NEWSLETTER - Spring 2013
|Dancin' Thru The Dark is as vivid and accurate in it's observation of teenagers, as Shirley Valentine was of women." THE DAILY MAIL
PC: I know we ran an interview with you early in 2012 for the release of the DVD of DANCIN' THRU THE DARK, but I can’t help revisiting the film. It is such a great film and relates so well to teenagers and young people, even 20 years after its original release. You’ve spoken before about how you are able to relate and write about women, do you find it challenging to relate and write about young people?
WR: It’s always rather surprised me that so many people are quick to remark upon the fact that I often write leading female characters but rarely, if ever, mention the fact that I also often write works featuring young people – ‘OUR DAY OUT’, ‘ONE SUMMER’, ‘BLOOD BROTHERS’. ‘THE WRONG BOY’. All are set or partly set in the world of the young. It’s not something that I consciously ever set out to do but, just as with writing female roles, it seems to be something towards which I naturally incline.
PC: I really enjoyed Matthew Kelly and Claire Sweeney’s performance when they toured earlier in the year with EDUCATING RITA. There are several photographs on the website of you during rehearsals, clearly enjoying yourself. Do you always try to work closely with directors and actors when creating new productions of your work?
WR: The extent of my involvement in a production will usually be governed by the relationship I have with the producer, the director or the actors. In the case of this production of EDUCATING RITA, it began its life at the Menier Chocolate Factory, where I now have a good and close working relationship with producer David Babani. This production with Claire and Matthew was the third incarnation to come out of the Chocolate Factory, following the first two productions (with Laura Dos Santos and Larry Lamb and Laura Dos Santos and Tim Piggott Smith). It was something of a bonus for me working with Matthew as he and I first worked together way back in the 70s when he was part of that extraordinary group of actors that constituted the Everyman Company. In the way of these things, our working paths had never really crossed again until this opportunity came up and we found ourselves in rehearsal – probably boring poor Claire and director Tamara Harvey to death with our reminiscences of rum goings on and all kinds of nostalgic nonsense from back in those old Everyman days.
There was also a quite practical reason for me being back in rehearsals with EDUCATING RITA as the tour was to be followed by a three week residency at the Edinburgh Fringe and where the strict time allotted for the show meant that we would have to lose the interval and play straight through. This of course, meant that I had some cutting and re-structuring to do.
Incidentally, the photographs that you mention were also the result of a happy reunion as these were taken by Catherine Ashmore who had also been the stills photographer on day one of the original SHIRLEY VALENTINE West End rehearsals with Pauline Collins and Simon Callow.
PC: Ken Gidner from the USA, who wrote to the guestbook, asks about your repeated references to ‘Blake’ in EDUCATING RITA?
WR: Yes, Ken makes the point that Blake is referenced a number of times during the play and asks if this is intentional. I’d have thought that the answer to that is all too obvious. There are other authors mentioned throughout the play, Forster, Rita Mae Brown, Chekov, Shakespeare and these too are used intentionally. Perhaps Blake is more consistently used because I did want to suggest the notion of innocence/experience.
PC: In late March and early April you will be judging the first Adrian Henri – Poetry in Art prize. How did you become involved?
WR: I was invited to take part by Catherine Marcangeli, who was Adrian’s long term partner when he was alive and who now looks after his estate. I think my close friendship and sometime collaborations with Adrian have probably given me some kind of an idea as to the kind of work that would be worthy of winning a substantial prize named and given in Adrian’s honour.
PC: I understand you have recently taken up painting and drawing yourself?
WR: Yes, in recent years I have indeed begun to try and learn how to draw and paint. It’s a bit of a miracle, really, me turning towards the visual arts after almost half a century of describing myself as a visual retard. As is so often the case, my experience at school had led me to this conclusion and I still remember the art teacher, who smacked me about the head when I was 13, telling me to get out of the art room and to stay out – his final parting shot being “the only thing you’ll ever draw is the dole!”
The problem is that, once you get told this kind of thing, you do tend to believe it (just as I come across so many people who will readily declare themselves to be tone deaf, not because they are – tone deafness is, in fact, extremely rare – but because a teacher or parent or other grownup has pronounced them to be).
Although desperately trying to make up for many, many years of lost time, I know that I’ll never be able to even begin to scratch the surface of the vast subject towards which I’ve turned my attention – as a painter friend recently said to me, “you could spend at least ten lifetimes studying nothing but the colour green and you still wouldn’t come near to having arrived at many conclusions.” It is, though, endlessly fascinating, absorbing and, sometimes, deeply frustrating!
PC: Your plays have always been International successes, but a recent guestbook entry hints at a BLOOD BROTHERS production in China. Also in your Daily Telegraph interview in October, you briefly mentioned a performance in South Africa. Does this level of International success surprise you?
WR: As you say, at the beginning of the question, I’ve been extremely fortunate in that my work seems to have struck a chord with audiences right across the globe and so, without being at all blasé about it, it’s not something that now surprises me. You can say that I was surprised back in the very early days. I think my first ever foreign production was the Mexican production of John, Paul, George, Ringo and Bert where, perhaps, the title should have been amended to simply John, Paul, George and Ringo as they ditched Bert and that whole element of the story remained untold in their production. Fortunately, such travesties are the exception, rather than the rule and most foreign producers can be relied upon to respect the integrity of the work.
Yes, it’s good to see that the plays are now attracting the attention of producers in countries such as China and Russia. One reason that both these countries have not previously produced the work (at least not legitimately) is that neither were signatories to the Berne Convention on Copyright. Now that such countries have signed up to the agreement we’ll no doubt see an increasing number of productions.
PC: Can you tell us more about the South African production of BLOOD BROTHERS?
WR: My work has not been widely seen in South Africa and, prior to the ending of the cultural boycott, was not seen there at all as I supported the boycott and refused to licence any productions in South Africa until apartheid came to an end.
The plan for the first South African production of BLOOD BROTHERS is to re-locate it so that the action takes place within the Cape coloured community. This came about because I received a letter from South African dramatist / performer, David Kramer, urging me, and the South African producer to consider such an adaptation. I was immediately open to the idea and, along with David K. believe that making the story specific to its Cape Town setting can only enhance the experience for its audience there.
To that end, David and I have now adapted the text and rehearsals are currently scheduled to begin in September this year.
PC: Your involvement in the Season’s of Love Celebration Gala for Calendar Girls in September (Willy read ‘The Wrong Boy’, segued with Tim Firth’s song ‘The Same Thing Twice’) almost took the roof off the Royal Albert Hall. And I know you were also pleased with the response of several professionals who attended. Has this re-ignited your thoughts about developing a version of ‘The Singing Playwrights’ with which you can tour again?
WR: Well, thanks for the compliment. I certainly loved playing the Albert Hall – my first time. It was a marvellous night and a real pleasure for me to be on stage again with Tim. In terms of doing another show together, there are no immediate plans but I’m sure that if the circumstances were right, we could soon dust down the strings, get the bags packed and be out on the road again.
PC: Its lovely to see ‘ONE FOR THE ROAD’ showcased again at The Royal & Derngate theatre in Northampton early next year. It is a very funny play. Does it surprise you that a play you wrote in 1976 continues to attract and amuse audiences..?
WR: In truth, I always feel a little apprehensive at the prospect of any major new production. My first thought is always, ‘will the play still hold up’? ‘will it still engage an audience?’. In this case, I’m trusting that Northampton’s production will be so dazzlingly superb that any deficiencies upon the part of the author, will be more than compensated for by the brilliance of the playing.
PC: Finally, how is work on your original banjo progressing?
In July 2012 we ran this item on the News page...
A piece of Willy Russell’s past was recently dredged up by pure chance and coincidence 40 years after he gave it up. Matthew Loxley, wrote to Willy’s guestbook, enquiring if a Banjo he had rescued from the council tip, could have been owned and played by Willy in the 1970s! The clues, Matt explained, were writings on the banjo’s vellum which read; “Whoever may possess this banjo, remember once it was very dear to someone” signed W. M. Russell. And, of course it was once Willy’s and he wrote to Matt, “well, the things that come back to haunt one! I was, in fact, rather moved to see the pics and remember my old tenor which, humble and cheap as it was, gave me years of pleasure.” Matt, who just happens to be a luthier, and had recently restored his father’s Banjo, is now busy restoring one of Willy’s first instruments before it is re-united with him. Stay tuned as this story develops and we’ll show you pictures of the completed instrument in due course.
WR: Matt Loxley – the instrument repairer who rescued the instrument from the ignominy of being dumped in a local authority refuse tip - says that he has begun work on the restoration. I’m really looking forward to seeing the old thing again and being reunited with the instrument. Of course, I’m going to have to start getting used to again being the brunt of all those ‘banjoist’ jokes that go the rounds, e.g:
Question: “What is the definition of a gentleman?”
Answer: “Someone who can play the banjo – but doesn’t!”
The restoration has been completed and we have added a handful of photographs to the site to show Willy (and Steve Rusby - a banjo expert) collecting the instrument from Matt Loxley. You can view the photographs HERE.