theatre, film & tv past and present 2001-2008 & 2013…
You know that you are in for a treat when a playwright at the launch of his latest collected volume of plays informs you that he once earned a living as a stand-up comedian. That’s how Richard Bean demonstrates his dry wit and infectious humour onstage at the Royal Court Theatre, London, surrounded by a bevy of eager theatre practitioners and his doting public. Bean is here to promote his latest collection of plays, published by Oberon Books, rather uninspiringly called Richard Bean: Collected Plays Volume 2 or Bean2 to his friends.
Bean sits on the be-carpeted stage of the Royal Court, whose evening performance of the wonderful Dissocia is wowing the critics and audiences alike. He jokingly comments about the set with his host, Chris Campbell, Assistant Literary Manager of the National Theatre. “It’s just like a student flat,” muses Bean (himself a graduate of Loughborough University of Technology), apparently relishing the opportunity of talking so openly and easily with someone actively involved with the playwright’s obvious success. What a success Bean’s career is, if measured by the number of active commissions he has from both the National and the Royal Court.
Campbell has travelled “up west”, as he puts it, away from the concrete conclave which is the National, “to investigate what a Richard Bean play actually is.” He first asks Bean about the play Toast. “It was a long process getting Toast on. I had absolutely no experience of theatres and how they worked. I didn’t know about the ‘reading pool’ at the National or the ‘grid’ at the Royal Court” – the names for those theatre departments whose job it is to read through the umpteen submissions by new and not-so-new playwrights to find that elusive hit.
“So, when the Royal Court picked it up – my first serious play after years of comedy sketches and stand-up – I also didn’t know how lucky I was to have Richard Wilson direct the piece. You know, at the time I thought, ‘He’s that guy from the TV’ – I didn’t know he’d got an OBE, that he was a ‘Sir’, or that he directed plays.” Even so, Toast was a great success, calling on Bean’s personal experiences working in a northern bakery. “Toast grew out of the stories I would tell to friends in the university bar about my time at the bakery – that was my material. Then I saw David Storey’s Changing Room and I knew that this was the first time that theatre had really touched me.”
Campbell notes how the basic elements of a Richard Bean play are already in Toast. “You know, a play about working men, extremely funny, and with no women in it.” Not at all defensively, Bean cuts in: “Of course there were no women in it – there were no women on the night shift when I worked there. It’s the same with the play I wrote about deep-sea fishing – there are no women on the trawlers!” Bean’s excuse is refreshingly direct. “I’ve led a pretty blokey life – a youth dominated by sport – of course I write about men.”
Leading on from Toast, Campbell introduces Mr England, a play which earned Bean a reputation as a brave theatrical voice willing to explore those aspects of patriotic nationalism which have, for decades, been hijacked by association with extremist right-wing politics. Asked if he is himself ‘patriotic’, Bean answers, “Of course I’m patriotic, I get so upset at the apparent orgy of self-repudiation which the country is going through at the moment. You know, when the ex-artistic director of the Royal Court, Ian Rickson, approached me to join the company on a march against war, I refused. If I need to, I will take up a gun and defend this nation.” This is no wishy-washy liberal aesthete; this is the fighting talk of a literary doer.
As for Honeymoon Suite, Campbell suggests that this appears a major break from Bean’s traditional writing: “It was my formal experimentation, awash with emotion – full of sadness and wasted love. I cried my eyes out each day at rehearsals.” “It’s all about my home town in Hull and the fishing industry which is so important to it. You know, we wanted to find out how many trawlermen had lost their lives the year we produced it. 700? 3000? No. In one year the global fishing fleet losses were 200,000 men. 200,000 fishermen who will never return to their homes. My first girlfriend had a granny who’d lost her husband when she was 19 and she’d never been out with another man. There is so much loss and danger in this community.” Of course, there’s always the lighter side, as when Bean describes the play’s adaptation for the Slovenian market. “There’s no sea around Slovenia. They’re nowhere near the sea. The lead character was turned into an amateur angler – it’s a dangerous world, amateur angling!”
What is obvious from all Bean’s anecdotes is the underlying humanity, close observation, and receptiveness to comedy which flow through his plays. “I have always struggled with my plays being marketed as comedies. There’s so much more to them than that.” Even so, Bean remembers the time he was in rehearsals with Richard Wilson, and Bean commented that one of the gags being rehearsed would “not work like that”: “Wilson turned to me and said, ‘There are no gags in my plays’ – in a way he was right, it’s not about jokes it’s just about humanity.”
Finally, Smack Family Robinson, a play which deals with the tricky moral problem of whether to defend a home-grown family-run drug’s industry when it is threatened by a violent Russian-mafia takeover. “It is described as a play with Ortonesque flips of values. It’s my way of highlighting and commenting on these values.” Bean describes how the story itself is based on a real-life family drug’s business in Brighton. Truth really is stranger than fiction sometimes.
So what about now? “I’m spending the day with Jason Donovan,” remarks Bean, a comment greeted by a mixture of mocking bemusement and disbelief from the audience. “No really, I am working with him on a musical version of The Count of Monte Cristo! You know, it’s easy really. I just change Hull to Marseilles.” Campbell asks if Bean feels “like a success.” “I still get my plays rejected. I’ve had three turned down this year.” A brave admission for a writer whose success appears so effortless.
What about the political dimension of Bean’s plays? “I don’t think people have the patience to watch the truth. There’s certainly patriotism in my writing. I’m not frightened of confronting sensitive political themes and I get a bit annoyed about the way politics is viewed outside the theatre village. There’s nothing robust in new writing, it’s all wet liberal – verbatim theatre – with the same agenda. I feel there’s a lack of intellectual rigour; nobody seems ready to analyze the complexity of politics. I find writing about this is very liberating, the chance of saying the unsayable.”
I ask Bean if he thinks his plays are reflective or coercive – whether he is holding a mirror up to society with the hope that it will change or if he hopes to change it himself? “I never think of politics as anything other than complex, it’s never simplistic. I certainly don’t go with fashionable theories.” Bean’s reply, as he admits, doesn’t exactly answer the question, one which he has, perhaps, not necessarily consciously asked himself. What is evident is that his attitude to the so-called ‘crisis of liberalism’ is refreshingly cynical whilst undeniably humane and honest.
How might he get away from his blokeish reputation as a playwright? “I have often said, why don’t I just write a play and then change all the men’s names to women? That would work wouldn’t it?” A refreshing honesty and a politically cynical approach to life and authority, accompanied by a fervent belief in national values which have been muddied by successive generations of liberalized social integration – that is the voice of Richard Bean at his tragic, comedic, and emotive best.
Kevin Quarmby © 2007
Originally published on R&V 2004-07
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