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Brief Encounter with ... Playwright Colin Teevan

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Colin Teevan's new play The Kingdom, which "vividly captures life as an Irish navvy in the last century", opens at Soho Theatre this week (24 October 2012).

Could you give us an overview of The Kingdom?

Three men, one young, one middle-aged, and one old, dig. As they dig they tell stories. Gradually the stories begin to intertwine. Is it one story or three? It is a story of rags to riches and back to rags again. A story of exile and loss.

Why did the subject appeal to you?
I am not interested in just putting subjects on stage. Documentaries and essays and journalism can deal with subjects. While it is true that I was interested in the subject of Irish emigration that came over to Britain from the War down to the 70s, and intrigued to read of the life of John A. Murphy, founder of the famous Murphy contractors of the ubiquitous green trucks, in itself this does not warrant a stageplay on the subject. Because a subject has to find a form. And so this subject just sort of sat around in my head until director Lucy Pitman Wallace, who knew of my re-workings of classical myth and drama and asked me to consider writing a modern version of Oedipus at Colonus through the lens of Krapp’s Last Tape. This is how the play came about, but it has moved a long way from those starting points.

How much research was required?

Lots. I worked with a researcher and read widely on the subject of Irish emigration/imigration. From sociology to reminscence, to interviewing those, many in their 80s and 90s, who worked on the building sites of London. I was struck how these people had built a whole world, a sub-culture of 'County' Kilburn and the London Irish, the 'Galtee More' in Cricklewood. Having had two plays at the Tricycle in recent years, I was struck how that world has now all but vanished, a few pubs, a few old Irish faces, but it has given way to whole new waves of immigration from the near and middle East. I wanted to capture something of this world before it is forgotten entirely.

In what way is Greek drama significant to the play?

The reason the Oedipus myth appealed, or suggested itself as appropriate to the story of an Irish exile in London is because Oedipus is also one of the most seminal myths about exile. He exiles himself from what he thinks is his home, finds unwittingly his real home, from which, when his crime is discovered, he is exiled once again. As an Irish exile I was struck by the half-way house one occupies – neither being fully accepted as native in one’s adopted land nor in one’s country of birth.

You're returning to the Soho following The Bee - what makes it a special venue?
There's a buzz about the Soho in recent years. Perhaps there is too much emphasis on stand up, but it gives the place the feel of a perpetual mini-Edinburgh Festival. Big stand-up stars rub shoulders with the newest young companies, or, as in the case of The Bee company, global theatre stars like Kathryn Hunter and Hideki Noda. I think the maximising of the theatre spaces and the democratising of the restaurant bar has been terrific for it. I now find people from TV and film who never would have ventured to the place suggest it as a fashionable meeting place. This is where it should be, at the heart of Soho.

Who are your playwrighting heroes?
Of the Greeks I think it has to be Euripides, rather than Sophocles, with whom I've had a long engagement. Of recent and contemporary writers Sarah Kane, Tom Murphy, Harold Pinter and I think the most profound and funniest writer for the stage, Samuel Beckett. But I admire the work of many, many writers and theatre makers. That's why I love working in different new ways with artists like Kathryn Hunter and Hideki Noda as we did on The Bee and The Diver at Soho.

You co-founded The Monsterists. What do you feel it has achieved so far?
We're having a reunion lunch soon. I think you see many, many more big new plays risked on big stages. Look how much new work there's been at the Olivier, the scale of shows put on at The Royal Court, and there has been a much greater engagement between writers and theatre makers on large scale work at the Barbican, Young Vic, National Theate of Scotland etc. Who knows, even Deborah Warner might direct a new play some time.

What's lined up next?
A trilogy of films has just received the green light in Ireland about Charles Haughey entitled Citizen Charlie. We hope to be filming this next year. A reworking of Marlowe's Dr Faustus with Dominic Hill with whom I collaborated on Peer Gynt for National Theatre of Scotland. Kafka's Monkey opens at the Baryshnikov Theatre in New York in April, and I'm currently working on new shows for ITV and BBC. Apart from that people are welcome to come study with me at Birkbeck College, University of London, where I am senior lecturing in Creative Writing.

The Kingdom runs at Soho Theatre from 24 October to 17 November 2012 (press night, 29 October)


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