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Brief Encounter With ... Murray Watts

This month sees the London premiere of writer and director Murray Watts’ new series of plays - First Light/Mr Darwin’s Tree (double bill) and Happiness - at the King’s Head Theatre, where they run until 29 January.

The productions mark Watts' first return to London theatre in 13 years.

Why have you decided to return to London theatre after such a long break?
My early years in theatre were spent in London as an associate director of the Upstream Theatre Club. This was a wonderful fringe venue near the Young Vic which lasted for about ten years in the 70s and 80s… I wrote and directed many plays there and I think it’s fair to say that London was the artistic ‘cradle’ for me. I have so many happy memories of that time. My mother was a Londoner and, although I grew up near Liverpool and now live in Scotland, I do feel a sense of coming home to London theatre. Perhaps the height of the first half of my theatrical career was the production of my play The Fatherland, at Riverside studios in 1989, but ironically that catapulted me into the film industry.

I spent most of the fifteen years after that working on various TV and feature film projects, apart from one touring production of a play of mine (directed and produced by others) which came to Trafalgar Studios and the Hackney Empire some years ago. Writing and directing for theatre has always been my first love. It’s fair to say that arriving at The King’s Head is an emotional kind of homecoming for me.

What are the three plays about?
The plays First Light and Mr Darwin’s Tree have been brought together as a double bill because they are unified by the themes of love, faith and doubt. First Light features Tom, a housemaster in a modern day boarding school, who is overwhelmed by grief after his wife’s death. At 3am he is visited by schoolgirl Merry. What follows is an emotional rollercoaster, as the characters examine their sorrow, their desires for the future, fears about the past, and question their faith and their belief in human nature itself. First Light depicts a world where trust is breaking down and innocence and scandal collide. Mr Darwin’s Tree, set in a very different era, sees Charles Darwin also wrestling with doubts, as he uncovers the secrets of evolution while coping with personal tragedies and fierce academic criticism. But the play also has elements of a very touching and humorous love story.

Happiness is a haunting play about love on the edge of destruction, a visceral two-hander set in the remote Highlands where Laurie and Shelley are celebrating their wedding anniversary. I suppose the play is asking whether it’s possible to keep hope alive against all the odds. It’s true to say that audiences have reacted deeply to the sense of beauty, pain and mystery within this play.

What inspired the current series of plays at the King’s Head theatre?
It’s easy to answer this question with Mr Darwin’s Tree, because the play was commissioned as part of general celebrations of the two hundredth anniversary of the publication of The Origin of Species. The play was premiered at Westminster Abbey just over two years ago, right beside Darwin’s grave. Happiness reflects the struggles and questions that many people suffer from – that elusive quest for happiness and security - and it draws some inspiration, particularly its Scottish setting, from things I know about, but there are many other levels and it’s one of those plays that seemed to just burst onto the page. I can’t explain it. First Light draws on some things that I do understand and also care about very deeply. My father was headmaster of a boarding school, and I went away to another boarding school – where I was very unhappy, although it was a good school. I felt a desperate loneliness and longing there. I have friends who are head teachers, facing very serious dilemmas about teacher/pupil relationships and many contemporary issues.

Why should people come to see them?
Anyone who wants to be moved to laughter and tears in the same play, who is intrigued by the questions which are burning more fiercely than ever in our society at the present time should come to these shows. Anyone who loves to see some brilliant and memorable performances should come... I’m not very good at ‘talking up’ up my own shows, but I am proud of the actors, the other director involved, the designer and the whole team effort. Apart from anything, what could be better than a winter’s evening at The King’s Head, which must be one of the most hospitable environments in London?


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