World Theatre Day: Boredom and accident in the making of a playwright
While David Hare created play like The Permanent Way that tells the sordid tale of privatisation of British railways, his screenplays bring out the best in Hollywood heavyweights like Nicole Kidman and Kate Winslet, fetching them the Oscars Photograph: (Others)
It is no coincidence that Apollo, the sun god, is also the god of poetry and, more importantly, the god of Truth in the Greek mythology. Artists, therefore, are often expected to bear the twin responsibilities of entertaining as well as shining light on truths that would otherwise languish in the darkness of ignorance and intrigue. Sir David Hare, the celebrated British playwright and film writer, shoulders them both with nonchalant grace and confidence. While he can create a play like The Permanent Way that tells the sordid tale of the privatisation of the railways under John Major, his screenplays bring out the best in Hollywood heavyweights like Nicole Kidman and Kate Winslet, fetching them the Oscars.
It is incongruous, then, to hear that such an illustrious and eclectic oeuvre was an outcome of two accidents: of birth and betrayal.
My conversation with Hare begins ab ovo.
Born into Boredom
“I was born in a very boring town. A small suburban seaside town called Bexhill in Sussex, England. It had the oldest national age all the towns in the country. If you were young and lively in the 1950’s, there was absolutely nothing to do there. It was just so boring! One had to rely on one’s own imagination. And that is a classic writer’s background. To come from a place where you really have to make your own entertainment,” he offers a glimpse of the portrait of an artist as a young man.
As a child, I fantasised a lot. Not only do I depend as a writer upon my imagination, it’s given me another gift: I also never get bored.
He continues, “As a child, I fantasised a lot. Not only do I depend as a writer upon my imagination, it’s given me another gift: I also never get bored. I’m now almost 70 and still deeply curious about (the) world. Because I was born in a place that was so dull, everywhere I go seems interesting and exciting.”
Even though the young Hare found ways to keep boredom at bay, he had to wait for an accident, in imitation of the great tradition of fantasy literature and cinema, to become a writer.
Hare confesses that despite fantasy being a powerful part of his childhood, he never dreamed of becoming a writer. “It never occurred to me. I studied literature in the university but it never seemed that I was going to write literature,” he says. It was while running a theatre company that it, literally, happened. He shares, “I was the director of the company and a playwright let us down on a Wednesday and we had to have something to start rehearsing the following Monday. So I wrote a play.”
Hare seizes this moment to talk about the importance of trying. “I always say to everybody, ‘you should always try’. You may have a gift inside you for whatever it is- swimming, diving, writing, running and maybe technology! Try things because you may discover the gift you didn’t know you had. When I had discovered the gift of writing I was truly amazed. I had absolutely no sense of it before I did it. When I found it, it was the most joyful thing in my life.”
I begin to wonder if it was the same principle of “trying” that brought him to films.
If you wanted to understand what people were thinking about in Europe, you had to watch their films
He replies, “I always loved films. You must remember that I was born at a time when cinema was the most important medium in Europe. These great filmmakers- Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini, Antonioni, Louis Malle, Jean Luc Godard- they were not just artists. They were at the very front of the European thought. If you wanted to understand what people were thinking about in Europe, you had to watch their films.” The position that cinema then held as being the most intellectually vital form, unfortunately, it has rarely held since. It just happened to be the period of very great men and women making wonderful films. Cinema has a much lower role in society now. But of course, I love it! As a child, I always wanted to write films but it took me very long to know how to.”
Not just saddened with the lowered role of cinema in present times, Hare is also dismayed by the fading of the “state-of-the-nation” tradition of theatre in Britain.
Theatre and Trump
Hare begins by talking about what inspires him. “I’m not a writer who is entirely influenced by other writers. I don’t have any literary influence. My influences have always been the world, what I see going on, and my reaction to it. I look at subjects that nobody else considers worth writing about.”
He continues, “I’ve written plays about aid to the third world, privatisation of railways, the diplomatic process leading up the invasion of Iraq, the Chinese revolution and even the priests of the Church of England. These are all subjects that are apparently very off putting. Subjects about which people say, ‘Oh, I don’t want to see a play about that, it sounds boring!’ I believed I could make such subjects interesting. I’ve always claimed a certain prescience and ability to see something that will become interesting over the years. That has been my principal characteristic as a writer.”
A traditionalist in some ways and an iconoclast in others, Hare does not write on demand. “At the moment when everyone is asking me to write a play about Trump, I say ‘no!’ I have no interest in writing a play about Trump, it’s too obvious.”
Nothing called an Oscar-winning Role
Whether talking about themes and subjects or discussing actors, Hare does not mince his words. Nicole Kidman and Kate Winslet both won Oscars for the roles he created but he stakes no claim on those golden statuettes.
Hare says, “Because I am a director in the theatre, I’m very conscious of what the actors’ experience is going to be like. As a playwright and film writer, I try to carve roles that are worth playing. In the theatre, we write plays where people just have three or four lines. My heart is with that actor who’s got to sit there the whole evening from 7:30 to 10:30 only to come and say three lines. It’s more satisfying for the audience and the actor if the part is worth playing.”
He continues, “I may have specialised in writing the kind of role that actors want to play. But here is the crucial thing about this. When I wrote The Reader, for instance, the actresses who read that role said that whoever played this part would win the Oscar. I said, absolutely not! It will only be won by a great actress. I didn’t win the Oscar for Kate Winslet, Kate Winslet won for herself. Nicole Kidman won her own Oscar. When actresses come to me and say ‘Can you write me an Oscar-winning role?’ the answer is NO. I can’t write an Oscar-winning role because you will only win an Oscar if you are a great actress: in that class of Nicole and Kate.”
Is this why he prefers working with the tried and tested, battle-hardened actors?
Hare does not hide his admiration for some of his favourites. “There are some actors that I’ve worked with over and over again.” The list includes Judi Dench, Meryl Streep, Julianne More, Nicole Kidman, Carrie Mulligan, Rachel Weisz amongst others. He declares, “I’ve now worked with Bill Nighy (William Francis) ten times! I find this thing of coming back to actors raises your game because you start already knowing each other and all the preliminaries are out of the way. You set to work with more speed. It’s wonderful because you start at a level where you already know each other so much.” On the excitement of discovering a new talent he says, “Of course, I will be enriched working with new people. But it will also be very time consuming when you are both trying to learn how to work together.”
Hare is nothing if not brutally honest. No wonder, then, his autobiography The Blue Touch Paper: A Memoir elicited some strong reactions. Many of the readers were befuddled by his self-criticism, as scathing as his response to others’ flaws.
Tales of Truth
Hare says, “Some people who read the book recognised the emotions. It was a big struggle for me to establish my work. It was not liked by the critics in the beginning and I felt very embattled. My twenties were very hard times for me. I became a not-very-pleasant person because I had to fight so hard for my work. I conformed to the stereotype of the ruthless artist who’ll do anything in order to see his ideas, for whatever they are worth, realised.”
He continues without a wince or even a blink, “When I described in the book the self-hatred this ruthlessness brings about, some people said ‘Oh I can’t believe you suffered from that degree of self-hatred.’ My response to that is, if you don’t suffer from self-hatred good for you! You are a very lucky person. But those of us, who do, recognise each other. One of the reasons the book is so liked by some people may be that I’m, hopefully, completely honest about darker emotions in myself as much as anyone else.
Taking the truth talk further, I ask him about his degree of familiarity with the non-European film and theatre scene.
He replies with, “It’s very heartening” and continues “But it is also difficult to access because, by and large, it is English speaking films that are shown in London. The number of art cinemas, which show films from abroad, is getting smaller and smaller. So all I can do is scroll through the television streaming channels and see what I can find of foreign films.” Then he confesses, “I can’t pretend to know as much about the world cinema as about the English language films.”
Can the challenges faced by non-English films and plays be countered by collaborations? Hare and Ralph Fiennes are part of one such collaborative venture in the Russian language. He informs, “Half the film is in Russian and we are doing it precisely because that’s what we want to do. We want to make a film that is set in another culture and use people from that culture to make it. Whether we will succeed in financing it or not, I don’t know yet.”
He continues, “I can imagine a similar collaboration in India. I’ve been coming to India since 1981. I wrote a play in 1982 which was set in Taj Mahal Hotel, Mumbai. I also adapted Katherine Boo’s book Behind the Beautiful Forevers into a play which was shown National Theatre. The filmed version of this play was shown in cinemas all over the world and I’m very, very proud of it. We had an all Indian company of 24-25 actors at the National Theatre and then it was seen all over the world: that’s one of the most satisfying things I’ve done.”
At the end of the conversation, Hare gives a characteristically passionate response to a cliched interview question: advice to the younger lot.
Before I can finish my sentence, Hare says, “Get your play on! If a theatre won’t do your play, do it yourself. Just put it on. Doesn’t matter where you put it on. Even in a room like this. Anywhere! Just get it on! You will only learn by seeing your play performed. Being an unperformed playwright you are never gonna learn anything about playwriting. When you sit with the audience and see what they respond to and what they don’t respond to, you learn so much about your own work. Unfortunately, unlike a novelist, you will only learn it when it is done in a way you want and in front of an audience.”