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Brief Encounter With ... Playwright & screenwriter Abi Morgan

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Writer Abi Morgan first made a name for herself back at the very start of the noughties with her acclaimed plays Tiny Dynamite and Tender, the latter earning her an Olivier Award nomination for Most Promising Playwright in 2002.

Over the subsequent decade, Morgan has been kept very busy writing for television and film – winning the 2005 BAFTA for Best Drama Serial for Sex Traffic and more recently triumphing with The Hour, her BBC series set during the Suez Crisis. She also wrote the script for Margaret Thatcher biopic The Iron Lady, which is released this month.

But aside from a couple of short, collaborative works for the stage, it was all looking a bit quiet on the theatre front for Morgan. Until last autumn that is, when Lovesong, the writer's first full-length play to be staged in ten years, opened at the Plymouth Drum. As 27, another new play by Morgan, opened at the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh (directed by Vicki Featherstone), Lovesong embarked on a national tour which brings it to the Lyric Hammersmith for a three-week run later this month (11 January to 4 February).

The sad and thoughtful story of a love affair that lasts a lifetime, Lovesong is an unusual piece, with two pairs of actors, Leanne Rowe and Edward Bennett, and Sam Cox and Sian Phillips, playing the drama's central couple at different periods in their lives. A Frantic Assembly production, the play features the company's signature, inimitable style of physical theatre.

Here Morgan tells Whatsonstage.com about Lovesong, the anxiety of returning to theatre after such a long time away, and why she's “keeping her own council” about one day giving directing a go.

It's been ten years since you last worked with Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett of Frantic Assembly. How did it feel to return to that collaboration?

We've known each other so long that it does feel like they were very instrumental in my formative years in terms of writing. They were part of a whole group of people working together at the same time, like Vicki Featherstone, who now runs the National Theatre of Scotland with John Tiffany, Stephen Greenhorn, Mark Ravenhill and Sarah Cane. Scott and Steven feel very embedded in that period for me, so it's been really interesting coming back working with them again. I'm a little bit nervous because I find theatre incredibly hard to write. It feels like it's something to do with your concentration span, I don't know what, but I've definitely lost my ability to focus in the same way.

Does the theatre feel like a familiar and comfortable place because of your upbringing (Morgan's mother is the actor Pat England and her late father was the director Gareth Morgan)?

It feels very familiar and there are all those old clichés like the smell of the greasepaint. I think there is a comfort and I really like actors, I like the energy of them. To a certain degree what's great about theatre is that in the beginning you're very integral to it and you're needed and you're shaping your play. I think it was Arnold Wesker who said that the playwright directs from the stage directions. That is the period where you're really making the work, but pretty soon, maybe a week or so in, you're redundant again. So most of the time it is like giving birth to a baby and then you watch people adopt it and bring it up in a much better way than you would, so it's a very interesting relationship.

Was it a given that you'd go into theatre, do you think?

From a very young age, I remember being with my dad when he was drawing sets with a set designer, and being in green rooms and around costume departments. It was a very rich world where I realised that there was a profession in which you tell stories in a very creative, artistic way and so it was never an option that you couldn't do that. But I think if you look at the CVs of some of the great writers of the last 100 years, most of them their parents never had anything to do with theatre or television, so actually I don't think it matters.

What motivated you to dedicate Lovesong to your father?

My father died three years ago. I had quite a complex relationship with him and it was the first time I'd watched the decline of someone. I think the play is about mortality and the decline of the self, so in a way it felt right to dedicate it to him because it felt like it had come out of that period in my life really.

Unlike much of your previous work, which has dealt with specific issues, Lovesong isn't an 'issues' play at all...

No, not at all. I think I use a very different part of myself when I write something like Lovesong. I write slightly blind. I write from a very different place. I sometimes feel I write with just a sense of a feeling of what a play is going to be, rather than specifics, and in fact, when I try and break down a play in the way that I try and break down a piece of film with often a very rigorous treatment, it falls apart for me, I can't do it in the same way. It's like scoring a piece of music – I kind of have a little bit of a score in my head and I just start to write it.

You've found acclaim through writing for theatre, television and film. Would you ever be tempted to give directing a go?

I'm keeping my council about that at the moment, only because I really admire the directors I've worked with. As a writer I could work every day in my pyjamas if I wanted to – you can't really shuffle onto a set like that. I can just about get my kids' teeth brushed and get them off to school and make sure we've got something in the fridge for supper and maybe have the odd conversation with my partner. The thought of directing...when you put that in the mix...I think you have to be careful as a writer not to be flattered, not to listen to your ego. People will always go, 'you should direct!' And the truth is actually whether I'm fit for human consumption in that way, whether I can do that. I'm not sure.


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