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Interview with Willy Russell 2008

Image: Willy RussellBy Chris High

Playwright Willy Russell has returned to one of his greatest hits, done a bit of trimming and rewriting, and produced what he now calls Stags and Hens - The Remix, using an entirely Liverpool cast and production team in his home city’s theatre, The Royal Court. The play is now a good twenty minutes shorter and has far more swearing in it than would have been allowed when it first started out and so make it a much tougher piece of work, although its basic theme of staying or leaving remains and is just as relevant. ‘As always, I work right up to the wire and I’ve just been putting in one or two re-writes with the cast,’ the writer explained. ‘While the play is still in the preview stage, its good just to tighten and tweak things that little bit more especially when you’re dealing with theatrical comedy, which is probably the art form I value more than anything else. Playing tragedy is easy, comedy isn’t, and its no accident that those moments that bore school children to death when studying Shakespeare, are the best moments in a play. Comedy doesn’t just happen. There is a craft involved and sometimes you have to make a young cast realise that. It’s great working with such experienced and talented people, but it’s a great learning curve for me too. Comedy doesn’t pull its punches and if its not working then its not working and has to go. So its at that point I go to my writing to see if its that aspect which isn’t doing what it should, or something else.’

Stags and Hens is celebrating its thirtieth anniversary this year, so it might be natural to assume that this is the reason its creator wanted to return and update the play to fit the modern era. ‘To be honest, I didn’t want to return to it, the theatre came to me and asked if they could put it on and I said I’d like to be involved. Its not an update in any shape or form though simply because I don’t think it would be possible to update this. The cultural map of the late seventies and now are so very different. Back then, men went to clubs specifically to pick up women and women went to clubs specifically to pick up men. Nowadays, you can dance with your mate or even on your own. I’d have loved that. Clubs were old ballrooms with live bands on a stage, not purpose built venues and drink was the drug of choice. There was whole different vocabulary being used too, and a lot of attitudes have softened in many ways today, thank God. So, rather than update it, I’ve decided to tell it’s nineteen-seventies story in a very twenty-first century way. It’s a lot faster now and the way in which the story is being told, rather than the story itself, is where the majority of the rewriting has taken place.’

Willy Russell was born in Whiston, near Liverpool in 1947, grew up in a left-wing household and left school with one O-level in English. At his Mum's suggestion, he became a women’s hairdresser when he left school at fifteen and although he maintains he was never very good at it, Willy eventually managed a shop in Kirkby and was a hairdresser for six years; an experience, he says, that made him an indifferent dresser of hair but a very good listener. ‘I first decided I wanted to be a writer at fourteen which collided with the same thought of “don’t be Dickhead”. I had this idea all writers wore tweed jackets, smoked pipes and all had academic backgrounds, so it certainly wasn’t something someone in a D stream of a Secondary Modern did. So what I did was, like a lot of other people at the time, I channelled my efforts into writing songs because it was accepted that people with accents could write them, if nothing else. Having eventually started to get into theatre by going to see plays such as A Day In The Death of Joe Egg for example, I fumbled around writing plays when I went back to college in the early seventies. My first attempt at it was supposed to be a group effort for a class assignment, but the others had all buggered off and left me to it. The play was called 2.8 and it had one performance. My first successful play was called Keep Your Eye’s Down, which I wrote at teacher training college a year later.’

So does he think it was easier then to get work recognised. ‘Not really, no. There are far more outlets today, with soap operas and drama series on TV. What there are far less of today is the opportunities I had to learn the craft of theatre. Once upon a time, producers would take a chance on an unknown. I used to be a commissioned by theatres back then and, if the plays fell short of the mark, it would never have been a disaster for anybody. Nobody would have been threatened with a cut of their grant or what have you. That opportunity to nurture young writers, to give them the experience of what it is to write for a live performance, doesn’t exist anymore. What happened then was there was this huge explosion of regional writing which was just phenomenal. It only lasted a very short time because, by the time Thatcher realised there weren’t any votes in the arts, in and around 1985, the suits moved in and so made it impossible to put plays on unless they either appealed to a constituency or if they ticked all the right boxes. To an extent, theatre almost became a division of social work. There is no way a writer today could start in the way myself and other writers of my generation did. In fact I very much doubt they would even get near the door let alone get a foot in it, which is just wrong on so many levels. You have to be a lot more determined now, a lot more hard faced and persistent and you shouldn’t have to be. The job of a writer is to write what he or she wants to write and not to be forced into what fits the current trend, because nobody can afford to take that chance anymore to see if a writer has what it takes. So its somewhat ironic that a theatre like The Royal Court – which doesn’t receive a penny in public subsidy – is actually taking chances and giving emerging writers their break.’

But surely, especially with Liverpool being Capital of Culture, that same sense of adventure from theatres will return here at least? ‘I can’t read the future, but I really can’t see where the same funding that was around when I started is going to come from. If you want funding today it has to be for a new building or for someone to come in and plan a marketing strategy or something. Nobody is willing to put money into a script or to put the work on a stage, and that’s not just here it’s everywhere. When I started, the money was given directly to the artists and that is why so many projects were realised. I’m not being golden ageist or anything, but things were a damn sight healthier then in terms of new writing. Yes I know that some theatre’s, such as The Everyman here in Liverpool and others across the country encourage new writing through workshops and putting plays on, but while a bit of me appreciates and applauds that, another bit of me loathes it because the only way a writer can learn is on the stage. One of the curses of studio theatre is it means writing talent can be siphoned off and given its chance in a one-hundred and fifty seat room. The problem with that is, if a young writer has a success in a one hundred and fifty-seat room – in which an audience is more likely to be very forgiving of a play – when that same play is put on in a five hundred seat theatre, then the flaws in that work are going to show and the writer will either develop muscles bloody quickly or will have to find his or her route to expression in some other art form. The bigger the audience, the more ruthless they are and by not seeing and ironing out the flaws early on, new writers do not get the support or encouragement they need. Only by working in that big theatrical environment can a writer develop muscles and find out whether they can work with a director, or a cast or learn what an audience is and how it reacts and it is that white hot furnace of mainstream theatre that is no longer available. It’s where I learned, where Alan Bleasedale learned, where Jimmy McGovern learned, but these are all names from my generation and there are precious few new writers coming through in that way. That’s why I’m so much in favour of what’s happening here at The Royal Court, which is selling six or seven hundred seats for some new shows on a regular basis. Kevin Fearon, the artistic director, is attempting to establish what I consider to be regional theatre, which will ultimately have a resident company and that appeals to me because it’s such a rarity these days.’

So, of the current crop, whose work does Willy Russell appreciate and see in it parallels of his own experiences? Before answering, there is a long pause. ‘I can think of a few interesting writers, but because there isn’t a sufficient body of work there isn’t really any continuity. I’ve seen and liked the work done by Michael Wynne, Helen Blakemore, Nicky Allt and Dave Kirby, but what I don’t see from any of them is a body of work that’s building and building and building and, without meaning these writers alone, I think maybe its got a lot to do with finances. Thirty years ago, these guys would be commissioned left, right and centre and earn a wage they could live on and learn through their work. Today, it’s one play a year and he or she might find doors opening a little bit at a time. This is where soaps are on such a winner, because writers need to live and TV pays. Of course there are events out there that get writers some recognition. The 24/7 Theatre Festival in Manchester is one. I was asked to announce the nominations for the best play at the Manchester Evening News awards and there were a whole stack of nominees with 24/7 associations, so that’s good. Something on a region by region basis like that would be brilliant but, again, I suppose the dreaded “M” word gets in the way and puts people off. There are so few people in theatre willing to risk their money nowadays.’

After so much success, it’s refreshing to hear that Russell still gets the same buzz and sense of excitement when one of the shows he is directly involved in, like Stags And Hens, is being produced. ‘You wouldn’t do the job if you didn’t feel that rush,’ he said, ‘although I no longer have the same sense of fear I once did, it’s still a wholly new experience. It’s the first time I’ve seen this version of the play on stage, it’s the first time an audience has seen this version and it’s the first time this theatre has seen this version, so there is a lot of excitement about it because you have to learn all the time. My last new play was Shirley Valentine and that was twenty-two years ago now, so getting involved here meant potentially there might be something new in the offing. I’ve never intentionally written for the West End or Broadway. I’ve only ever written for a theatre and a group of people and to an extent I’ve felt like I’ve not had a home for awhile. Now, that’s not the only reason I’ve not done anything new for all that time, but it’s certainly been a factor, and if I find things developing here at The Royal Court in the way I hope, then who knows.’

Read a review of Stags and Hens
Liverpool Royal Court Theatre - February 2008

Parts of this interview have, or will, appear in other publications and in other formats.

  
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“Writing gets me away for a while' from this world and into one where I, alone, can make or
break the rules as I see fit.” - Chris High 2003.
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