Interview: The Lark (Bellfield, Portobello 4 – 8 June ’19)

“Latterly, I’ve become interested in the story of the woman who takes on the establishment and for a little while, is hailed as a hero. Until it no longer suits them and they decide to get rid of her.”

WHAT: “Joan of Arc. Saint, saviour or someone who heard voices?

Against the backdrop of one of the world’s longest wars, a 17-year-old peasant girl led an army of men into battle and carved a victory that defined France. She claimed God told her to do it; the church says she’s a witch and should be burnt alive.

Jean Anouilh’s classic play tells the tale of how Joan convinced the church, the state – and her dad – to let her tackle an apparently impossible feat. And then plays witness at her trial: a nineteen-year-old uneducated woman held to account for her successes by the world’s most educated men.”

WHO: Claire Wood, Director

MORE? Here!


Why ‘The Lark’?

I’ve always loved the story of Joan of Arc. I was brought up Catholic so feel as if I’ve always known the story. I didn’t realise how much of a cult comes with her story. Look up Joan of Arc tattoos on Pinterest – it’s incredible. I discovered the plays as an adult. At first I was interested in the story of a young peasant woman who claimed God was talking to her – much to the outrage of all the educated men in the church who assumed that only they had a direct line to the Lord’s intentions. Latterly, I’ve become interested in the story of the woman who takes on the establishment and for a little while, is hailed as a hero. Until it no longer suits them and they decide to get rid of her.

One of the characters in the play, Bishop Cauchon, who has his own darkly sinister agenda, says “when a man can keep his dignity and purpose in that loneliness, in that silence of a vanished God, that is when he is truly great.” Joan’s story is relevant to activists and political prisoners, religious or not, across the world.

The real Joan lived 600 years ago but looking at people like Greta Thunberg, Malala Yousafzai, the story also feels incredibly current. They’re both about the same age as Joan was, both doing incredible things in their field. This is a slice of history that has all sorts of messages about the courage and determination needed to hold your ground in the face of fierce opposition.

Do you see Joan as a revolutionary prime mover, fighting for the timeless cause; or was she simply a pawn on the familiar medieval chessboard promoting the self-interest of the real players?

She was both. Isn’t Greta Thunberg? Joan was fighting to get France out of the control of the English. Getting the rightful king crowned was a significant step towards that. At the same time – to my modern day mind! – she was fighting for the right, as a woman, to do the things she wanted to do. To wear what she wanted to – which wasn’t a skirt. To be listened to. To be taken seriously. To make a difference. Rather than festering away in skirts in her sleepy little French village.

Anouilh (and translator Gill Taylor ) do a brilliant job of condensing the history but if you look at what actually happened, it looks as if Joan’s confidence did finally outstrip her ambition. She started losing battles, her soldiers started abandoning her. She first attempted to march on Paris to drive the English out of France’s capital city – without the king’s permission. And then it all started going wrong. The history doesn’t all fit in the play necessarily – or we’d be there for hours!

But back to your question, at the same time as she was trying to achieve all these things, the establishment were busy there using her for their own ends. And this comes through really neatly in the script. The king’s mother-in-law, Yolande, trying to persuade the king to see Joan as she might help give him some much-needed celebrity sparkle. The Church’s various representatives greeting her with suspicion and then conspiring to squash her when their godly status has been affirmed. The army taking pains to point out that she’s nothing but a puppet soldier – albeit a puppet who achieved more than they had in fifty years of fighting. Few of the characters in Anouilh’s play have any interest in her as a person and are interested only in what Joan can achieve for them.

What makes Gill Taylor’s new translation of the original special?

It’s easy to tell this story in a way that’s very black and white. She was certainly hearing god talking to her. The church thought she was lying and burnt her. It’s my bugbear with the Shaw version of the story. I love Anouilh’s script for acknowledging the convenience of this girl turning up at a time when the country was in a political mess and had lost its sense of self. Joan gave them an opportunity to rediscover that. Where Christopher Fry’s translation from the 1950’s feels very much like a script from the fifties, Gill Taylor’s script does a brilliant job of highlighting how current the story is. Joan’s dad swaggers about cursing his daughter for the shame she’ll bring on the family with her claims of hearing voices – then calls her a slut for sneaking about in the fields meeting someone he’s certain is an illicit boyfriend rather than the holy St Michael. Gill’s use of the sort of language we use now to diminish women – particularly topical now as gender equality is so high on the public agenda – make the story that happened six hundred years ago feel really current.

What will a band and choir add to the mix?

At one level, we’re performing the show in a church – so it seemed rude not to have a choir. The shape of what’s now the performing space was perfectly suited to locating the choir in the balcony above what used to be the altar, acting as real live angels on high!

Looking purely at the words in the script, and getting your head around all the protagonists in the story and their respective agendas, it’s easy to lose sight of contemporary resonances. The pop music we’ve woven into the story is there as a reminder that these are all issues we’re still tussling with today.

What’s the one thing you wish you’d known at the start of rehearsals?

What a big story this is! Unusually for that time in history, we’ve inherited an enormously thorough record of her story as the transcripts from her trial still survive. The trial lasted for over 80 days, Joan was on her feet for 12 hours a day being quizzed by a conveyor belt of clerics trying to catch her out, and throughout her interrogation, her story remained remarkably, impressively consistent. The one thing she refused to tell the court was what her angels looked like. She said that was between her and god.

I would love to have known at the start of rehearsals whether Joan was really hearing God talking to her. Really hearing some sort of voice in her head. Or capitalising on prophecies that had been doing the rounds for several centuries – which she would have heard from travellers visiting their house as she grew up – about a virgin girl who would come from the countryside to save France.

There’s a fabulous podcast by an Italian professor called Daniele Bolleli (‘History on Fire‘) that sees him reviewing all of the evidence and concluding that we can’t possibly tell whether she was mad, whether she’s was God’s spokesperson on earth or whether her talent was putting herself in the right place at the right time – and consequently, having a ball doing all the things that women weren’t allowed to do at the time. I’ve been boring the poor cast with the history – as most of the cast are based on known historical figures – since we started rehearsals.

So I wish I’d known the answer before we set off. But I suspect that the reason Joan’s story continues to fascinate us – is precisely because we don’t know that answer. And that’s what makes it such a brilliantly intriguing tale.

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“So many people were killed to make Nero Emperor, it was kind of his destiny. He couldn’t opt out of it.” – Author Margaret George discusses The Confessions of Young Nero

“I’ve known a lot of Neros in my life, maybe I’m sort of a Nero too because I was lucky that I could write novels and make a living as an artist, but so few people can.”

WHAT: A mother’s deadly ambitions. A boy who would be sovereign. A name that would be infamous. This is the epic tale of Nero’s rise to power, a thrilling story of survival, betrayal, love, and the struggle for the Roman empire that would change history.”

WHO: Margaret George writes biographical novels about outsized historical characters: Henry VIII, Mary Queen of Scots, Cleopatra, Mary Magdalene, Helen of Troy, and Elizabeth I. Her latest subject is covered in ‘The Confessions of Young Nero’ and ‘The Splendour Before The Dark’. Her novels have been ‘New York Times’ bestsellers, and the Cleopatra novel was made into an Emmy-nominated ABC-TV miniseries.

Margaret especially enjoys the research she has done for the novels, such as racing in an ancient Greek stadium, attending a gladiator training school in Rome, and studying the pharmacology of snake poison.

MORE? Here!


Why Nero?

Why Nero? It’s because I think of all the Roman emperors, he seemed more like a person that you know. He seemed very modern. He reminded me of so many people I know personally who want to be artists. How many people do you know like that? Children want to go to film school, they want to become playwrights, they want to write novels, they want to play music and their parents say “No, I really think you’d better go to law school”.

So he was very modern in that way. It just happened that the law school his parent wanted him to go to was being the Emperor. That’s not something you can refuse by saying, “Well I don’t care to go to law school, I don’t want to be a doctor.” When that happens, most parents usually say, “All right then, go off to New York and if you don’t make it in five years, you’re going to come crawling back and we’ll see about law school.”

In this case, so many people were killed to make Nero Emperor, it was kind of his destiny. He couldn’t opt out of it. That was what really made him so interesting to me. It made his character alive in a way that say, Septimius Severus or even Julius Caesar or any of those people, who didn’t have that other side, couldn’t be. That is where I got the idea of the three Neros from. The Augustus one that did his duty, the artist in him and, last of all, the third one that had to facilitate the other two.

I feel as if I’ve known a lot of Neros in my life, maybe I’m sort of a Nero too because I was lucky that I could write novels and make a living as an artist, but so few people can.

Of course, this was a real life story so it wasn’t up to me to come up with a plot for the sequel that was as good as the first one, because history itself has provided me with that plot. It was a tragedy, of course. I must be drawn to tragic figures because when I think about it, Mary Queen of Scots was executed, Cleopatra and Nero committed suicide, Helen of Troy caused a war where many people were killed, and I’ve written about all of them. Life is sad even if you’re an emperor.

I like to write novels that cover a whole life. I think that you can’t understand the adult until you’ve met their younger self. The modern thing is to do just a slice of the life. When I started out I wanted to write about Henry VIII. At the time most of the books and plays just focused on a small part, usually the Anne Boleyn part and / or the Thomas More part – but I thought, “you can’t understand those out of context, you have to know the person, how he grew up, what formed him, you can’t just leap into the middle of his life.” That’s what people do now, because of space, I think, which is understandable, but I think you wouldn’t know the grown- up Nero until you knew the child.

How did you find writing the story in the shadow of Robert Graves’ I, Claudius novels?

I am thankful that ‘I, Claudius’ is told from Claudius’ point of view. Thank goodness Robert Graves didn’t get to do too much about Nero, because I find myself, especially from the mini-series, I just can’t get out of my mind the images I have of the actors that played those roles. Livia will always be Siân Phillips and of course, Caligula will always be John Hurt to me. Had there been a continuation with a grown-up Nero, I would certainly have had trouble in battling that image in my mind.

[DL: It’s interesting that neither you or Robert Graves haven’t got very much nice to say about Seneca.]

Neither of us do, do we? You know there’s such a difference of opinion about Seneca. He’s rather a mystery. It’s the old problem – stay within an institution and try to improve it, work from within and do what you can, don’t desert the field— or do you quit like Thomas More and say, “I just can’t have anything to do with this.” Seneca chose the first path, though he’s criticized a lot for that. You can make a case for the fact that he tried, he didn’t desert the ship. But you can also make a case that he stayed because he was getting so fabulously rich from serving Nero.

Is rehabilitating the reputation of Nero the ultimate act of iconoclasm?

I found that people are the most resistant to rehabilitating Nero. More so than they were to Henry VIII, which is kind of surprising because Henry was so much closer to modern times. What I found in some of the reviews, and some of the comments, is that people really prefer the villain. I have a friend who’s trying to rehabilitate Richard III, but it’s really hard because that colourful kind of villain is so attractive. Even in my Mary Magdalene book, Maureen Dowd in the ‘New York Times’ said that we prefer the golden-haired reformed prostitute because she’s so visual, she’s so easy to identify with. The disciple is not as interesting.

I was a little naïve in thinking that I could change many people’s judgment about Nero. I can see now how entrenched these ideas are about him. Public Broadcasting System recently did a programme, a kind of rehabilitation, called ‘The Nero Files’ and I braced myself. In it forensic scientists examined the case against the crimes of Nero and concluded was that he didn’t do a lot of these purported things and we can prove it by scientific evidence, for example, that plant-based poisons, which is what they had in the ancient world, worked slowly and could not cause someone to drop dead instantly, as Britannicus did. I wonder if many people watched the show and if some were convinced.

[DL: There is, of course, one crime that Nero’s associated with which is his kicking to death of his Empress Poppaea and her unborn child. She is perhaps the most famous victim of domestic abuse in history…]

Many modern historians don’t think that happened, and even the ancients fudged about it. But even if it wasn’t really true, it is so much in the popular mind that there had to be a version of it in the novel that involved Nero, but was involuntary. I couldn’t just get away with the modern view that she was ill and she had had a miscarriage. I had to acknowledge the belief that blamed Nero. But the only way to answer it, without being accused of just dodging the whole thing, was to have it happen but have it be an accident.

I say in my author’s afterword that Nero was not known to take physical action against people, striking them or abusing them. So it’s out of character if he did that, especially to his wife whom he loved very much, and they both wanted children. There’s even a papyrus, a poem written in Egypt afterwards, about Nero and Poppaea and their love, and no mention of his injuring her.

One of the problems of being a historical novelist is that a real historian can say here are the theories: one, two, three, four and he can lay them all out for the reader. But, if you’re writing a novel it has to be consistent, and you can only choose one, just one, not a list of alternative theories. So, that’s the way I handled it.

Other famous events in his reign you really cannot get away from, such as the fire in Rome and his killing Agrippina— those things really happened. The only way I can handle those them is to try to give the reasons they happened, not pretend they didn’t.

Do you have a role in selecting the narrators of the audiobook editions of your
novels?

Long, long ago when they still had cassette tapes, I would preview tapes for books from the library for a long car trip, because if I didn’t like the sound of the narrator I knew I couldn’t stand listening to it for hours. Sometimes the narrator just isn’t right.

After a certain point in my publishing career, I got the right to select the readers and that makes such a difference. If someone doesn’t sound like Nero or doesn’t sound like what I think he sounds like, I think that it just won’t capture the spirit of the book.

[DL: Why was Susan Denaker, the reader for the poisoner Locusta, so noticeably an American? Steve West, the reader for Nero, only once gives his new-found Americanness away with his pronunciation of ‘herbs’.]

I really wanted the main characters to be British – because everybody knows—ha ha— that the ancient Romans spoke with British accents. At least they do in all the movies! I think Susan sounded like an older, canny woman, the other two proposed readers sounded either really spacey or weird or else way too prissy to be like I pictured Locusta— a wise, older, and very level headed and practical person, so I hope it wasn’t too jarring that she had a different accent.

Since Peter Ustinov is unavailable, who would you cast to play your Nero?

People think of Nero as so much older than he really was. Every time I give a talk and I say, “you know he didn’t live long – he died when he was 30”, people are shocked. They had no idea. I’d like the young Robert Redford, but the current actor I came up with is Joe Alwyn. He’s 28, he looks like the young Nero, and of course, he’s British so he has the right accent.

I thought it was brilliant Zeffirelli cast ‘Romeo and Juliet’ with actual teenagers. You get older actors playing teenaged parts sometimes and it just feels ‘off’. Since the death of Luke Perry, ‘90210‘ has been back in the news. But the actors playing teenagers in it were not teenagers. One woman was 30 and Luke Perry himself was 26 so I think that if you really want to get the real Nero, you had better ask an actor who is that age, and so Joe Alwyn is my choice and I hope he is available! If he’s not taken up with Taylor Swift! But yes I think he’ll be perfect but we’ve got to do it right away or he’ll soon be too old.

[DL: Is there anything in the works to bring the novels to the screen?]

No not yet. I do have an agent in Hollywood who is working very hard to find a way of bringing it to the screen because the streaming services, like Amazon and Netflix and now Apple, are budgeting billions of dollars to bring out new series. So I’m hoping that in this climate there will be an interest in Nero because of course, a mini-series offers so much more scope than a two-hour movie. I don’t see how you could get Nero’s story into a traditional 2-hour movie format.

Did Nero’s rule produce any lasting achievements?

Ah, that’s a good question. I’m not trying to dodge this, but let me frame it a little, and consider whether anybody has real lasting achievements. It’s very rare because often the person’s accomplishments, at least within a couple of centuries, get superseded or wiped out. Nero had great diplomatic success with that treaty of peace with Parthia. That lasted 50 years.

Longer term, I would say the beginning of urban planning is his lasting legacy. He was the first one to tackle this, as he had a clean slate after the devastating Great Fire of Rome, so he had an opportunity to put green space in the rebuilding plan of Rome. He also dictated that the new streets had to be a certain width. They had to have fire fighting equipment in each house and the walls had to be at least a yard apart with no more common walls, and they had to build with a certain kind of stone that was fire resistant. Of course, people grumbled about these restrictions but he could mandate them because he was the emperor. Today we accept the necessity of city planning, but it was a radical idea then.

I have a new issue of ‘National Geographic’ examining planning cities – what did China do wrong in the last 30 years and Los Angeles in the last 15 years? How do you shape urban spaces in cities? How do we learn from past mistakes so that we have pleasant places to live? I’d say that urban planning is Nero’s one legacy which he would be very surprised about. He was proud of it but it came to him by accident because of the fire. It’s not that he set out saying, “I think I will redesign a city.” He was too focused on a different kind of art.

I would also say perhaps preparing the way for Hadrian was a legacy. Nero was a bit ahead of his time. Later, Hadrian could grow a beard and be a Grecophile and be gay, be all kinds of things that Nero did and was pilloried for.

If you could possess any one item associated with Nero, what would you have?

I would like to have his very own cithara, I could have it enthroned in some kind of shrine because none have survived from his time, and it was a very difficult virtuoso instrument to master. I’ve seen statues of Apollo holding it and that way it’s like 3D; you can walk around it and see how big and boxy and bulky it was but I’d like to see the real thing.

I do have some things from Nero’s time. I have coins which I have collected and I do have some jewellery from that era that is wearable. That I love having because I know someone wore it when Nero was emperor. I have learnt so much about history through my coin collecting. I did it with Cleopatra too.

If you could ask Nero any question what would it be?

I assume by your question that that means he’d have a retrospective vision. Because if he knows what’s happened since I would ask him for an honest appraisal of his art. Would he make the same choices knowing how posterity has painted him? To answer he would have to know how posterity painted him.

In the book I have him saying, “Do I care enough to throw everything over for my art?” If he cannot know what happened after his life, I would still ask him toward the end of his life: if you could go back and do it all over again, will you throw everything over for your art?

You’ve got a one way ticket to the Roman Empire for you and your family, you’re not coming back, when and where are you taking them?

I’m never coming back? Then I would go to England at the time when Hadrian was building his wall, and it would be okay for me to stay there because my ancestors were all there, so I’m going back to my roots. That’s one reason I want to go, seriously, but the Roman Empire in Britain fascinates me. It’s odd that Britain ever was in the Roman Empire, but it was for 400 years, so it’s a bit like the EU and Britain. Were they ever really and truly in their hearts, part of it?

I’d like to see Roman Britain at its height. I want to live in one of those heated villas but that’s so far from Rome it’s almost a mythological place. I remember my father saying years and years ago when I was writing Henry VIII, that I ought to do a novel about the end of the Roman Empire in Britain because they just upped and left and it must have been very strange to have this suddenly happen for both sides. So that’s what I would do but I’d better take some warm clothes.

You’ve got a solo return ticket for either a year on campaign with Julius Caesar; a fortnight with Hadrian and his entourage at Tivoli; or a day in the library of Alexandria. Which do you pick?

I wouldn’t take the library of Alexandria because I’ve spent so much time in libraries lately, I need a change of scene. And I’m sure I’d have a great time with Hadrian and his entourage, but I would choose the Julius Caesar campaign. Now I hope, because I’m being magically transported back in time, this would mean that I could keep up with the rigors of the campaign as I would be a ramped up version of myself.

I became fascinated by Caesar when I saw him through Cleopatra’s eyes as I was writing about them. He’s such an extraordinary character and I am curious about his genius on campaigns. But he also had the trait of being easy going and tolerant of his soldiers. When some of them ran away in a key battle, he grabbed them by the shoulders, turned them around and said calmly, “the enemy is this way.” He was unique and I would just like to watch him in action.

Also, his campaigns were the beginning of Europe, when it was wild and untamed. I would like to experience that moment in time. When Augustus, (Octavian) and Antony split up the Roman Empire, Octavian got the bad part, he got Europe, and Antony got the rich part, the Eastern part. How things have changed!

What are you working on now, what’s next for you?

I would love to stay in the ancient world and as I said I really am drawn to Britain and Roman Empire Britain. I haven’t quite decided who is calling me to go there. I hear a few voices, but I’m not sure which one is absolutely the loudest–or the most beguiling. So I will demur on that until I know for sure.

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Interview: Yerma (13 – 16 March ’19)

“Lorca’s confidence in his plays is palpable in this beautiful subtly that we seldom see on stage today.”

WHO: Jane Prinsley and Laura Hounsell, co-Directors

WHAT: “A young woman is driven to the unthinkable by her desperate longing to conceive a child. Yerma, meaning barren in Spanish, is tortured by her inability to conceive and becomes increasingly consumed and disoriented by her pain.

Federico Garcia Lorca’s 1934 piece challenged the social order of the time and the claustrophobic expectations of a rural Spanish village. It is relevant in our world of pressure and expectation, where women can be just as crippled by the judgment around them.

In this bold new multi-sensory adaptation, Lorca’s age-old themes will be rendered contemporary.”

WHERE: Bedlam

DATES: 13 – 16 March

TIMES: 18:00

MORE: Click Here!


Why Yerma?

Lorca’s writing is timeless. He manages to articulate the pain of lost love, oppression and unfulfilled dreams in a totally contemporary way. The roles he has written for female actresses are second to none and the atmosphere of claustrophobia that he creates is beautifully painful. It was an exciting challenge to do justice to his talent.

How will such a young cast, most focused on their studies rather than settling down to parenthood, approach the play’s central themes?

Whilst our actors’ lives have taken different paths from their characters, they are predominantly the same age. It is fascinating for us to explore the lives of young people in a different setting. Furthermore, the play’s central themes of social pressure and expectation is ageless. Most people feel the pressure of their surroundings and so actors have been able to draw on their own insecurities and uncertainty about the world they live in. Also as ambitious female students, motherhood is something which we must seriously consider in our future plans. Whilst we are currently focusing on our studies, the pressures of having a family and a success carer is ever present and pressing. The themes of motherhood, loss and societal pressure on women are as familiar to us as they are to the play’s characters and we will approach them with the truth of our own concerns.

This play is set in a society more claustrophobic and traditionally-orientated than our own. Will contemporary audiences relate to this writing as anything more than a historical curiosity?

The pressures on Yerma and Juan to be parents and to have a successful relationship may have become more subtle in the years between today and Lorca’s rural Spain, but these pressures very much still shape our lives today. Lorca was a modern thinker and knew that most women were not best suited to being a housewife, but the stereotypes he was fighting against in his literature are still apparent. We have chosen to stage the play in an atemporal rural setting so that audiences from around the UK will be able to draw on their own experiences and backgrounds. Audiences can look forward to seeing a magnified version of our society today, where the New Zealand Prime Minister is asked on the BBC if she would propose to a man and where our own Prime Minister’s shoes receive more attention than her policies. Motherhood and femininity is so interwoven with being a modern woman that Yerma feels as relevant now as it did in the 1930s. In our adaptation of Yerma we have focussed more on these central themes as opposed to the historicism and hope to transcend the original 1930s setting.

The production is billed as a “multi-sensory adaptation”. What can we look forward to?

You can absolutely look forward to the music. Singer-songwriter Eve Simpson is joining our cast as an actor-musician and she has set Lorca’s poems to music. Oftentimes Lorca’s poems are cut or spoken, but we have tried to remain as true to his intentions as possible by having them sung. Furthermore, to create our atemporal aesthetic, Eve Simpson and Robin Gage have drawn on musical traditions from across the British Isles and some Flamenco styles.  We really are trying to create something multi-sensory, so also expect beautiful scents, visions and sounds in this production.

How does Yerma fit into the rest of the season at Bedlam?

The Bedlam season is varied and uncurated which is one of our many strengths. Yerma will bring innovation, music, joy, thought and opportunities for brilliant female actresses. It is exciting to overcome the challenge of staging a famous and loved play, which incorporates verse and prose and spoken and sung, but it is something that we as directors, our creative team and our talented cast have all relished. This week, Abi Morgon’s 2011 play Love Song is on at Bedlam and draws on similar themes of love and motherhood, so Yerma follows nicely. It is a coincidence that similar themes are being covered in both weeks, but perhaps the Spring weather has got us all thinking about fertility…

If you could ask the playwright a question, what would it be? What do you think he might answer?

How did you manage to write such convincing and tragic female parts? How were you able to articulate the female struggle in the Andalusian rural villages so perfectly and did you know at the time that you were creating something universal? Lorca was homosexual and a socialist and was seen as a threat to the far-right nationalist forces who murdered him. Perhaps his own struggle and isolation is written subtly into the women (and men) in his plays, who deal with repressed love, broken dreams and the feeling of being trapped.

What’s the one thing everyone should know about Lorca?

His fearless politics and how that manifested itself in his art, both as a writer and a painter. For Lorca, his art was a lifeline and one that cost him his life.

Is Yerma as good as Blood Wedding?

What a strange question! They are often printed together, along with The House of Bernarda Alba, and are sometimes billed as a rural tragedy trilogy, although that is to forget Dona Rosita the Spinster, another masterpiece. All of these plays have different plots and characters, but there is usually a woman fighting against expectation, oppressed love, an imposing older woman and men who seem lost. They are all reminiscent of Greek tragedy but feel distinctly modern. Yerma is our favourite because of the central theme of motherhood and the pressures around parenthood that do not seem to have changed since the 1930s. The play’s rapid energy and descent into madness was also something we were captivated by when we first encountered it. It is like a train that speeds towards its final crash.

Are there living artists who can hold a candle to Lorca and the Generation of ’27?

Lorca continues to inspire artists and creators but people should always read more of his work as it is rare to find words rendered as beautifully as his. We found a recent modern staging of Yerma to be contrary to the original aim of the piece as we love how the pain that Lorca portrays is elegantly told. His work is often simple and important action can happen offstage. Lorca’s confidence in his plays is palpable in this beautiful subtly that we seldom see on stage today.

What’s the one thing you know now, that you wish you had known at production’s start?

Collaboration is great. We’ve worked so much better together than we could have ever done individually. It is brilliant to bounce ideas around, disagree, agree and improve our work together. Going forward, we will always look to work in a collaborative style, both on the creative team and with actors.


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“Flippant answer is no guns. For an adventure story, this really makes a difference.” – Author Adrian Goldsworthy discusses Vindolanda

“There was a rich haul in last summer’s excavations, and no doubt there will be plenty of surprises once they are deciphered.”

“(1st hand) Claudia Severa to her Lepidina greetings. On 11 September, sister, for the day of the celebration of my birthday, I give you a warm invitation to make sure that you come to us, to make the day more enjoyable for me by your arrival, if you are present (?). Give my greetings to your Cerialis. My Aelius and my little son send him (?) their greetings. (2nd hand) I shall expect you sister. Farewell, sister my dearest soul, as I hope to prosper, and hail.”

Sometime between the years 97 and 103 AD, the wife of one senior Roman officer dictated an invitation to a birthday party in the far north of the Roman province of Britannia. Under her secretary’s formal message she added her own, heartfelt postscript.

19 centuries later, this everyday example of life on the Roman frontier inspired British historian and novelist, Adrian Goldsworthy, to spin a yarn. To the slender threads provided by such miraculously preserved writing tablets as Claudia Severa’s invitation, he has added the steadily accumulating wealth of archaeological evidence documenting the Romans in Britain. Goldsworthy brings his readers to the borderlands, two decades before the first builder sucked his teeth, shook his head, and told the Emperor Hadrian that his proposed wall “was gonna cost ya.”

Goldsworthy, a celebrated academic with several shelf-benders to his credit, is also the author of two previous novels – both set during the Napoleonic Wars. His latest novel, Vindolanda, takes its title from the Roman Fort to where Claudia Severa’s invitation was sent. Vindolanda is the first adventure for Titus Flavius Ferox, centurion of Legio II Augusta and a man torn between two worlds. His grandfather was one of the great chiefs and war leaders of the Silures, the tribe living in what is now Goldsworthy’s native South Wales. The young Ferox was sent away as a hostage, to be educated and raised as a Roman, and was made a citizen and later commissioned into the Roman army. Years later he returns to the province of Britannia, oathsworn to the emperor of Rome, but still in his heart a warrior of his own people.

Vindolanda was published in June 2017 by Head of Zeus. To find out more click here.


Why Vindolanda?

First and foremost because of the writing tablets discovered there. When you read something like the invitation to her birthday party sent by Claudia Severa to Sulpicia Lepidina it lets you glimpse something of ordinary life nineteen centuries ago. These two women were married to Roman army officers, and if it was not for this and a few other tablets we would never have known they existed. Instead, we can read as they ask about each other’s health and families, and plan visits.

It is all very human, very normal, reminding us that these were people just like us – even if they came from a very different society with very different attitudes. When I first read the tablets many years ago, I could not help wondering about these people and wanting to know more about them and their world. So the novel is an imagined version of this. It’s an adventure story, not meant to be a searing examination of the human experience, but a good story in a world that seems real. I think of it as a Western, but set in Britain at the end of the first century AD. It’s about a frontier, and all the people brought together in a place like that.

If you could plug one gap in our knowledge of Roman Britain what would it be?

The first instinct of a historian is to wish for more written sources. So little of the literature from the ancient world has survived that one of the commonest phrases writing about it is always ‘well, we don’t really know.’ Roman Britain is worse than many other areas, with just a handful of accounts. It would be nice to have the missing pieces of Tacitus’ Annals and Histories even more to have detailed narratives of more of Roman Britain’s history. Vindolanda is set at a time when we know next to nothing. We probably never going to find anything like this, but you can wish.

Still, that’s a modest ambition compared to the big missing piece in almost all of the Roman Empire’s history, because we only really get the Romans’ side of the story. The peoples who lived in Britain in the Iron Age did not write anything down. To have stories from their point of view, of what it was like when the Romans turned up on your doorstep and did not go away, would be truly wonderful. Short of a time machine, that’s never going to happen, so as a novelist you do your best to guess.

What’s the most unexpected item ever found from Roman Britain?

I’ll have to say the writing tablets themselves. We were used to inscriptions on stone, but no one thought we would be lucky enough to find something like this. Since then, some have turned up at other sites, notably in London and Carlisle, and more keep being found at Vindolanda. There was a rich haul in last summer’s excavations, and no doubt there will be plenty of surprises once they are deciphered.

The unusual conditions at these sites allow preservation of things you simply don’t get elsewhere – the wood, leather etc. There are more Roman shoes from Vindolanda than any other single site in the rest of the empire, but one thing that stands out is how fashions were the same throughout the empire. All these everyday objects do suggest that people from opposite ends of the empire dressed in a similar way, ate and drank similar things, and maybe laughed at the same jokes or hummed the same tunes.

Double entry bookkeeping or the steam engine – which might have done more to transform the fortunes of the Roman Empire?

Well, of course, in Alexandria they made a working steam engine, but never seem to have thought of it as anything other than an interesting experiment. The Romans were of their time, used to doing things in set ways, relying on human or animal power. On the other hand, there was progress in technology and some very sophisticated uses of water power. For a while, there was a tendency to underestimate the accomplishments of craftsmen in the Roman period, so that it has taken archaeological finds to demonstrate for instance that carriage was pretty much as sophisticated as anything in the eighteenth century.

Rome was huge and lived in a world without serious economic or military competitors on the same scale, which did not encourage rapid innovation. Even so, its problems had more to do with political instability than economic failure. From the third century AD onwards the Romans just keep on fighting civil wars until the empire rots away and vanishes in Britain and the West. That this process went on for centuries shows how strong and complacent the Romans had become.

What did silphium taste like?

No idea. We don’t really know what it was. A problem generally about food from the ancient world is that even if we have an idea of ingredients, we never get the sort of really detailed recipes a cook would want.

What’s the biggest adjustment required transitioning from writing fiction set in the Napoleonic period to Roman times?

Flippant answer is no guns. For an adventure story, this really makes a difference. You can plausibly have a character point a pistol or musket and tell two or three others to drop their weapons and do what they are told. That’s less convincing if all he has is a sword. However, the really big difference is the wealth of information. For Wellington’s army, you have a host of personal accounts, letters, diaries, etc, and they are written by junior officers and sometimes ordinary soldiers. These tell you about the little details of life on campaign, as well as the battles and skirmishes. You can describe a uniform with confidence, even include jokes and slang that were doing the rounds at the time of the story.

None is this is available for the Roman world, so you have to guess and invent or lift from other periods. Time and again someone would ask me how I came up with the idea for an incident in one of the Napoleonic stories and how on earth did I think of it. Usually, the answer was that it was true. I may have made it happen to one of my characters, but that was what they really did. You cannot do that to anything like the same degree with a story set in AD 98 in Roman Britain. So writing the two sets of stories has been very different, which has been nice. Hopefully someday before too long I’ll complete the Napoleonic series as well as keeping Ferox busy.

The snow that falls on a battlefield settles on the fallen rather than the damp ground – where do details like that appear from?

That sort of thing comes from accounts from other eras, and looking at film and pictures and what you see around you. I have always had a interest in most of history, with a particular fondness for military history. My mind seems good at remembering the obscure – and less good at something like remembering a phone number. For Vindolanda I have lifted bits and pieces from other periods and cultures to fill in all the gaps in our knowledge. I’ve seen horses close up to the one in front so that its tail helps waft the flies away, so there doesn’t seem any reason why the Batavian’s mounts in the story would not do the same thing.

One thing that is important to me in both Vindolanda and the Napoleonic series is that there is a sense of humour running through it. Partly this is because I find a thriller or adventure story without humour rather dull, but mainly it’s because all the soldiers I have known and read about have laughed a lot. The humour is often quite black, but it helps them to cope. So to me, to make the story and characters plausible the characters need to joke and laugh.

You’ve got a one-way ticket to the Roman Empire for you and your family. When and where are you taking them?

So many choices. It would be something to see Rome at its height – both the grandeur and the squalor. Some the slums probably resembled the poorest areas of Calcutta than our imagined city of gleaming marble. I suspect the smells would be pretty overpowering. Be nice to see an army base and see how close we have got to the reality from the archaeological remains – or Hadrian’s Wall. Still, if you wanted a holiday, perhaps just a comfortable villa somewhere.

You’ve got a solo return ticket for either a year on campaign with Julius Caesar; a fortnight with Hadrian and his entourage at Tivoli; or a day in the Library of Alexandria. Which do you choose?

As a historian hard to resist a library, although an archive somewhere less famous or at an army base might provide fascinating if less dramatic information. Hadrian was probably tough to be around, and I suspect you would spend most of your time listening and saying how right he was. Caesar had charm, and giving my interests seeing the real Roman army in action would answer a lot of questions. It would be a grim business though.

What’s next for Flavius Ferox?

A new novel, The Encircling Sea comes out on 1st June. Without giving too much away, this takes Ferox to the far north and across the sea, and features some old and some new enemies. I’m finishing off the third novel at the moment and that will be out in 2019.


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“I’m thinking at this point that I may leave Russia behind for a while.” – Author William Taubman discusses Gorbachev

“A true believer and an honest man, he also knew how to maneuver and play the game of bureaucratic politics.”

“At 33rd Street you pass the Empire State Building, which for many years was the tallest building in the world and is still a VERY tall building indeed. But when you pass it in a car there’s this phenomenon – a kind of parallax phenomenon – that any building that’s nearer it, or even a person, will seem taller because you can’t gauge it’s full height until you get a bit of distance. And if you get a good run of green lights on 5th avenue and you look out of the back of the taxi as you go down and down and down the Empire state building rises and rises and rises – like a rocket. It actually goes up and up and up as all the buildings close to it are revealed to be so much smaller.”

Stephen Fry’s comparison of the emergence of Oscar Wilde from his 19th century milieu as being like the emergence of the Empire State Building on the New York Skyline might also stand for Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev. Gorbachev was born in the Stalin years. He lived through the Soviet Union’s decades of turmoil and decay. He rose from the humblest of origins to become one of the most revered and yet reviled statesmen of the 20th Century. Fry’s summary of Wilde’s reputation – “The best of his age and getting taller and taller with every decade which comes” – might also stand for the man who led the Soviet Empire to its peaceful dissolution.

William Taubman is the Bertrand Snell Professor of Political Science Emeritus at Amherst College. His biography, Khrushchev: The Man and His Era, won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award for biography. Taubman is also the author of Stalin’s American Policy: From Entente to Détente to Cold War, and co-author with his wife, retired Amherst College professor of Russian Jane Taubman, of Moscow Spring. He has received the Karel Kramar Medal of the Czech Republic and the Order of Friendship of the Russian Federation. He lives in Amherst, Massachusetts.

Gorbachev: His Life and Times was published in September 2017 by Simon & Schuster. To find out more click here.


Why Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev?

Gorbachev changed his country and the world, although, it must be added, he changed neither as much as he wished. All political leaders have power—by definition. But some, like Soviet leaders, unencumbered by the rule of law, constitutional constraints, or a free press, have more than others. Moreover, Gorbachev used that power in a way that was unique; No other Soviet leader would have done what he did. And that uniqueness cries out for biography–to try to explain how his character helps to account for what he did.

If Plutarch were to parallel the life of Gorbachev, whom among his contemporaries outside the Soviet Union might he select?

The two American leaders to whom I most often compare Gorbachev are Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama. Since the two of them were so different (an arch-conservative Republican and a liberal Democrat), how can Gorbachev resemble both? Reagan and Gorbachev shared a commitment to the abolition of nuclear weapons. But in addition, personal similarities (including some striking parallels in their marriages to Nancy Reagan and Raisa Gorbachev) created personal chemistry that, in turn, led them toward major agreements that ended the cold war.

I explore such similarities in my book, but recently Jack F. Matlock, Jr., American ambassador to Moscow during the Gorbachev years, confirmed them. I was describing my impression of Gorbachev during the eight interviews my wife, Professor Jane Taubman, and I had with him over the course of ten years: he was warm, natural, informal and with a sense of humor. Lacking similar exposure to other world leaders, I told Matlock, I couldn’t compare Gorbachev with them, but I doubted many of them came across the same way. “There’s at least one such leader who did,” Matlock replied. “Ronald Reagan.”

As for Gorbachev -Obama parallels, I’d list the following: Both were highly educated and thought of themselves as intellectuals; both were deeply devoted to their wives; both tried to reserve supper time for dining with their families rather than politicking; both wanted to carry out radical reforms in their countries; both failed in the end to achieve their grandest goals owing to the fierce political opposition they faced.

Nixon and Reagan occasionally met off camera during the latter’s presidency – is there any evidence Gorbachev once had / or is having a similar direct input into the thinking of his successors?

On the contrary. Gorbachev initially praised Putin when the latter assumed the Russian presidency in 1999-2000 and supported him for reelection in 2004. But they have since become estranged and have rarely, if ever, met since Putin was elected again in 2012, Gorbachev seemed closer to Dmitri Medvedev, who served as president between Putin’s second and third terms, but he evidently had no direct input into Medvedev’s thinking either.

Has Gorbachev found a meaningful role beyond the Kremlin?

After being forced out of power in December 1991, Gorbachev established a foundation, the International Foundation for Socio-Economic and Political Studies (also known as the Gorbachev Foundation) which, in addition to charitable endeavors, has sponsored conferences and publications on issues domestic and international. He has also chaired Green Cross International (an ecological organization), and the World Political Forum. He has commented regularly on political issues, and in 1996 he ran for the Russian presidency, but received less than one percent of the vote.

The portrait you paint is of a true believer coming up through an undergrowth of hacks, cynics, and hypocrites. Might Gorbachev have found more success if he had been more cynical?

Gorbachev was brilliantly successful at rising through Communist party ranks to become Soviet leader–successful because although he was a true believer and an honest man, he also knew how to maneuver and play the game of bureaucratic politics. He was equally adept at using his power as party general secretary to browbeat his more hardline colleagues into supporting radical reforms that transformed the Communist system. But Gorbachev wasn’t nearly as skillful at playing the new game of electoral politics (Boris Yeltsin turned out to be more adroit), and he shrank from using force to hold the USSR together when that might have discouraged restive ethnic minorities from breaking away.

Wasn’t the ultimate problem, for anyone trying to maintain the USSR, the inescapable reality that, despite everything, so many Soviet citizens simply didn’t want any part of it?

It is true that by 1991 many Soviet citizens did not want any part of the USSR. Not only non-Russian republics, but many Russians, too, preferred national sovereignty and independence. Since then, however, many Russians have missed their inner empire (the USSR) and their outer empire in Eastern Europe, and hence have strongly supported Putin’s efforts to resurrect Russia as a great power.

The role of China is relatively peripheral in the story you tell. Is that something later authors are likely to revise as new sources and perspectives become available?

Many observers have wondered whether Gorbachev could have been more successful if he had adopted the Chinese model of reform: if had prioritized radical economic reform while maintaining authoritarian political rule (as the Chinese did when they crushed the massive demonstrations in Tiananmen Square). But if Gorbachev had done so, he would not have been Gorbachev, the man determined to democratize the USSR.

At least one recent book, Chris Miller’s The Struggle to Save the Soviet Economy: Mikhail Gorbachev and the Collapse of the USSR, argues that quite a few Soviet experts tried to direct Gorbachev’s attention to Chinese economic reforms, but that powerful interest groups (central ministries in Moscow, the collective farm lobby, and the military-industrial complex) were strong enough to resist such reforms, whereas in China, weakened by the effects of the Cultural Revolution, they were not.

In his biography of Scott of the Antartic, Ranulph Fiennes urges armchair historians not to take the catty carping in primary sources – such as expedition diaries – too seriously, lest what is safely and quietly vented into private journals be mistaken for a precise record of the moral and material situation. Is there a similar danger with the testimony of close aides to public figures – after all no man is a  hero to his valet?

During pre-Gorbachev Soviet times, it would have been impossible to interview Soviet leaders or their close aides. Post-Soviet Russians who write memoirs or give nterviews became much freer to tell the truth, but only as they remember (or choose to remember) it.  Many of them have long-standing scores to settle, which they do with more relish than regard for the facts. In that sense, documents now available in archives provide an important corrective to memoirs, which in turn check them. In the case of certain former Gorbachev aides who had become his mortal enemies (such as Valery Boldin, Gorbachev’s chief-of-staff who joined conspirators in the anti-Gorbachev coup-attempt of August 1991), I was careful to use only selected bits of his testimony which had the ring of truth.

Does Gorbachev consider himself to have been a success?

One of Gorbachev’s greatest admirers, the late Soviet historian Dmitry Furman, wrote that for Gorbachev to have resorted to force and violence to hold on to power would have been “a defeat” since it that would have gone against his principles. In the light of those principles, Furman continued, Gorbachev’s ”final defeat was a victory.” Well, it certainly didn’t feel that way to him at the time.  Later, when he seemed depressed, friends assured him that he had given his people freedom, and that if they had made a mess of it that was their own fault.

Gorbachev’s latest book, published in 2017, is titled, I Am Still an Optimist. He still insists he is happy. If so, that is because he rightly believes that he laid the foundations for eventual democracy in Russia—by sponsoring the first free elections since 1917, by establishing a genuine working parliament to replace the rubber-stamp Supreme Soviet, and by turning glasnost into virtually free speech. How long it will take for Russia to be more fully democratized is another matter. Gorbachev himself has said that it may take “decades,” even “the whole twenty-first century.” But in 2011-2012, when demonstrators swarmed the streets of Moscow protesting against what they called rigged elections, Gorbachev couldn’t contain his basic optimism, his hope that the march toward a freer country had begun again.

What (or perhaps who) will your next big project focus on?

I’m not entirely sure what my next project will be. I’m thinking at this point that I may leave Russia behind for a while and that, together with my brother, Philip Taubman, former New York Times correspondent and editor, I may write a book about the late American Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara.


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“I’m not keen on speculation.” – Author James Shapiro discusses The Year of Lear

“I’m of two minds about OP. Yes, from a narrowly academic perspective, OP offers a fresh way of hearing the plays. But why stop with pronunciation?”

Was Shakespeare an Elizabethan English or an early British Jacobean playwright? Was he a fully fledged European, forged in the classical, moulded in the renaissance? Was he a proto-American laying the groundwork for the intellectual and political revolutions fermenting across the pond? Rhetorical questions will tend to take centre stage in Shakespearean studies, while concrete answers will sink the over-confident scholar beneath a tide of uncertainty and lack of material evidence.

James Shapiro is the preeminent walker of those fine lines between what we know, what we think we know, what we are yet to know, and what we would like to know about the inscrutable Swan of Avon. Born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, Shapiro has degrees from Columbia and Chicago. He has strutted his professorial stuff in the US and abroad, serving as the Samuel Wanamaker Fellow at the restored Globe Theatre, London. Shapiro is the recipient of more laurels, prizes and plaudits than Katharine Hepburn got Oscars. His critical treatment of the Oxfordian Theory (that Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare) has been described as “decisive.”

1606: William Shakespeare and the Year of Lear was published in October 2015 by Faber & Faber. To find out more click here.


Why 1606?

Why not 1606? It was a year in which Shakespeare was working on three extraordinary tragedies –Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra – in the immediate aftermath of a failed terrorist attack (the Gunpowder Plot), during an outbreak of plague that reached Shakespeare’s doorstep.

Shakespeare wrote many of his most famous plays after James VI and I came to the English throne. Why do we tend to think of him as an Elizabethan playwright?

I am as guilty as the next person for speaking of Shakespeare as an Elizabethan, but after 1603 he was
Jacobean – and English subjects (as far as King James was concerned) now British ones. Shakespeare’s career (from now on as a King’s Man), and the political and religious concerns of his audience certainly shifted once a Scottish King succeeded the last of the Tudors, Queen Elizabeth.

As a ruler (and as a man) did James VI and I confirm, alter, or refute his English subjects in their anti-Scottish prejudices?

That depended on which subjects you asked. The Gunpowder plotters might have offered one answer; those who profited by James’s reign another; English courtier displaced by new Scottish favorites yet another. There were very few Scots living in London under Elizabeth, so I’m not even sure how deep anti-Scottish sentiment ran.

Shakespeare used his history plays (on both British and classical themes) to reflect the concerns of the paying punter. Your work unpacks the social, cultural, and political content subtly packaged by Shakespeare. Did the early Stuart establishment share your sense of Shakespeare’s value as a political weathervane?

I’m not quite sure there was a Scottish establishment in the modern sense you suggest. I’m not entirely sure that King James and those in his immediate circle – who saw many of Shakespeare’s plays staged at court – fully grasped their full range of historical and political concerns. I’m not sure I do either, for that matter. So I don’t quite know with confidence, nor did they, which way that weathervane pointed.

Original pronunciation is helping to clear a fresh path in performances between texts and audiences. Has OP any academic value to scholars?

I’m of two minds about OP. Yes, from a narrowly academic perspective, OP offers a fresh way of hearing the plays. But why stop with pronunciation? Why not other aspects of original staging – natural light performances in the afternoons, bear-baiting next door, nobody showers for weeks before entering the theater, urinating in the corner of the theatre, paying a penny for admission, real weapons used in stage combat, sumptuary laws in place concerning what playgoers could wear, etc. Why privilege pronunciation over other aspects of original performance?

Most scholars agree that Shakespeare wrote his plays, but is there anything to suggest that he took an active role in editing them for print? Could Shakespeare have had any role preparing the First Folio, eventually published 7 years after his death?

There is no evidence whatsoever that Shakespeare was involved in preparing his plays for publication in the 1623 Folio. But that hasn’t stopped speculation. I’m not keen on speculation. I tend to put myself in the camp that believes that Shakespeare wrote primarily for the stage (from which he earned a living) rather than the page (from which he earned little besides our infinite gratitude centuries later).

If you could ask Shakespeare one question, what would it be?

Why are some of your plays – like The Comedy of Errors – so short, and others, like Lear and Hamlet, so much longer, impossible to stage in two or even three hours?

If you could take credit for having written one line of Shakespeare’s (and get away with it) which would it be?

One line is not much to brag about. But I’d take any of them.

You’re working on a new book. What can we look forward to?

I’m writing about Shakespeare in a divided America. The history of Shakespeare in America is markedly different from that in England, Ireland, Germany, etc. As Shakespeareans increasingly turn to a global perspective I thought it a good time to focus on the local. The book should be out before the next presidential elections here.


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“If this question is sarcastic, see my answer to Question Five.” – Author David Damant discusses The Luck of the Devil

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“I can imagine that Sullivan’s music for the Devil would have been excellent, and Gilbert would have loved the plot.”

Vienna, May 1931. The Baron Bretzenny is a worried man. His banking house is bust. It seems nothing can prevent the Bank Bretzenny from becoming just another casualty, lost amid the global wreckage of the Wall Street Crash. As one of Vienna’s foremost public atheists, the Baron literally hasn’t got a prayer. Then a mysterious visitor offers the Baron a way out of his troubles… but at what price?

The Luck of the Devil is the coruscating debut comedy of financial guru turned scribbler, David Damant. Damant is at once both a respected elder statesman in the realm of finance, a pioneer of Modern Portfolio Theory in Europe, and also a keen observer of his fellow creatures, their vanities and profanities.

At his London club David has, in addition to the world premier of The Luck of the Devil, arranged for a performance of the melodrama Maria Martin and the Red Barn, as well as more than a dozen operas or parts of operas, each directed by the celebrated Jamie Hayes. These have included Dido and Aeneas (starring Jean Rigby), the second act of Tosca (Sue Bullock & Robert Hayward), the essential scenes from Don Giovanni (Robert Hayward again), and no less than four performances of Offenbach’s Not In Front Of The Waiter.

A browse of his social media profile reveals that David’s interests include food, wine, opera, history, and conversation – he has even, on suitably rare occasions, been known to allow his interlocutors to get a word in… although never the last one.

The Luck of the Devil was published in March 2017 by 49Knights. To find out more click here.


Why the Devil? Why an Austrian banker? Why the interwar years?

I had been revolving in my mind for some time the idea of a Faustian contract in which, unusually, the Devil has to ask for help. After the stock exchange crash in New York in 1929 the trigger for the serious depression on this side of the Atlantic was the failure of the Viennese bank the Creditanstalt in May 1931, so I thought that an Austrian banker in trouble at about that time would need money and would provide the basis for the plot.

I then added the idea that the Roman Church was about to issue an Encyclical saying that the Devil was no more than a psychological construct – something that the Devil would not like at all – and he needed human help to stop the Encyclical – the name of which Ad Deliramentum Expellendum was crafted for me by an expert in Papal Latin. I have portrayed the Devil in an fairly honourable light (accepting his standpoint as the Father of Evil).

LOD 3You’ve been involved in dozens of productions down the years. How did those experiences shape The Luck of the Devil?

Except for one play before this one, all the productions I have been involved with since 1987 have been operas in whole or in part. But operas are drama so I suppose that I learnt a bit from those productions. A greater influence was P G Wodehouse, who used to construct his novels as though they were plays, with the scenes balancing each other in the sense of what happens in each, and the various characters given balanced appearances – one cannot introduce a big character and then drop that character half way through. So I followed that rule in my play.

You’ve not written a play before, but you have written on financial matters, history, music etc. How have your previous endeavours informed this one?

Writing so much taught me to write clearly……in any case a lot of what I wrote in the financial world had to be translated, or anyway read by those who were not native English speakers – so I had to be clear. A lot of writing these days is not transparently easy to follow, My aim is always to have the reader (or the listener to the play) able to concentrate on the ideas which I (or a character) is expressing, and not have to work out from the language what the point might be.

When I thought of writing the play I read quite a lot of other plays to get the structure in my mind, and was pretty dismayed by the sordid or unhappy nature of the plots – failed marriages, hopeless careers, children and parents at loggerheads etc etc.

The drama centres on a banker who has run out of money and needs bailing out. Where did you get such an incredible notion from?

See the answer to Question One. If this question is sarcastic, see my answer to Question Five.

Your own background is in banking and the city. Bankers aren’t massively popular at present. What can they do to improve their public image, and what should us non-bankers always bear in mind about the sector?

The general view of bankers is completely unbalanced. The main reason for their unpopularity is the financial crash, which was caused not by them but by the Central Banks keeping interest rates too low, by the Regulators not checking on balance sheets, and by the Chancellor (Gordon Brown) stating frequently that he had abolished downturns. What does one expect bankers to do in such an environment? Sit on their hands with all that cheap money and refuse mortgages?

Of course bankers have behaved badly in specific areas, but one does not attack the game of football because FIFA was corrupt, or attack athletics because many athletes take drugs, The financial system is a tremendous asset to this country – we have a great talent in that area – but I cannot see the image improving much. Most people do not understand the enormous value of efficient capital markets in using everyone’s savings more efficiently, and of attracting vast amounts of business to this country…… another difficulty is that the salaries seem so high. I see that several football managers earn more than £10 million a year. But people understand football.

LOD 2Do you believe in the Devil? Is he abroad in the world of men?

I believe that the Cardinal Archbishop of Vienna in my play was right (originally). The Devil is no more than a psychological construction in the mind of the human race, but has even so some importance as part of the human psyche. Jung said that if the Christian religion was not true, it had to be psychologically valid, since otherwise it would not have succeeded, and the Devil is part of that analysis. Incidentally, the real Cardinal Archbishop of Vienna in 1931 was Cardinal Pifl……..

What makes for good theatre?

This is a matter beyond my sphere of expertise. Chekhov stands out, and is of great interest in any attempt to answer your question.Often very little happens in a Chekhov play until the middle of the second act, when they all meet and decide not to go to Moscow. Yet his plays stand out as an amazing analysis of the human predicament. Note that the plot is merely the skeleton on which the real drama is hung. That is why so many films of great novels miss the point. They can tell the story, maybe a good one, but miss the dimension which make the whole thing a great work of art.

Wuthering Heights is the extreme example. Shakespeare is in a different league from everyone else – one can only be astonished at his genius. Incidentally, it seems clear to me that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare. It is impossible to imagine that he could have been in and around the London theatre scene for so long without anyone noticing the difference between his plays and his mind in conversation, not to mention having to wait whilst he rushed off the get input from Bacon or Lord Oxford. Also the comments by Ben Jonson and others.

What has been the response to The Luck of the Devil thus far?

The response is enthusiastic by those who have read it, but not many have read it outside my circle. Those in my circle are probably amazed that I have written a play at all. All profits from the first printing of the first edition went to a Charitable Trust.

LOD 1What’s next for The Luck of the Devil?

I have sent it to the BBC as it is perfect for radio. As regards a second play – Wodehouse when talking of novels always said that the second one was the real test of a writer, and no doubt the same is true of plays – I have started on a plot dealing with the incompetent bureaucracy of Heaven, where Stalin on arrival is not recognised (he uses his real name Josef Vissarionovitch Dzhugasvili) and is given the wrong papers, so that he is very nearly through the Pearly Gates, much to the delight of Satan.

What should be playing on the stereo when we’re reading The Luck of the Devil?

This is not an easy question. Any reference to the Devil brings to mind the Charles Williams piece The Devil’s Gallop, which the more ancient of your readers may remember as the theme for Dick Barton, Special Agent on the BBC, which was succeeded by the Archers (the Archers have never been the same since Squire Lawson-Hope sold the village). But the Gallop is for a melodramatic Devil, and for my play we need something more sophisticated. Handel’s Zadok the Priest would do, since the long and restrained build up is full of tension, relieved by the triumphant ending.

If the play were to be made into an opera, I think that Gilbert and Sullivan would have done it rather well. I can imagine that Sullivan’s music for the Devil would have been excellent, and Gilbert would have loved the plot. Or even better Offenbach – we have put on his Not in Front of the Waiter four times at my club. His humorous wit is sophisticated and some of his music might also do for background music when reading the play.


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