Interview: James Graham

*Originally written for Exeunt*

James Graham sent his first draft of This House to Nicholas Hytner only a few weeks after the General Election in 2010. This timing was no coincidence, but Graham still believes that the story of the play was worth telling regardless of who held power. Nonetheless, it’s hard to deny the fact that part of the reason for the piece’s success is probably down to the fact we are in the throes of a coalition government. He wrote a play that “tries to ask: ‘Does our system support a more collaborative notion of politics?’ and… some people are quite surprised that there haven’t been more dramas with the Conservatives and the Lib Dems.” These ideas are certainly ones which have only really come back into the mainstream over the past two and a half years.

On paper, This House doesn’t perhaps feel like the most fascinating idea for a play: in the 1974-79 parliament, we follow the chief whips of the two major parties as they do their best to get MPs into the House of Commons to vote either for or against Labour’s slim majority. Indeed, playwright James Graham admits he spent many late nights thinking “Christ, this is a play about trying to pass legislation in the 1970s; is anyone going to find this remotely interesting?” And yet it enjoyed a sell-out run in the National’s Cottesloe Theatre after opening last autumn and is now undergoing further tweaks before transferring to the larger Olivier later this month. During a lunch-break from rehearsals, Graham ponders what has caused this renewed interest in politics.

“The weird thing about now is that people are slightly disengaging from that building, from Westminster and from the people in it [but] I think oddly enough we’ve never been more politicised by the nature of what’s going on with the financial crisis and changes to standards of living, the continuing stuff since 9/11 abroad… we’re faced with a people who are really politicised, they just don’t know whether they’re engaged with Politics with a capital ‘P’”. This, according to Graham, is the reason he has painted these characters with such humanity, in turn causing audiences to be deeply affected by the events portrayed.

I relay how, when I saw the production, I was sat opposite Neil Kinnock and behind Andrew Marr. Graham chuckles: “Yeah, it’s been very surreal. I would pick nights to watch it when no one famous was ever there but I’d get texts and things from the cast saying ‘David Dimbleby’s in tonight’… It was not guaranteed that that building was going to come to this building and embrace the play. But the positives are (apart from being thrilled that these people are watching your play) that it becomes a sort of dialogue.” This ‘dialogue’ has, in turn, led to rewrites and adjustments as the cast and team are put through a second round of rehearsals.

At one point, the idea was mooted of completely redrafting the play before preparing for the run in the larger space, but – wisely, I think – the decision was eventually taken to only make minor tweaks to the text in order to make it work in the Olivier (complete with on-stage seating for this run). “Ultimately, whenever people say ‘How are you going to recreate the intimacy of the Cottesloe’ you just have to go, ‘Well we’re not’ because we’re in the Olivier and it’s just got to be a completely different show. But what I loved about the Cottesloe design was that the immersiveness of it made it feel like that palace. I’s got so many of these nooks and crannies and secret places and that’s the stuff that’s important to me so we are trying to suggest that immersiveness a little bit more than you would normally get in the Olivier.” Perhaps, like the transfer London Roadbefore it, the larger space will make the piece feel more epic and, as Graham observes, “Greek”.

He sings the praises of the director, Jeremy Herrin, for his ambition in the staging for both venues. “The most exciting thing about working in theatre… is the joy of being in the room and working with the director. The great thing about being a writer is that you can write “The Member for Walsall North stepped in to the sea and drowned” and have no idea how they’re going to do that… And then you get a director like Jeremy who’s so willing to find your play and not impose anything upon it whilst having the freedom to add in a few flourishes in there as well. My favourite moment of the rehearsals was walking in and seeing Phil Daniels singing one of my favourite songs [Bowie’s Five Years]. That was a highlight.”

But aside from the joy of the rehearsal room, I wonder whether there’s something slightly problematic in what Graham’s saying about our political system. Is it OK, for example, to romanticise a political structure which (at least recently) seems to be doing anything but working in the interests of the people it serves? “There’s something beautifully simplistic – I mean my God it’s got it’s flaws – but there is something beautifully simplistic about the notion of what our democracy is. We all live in a community and we send one person to this one building to speak on our behalfs. And it’s very idealistic and naive to think it works flawlessly but I do think it works more in the sixties and seventies.” As an example, Graham cites the case of Audrey Wise, a Labour MP who refused to become a career politician and only worked in the interests of her constituents. “The loss of all that is actually a huge shame – and actually worse than that – probably the biggest threat to a functioning democracy that we’ve lost – that local element of politics.”

This obsession with politics in some of Graham’s plays has led many to label him as a “political playwright”. Does this bother him at all? “I don’t really mind. It doesn’t feel massively cool, like you shouldn’t be one until you’re in your forties or fifties, but I accept that I do plays set in the world which means that label gets attached. But there are benefits: people treating you like a grown-up, serious, proper playwright (whatever that means) and you can write big plays.” He’s passionate about the possibility of these ‘big’ plays, and sends out a rallying call to younger playwrights tackling more ambitious subjects: “younger or newer playwrights feel like they shouldn’t be writing these sorts of plays, especially if they weren’t born in the period. They might really want to look at the birth of the NHS but because they weren’t alive [they feel] they don’t have a right to, which is obviously bollocks. I think younger and newer writers should feel presumptuous enough to take on these big political plays and write them big if they want to.”

Obviously, he recognises ‘political’ is not necessarily synonymous with ‘big’, but Graham still believes many young writers aren’t being allowed to spread their wings, however that may be. “If people don’t want to write big Olivier plays they don’t have to but I think we should all be encouraged more to be a little bit more ambitious with the size and the scale of our work.” He uses his own varied career as an example, suggesting that even with smaller spaces and fewer resources, writers can take on big, important ideas: “I wrote a one-man show at the Finborough Theatre a couple of years ago calledThe Man, and going from that to doing a massive play to then maybe doing a smaller, more intimate studio play is the joy.” By the sound of his voice, Graham is clearly smiling. “I love my contrast.”

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