In January 2014 we hosted a panel discussion at the National Theatre with four of our alumni: actors HARRIET WALTER and FIONA VICTORY, playwright STEPHEN JEFFREYS and director JOHN TIFFANY. Here’s what they had to say about their time at PPHQ…
HARRIET WALTER AND FIONA VICTORY – 1970’s.
FV: David Pownall and John Adams and the actor Chris Crooks were out of work and miserable and they were drinking beer at the Paines pub in Bedfordshire. As David Pownall tells it, he said, “Oh stop moaning. I’ll write you a play. You will act in it, you will direct it, and we’ll go to the Edinburgh Festival.” And they did. It was a play called Crates on Barrels and it was about a Greek philosopher —
FV: Yes, Socrates — and it was very good.
HW: Richard III Part Two was my first with Paines Plough, it was quite a large piece involving lots of music, two or three different time zones and George Orwell- pretty ‘Powellian’. David’s imagination was immense. Steven Boxer had had a musical training and a teaching training, and he wrote wonderful music. I was listening to it recently. He was only 23 and he was writing these wonderful complex tunes and –
FV: – and teaching everybody else! People who couldn’t sing, had never sung, couldn’t read music, couldn’t play anything, he somehow managed to give everyone their line and teach them how to do it calmly.
HW: At the time it was very unusual to get a young bunch of actors together at the early stage of a play and evolve it with them with everyone doing the music, and the costumes, and the props, and everything ourselves, then tour it all over the country
FV:— in a small van!
HW: We used to do the fit ups and strike the sets ourselves. A couple of people helped with the lighting, and we used to do the ironing
FV: – and sacking skips and making tea and whatever.
STEPHEN JEFFREYS – 1980’s
By the time I joined, David had stopped writing all the plays himself. It went from being a writer’s company with an apostrophe-s to a writers’ company with an s-apostrophe. There was a wave of new people, David Moat, Elizabeth and, the young Terry Johnson — a mere slip of a lad at the time- and we were all brought in. We were the first people were writing plays that weren’t by David Pownall, and that was rather difficult. You thought, ‘oh I’ve got to write a play that takes place in three different time zones with madrigals and people playing sackbutts and things: I started doing that and it was a complete disaster.
John Adams, the director, commissioned this play from me and it wasn’t going well. He said, “Well, you’ve got to finish it this weekend” and then, “What I’ll do is this: I’ll leave you in my flat, in Leamington Spa, and I’ll just clear off and you’ll finish it by the end of the weekend.” John’s mistake was that he had a priceless collection of malt whiskeys. He came back and found that I’d barely written a word. He said, “You’re trying to write the wrong kind of play. I want you to write your kind of play.” That’s what Paines Plough then did: it successfully mutated from a David P company to a company that could do any kind of new play at all. Somehow, Paines Plough’s always been very good at negotiating those awkward moments of handover.
I came back in the Pip Broughton era. She was — and still is- a wonderful director. Paines Plough had evolved into a matriarchy. We had ofﬁces by Warren Street tube station and Ian Rickson and I were the only men in the company. There was Pip and Sue Storr and Vicky Heywood. It was a very, very lively time, because there was a lot of exciting new writing around.
There were two phases under Pip. One consisted of a lot of very political plays about early Thatcherism, set in different parts of the country reflecting local conditions. Then, by around 1986 or so, she’d had enough of that and did another of those big, daring Paines Plough changes. We suddenly became a big company doing big plays. We did a version of GERMINAL. We did my play THE CLINK, another by Nigel Gearing called BERLIN DAYS HOLLYWOOD NIGHTS. Huge plays.
When Pip left Anna Furse took over. She came from a dance background and, for a while, it almost became a performance art company. So Paines Plough was in a constant state of mutation. That’s why it survived.
JOHN TIFFANY – 1990’s
Vicky [Featherstone] couldn’t really get arrested when Paines Plough gave her a job. She’d left the West Yorkshire Playhouse and moved to London, but couldn’t get herself taken seriously as a director of new writing. The Bush gave her a job for a little while — Literary Manager, I think— then she went into TV. She was doing really well, developed Touching Evil and Silent Witness, worked at the BBC and independents, then went for this job at Paines Plough — and the visionary board took a chance on her.
As Stephen says Paines Plough attracts writers. By the time I arrived in 2001, we were really developing a wonderful stable, people like Abi Morgan, Jack Thorne, Sarah [Kane] obviously, Mark Ravenhill was writing a lot for them at the time, Gregory Burke, David Greig, Enda Walsh, Philip Ridley.
We got the Peggy Ramsey award that year, which was —£50,000, wasn’t it? We decided we were just going to commission eight playwrights, and we bullied the Menier Chocolate Factory, which was still in its infancy, into taking all four plays. Philip Ridley wrote this amazing play called Mercury Fur, which was the first one I directed. Ben Whishaw was in it and — we didn’t quite realise at the time— but it was a bloodbath by the end. The Chocolate Factory didn’t have a shower, so some of our hard earned sponsorship money— I shouldn’t admit this — bought the Chocolate Factory its first ever shower. Actors ever since have got Paines Plough to thank…
In 2004, I was in Mexico directing a play over a summer and Vicky called me one morning and went, “Guess what, I’ve been given a new job running the National Theatre of Scotland.” To go from, you know a company like Paines Plough to running —to setting up — a national theatre was amazing. We always said— Neil Murray, who was the producer, he still is, David Greig who was the dramaturg at the time, me and Vicky we said, ‘Well, we’re going to run it like Paines Plough, but with £6 milllion.” Having done what we did at Paines Plough for £120,000 from the Arts Council, we knew what that money could buy. We were determined not to be frivolous or fritter it away.
What James and George have done amazingly is to treat the whole country like it’s a venue, which is so inspiring. The output has doubled or tripled. Vicky and I followed the model of two shows a year and when you look at the volume of work that these two are managing, on not much more money, you look at the list now of things coming through in 2014, it’s incredible. It really is.
One more thing: I’ve been under a delusion for many, many years. I thought Paines Plough meant the plough of Tom Paine, the radical thinker, the surface of the earth you’re changing. Only now do I find out it was thought up in a boozer!