David Harrower - One of Scotland's Most Successful Young Playwrights
Philip Fisher meets David Harrower as the 2005 Edinburgh International Festival is about to begin.
David Harrower is a quiet, contemplative man who has become one of Scotland's most successful young playwrights. This interview took place in the back row of the King's Theatre stalls as the set was being prepared for the opening of Blackbird.
Harrower's new play was to open three days later as the first play in the Edinburgh International Festival's 2005 theatrical programme.
The Edinburgh International Festival
For Edinburgh-born Harrower, "It's quite a thrill to have a play done in the Edinburgh International Festival. I used to tear tickets in this theatre when I was 19-years-old. It was something that I didn't think would ever happen".
There is more to his excitement than the local link. However, when the Festival director, Brian McMaster asked him if he would write a play to be directed by one of the contemporary greats, German director, Peter Stein, he didn't immediately accept the offer. "I thought immediately it would mean the possibility to write a huge play. He did Julius Caesar with 200 extras".
He eventually "asked himself whether he was up to it" and said yes before embarking on a work for twelve actors. In December though, a month before the deadline, "ten characters were slain" and he wrote a new play with two of the characters from the original.
The premise is a meeting between a middle-aged man and a young woman who had a kind of "affair" fifteen years previously when the girl was not yet even a teenager and the man was 40. "It's about what happens when she comes to seek him out".
The two-hander features Roger Allam, who will be remembered by many for creating the part of Willy Brandt in Michael Frayn's Democracy and Jodhi May, who worked with Stein on his Edinburgh Festival The Seagull in 2003 and is also well-known for her film and TV work including A World Apart and Tipping the Velvet.
Harrower has enjoyed his collaboration with the director and actors for a number of reasons, not all of them immediately obvious. "Peter rehearses in a converted monastery in Umbria, salubrious, idyllic conditions in which to rehearse. He has now completed a custom-built theatre and a huge rehearsal room in the forest".
He likes and respects his current director and regards working with him as "an incredible experience".
"Peter Stein has been sacred with the text. He really engulfs a play or gorges on the play, he really inhabits it. I really felt he'd taken it from me and was battling with his vision of it. He makes you as a writer feel very valued".
Harrower continues to express the pleasure that he feels in the partnership. "He takes what you've written with utter seriousness. He's an incredible man - he's got incredible energy - a very cerebral and visceral man but he also wants to entertain and the audience to have a good time".
Harrower's work has divided into plays that are consciously Scottish in their subject matter and outlook and others that are on a wider theme. "I'm not consciously doing this. Blackbird would have been more Scottish with Scottish actors. There is a certain rhythm to the way that the Scottish people I write about talk but Peter cast English actors and it has brought a different sensibility to it. I guess Knives in Hens and Dark Earth were about Scotland".
By contrast, the final version of Blackbird "doesn't seem to have any relevance to why we are living in Scotland now. It is a love story about two people who have been through a life-changing event together".
The National Theatre of Scotland
Harrower is enthusiastic about the new National Theatre of Scotland. "It's a vital injection of money. It has the potential to be a really exciting, invigorating pan-Scotland organisation. It can build on the profusion of writing for the stage recently in Scotland".
"It's quite a marked contrast to a decade ago when drama was not the first thing young writers were turning to. Gagarin Way (Gregory Burke) and Further than the Furthest Thing (Zinnie Harris) are part of an explosion of really interesting eminently theatrical work in the last few years".
He likes adapting the work of the greats. He has worked on Pirandello, von Horwath and Chekhov in recent years. Of Ivanov, he says "It's a thrill just to steep yourself not only in the play itself but the time that the writer was working in. I'm just fascinated by playwrights and why people would choose to use this form".
His next play will be for the National Theatre (the London one) and he is also under commission to the RSC and the Royal Court. While he enjoys writing film scripts, for Harrower other forms do not "fire me in the way that writing for theatre does. I'm going to loiter around theatre for quite a few years yet. I'm fascinated by the process of writing for theatre and also what it does to an audience".
He is keen to explore the form more. "My writing has to move somewhere else. I'd like to do an exploration of the things that face us today. Maybe I have to look closer at loosening up structure because of the times we've been living in since 2001. I need to respond, not so much to terrorism as to a different feeling there is in the world".
He has no doubt that the stage will be an important medium in the future. "Play writing doesn't get dull, it's an ongoing exploration".
Blackbird may only have a cast of two but "I'm gearing up for a large scale work. It would be very interesting to do that. I'm developing something at the moment that maybe needs thirty people".
He is realistic though. "I can see this never getting done in Britain with thirty people on stage at the same time". He responds positively though to the suggestion that this might be a good inaugural project for Vicky Featherstone at the National Theatre of Scotland.
David Harrower is clearly enjoying life and it is to be hoped this thinking man of Scottish theatre's new work will garner universal acclaim.