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David Edgar

"Unfinished Business"

Sheila Connor talks to playwright David Edgar about his latest play, Testing the Echo, his career and his plans for the future.

Having been born into a highly successful and active theatrical family, it was assumed that David Edgar would become an actor. His father actually converted a rather up-market garden shed into a twelve-seat theatre for him in their garden and the young David began to write plays from the age of five – really with the intention of giving himself the starring role - but after some tactful advice from his mother he decided that acting was not after all his métier, and he read Drama at Manchester University with a view to becoming a playwright. After graduation he took up journalism for a short time before becoming a full-time writer in 1972, but still frequently contributes to newspapers and journals such as ‘The Guardian’ and “The London Review of Books”. Now one of our foremost political dramatists, he produces plays which examine the changing political scene, and excite and stimulate as they entertain.

His latest play Testing the Echo covers multiculturalism in our society and questions what constitutes ‘Britishness’. It is now touring nationally and internationally before a month at the Tricycle Theatre. He talked to me about the play and his plans for the future.

I asked what had been his inspiration for this play.

“Well, I wrote a play called Playing with Fire (which was produced at the National Theatre in 2005) about the riots in Oldham and Burnley which were becoming prominent during that year, and in January 2006 Gordon Brown made his first speech about Britishness standing in front of a Union Flag which was quite funny for a member of the Labour Party”

The riots were caused by racial tensions and Edgar regarded the themes of that play as “unfinished business”, and with examinations for prospective British citizens in the headlines at the moment the inspiration for this play was born and, while still highly political, it is very different to his usual style of writing.

“I hate to use the term ‘a theatre essay’, but it wouldn’t be the traditional David Edgar style. It would have a number of stories – all of which were connected by citizenship and which would use strange language as a kind of vocabulary for the play, so it would mean in a way I’ve been looking at modern playwrights I have admired and the way they write now, which is in a much more mosaic, cut up kind of cinematic way – I wanted to do it like that. It has lots of different scenes, a kind of documentary element, almost mockumentary, but drawing on verbatim theatre, verbatim drama which has become so popular in the last few years and it’s very fast. There are projections onto a big screen, and the eight actors play many, many parts.”

I suggested that a lot of intense concentration might be required.

“Well, people say that, but if you take the stories separately, if you separate them out, they’re sort of fables really. There are no more stories running at any one moment than there are in Eastenders where there’s usually five or six stories running and there’s five major strands in my play. You get to know the characters very well as it goes along so it’s not an assault course…….Someone said they had to concentrate very hard with Nicholas Nickleby….

“Well – with all due respect……”

And he tailed off obviously aghast that anyone might find any of his plays difficult.

Obviously a great deal of research had to be done to discover the stories of people who wish to obtain British citizenship and their reasons for wanting this, as well as trying to decide what actually constitutes Britishness in people’s opinions. In the traditional style of Max-Stafford Clark’s Out of Joint company (which is producing the show) they gathered together a group of actors. They, together with Edgar and the company researcher, set up interviews with those taking citizenship classes and collected a lot of material from around the world.

“One of the things we did – we actually tested each other and discovered how utterly ignorant we were about British life, and there is a particular German test, which is quite notorious, which is partly about opinions but partly about a very archaic aspect of German culture. We translated it, as it were, into an English equivalent to see how we did on that. It was a particularly disastrous exercise.”

As well as his political plays, Edgar is probably most famous for his adaptation of Dickens’s Nicholas Nickleby for the National in the eighties – an eight and a half hour long epic subsequently reduced to six and a half hours when revived at Chichester in 2005. I thought there might be an affinity with Dickens as both deplore the injustices and inequalities of life, but it seems he is not a great Dickens scholar and had to ask his wife, “Is that the one with Mrs. Gamp in it?” He had never read it, but agreed that Dickens had an outrage against society and injustice and had the most reforming zeal of the nineteenth century.

I asked about what he considered was the aim of his writing – whether perhaps to educate, or to stimulate debate.

“When I started out in the seventies, which was a very divided and apocalyptic time, there was lot more raging and strikes than than we are talking about here. I think then I thought that my work should have a direct political impact – I don’t think that any more. I think that what one is trying to do is to stimulate debate and also to present a way of thinking about things that accords with people’s lives and how people see the world in which they live I hope the audience will say ‘I agree with that’ or ‘I don’t agree with that’.

“I was a Marxist at the beginning. I think that most people who were at university at that time were caught up in left wing politics – I certainly was and will remain so, but I wouldn’t call myself a Marxist any more”

Edgar is currently adapting a Julian Barnes novel, Arthur and George, about a real life case in late 19th Century Britain and concerning two very different men, one of whom turns out to be Conan Doyle and then “because of this great moment in my life” (he has just turned sixty) he will take a little rest.

“I’m going to be in the situation I haven’t been in now for nine years to be able to say I don’t know what I’m doing next. Very much looking forward to having a fling for two or three months and doing a little reading and then I’ll decide what the next play’s going to be”.

Asked how he would like to be remembered, his first thought was the three plays he wrote in the nineteen nineties, The Shape of the Table, Pentecost and The Prisoner’s Dilemma, concerning the time when the Berlin Wall came down, the collapse of communism in that area, and the issues of multiculturalism and conflict. He regards that as “an extraordinary period – a great drama” and is probably going to write about that part of the world again.

His second thought was the University of Birmingham’s Playwriters’ course which he founded in 1989 and was its director until 1999. A great number of young writers who completed the course have become eminent professional playwrights, and he’s very proud that he started that off.

He may have reached the momentous age of sixty, but it seems that the rest period will not last for long.

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©Peter Lathan 2008