BWW Interview: Playwright Jon Brittain On The West End Run of ROTTERDAM
Last year, Jon Brittain's Rotterdam had a successful and well-received premiere at Theatre503 - this month, it moves into the West End for a Trafalgar Studios run. Centring on Alice, who wants to come out as gay, and her girlfriend Fiona, who decides that he wants to start living as a man, Adrian, it's only become more of a zeitgeist piece since its first stint. Jon discusses revisiting the play and trying not to mess it up...
Did you make many changes for the new run?
I wrote a new draft for the published version, to take into account what changed over the rehearsal process, and I'm going to make a few tweaks. But I've actually rewritten plays in the past and made them worse! Nine months on, I can see some flaws in it, or how I might do things differently, but if I change too much I'll stop honouring the intentions of the 25-year-old me who wrote it. I'll become the studio head unhelpfully saying "What if it has more of this?"
It's hard to rewrite something when you're no longer totally in the headspace of that play, and I want to rewrite only from a place of honesty, not embarrassment or worrying about what it exposes about me. Also, the play was ruminating for a long time, so I did loads of drafts before it even got to Theatre503.
Were there any new ideas or responses you wanted to incorporate?
I've done lots more reading and met more people - I'm being educated all the time. But if you try to talk about every aspect of an issue, you end up talking about nothing it in any significant way.
Gender means such different things to different people - to what degree it's constructed or innate, and even within communities where it's fluid, there's debate. Rather than trying to put all of that into a play, I've focussed on a relationship drama about very specific people, so I can't include something unless it impacts on their lives. I've been guilty in the past of whacking in a speech because it's interesting, but doesn't contribute to the scene.
There's one scene in the play where I allowed myself to talk about outside issues, in an abstract, funny away - Adrian and his brother basically talk about gender essentialism, but Josh is coming from a place of ignorance, so he's fumbling about a new concept. Even then I wanted the conversation had to be character-based, rather than "Here's something Jon read in a textbook". Dramatically, I like it when characters are talkative but not super clued-up. Rather than eloquent Sorkin monologues where characters say exactly what they mean to say, my characters stumble over themselves a lot more. But I think it's funny and relatable when people are robbed of their ability to properly express themselves, and it humanises the ideas.
Has the cast affected your view of the characters?
When I come back to it now, it's harder to hear the character voices in my head as I originally conceived them, because this cast has really taken it on and owned it. So rewriting, you think "They'll do that really well" - you're writing to their instincts. They emotionally connect up the beats and scenes better than me, so that's a wonderful collaboration.
Did you take any audience feedback on board?
There was a recurring theme in some people's comments that it could maybe be a little bit shorter, so I have made some trims. But on the whole, I was incredibly chuffed with how the play was received. I did receive some negative feedback, but often if someone said something felt untrue, it was someone else's favourite part, so while not wanting to be dismissive - I did listen and respect those opinions, and I care very much about getting it right - I had to go back to "Is it right for these characters in that moment?" and trust that, even if one person wasn't wild about it.
It's not a documentary of everyone's experience - it's a drama. There's a certain amount of artistic license, metaphor, and a production naturally focuses more on some elements. There are a million and one ways to portray Adrian - not just the actors, but the style of performance, whether it's a naturalistic or figurative portrait, how he dresses himself, how he talks. So you have to let it be that story, that production, and not water down the strength of [director Donnacadh O'Briain] and the cast's vision. They've made those informed choices.
Having said that, the difficulty is that there isn't a plurality of representation of trans people in theatre - other ways to see your story reflected - so this one takes on a greater responsibility. You do try to honour that, while respecting the characters and their world and narrative.
How did you find working on this piece versus some of your past, more overtly comic work?
This was the first time I've put something out there that's properly dramatic since my old Edinburgh shows from five or six years ago. It's a play I never really expected to happen, so I was a bit unprepared emotionally for how stressful it would be putting something like this out into a world in which Twitter exists! It's a flashpoint issue, and people feel strongly about how these things are portrayed in popular culture - rightfully so, and historically they've been portrayed very badly. The fear is to make a well-intentioned but tone-deaf piece of work.
It's become much more of a hot topic recently
Weirdly, it wasn't really when I started back in 2012, pre-Caitlyn Jenner, so watching the context shift about the play has been fascinating. Back then, researching the play, you had to hunt around to find stuff about trans issues - now, it's much more of a buzzword in every newspaper and blog. Even from the time the play got programmed to when it was put on, there were huge changes.
The visibility is fantastic, but it changes the context in which the play exists - you're joining a massive conversation that's already happening rather than cheerleading one that wasn't getting enough attention. I would often be keen to say I wrote the play in 2012, just so people knew I wasn't completely jumping on the bandwagon, but ultimately the changing context doesn't affect whether or not it's a good play. And it's great that people aren't going to start and finish with this story - their understanding of what it means to be trans, or in a relationship with someone who is, will hopefully be enriched by Rotterdam, but there are many other visible sources of information now too.
What about the current post-Brexit context?
I've been really disturbed by how prejudiced people are - on the left, the right and the centre. The rise in fascism is appalling, but many of us are guilty of black-and-white thinking and of locking ourselves away in the Facebook bubble. I feel a bit ashamed about things I said about Leave voters on the day of the results - I do recognise some of that snobbery and lack of empathy in myself. It's so easy to be afraid or dismissive of the unknown. We need more understanding on all sides.
I'm also really annoyed at the prejudice against politicians. I've met lots of great people who work in politics and most of them do so because they really care, but there's this insidious "They're all the same" attitude, which completely dehumanises them. Even on the left we're lobbing labels about, with the people on the right of the Labour party accusing Momentum of being Trots and Corbyn supporters labelling anyone who disagrees with them careerist warmongers. Not that you should blindly trust people in power, but at least start from a position where they are probably trying to do the right thing.
Actually, in terms of Rotterdam, I always want to tell the story from several perspectives so as to avoid that kind of one-sided thinking. With trans stories, historically there's the problem that they're often told from someone else's perspective - a sibling, mother or partner of the trans person. Rotterdam honours both perspectives, and hopefully your sympathies shift throughout, until you come to the point of seeing where both people are coming from.
That's what stories and theatre do so well
Yes, I love having my mind opened up to a character I wouldn't normally empathise with. I can't remember who said it, but someone once said something like "the mark of a sophisticated brain is one that can hold two opposing ideas in it at the same time". [It was F. Scott Fitzgerald] And theatre is the place to do that, in a safe space. It doesn't mean you totally agree with someone, but it's a way to explore.
Online especially, there's a developing critical culture of assuming that if something's in a piece of work, it's what the author thinks - so something that's meant to be ambiguous, or a dialogue, is taken as a literal polemic. That's limiting to art and artists - it should be allowed to be one strand in a wider conversation, and characters should be allowed to say awful things if it's true to them and their point of view, or if that's an artistic choice. But then again I don't like saying what theatre should or should not be, because I think it means different things depending on who's making it. It's not as helpful to say "Theatre should be X", as it is to say "Theatre can be X".
What else have you got coming up?
Margaret Thatcher Queen of Game Shows is going to Edinburgh. We're picking up where we left off, and she's bored of being a cabaret superstar, so she decides to become a game show host. The Conservative Party say they want to cut welfare in half and need an arbitrary system for deciding who gets it and who doesn't, so she makes her contestants - or "scroungers" - play games like Austerity Knocks, NHS Jenga and Check Your Privilege (based on Play Your Cards Right but with social privilege).
I'm also directing Tom Allen's latest stand-up show at the Pleasance - he's one of my favourite comedians. And I'm working on a new musical.
It's tough for new British musicals right now
It's always tough with musicals. The level of success of you need to break even is so high because you need more people than a play and that costs more money. Trying to manage that and grow it from the ground up is very hard. But there are great people, like Pippa Cleary and Jake Brunger, who did The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, so I do think the talent is there.
But it's not so much harder than doing anything in theatre. Rotterdam was such a fluke of timing, with Roy Williams happening to be looking for work for his Playwright Presents evening, and then Donnacadh wanting to direct it. So you can't worry too much - sometimes, these things just come together.
Photo credit: Piers Foley Photography