little bit on movies for the time being, but I’m enjoying the TV stuff I’ve been doing and I enjoy journalism when I do it. I find the distilled form of poetry very difficult, I haven’t tried that for years.
What was your inspiration for Summer Begins?
I had a writers’ attachment to the National Theatre Studio for eight weeks after Serving It Up. I had one of the rooms down there and a salary. Like a lot of youngish writers in particular, when you’re at the National, you think you’ve got to write a play with a big, important subject and you get sidetracked by reading. I probably spent all of my first week’s money just on books to give me ideas. I read Will Hutton’s The State of Things and thought I had to write an epic, state of the nation play. It’s all rubbish because it’s got nothing to do with you, it’s about what you think is required of you. Once I ditched all that, after about three weeks, what I thought I could do was try and write a play that just captured the moment, in a discrete way, and thereby try to pick up on some of the winds of change. In spring 1996, it was clear we were in the last year or so of the Tory government and the feeling in the country had changed markedly in the two years since I’d written Serving It Up. It was much gentler. I thought I’d write a play about what it was like to be in your twenties at that time. I’ve always worn these cheap rings and I was fiddling with my ring and I started thinking about what kind of rings people wear and why people play with them. I thought about wedding rings and engagement rings but blokes don’t wear engagement rings so what if it’s a woman? Why would a woman be taking an engagement ring on and off? Because she’s not sure she wants to go through with the wedding. Aha, bingo. A lot of other questions came out of that and, as soon as I started to track them through, the play began to form itself. Summer Begins felt like a kind of metaphor for the times, that we were on our way to something better than the dead time of the last Tory days. When we did the original production a year later, we were rehearsing in the middle of the 1997 General Election.
How do you feel about it being revived now?
One of things with new writing in the theatre, it is a sort of culture of virginity, it’s all about finding the next new author, the next new play. Because we haven’t got real regional repertory theatre any more – like you still have in America and Germany – the work doesn’t tend to get a second production. But having your work revived is one of the great pleasures of being a playwright. It is a fantastic honour. You turn up and you’ve had nothing to do with it. It might be shit or it might be really good, and it might have a really different take to what you envisaged. With a first production, there tends to be a bit of rewriting. With a second production, there’s a readymade text that they deal with for better or for worse. I haven’t been involved with this production. I went on the first day and then saw a run-through before opening. I was a bit nervous. What could I say to help? Not very much. But it’s a fantastic production – beautiful, detailed and very committed. I think the team should be very proud. It’s interesting for me to see the play again. Although it’s only set ten years ago, it does feel like a period piece. The girl is talking about Alan Shearer and Keanu Reeves and Take That – all the references and the spirit are very of its time. This post-9/11 thing has really shut us down in a way. In Summer Begins, it’s bittersweet, but there’s still a sort of recklessness and positivity that you couldn’t imagine coming out of the world post 9/11.
After Summer Begins is revived at the 90-seat Southwark Playhouse, Market Boy premieres at the 1,100-seat Olivier. What’s your approach to two such vastly differently sized spaces?
I’m going to contradict myself. On the one hand, there are practical considerations about writing for a bigger space. The mechanics of physically putting the show on can make a difference. For example, it takes longer for an actor to get from the wing onto the centre of the stage. And other stuff takes time. At the Almeida, a medium-sized theatre, I had to extend one scene because it took too long to fly in the table. It was technically impossible. So when you get into bigger theatres, you need to be very practical as a playwright in adjusting to the realities of getting a show on in a way you don’t necessarily need to in the Bush. In Market Boy, we’re hoping to use the revolve in the Olivier quite a bit, but we don’t know how fast the revolve goes yet so that will make a difference and I’ll rewrite accordingly. Otherwise, in the writing, having a big solid narrative spine is very important in a bigger space. It’s easier to write an oblique, narratively opaque play for a smaller theatre because the quality of experience is very different – your relationship with the actor is similar to what we’re having now, talking one-to-one. On the other hand, I think Peter Hall is right, you could do Waiting for Godot in the Olivier. This is maybe specific to the Olivier, which I love. I’d be much more frightened of the Lyttelton with the frame of its proscenium arch, which is always something to be managed. I love the wonderful, open quality of the Olly. It’s very clear.
What’s the Monsterist movement about?
There’s no restriction to a playwright’s ability to write for a larger space versus a smaller space. It’s all about whether the playwright wants to. There are some writers who don’t want to write for big spaces. The Monsterists are saying that’s absolutely fine. It’s great that Tim Fountain writes a play for one actor and puts in on at the Bush or Soho. That’s fine, good luck to Tim. But sometimes we might want to write a big play. In the last 15 to 20 years, a real risk-averse culture has developed and there’s a pattern that new plays are done in studios and the classics are done in big theatres. The Monsterists published a manifesto to give people a sense that we were about more than just big plays. But in a way, that’s what we are about. It’s about writers existing within a culture where, if they want to write a big play, they’re not inhibited.
What was your inspiration for Market Boy?
I worked on Romford Market from the age of 13 until just before I went to university at 19. Like any writer, you write about what you’ve got. Plays are all about mining and extending your range. The marketplace is a rich, rich world – it’s big, gaudy, rude, lively, tacky, funny, violent, awful, loving. I just had to write about it at some point. It’s quite interesting how the play came about. I didn’t want to write a naturalistic work play. That would be shit in a theatre. You’d have stalls in a row and terrible sight lines. It’d be like trying to put a bit of EastEnders on the stage. I’ve noticed – and others, including Rufus noticed – that, when I talk about the market when I first went there, it’s very rose-tinted. Then, when I talk about as a 15 or 16-year-old, it’s much grimier. So we thought about point of view and how that's conveyed. Thanks to Rufus’ background with his company Wink, where he’s evolved shows through a process, the inspiration of Tom Morris, and the encouragement of Sue Higginson, Paul Miller and Lucy Davis, the successive heads of the National Theatre Studio, Rufus and I decided to go on a journey together with the play. While we wouldn’t abandon the traditional roles of writer and director, we would explore the material together via a series of workshops. So every six to nine months over the last four years, we’ve got together and moved it along a bit further. For the first two years, I didn’t write anything, I was just the second person in the room watching the actors along with Ruf. It’s not like with Mike Leigh, it’s not about the actors generating material. I was on the market for seven years and probably have 12 plays’ worth of stories and experience and ideas. It was more about trying to find a way of telling it that celebrated the theatricality of the market and the sense of ‘anything goes’ possibility of the period. One of the things people forget about the Eighties when you look back with an often jaded, liberal view - like I can do when I’m reading the Guardian and thinking how awful Margaret was – is that’s all hindsight. I can remember being on a shoe stall in 1987, and it was so busy, we sold a five-figure sum in a day. Can you imagine how many £10 stilettos that is? That’s very exciting. There was a real can-do attitude, a sense of barriers being broken down and old world orders disintegrating. A lot of that was for the worse but it had tremendous energy.
Will fans of Festen be surprised by Market Boy?
It’s certainly a very different play. There’s a line in it at the moment that says: “There are three cunts on the market, mate, and you’re all three.” The world of working-class Essex market traders in the Eighties is a very rough-and-ready, rude, violent world. What is common to the work that Rufus and I have done together – on Under the Blue Sky, Festen and now Market Boy – is that we believe in theatricality that grows out of observed truth. Although the material can be very different, we’re trying to make total theatre. That’s really important for us. So I think there is a commonality. Some people might be a bit freaked out that it is so different in terms of the subject and the world, but in another sense, it’s the continuation of a journey of exploration that Rufus and I are on.
What are your future plans?
I’ve been writing a play with Robert Holman and Simon Stephens for the past couple of years when we’ve had time. It’s a new thing for the three of us to collaborate on a play. We’re trying to finish it now. I want to write another piece for the National for Sheila Hancock. I’m in discussions with Michael Grandage and a leading actor for another Ibsen at the Donmar. Apart from that, I did a project for Soho a couple of years ago researching a play about advertising, which is when I met my fiancé. So I owe them that play. It would be great if Festen and Market Boy go alright so I can afford to write two plays next year and not have to worry about doing some telly jobs so I can pay my mortgage. I’ve not actually written the first draft of a new play for three or four years now. The stuff that’s been coming on has been stuff that’s been developed before and is just finally getting on. It takes such a long time sometimes, even if it’s commissioned, because the theatre might be committed for the next year or so. So it’ll be great to clear the decks some and hopefully have a respectable enough bank balance just so I can buy a bit of time.
- David Eldridge was speaking to Terri Paddock
Summer Begins continues at Southwark Playhouse until 29 April 2006. Market Boy, the second production in this year’s Travelex £10 season at the National, joins the rep in the NT Olivier on 6 June 2006 (previews from 26 May).