Auckland Writers Festival: Seeking Kiwi surprises

By Dionne Christian

Playwright looks forward to a bit of getting lost in New Zealand, writes Dionne Christian.
Sir David Hare.
Sir David Hare.

If you're journeying around the North Island in the next few days and come across an erudite Englishman with strong views on public institutions - especially schools - suburban malaise in post-war England, class and feminism, war and peace do speak nicely to him but don't worry overly if he appears a bit lost.

Playwright, screenwriter and theatre and film director Sir David Hare is taking a few days off in New Zealand; he hasn't booked anywhere definite and wants to slowly drive up the North Island until he reaches Auckland.

Reassured we're a friendly bunch who will help him out if he needs it, he chuckles when reminded of the opening line in his autobiography, The Blue Touch Paper: "When I was growing up nothing excited me more than getting lost."

Hare doesn't want to get so lost that he misses appearances at the Auckland Writers Festival, where he'll talk about his life in theatre, take a workshop on playwriting and watch a reading of his 1995 play Skylight.

But on this first visit to New Zealand he'll welcome the opportunity to make a few surprise discoveries which will, perhaps, generally add to the way he sees the world.

He says getting lost and daydreaming are among the best ways to stimulate the imagination and, as a child raised in post-World War II Bexhill-on-Sea - "For any young person, the words 'Bexhill' and 'boredom' were joined at the hip" - they were essential survival mechanisms.

Hare will also be keen to find out more about our theatre, admitting he doesn't know very much about it but isn't surprised his plays are performed here. Given they are among some of the most well-known and highly regarded in contemporary theatre, it isn't a surprise at all.

They include his first international success, Plenty (1978) which Hare later adapted for the film starring Meryl Streep; Pravda: A Fleet Street Comedy written with Howard Brenton; Amy's View; Skylight, The Judas Kiss, The Blue Room (whose star Nicole Kidman sent heart rates soaring when she appeared nude), My Zinc Bed, South Downs, The Seagull (adapted from Chekhov) and The Moderate Soprano.

Along with theatre credits, there are numerous film ones which have seen Hare nominated for accolades from Baftas to Berlin Film Festival awards.

"What does surprise me is the different treatments the plays get in different countries," he says. "Plenty was much more popular in the United States than England, where it was received as being critical of the country whereas in the US, they saw it as being about Vietnam. Any interesting play has a metaphorical element that appears in different ways in different societies."

Hare was most shocked by the reception Plenty received in Japan when it was performed there in the early 1980s. He recalls outraged male theatregoers leaving because they objected to the protagonist being a woman. "Most of the men left at half time."

But, as he makes quite clear in The Blue Touch Paper, his preference has always been for "putting women's lives at the centre of my writing". He says that merely reflects his own upbringing, with an absent father - Clifford was in the Merchant Navy and at sea for all but four weeks a year - and repressed mother, Nancy, who once dabbled in amateur dramatics.

Hare writes: "From the beginning, I wanted to give women the play or film's point of view and not simply to imprison them as objects of manly love. How could a dramatist not want to give half their stage to half the human race?"

He started his theatre writing career in the late 1960s - unless you count the Pelham puppet theatre company PHY he founded, as a boy, with fellow bored Bexhill friends - and co-founded the Portable Theatre Company. As the name suggests, it would perform anywhere and everywhere and, Hare says, in some ways doing so was easier than it is today.

"When we wanted a van, we called Volkswagen and they gave us one because no one had ever asked before; when we wanted a typewriter, we called Olympia and they gave us one," he recalls. "We were able to travel very light and when we contacted people to ask if we could perform, they all said yes so we went to prisons, village halls, living rooms."

He says it "struck a chord" because Portable Theatre Company was viewed as an alternative to prevailing theatre which wanted to be safe, respectable and stage Nice plays about Nice things. Hare and his contemporaries saw themselves as engaged in a "culture war" trying to shake things up by confronting real social issues.

While today's young theatre-makers may get more encouragement, he says it's harder for them to break through when those of his generation - now the "establishment" - want to keep working.

"I am well and truly part of the establishment," he acknowledges.

"I have a knighthood; I've had 17 plays performed at the National Theatre. But things I wanted for the theatre, those battles are still not won."

Those battles include greater recognition for political writing and, of course, an end to the financial pressures on theatre.

"Commercial theatres are as full as they ever were with musical and comedies and that's fine. I have never wanted to replace that; I have simply wanted other things - alternative points of view - to be there, too.

"The commercial pressures have long been there, too, but since the days of Margaret Thatcher, excellence has been equated with success and usually monetary success. When I was at the Royal Court Theatre [Hare was resident dramatist in 1970-1], the more unusual a play was; the more likely it was to be a success but, if somebody was doing something interesting, the more likelihood there was that it would take time to develop, for audiences to catch on.

"Today, if it's not instantly successful a play doesn't get another life. Under that formula, plays like Waiting for Godot and Harold Pinter's would be unlikely to make it. We were given chances to take more risks and allowed to fail. That doesn't happen now because everything is market driven."

Hare intends to be at Silo Theatre's reading of Skylight, presented during the Auckland Writers Festival. The play was revived in 2014 with Carey Mulligan and Bill Nighy in the lead roles. Here, Stephen Lovatt, Chelsie Preston-Crayford and Patrick Carroll read while Silo's artistic director, Sophie Roberts, oversees proceedings.

"It's so exciting, so amazing that he's coming over here," Roberts says. "For a theatre person, it's like meeting a celebrity and it is rare, in this part of the world, to present an international work and have the writer in the room."

Won't it be intimidating?

"No, I think it more exciting than scary," she says.

Hare, for his part, says if anyone finds it intimidating he'll leave. "Oh, I'll just do whatever I'm told."

Festival events

• Sir David Hare speaks at the Auckland Writers Festival in My Life in the Theatre, a discussion with Simon Wilson about his life and the formative cultural development which went on in Britain and the 1960s and 70s. ASB Theatre, Aotea Centre; Saturday, May 14 at 6-7pm.
Skylight: A Play Reading is at the Herald Theatre; May 15 from 3.45 - 5.45pm with tickets $20 or $15 for festival patrons.

- Weekend magazine

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