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Introducing dangerous new writing

Philip Fisher interviews Mike Bradwell, Artistic Director of The Bush

Meeting Mike Bradwell, artistic director of The Bush Theatre, is an absolute delight. He is a man steeped in theatre but still enthusiastic enough after thirty-five years in the business to spend a couple of hours over a few glasses of red wine talking about his career and consistently allowing his deep love of theatre to shine through.

You can easily tell that this larger than life character with beard and unkempt hair feels comfortable in his home from home for the last seven years, the O'Neill's public house below the theatre. In no time at all, he is greeted by an assortment of "passers by". They include playwright April de Angelis, director John Tiffany, and half the cast of the next play at the Bush, The Green Man by Doug Lucie.

It is remarkable that a theatre with under 100 seats has been a Premier Division player, to use Bradwell's term, in the world of new playwriting for the last thirty years. With his vision, it should continue to introduce dangerous new writing for many more.

Mike Bradwell started his training at the E15 Theatre School on a director's course that he found, to his surprise, had no dedicated lecturers when he started. Towards the end of the first year, he had the good fortune to have foisted upon him as tutor another disenfranchised northerner, Mike Leigh.

They got on well and by the end of the course, Leigh invited Bradwell to join him at the Open Space Theatre in a production originally called Improvised Play Number 10 which had "the worst reviews ever". Undaunted, Albert Finney's company Memorial Productions agreed to film the show in which Bradwell was one of the stars, under the title Bleak Moments.

After that, he did some acting and stand-up comedy and was a member of the original Ken Campbell Roadshow which included Bob Hoskins and Sylveste McCoy. He is rather proud that he was the company's underwater escapologist and fire-eater. His acting career actually continued into the 1980s with his last performance playing the fat policeman in the televised version of Ron Hutchinson's Rat In the Skull.

From there, Bradwell started the Hull Truck Company, which he ran for ten years. He specialised in the kind of devised work that Leigh was pursuing on television. Having left Hull Truck in 1982, he spent most of the 1980s writing for television. In some ways, a highlight of his TV career was a three-part programme for Channel 4 with a working title of "I am a Donut" which is a colloquial translation of John F Kennedy's famous quote "Ich bin ein Berliner". Sadly, this intriguing series was never made.

He would still love the opportunity to do more writing but, as he says, "I walked through the door at the Bush and I haven't been home since. I will do more writing, but I'm busy doing this and having too good a time. The only thing that I have written in the last seven years is advertising copy".

His first major break into the world of commercial theatre directing was when he was made associate director to Max Stafford-Clark at the Royal Court for a two-year period. They never really saw eye-to-eye and after they parted amicably, he combined TV writing with freelance theatre directing. This took him to such theatres as the Almeida and Hampstead working with playwrights, including Doug Lucie.

When he was at Hull Truck, they often exchanged work with the Bush, which they regarded as their London home and he worked there pretty frequently. When he heard in 1995 that Dominic Dromgoole was finally leaving the theatre after several previous false alarms he applied for the job. He was up against very strong opposition and Dromgoole predicted that he had no chance of being appointed. Undeterred, he went through the interview process, told the Board exactly what he intended to do with their theatre and seven years later, he has been as good as his word.

He believes that he got the job because he was so steeped in the Bush ethos. He had been working there for 25 years on-and-off and understood its history as a collective and also some of the strange, arcane practices that still continue today. "I had history on my side - I knew how the theatre worked. I had an overview of what it was and where it should go".

That did not mean that he was going to leave the very successful theatre unchanged when he took over. He believes that in the last three to five years he has changed the culture considerably, but the next couple will be far more interesting and exciting. The company is actively looking to move to a larger, more comfortable home in that timescale and might well undergo the kind of lottery-aided building project that has assisted the Royal Court, Hampstead and Soho recently. His mouth waters at the prospect of having a home that can generate ancillary income, although whether he sees the new Bush as having an upmarket Indian restaurant in the basement as Soho has is perhaps a moot point.

Bradwell has strong views on the qualities that he wants to keep after the move. "We want writers who have soul. The attraction of the Bush is that it is a small space and you can't tell lies on stage because you'll get found out. Wherever we go must reflect that".

He is very proud of the artistic quality of what is produced at the Bush "Our brand is about what we do and our back catalogue is immaculate". That brand often involves exciting, dangerous new writing and the list of successes is awesome. Last year, they co produced Stitching by Anthony Neilson and numerous other cutting-edge writers have made their names at the Bush. These include the likes of Jonathan Harvey, whose Beautiful Thing premiered there. Sebastian Barry, Tony Kushner, Conor McPherson and Stephen Poliakoff all had early successes there too.

He prides himself on the fact that his writers stay loyal to their Bush roots. He does though have a sense of proportion, "The line between being exciting and offensive is a fine one, new writing must be provocative but we have to entertain. Relentless In yer face Theatre rapidly becomes tedious".

His main project at the moment is to bring Bush plays to a much wider public. This might involve transfers of plays to larger venues, as happened with Richard Cameron's The Glee Club last year, or obtaining the involvement of TV companies to film shows. However, the commitment to new writing is still as strong as ever. The Bush receives about 1,500 new scripts every year and ensures that each one is read and assessed. On average, only about one and a half make it into the theatre. However, Bradwell is very proud that during 2002, three have the reached required standard and these formed the Naked Talent Season. Each of these young first-time playwrights has now gone on to further success.

Bradwell is still first and foremost a theatre lover. He has just returned from a trip to the USA and is very enthusiastic about the revival of Lanford Wilson's play about a Vietnam veteran, Fifth of July. In Britain, the most moving production that he has seen recently is Pina Bausch's Kontacthof starring a company of old age pensioners, in the BITE season.

Mike Bradwell is an ardent believer in his tiny theatre and its unique philosophy. "A Bush play is close-up magic. The Bush is not a stepping-stone, it's important for itself. We have an obligation to our writers, directors and designers. My one guiding principle is that we are not paid enough to have a bad time".

Anyone who has met Bradwell will understand that having a bad time does not make it on to his agenda!

This interview has also appeared on Theatreworld in a slightly different version.

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©Peter Lathan 2003