Interview: Martin Crimp

Written for Ideastap

One of the most acclaimed voices of modern playwriting, Martin Crimp’s work spans cult texts, such as Attempts on her Life, and bold adaptations of Molière. His double bill of plays, Play House/Definitely the Bahamas, marks his directorial debut. Here he talks to Honour Bayes about the importance of writing what excites you…

You have said you don’t see being a writer as a job you chose to take on, but something you have always been. Over the years how have you honed your craft?

Since writing Attempts on her Life in 1997 I’ve become more sensitive to the power of narration in drama, which I abandoned for a while in favour of a more fashionable ping-pong of fragmented dialogue. Going back recently to Definitely the Bahamas, a play I wrote in 1986, I’m struck by the fact that its climax is four pages of continuous storytelling, which remains powerful. So I would say honing my craft means trying to stay open to all forms of writing.

When you sit down to write what is your process?

The important thing for me in this world of endlessly rolling information is to empty my mind of all distractions. I still write by hand and I believe in the importance of the mark on the page. I improvise until I find an image or a tone of voice that feels alive. For example, I’d been improvising some tiny scenes of people offering each other gifts. After some months, one of these scenes, in which a woman gives a man an unexpected present, became the starting point for Play House.

Where should writers look for inspiration?

Inspiration is the mysterious collision of intense lived experience with intense literary experience. Whatever the experience, banal or remarkable, it’s the intensity that counts. Plus, for a playwright, the strange music of the human voice is central.

You have had long associations with the Orange Tree Theatre and Royal Court Theatre. Is it important for new playwrights to form a relationship with a venue?

The support of a theatre is a wonderful thing, but you shouldn’t be afraid to create diverse relationships with theatres and with directors. This will broaden your notion of what a theatrical event can be.

You have adapted a number of classics with a radical flare. What do you need to take into account when approaching someone else’s text?

You need to be clear about the rules of engagement. Is the plan to write a new play on top of an old one? – like Cruel and Tender, which is based on a play by Sophocles – or is it more simply to intervene by modernising the language and cutting? – as I did with The Seagull. In both these cases the conversation with the director – Luc Bondy in one case, Katie Mitchell in the other – was an essential part of establishing the rules.

Do you believe working on translations and adaptations affects a writer’s own craft?

Translating sets the much harder work of imagining your own play into stark relief, because, when you simply translate, the imagining has been done for you. What’s interesting about translating is that it pushes you into areas of language you may habitually avoid; I resist this, but at the same time it excites me.

You recently directed for the first time. How has this experience impacted on you as a playwright?

I wrote the 13 short scenes of Play House in part as a directorial challenge. How do you give each short scene – and they range from punishing accusation to the exuberant physical expression of love – a strong separate identity, but at the same time create a seamless theatrical flow? It never occurred to me I’d be the one having to meet that challenge myself.

As for how it affects writing, I’d say it reinforces what I’ve always known: only write what it excites you to write. Don’t be afraid to create problems. Provided the writing is truthful, the director and actors will find ways of solving them.

Review: Play House & Definitely the Bahamas

Written for Time Out

Play House

This double bill places a new play next to a revival and gives writer Martin Crimp his first outing as director. In the delicious ‘Play House’, Crimp puts a young married couple under the microscope. We zip through adoration, lust, annoyance, babies, confusions and true love. Obi Abili and Lily James are compelling sparring partners. But by revealing itself so eagerly ‘Play House’ loses some of its potency.

By contrast ‘Definitely the Bahamas’ (originally a radio play) is a masterclass in understatement. Here a middle-aged couple square their morals with the behaviour of an unscrupulous child. Crimp’s canny decision to stage it on a radio set inherently places adoring Milly (a thrilling Kate Fahy) and impervious Frank’s stories within a dual reality, calling into question each sunny lie.

The emotional violence threatening to engulf ‘Play House’ simmers away painfully in ‘Definitely the Bahamas’, each betrayal all the more blistering. The effect of both together is electric.

Runs until 21st April 2012.