The première of Wintry Tales written by Rory Mullarkey opened at Live Theatre in Newcastle-upon-Tyne on 4 December 2022. The six tales were the result of workshops devised with local 7- to 11-year-olds.
Mullarkey was born in Ontario in1987 into a military family. He grew up in Greater Manchester attending grammar school there, went onto study Russian at Cambridge, graduating in 2009, followed by a period of study at the Russian State Institute of Performing Arts in St. Petersburg. Translating Russian and Ukrainian drama, he has translated plays for the Royal Court Theatre, the National Theatre and the Free Theatre of Belarus.
In 2010, he was Writer-on-Attachment at the Royal Court Theatre, London and in 2011, Pearson Writer in Residence at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester.
His first play, Cannibals, premièred in 2013 at Manchester’s Royal Exchange, then in 2014, the Royal Court Theatre awarded him the Pinter Commission, he won the James Tait Black Prize for Drama and was co-winner with Alice Birch of the George Devine Award and still only 27 years of age. Curious to learn more, I asked him, having had such a varied and interesting life for someone so young, what event had had the most impression on him so far.
“When I was twenty, I went to live in Kyrgyzstan in Central Asia for a year. I’d had quite a straightforward life up to that point, and had spent most of it hanging around in theatres. So it was a real shift to move to a country most people have never heard of, where I didn’t know anyone and didn’t speak the language very well. But I ended up having an amazing time, and probably lived and changed far more deeply in that year than I would’ve done if I’d stayed at home and hung around the theatre some more.”
Having started an academic life studying languages, Russian at Cambridge, why Russian?
“I was lucky enough to go to quite a fancy school which offered a few different languages for GCSE. I didn’t want to choose German because my mum’s a German translator and I didn’t want her to correct my homework, and I didn’t want to choose Spanish because all the cool kids who liked football chose Spanish, and I wasn’t cool and I didn’t like football. So I pretty much randomly chose Russian, but soon fell in love with it because the intense philosophical vibe of the literature matched up quite nicely with my teenage long hair and fondness for emo-punk music.”
What happened that diverted you to playwriting?
“I’d always been keen on the theatre. I acted in lots of school plays and carried on doing that when I got to university, and then at a certain point I couldn’t find a new play for me and my friends to act in, so I decided to write one instead. It wasn’t very good, but I found I loved doing it even more than acting, and realised it was the rush of creation which I’d loved all along: when you’re acting in a play, you’re creating a character, but when you’re writing a play, you’re creating all the characters. I wanted to keep doing that.”
It was intriguing how the idea for this particular project originated: “Jack McNamara, who’s the artistic director at Live, asked if I’d be interested in collaborating with a group of primary school pupils to write a play called Wintry Tales and I said yes. I had some meetings with Jack and Becky Morris, who directed the play, over the summer to discuss how the form of the piece might work. Becky and I then devised a structure for some workshops to generate ideas with the children, which we did in September. Then I worked through the ideas and wrote the play in October, and rehearsals started in November.”
I asked, did anything surprise him and why? “I guess I was expecting the story ideas from the children to be funny and strange and fantastical, and they were, but I didn’t expect so many of them to address really hard and complicated themes like friendship and money and loneliness and work. I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised: they all live in the world, and the world’s quite a hard and complicated place to live in at the moment!”
And after quite an intensive project, “I’m going to take a few months off to look after my baby son, and after that I’ll probably try and write another play.
“Theatre as an experience operates on different levels. You’re watching and imagining at the same time: you’re in a room in Newcastle watching Alice the actor, but you’re also imagining Sophie the polar bear at the North Pole. The paradox of those things, the tension between them, creates multiple meanings. The form itself becomes a metaphor. Which makes theatre the most poetic of all the art forms. Even more poetic than poetry. It’s like poetry, but in 3D!"
So who is his favourite playwright? “I have two: Alice Birch and Alistair McDowall. They’re both brilliant young British playwrights doing cool things with form and language, everyone should buy their plays and read them and produce them.”
So which writer has influenced him the most and why? “This is literally the least fashionable answer possible, but I’m going to be honest and say William Shakespeare, because I spent so much time studying and reading and acting in those plays when I was younger that they now live in my body and my blood. In terms of understanding and playing with the tension between performance and real life, both in our private and public selves, in terms of working with big ideas but still knowing how to hold an audience’s attention moment-to-moment, in terms of creating varied and consistently surprising characters that speak to human possibility in astonishingly rich language, he’s hard to beat. Turns out the guy was a pretty good writer—who knew?"
When he has any free time free his “2 and-a-bit-year-old and a 9-month-old” take up most of it, “so I don’t really know what free time is right now”. But when he does have some time he likes “travelling, swimming in the sea, playing video games, and going to the pub”.
He ended with “please come and see our brilliant kid-created show Wintry Tales, on at Live Theatre, Newcastle, till 23rd December!” There are three shows a day so plenty of opportunities to see one. 55 minutes of six different wintry tales to warm your heart, by a man to watch in the future.