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BWW Interview: Playwright Jon Brittain On The West End Return Of ROTTERDAM

Alice McCarthy and Anna
Martine Freeman in Rotterdam

Jon Brittain's Rotterdam, the 2017 Olivier Award winner for Outstanding Achievement in an Affiliate Theatre, has played at Theatre503, Trafalgar Studios and 59E59 Theaters in New York. The bittersweet comedy, which addresses gender, sexuality and identity, returns to the West End this month for a run at the Arts Theatre.

What was your reaction to the Olivier Award win?

Mainly shock. I couldn't believe we'd even been nominated in the first place - it was beyond any hopes I had for the show. I actually got the text telling me we'd been nominated whilst in a meeting with some producers I was trying to impress, so it was a pretty nice thing to be able to slip into conversation!

The night itself was surreal. We were sat on the front row, which was amazing, not least because it was actually pretty disarming - It's hard to get nervous when Gary Barlow is playing piano five metres away. When the award was announced I just went into a state of shock. My friend John Kearns says the video of me on stage looks like I'm on crystal meth, but that's only because I couldn't believe it was happening.

It was an amazing evening for all of us and it's lovely that all the hard work that everyone put into the show has been recognised like that, but I have to say I have a huge amount of admiration for everyone else in the category. We would have been very happy to see any of them win - especially Charlene James, who I was on the 503Five with. Her play Cuttin' It is brilliant.

Ed Eales-White, Alice McCarthy and
Anna Martine Freeman in Rotterdam

How much has the production changed since its first outing?

The director, Donnacadh O'Briain, and I were actually discussing that as we've got a few days of rehearsals post-New York and pre-West End, so we were chatting about whether or not there were any tweaks we wanted to make. I think, because we've been able to keep three out of the original four cast members, the performances have got more nuanced and people's understanding of the characters have grown deeper.

But Donnacadh has also fostered a lovely sense of ownership in each of the cast members, so their performances do change night to night. Sometimes we'll go in and see that something isn't quite working or that an intention has been pushed too far, but mostly it allows them to find things in the show that we didn't know were there in rehearsals. I'm really impressed by the whole process, as when I direct stuff I'm always aware that I can be a bit of a control freak. It takes a lot of confidence to put so much trust in performers.

Aside from that, I've cut and added lines to the script when appropriate - if something happens in the news that's pertinent, or when we feel that a concept that needed explaining to an audience in 2015 has actually entered the public consciousness in 2017 - but not much.

This isn't a hard and fast rule, but I think you can sometimes ruin a script by editing it from a distance - you're not the same you that you were when you wrote it. You don't necessarily want to cut a moment just because it's not the sort of thing you'd write now. If it felt true to you when you wrote it, it can still feel true to an audience - even if it feels embarrassing to you now.

Anna Martine Freeman in Rotterdam

Have any responses surprised you? And were they different in New York to London?

I've been really chuffed by the audience response to the piece. Even at my most confident I secretly suspect any play I've written is rubbish, so the fact that people liked it at all was a very pleasant surprise.

I think mostly I've been taken aback by how emotionally engaged people have been by it - it's a great credit to the actors and Donnacadh as much as it's to do with anything I've done. I obviously cared about the characters when writing it, but they've really made them real to audience members.

The best thing about the show is probably how it's allowed us to meet and work with people from the trans community. I've gotten to know organisations like Gendered Intelligence, who work with young trans people, and we're actually planning a trans writing course together at the moment. I've also met many trans performers and theatre-makers - one of whom I'm working with later this year.

It's been a really great experience, and we had a similar time in New York (although I wasn't there for very long). Everywhere we've done the show we've found audiences who really want to engage with us.

Anna Martine Freeman and
Alice McCarthy in Rotterdam

Has the context (e.g. post-Brexit, Trump) altered the way the piece plays?

Compared to the amount of rewrites I've had to do to my other show Margaret Thatcher Queen of Game Shows, because of constantly changing political circumstances, this has been a walk in the park! Brexit is something that we haven't really referenced at all. There's so much confusion surrounding what is actually going to happen - and indeed whether it actually will happen in the end - that we just decided to ignore it.

Obviously I'm aware that it may date the play, but if freedom of movement is completely abolished then I can always add in a line about visas. The fear and anger surrounding Trump, and the populist push back against gay and trans rights that has accompanied his presidency, was something we were very aware of when we were in New York.

Ultimately I don't think that the change in the political climate has made us change the play, but it has certainly made us consider what we can do around the play to become better allies. We're very lucky to have such a visible platform and we're trying to work out how we can best use that and allow others to use it as well.

Why would you recommend people come to see it, and why do you think it resonates so strongly with audiences?

Honestly, I just think it's a really good night out. There are jokes, emotions, high stakes, complications, twists, turns, brilliant direction, amazing set and costume design by Ellan Parry, a cracking soundtrack by Keegan Curran, a beautiful lighting design by Richard Williamson, and four fantastic central performances. So much good work has gone into this show I'd be surprised if someone left not having enjoyed at least one aspect of it - although obviously I hope they like it all!

And in terms of why it resonates? I just think it's very openhearted. The characters are relatable, they're allowed to make mistakes, and they're allowed to get things wrong before they work out how to get them right. Plus it's got jokes in it. Like I said, I just think it's a really good night out.

Rotterdam at the Arts Theatre 21 June-15 July. Book tickets here from £15

Photo credit: Piers Foley Photography, Hunter Canning

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From This Author Marianka Swain