Last year was probably one of the finest in the life of young playwright Laura Wade; she achieved something many more experienced playwrights rarely do by having two new plays running simultaneously in London, Breathing Corpses at the Royal Court and Colder Than Here at Soho. This was all topped off by a Critics’ Circle Award and a Laurence Olivier Award nomination. Matthew Amer caught up with one of theatre’s hottest properties just days before the Laurence Olivier Award ceremony.
“It’s very difficult, all of this interview stuff, because it implies that one is interesting,” exclaims Wade after a long and very interesting chat. For someone who has shot to rather near the top of the theatrical tree in a relatively short period of time, she seems a little coy and uncomfortable about the whole thing. This is not to say that she is not entirely endearing, outgoing and willing to talk, just that it seems to me she finds the whole thing slightly embarrassing.
"I’m not going to have a fight with Alan Rickman!"
The limelight is not where Wade wants to be – she uses actors to occupy that particular space – but at the recent Critics’ Circle Award ceremony she was forced to hold the attention of an audience as she collected her award for Most Promising Playwright. “I was really nervous on the day,” Wade admits, “because I’m not an enormous fan of speaking.” The ‘in public’ aspect of this particular sentence is hastily added as an after-thought.
It could be seen as fortuitous, then, that Wade did not win the Laurence Olivier Award for Outstanding Achievement in an Affiliate Theatre this year; that honour went instead to the Tricycle’s production of Bloody Sunday. The other contenders in the category were Comfort Me With Apples and My Name Is Rachel Corrie, both seen by Wade and described as “good quality work”. Wade does, however, have a problem with me referring to them as contenders; the word conjures images of Sylvester Stallone punching hung meat in a freezer. “I’m not going to have a fight with Alan Rickman!” she exclaims. Quite right too, he’s far too evil a baddy to try to grapple with.
With so much talk of 2005 and award ceremonies it is all too easy to forget that Wade has another play currently being performed at Soho. Other Hands is a tale of love in a world of technical efficiency which has been well received by the press. The original germ of an idea for the play came over two years ago when Wade’s computer was unwell. Not being a technical wiz herself, Wade called someone to fix it. “There’s an interesting tension,” she explains, “a stranger coming into your house to fix something that you can’t do yourself.” From that interesting tension the play, known in Wade’s mind as ‘Computer Man’, evolved, or as Wade herself puts it “other ideas magnetised themselves to it”. The result is very different to her previous plays: “It’s not as operatic as Colder Than Here and it doesn’t have the fireworky trick thing of Breathing Corpses, but I defend my right to write a relationship drama if I want to! Hahaha!”
So begins a deconstruction of how Wade’s creative process works. I say deconstruction, but don’t be put off by the length of the word and its relative gravity. Having gathered that both computer man and the RSI symptom seen in Other Hands came from real experiences – one of Wade’s friends experienced an RSI problem – I merely wondered whether all Wade’s inspiration came in that fashion: “No, otherwise most plays would be about playwrights going to the kitchen to have a cup of tea. Hahaha! Quite often little germs of ideas have come from something that I’ve observed or someone’s told me. The process of it becoming fiction is expanding and extending it; stretching the rubber band of reality.” At this point Wade realises the phrase that just passed her lips would be more at home in a satirical comedy show than in an interview on officiallondontheatre.co.uk, so, stifling the laughter, requests that I point out it was not meant in a serious way. With her credibility in tact she returns to her line of thought: “The playwright having a cup of tea would actually be a much more exciting play in the end than my real life. There’d be biscuits. There’d be all sorts of canapés in the kitchen… and a butler… and champagne all the time!”
Laura Wade started writing about a decade ago, when she was just 17, having fallen in love with theatre at an early age. Her first play, Limbo, was produced in Sheffield. If it hadn’t been, Wade admits, everything could have been very different: “I’m not very good at sticking at things if I can’t be successful at them. I gave up on sport a long time ago.” But successful she was, and after going on to study drama at university she moved to London three years ago to pursue her dream.
For someone so young in the theatre game, Wade takes a refreshing view of the work of critics. Though welcoming them with open arms may be a bit of an overstatement, she is quick to point out that there are few people that see as much work as them, so if anyone can make a valid comparison or observation, they can. “I do read them,” she admits, “and I seek to learn from them. If there’s a concern about a certain aspect of the writing that’s been brought up in several of the reviews then maybe it’s worth listening to.”
When she first started writing for the theatre, the critics’ responses were far more important. When she received a bad review at university, the student union seemed extremely uninviting; a very strange situation for a student to find herself in. As she grows older, she says, she copes better and better with reviews, explaining with utmost level headedness: “It’s very lucky to be able to do a job where I get to sit about writing plays all day and going to the theatre. The downside, I suppose, is that you put it out there and people are invited to like it or loath it.”
The side effect of critics offering their views is that every now and then, if you’re very lucky, one will say something that will stick in the mind. In Wade’s case it would be Guardian critic Michael Billington who, in his review of Breathing Corpses, dubbed the young playwright the ‘laureate of doom’. “I thought that was fantastic,” she says, beaming. “I’ve got it tattooed on me now! Hahaha!” After a moment of contemplation following the laughter, Wade reflects a little: “I think theatre at its best looks into the dark corners; clearly my dark corners are full of doom”. Most dark corners are, I say, before Wade points out “or dust”.
"Theatre at its best looks into the dark corners"
Until now, Wade’s plays have been written for fairly small casts. Her interest lies in both creating and watching productions of this size. That may change in the future as she is currently working on a stage adaptation of Jane Austen’s unfinished novel The Watsons for West End producer David Pugh. The production boasts 17 characters, so is going to need a larger stage than Wade is used to. At least, as Wade points out, “There’s probably not going to be any horses in the play. David’s done ducks [Pugh produced Ducktastic!]; horses might be a bit much.” The as yet untitled project – Wade reserves the right to give the piece a new moniker as it is now partly hers – will receive its second draft following the end of Other Hands’ run at Soho. The summer, for Wade is a playwright very much in demand, will be spent writing her commission for Hampstead theatre.
All this will be fitted in around actually seeing work performed, as Wade has not lost sight of why she started writing in the first place and why she moved east from Bristol to London: “There’s so much to see”, she says. “I go [to the theatre] three times a week and it is impossible to see everything, which is brilliant! If I don’t go at all during a week I feel rubbish. I don’t mean I feel guilty, I just feel funny in myself.”
Wade is also true to her fellow young writers, preferring to take in some new writing of an evening rather than something that’s been about for a bit. Shakespeare is “quite long” she says. “I like to have some time left to go to the pub and discuss the play. I already know Shakespeare’s brilliant!” How would that very short conversation about the Bard go Miss Wade? “Masterpiece, wasn’t it? Pint?”
For a struggling young writer trying to make ends meet in the big smoke, Wade is remarkably relaxed and happy about the whole thing. I guess success can do that to you. But so can the knowledge that you are living the dream: “This is what I’ve wanted to do for such a long time. Yes it is difficult, and yes it can be difficult to motivate yourself, and writing in itself can be quite hard, and you can feel quite exposed, and writers are quite often dogged by self-doubt, but at the same time I absolutely wouldn’t want to be doing anything else and I feel very lucky that I’m allowed to do this, and I’d like to get away with it for as long as I can.”
Other Hands plays at Soho until 11 March.