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The SRB Interview: Rona Munro – Scottish Review of Books
by SRB

The SRB Interview: Rona Munro

November 11, 2014 | by SRB

Rona Munro was born in Aberdeen. Primarily a scriptwriter for the stage, she has also written for radio, television and film. Her theatre credits include Bold Girls (7:84 and Hampstead Theatre), Dear Scotland and The Last Witch. Little Eagles, a play about the space race, was produced by The Royal Shakespeare Company, and Iron was staged at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh and won the 2003 John Whiting Award. Her writing for television includes the dramas Rehab and the BAFTA–nominated Bumping the Odds for the BBC. She wrote the screenplay for the Ken Loach film Ladybird Ladybird and the 2010 Jim Loach film Oranges and Sunshine. She is co–founder with actress Fiona Knowles of The MsFits, a feminist theatre company which has been touring since 1986. 

Her latest project is The James Plays, a trilogy about three, fourteenth and fifteenth century Scottish kings. Directed by artistic director of the National Theatre of Scotland Laurie Sansom, and staged with one company of actors, it is a joint production by the NTS and the National Theatre of Great Britain. James I: The Key will Keep the Lock follows the return of James I to the Scottish throne after being imprisoned in England from the age of thirteen; James II: The Day of the Innocents is a dark investigation of how Scottish feuding nobles manipulate a child–king. James III: The True Mirror is a lighter Renaissance comedy about the hedonism of a reckless ruler and a queen’s struggle to choose between different forms of love.

The Festival Theatre was home to the trilogy in August this year as part of the Edinburgh International Festival. Lucky audience members were given the chance to see all three plays in a single day. The production was still performing at the Olivier Theatre, London, when Nick Major met Rona Munro at the NTS headquarters on the banks of the Forth and Clyde Canal, Glasgow. In a small office, Munro sat next to her large bright pink suitcase, which matched a pink strand running through her silver hair. She presided over an uneaten bowl of kale crisps and a glass of water. During the interview words galloped out of the writer, who frequently apologised for her extensive – though never dull – chat. The conversation encompassed the politics of theatre, the dearth of Scottish history plays, and the continuing struggle for women’s rights.

SRB: What was your first experience of theatre?

Rona Munro: My very first experience of theatre came when I was at primary school. There was a senior school attached and the girls there – they seemed like giants to me but I think they must have been fifth year – put on a play. I just thought: that’s it, that’s what I want to do. I had a lovely English teacher and he helped me and my classmates put on a play I’d written. But because I lived in Aberdeen I didn’t see a professional theatre production for years and years. The first one I remember seeing was 7.84’s The Game’s a Bogie. And previous to that I’d seen The Cheviot, the Stag, and the Black Black Oil on television. I think that was the other light bulb moment. It was so Scottish and so funny and I think the one they televised was in Plockton Town Hall, which was a venue I knew from holidays in the area. It made me think: this is a very possible thing, this is something I can do. 

So did your influences come mainly through watching theatre rather than reading in that solitary way in which perhaps novelists nurture their artistic temperament?

Well that’s two productions in fifteen years! I did get involved in the school drama club but apart from that I was a bookworm like a lot of writers. I just read and read and read.

What were you reading when you were young?

When I was a kid I loved the historical novels: Geoffrey Trease, Rosemary Sutcliffe and then Mary Renault. But I also loved all the fantasy books like CS Lewis and Lord of the Rings. But honestly it’s a bit of an affliction, and it still is: I’m a terribly fast reader, so if we ever went away on holiday and we were away for seven days I’d need about fourteen books.

You mentioned 7.84. They were a leftist agit–prop theatre company started by John McGrath…

Yeah, in its broadest sense. But 7.84 theatre company developed beyond that. The Cheviot the Stag and the Black Black Oil was a seminal piece for Scottish theatre, let alone political theatre. I think it was part of that moment when Scottish theatre and writers got a kick–start again. So even if it was agit–prop in the broadest sense it was very rooted in our language and our culture. Especially for a teenager, as I was, that sense that you could write in your own voice was very important. 

Is politics the unavoidable stage where the action must take place, or is it something that you approach quite consciously?

I don’t write to have a particular affect on an audience. The politics for me is in representing voices or people that been under–represented. So it might influence my choice of subject matter but within that I don’t think it’s appropriate for me to suggest that I have access to any higher truth. The place for my political opinions is in whatever political activities I choose to engage in, or how I vote. When I’m writing it’s going to be informed by my politics, but I’m trying to represent what can be universal whatever your political opinion. If you put characters on stage that people are not familiar with seeing centre–stage or carrying a narrative, that is political. Just putting women centre–stage when I started out was a fairly political act. By making the audience have that act of empathy with someone whose experience isn’t theirs is political. But within that I don’t think plays should be arguing a case one way or another – characters within plays can – but plays themselves? If they are doing that it’s not drama as I understand it.

If a viewer or reader is lured into an imaginative space in order to be persuaded of a political point does it discredit the art? 

I don’t think audiences are stupid. I think if a writer tries that without being upfront they don’t like it. For instance, I write for a theatre group called The MsFits, which is myself and an actor called Fiona Knowles. We started way back in the 1980s because we’re both feminists and we’d both come through a period of quite active feminism, the Thatcher years and everything the left was doing at that time. We wanted a vehicle to put Scottish feminist theatre in front of an audience, so that was and is The Msfit shows. They definitely have a feminist agenda, but that’s advertised. So I think it’s the difference between making your bias clear to an audience and then having a story where you have a whole range of characters who all have their own individual bias. 

And The Msfits put on a one–woman show every year?

It’s always a piece of storytelling. When we started off we used to do comedy sketches and songs and poems and there was two of us. It very rapidly emerged that when you have a comedy duo there is the comic one and the straight one and I was very definitely the straight one, and not that good, whereas Fiona is brilliant. When I had my son it became difficult for me to perform and tour. That was when it shifted from the comedy sketches and songs to me writing something for Fiona, which is usually a story told from the point of view of three or four different women. It is all directed towards the audience and she is all the different characters telling the events.

Could you talk about your feminism? 

I’m a feminist of necessity because it’s what makes sense. What I’ve learned is what I would define as feminism and what most people define as feminism are not the same thing. I’d say feminism is about a basic inequality that still remains to be addressed, which is equal pay for equal work, freedom from violence against women, and freedom of opportunity for men and women. But it’s not like saying every woman has to be a steel welder or that all men are the enemy or any of these stereotypes that have been put on it. I think it comes down to simple economics. In that sense I’m a feminist.

You said you were an activist in the 1980s.

The whole of theatre was. Partly there was so little theatre – Scotland today is in so much of a healthier state than it was back then. So you had a whole community of artists in all fields that had the opportunity to grow a little bit and then had everything squashed down. All the cutbacks in the eighties pinched that even tighter. It seemed like everybody was doing theatre at benefits, for free and for Support the Miners. So that was the engine that was producing the new work and the exciting work. A lot of those people have gone on to do amazing things. But agitation and resistance is what produced the best work of the time.

Do you see a demonstrable progress for women’s rights between that 1980s period and today?

Yes, which is not to say that it’s all gone away. One of the nicest things from my point of view is that I am increasingly rarely identified as a ‘woman writer’. Not that I’m not proud of being a woman writer, but what used to be implied by that was: in a fringe box on the side of proper drama. And that was very much the climate when I started writing. If you were a woman writer it was assumed you were probably writing stuff that was of interest to women of a certain type and not to anyone else. I think the fact that that is not in most people’s heads anymore is in itself progress.

And theatre today is in a much healthier state than in the eighties? 

It’s very particular to Scotland. I don’t think the general public is aware of how much healthier our theatre culture is up here compared to what it is down south, because it has had more funding and more development. There is a self–confidence in young writers and a sense, quite rightly, of entitlement to put stuff on and find a Scottish audience. That did not exist in the eighties. I’m delighted that nobody even knows that that is a gift that didn’t even exist back then. I’m worried it will cease to exist because people think it’s written in stone. All you need is a change in government or policy and all that could evaporate again. I’m also worried more money is put into development than production, for very obvious reasons. Development is cheap and production expensive. I think the balance across Scotland isn’t quite right, and there are so many talented writers with nowhere to put their work on. But compared with what it was like? It’s like being the only person in a ballroom and then going out to the loo and coming back to find it’s rammed full.

You have written for television, film and radio. What made you move into those mediums? 

I think like a lot of writers I have and always probably will be open to any offer. You hope you get ones that allow you to make a living. I was lucky enough to write for a radio drama quite early in my career, and that drip feed of semi–regular income was a life–saver. It was the difference between having to have a proper job and being able to sustain yourself just with writing. But it was something that sought me out rather than I sought it out. It was great discipline for me, writing for a radio series and then writing for a TV series, because the deadlines are absolute. There is none of this ‘oh, I haven’t been inspired by the muse’. It was wonderful to develop those kind of writing muscles.

It drills a work ethic into you.

Yeah, and it makes you make decisions. One of the difficulties when you’re writing your own projects is that the choices are infinite, so it’s really easy to defer making them. When you have those deadlines it’s not a question of what’s the best idea, it’s a question of what’s the idea you’ve got? Do it. Then you can see whether it’s a good idea or a bad idea.

Do you prefer writing for stage?

I always say I love the medium I’m engaged with at the time. Having said which, I find writing for television extremely hard in the current climate. When I started writing TV they still had a culture at somewhere like the BBC where a producer would go: that seems like a good person, that sounds like a good idea, let’s bash them together and whack it on and see what happens. There was an awful lot more TV drama, and some of it was abysmal, but all the shows we remember as truly great TV drama seem to come from that period. Now everything is so expensive and there is a whole culture of script editing. Scripts seem to be constantly in development, circling the airport and waiting to land. Meanwhile a writer is doing draft after draft after draft with everyone second–guessing whether it will or won’t be a hit. I find that absolutely debilitating.

Being in a rehearsal room with a bunch of actors is probably the biggest thrill if I’m honest. It’s that thing of being part of a team and everyone engaging with what started off as you in a little room. The director comes on board and is adding their ability, and the actors come on aboard and add their ability, so that cumulative talent builds up. It’s exciting because it’s collaborative. I find it immensely moving when you see a very talented actor taking your words and making them theirs, and the thrill they get out of that. You don’t get that closeness of working with the actors in any other medium.

How closely did you work with the National Theatre during the production of The James Plays?

What I normally do is come along for the first two weeks of rehearsals, just until they’ve done the read through once. I figure my role is to be there as a resource, and then I go away and let them get to it, so they can say ‘I hate that line’ without me sitting there like a sad crow in the corner. But The James Plays was so big. The knock–on effect of having three plays was that there were so many things that came up. So the short answer is: I was there all the time but I didn’t expect to be. 

When did you get the idea to write about these three Scottish kings?

It was something I really wanted to do but I didn’t think anyone would be crazy enough to want to engage with it. I did history at Edinburgh University. I was a very indifferent student but I did love the medieval period – always have, going back to the books I read as a kid. When I had to drift beyond the medieval period and start engaging with contemporary politics or economics it all became about the Dundee Jute Mills and coal exports, whereas when it’s people running about with swords in their hands I was always very interested. Then I had the experience of going to see the Royal Shakespeare Company do the cycle of all the history plays with one company of actors. At that point I had not seen Shakespeare done well so I knew I ought to think he was great but I hadn’t seen the evidence; and I slightly resented the fact that this dead Englishman had a stranglehold on so many theatre spaces that new writing struggled to get into. So I went in with a chip on my shoulder and came out realising what amazing pieces of storytelling they were and what gifts they are to actors. I realised that so much of what we understand about English history came from those plays. Even if people haven’t seen them they know the stories, and we didn’t have an equivalent in Scotland. So I thought: wouldn’t be a fun idea to try and do that? And then Vicky Featherstone [former artistic director of the National Theatre of Scotland] had me in three years ago for a chat, and they always say: what’s your dream project? You tell them, then they say: I don’t think we’ve got the budget. But Vicky said: I think that’s a brilliant idea, let’s do it.
And what she was committing to was this grandiose idea of writing three plays at the same time. 

So the idea of writing a trilogy was there from the start?

Yes, and my ambition was to do it with one company of actors. I don’t think anyone but Laurie [Sansom] would have been mad enough to attempt that. I really lucked out there because it turned out to be logistically a very big ask. But it was wonderful to have that opportunity to do it as one thing. I hope that passes on to audiences as well, that they get that excitement – which has been running all the way through – of the scale, yet you’re engaged with one set of characters.

You write in a preface to the published script that you’ve long had the ambition to write on this scale. What stopped you before?

I don’t think I would have felt ready until Vicky asked me. I think a difficulty a lot of writers have is budgetary. When it’s new writing you go into a studio space on a limited budget. It’s going to be a small venue and you’re basically told you can have four of a cast but probably not six. For the vast majority of dramatists working in Britain today that is their experience. At the point they get to do something larger they may never have had the experience of doing it before and they have to learn everything. I was lucky enough to get to a point in my career when I could do larger things. There is a trajectory leading up to The James Plays that probably starts with doing an adaptation of Mary Barton for the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester, which they supported and nurtured for a long time. I learned an enormous amount doing that. Sarah Frankcom, the director, was fantastic. Then probably working with the Royal Shakespeare Company on Little Eagles. With the RSC it’s not just that you want to write for a lot of actors, you have to write for a lot of actors because they have this ensemble. Again I was fortunate to be working with another fantastic director, Roxana Silbert, who I’ve worked with several times since Iron, which was probably my most successful play before The James Plays. So it was Mary Barton, Little Eagles to here, and I don’t think I could have done it in one jump. 

What is the reason for the dearth of history plays in recent theatre? Is it because producers just turn to Shakespeare when they want to put one on, or is it more complex than that?

There are two arguments: why don’t people do more history plays? And the other is: why don’t people do large productions? In the case of large productions the reasons are financial, there just isn’t the money. To finance this one I know that it was an extremely convoluted and difficult process and we could very easily not have had the money. However, I think the reason why there are not as many history plays is a perception thing. There is a tremendous hunger amongst audiences for history plays but maybe we as producers and creators haven’t caught up with that. But I think that fashion might be turning. 

Historical novels are incredibly popular at the moment, so where does that perception come from in theatre?

I think the idea that it is going to be Shakespeare but bad Shakespeare. In other words, it’s going to be about strange people who are nothing like contemporary human beings talking an odd language and dealing with issues that have no relevance for today. And the counter–argument is: just do it in contemporary language and in a way that shows them as fully–rounded human beings.
We struggle to describe The James Plays sometimes because of the kind of plays that pop into people’s heads when you say
‘history plays’.

Was it for inclusivity that The James Plays were written in modern Scots? 

Yes, but I think it was bigger than that. People in the fifteenth – century weren’t different to you and me. They were homo sapiens with the same brains and the same emotional reactions, it’s just the circumstances were different. And when they were talking to each other they would have experienced that as contemporary language. To reproduce what their experience would have been you have to bring the language up to the present day. And then it’s just about avoiding glaring anachronisms. The cast used to laugh at me because my veto was on ‘OK’.

You do include some poems by Robert Henryson and another by James I, which you translated yourself. How difficult was that? 

They’re not translations in the sense that I would want to be scrutinised by any department of Scottish literature. I actually found the process of translation quite moving: I’ve not entirely finished but I’ve translated most of James I’s ‘The Kingis Quair’ for myself. It’s that thing of getting inside another writer’s head. It made him very real for me. And then you always have to think: well that’s just how you’re imagining him and you’re imagining him that way for all sorts of reasons – because it suits your purposes – but there was enough fuel there to imagine he would’ve thought this or felt that, and just to get a sense that this was a real person, which is what is so exciting about history, the fact these people lived so long ago yet they are so real and so close
to us in another sense.

The story of James I is an amazing political drama: he is the prisoner of Henry IV and V, and then he returned to Scotland but still in financial and psychological chains. Why is this period not part of a widely recognised Scottish history?

Bannockburn, Bonnie Prince Charlie, Mary Queen of Scots. Those are our big hits. It’s a mystery to me, and I don’t think it’s a reflection of the quality of the academic study. It’s certainly not a reflection of the strength of the stories. My mother’s generation knew those stories in a way that I and successive generations don’t. I think there is a fashion in the teaching of history in schools, which is – quite rightly – to move away from telling the stories of kings and queens and actually give you more of what happened to the common people. But at the same time I think there is a place for the stories and they have a value. Shakespeare has made sure those stories are part of English culture and British culture, but we don’t have a Scottish equivalent and now they’re not taught in schools they are in danger of being lost.

You talked about the similarities between people in fifteenth–century Scotland and people now, but there are also historical parallels between then and now. There are important questions about self–determination in the first play. At one point James I says: ‘England has pursued our wealth and bled our wealth for a hundred years or more and looks ready to do it for hundreds more until this is a nation of beggars. Then they’ll flick us a coin of our own stolen gold and call it charity’. How conscious were you of the particular historical moment in which you were writing?

Obviously I was very aware, though at the time I started we weren’t aware the referendum would happen this year, and it certainly didn’t come clear till quite late on that all three plays would go on this year. It was probably a good thing I didn’t have to write with the burden of knowing these productions would actually go on straddling the referendum. At the same time I really wanted them to go on this year because at the moment when you’re considering what your future’s going to be is exactly when you should be looking at your past. It did seem to me, looking at the fifteenth century, that so much of what is the contemporary relationship between Scotland and England is mirrored in the relationship back then, financially in terms of alliances and economic power, all the seeds of what ended up being the relationship between Scotland and England were sown back then. But while that’s a big part of James I and it’s certainly a part of James III, it’s almost not even visible in James II. In terms of pieces of drama James I is the only one directly engaging with that, whilst the other two are doing something else, and then we bring it back at the end of James III. We very consciously said this will be the moment when James I invades the aesthetic of James III. You suddenly come back to the violence and what England is doing, and what the implications are for the country. The current political
climate definitely informed what the audience brought to it, but the plays work out
of that context.

There is an irony across the plays: James I wants to rule but can’t and then James III needs to rule but he is a reckless hedonist who doesn’t want to. If it wasn’t for Queen Margaret the country would’ve fallen apart at that time, and she stands up and says, ostensibly to the audience: ‘you know the problem with you lot? You’ve got fuck all except attitude’. That sounds like one of those prototypical Scottish identity traits which have infected politics, perhaps more so in the past. 

It’s one of them. But what I was doing was saying: these are the events, as I know they happened, this is the version of the events that tells the best story, this is the character I’ve created: what would she say? There was a chunk of that speech which drifted into on–the–nose issues around the referendum. I made the decision to take that out – not without some soul–searching – because I thought the character wouldn’t have said that. What it is informed by is the audience’s awareness, because if you have that speech before the referendum it sounds like: what are you scared about? Just go for it. Then after the referendum you either hear it as: you always bottle it, or you hear it as: well now you’ve got nothing to complain about. Give it five years and hopefully it would still work but it might mean something completely different. What you are always trying to do is control your own bias and just write something that that character would genuinely say to Scottish people at the time. Actually that speech was written very early on and not changed much.

There is a lot of humour about differences between Scottish and English culture. Was it a conscious decision to deal with that using comedy?

Things like that aren’t conscious decisions. 

I think conversationally most people deal with most things that are difficult with humour.
I think the weird thing is not to do that.

Given that most of history has been written by men and for men, did you have less factual information about the women of the period to work with? If so, did that affect how you imagined the women? 

There is very little about any of them, which in some ways is a gift and in other ways is a curse. In terms of contemporary historians, that awareness that women were there and were part of the picture is something that is very much alive and is quite rapidly being addressed. But I think in terms of the way the rest of us see history: all our images come from a nineteenth century version and in that aristocratic women are all sat in a window doing tapestry. One of the things I read up on was the duties of a medieval queen or lady who was running a castle. An enormous amount of work was expected of you, and that was very much a woman’s role but it wasn’t a passive one. It comes down to economics again. If you’re not the direct inheritor of chunks of land and wealth then there isn’t a record of you. It doesn’t mean you’re not influential. You’d certainly be influential, emotionally on all the men in your life, and as a mother. But it’s speculative, so in James II you have evidence that he came in to his majority and married Mary of Guelders and shortly thereafter he was very proactive in running his own affairs. Now it’s completely speculative that her character informed that change in his character, but it’s a reasonable piece of speculation. 

She shakes him out of his madness. James II is noticeably darker and surreal than the other two plays. What made you decide to change the tone in that one? 

It was really a pragmatic thing. Because of this ridiculous ambition to do three in a row I thought, from an audience’s point of view, it would be so much more exciting if they were tonally different. Then you look at each story and you have to tell that history, but what is the play about? It’s about the characters over and above telling a chunk of medieval history. So James I is about the struggle to decide what kind of a ruler you want to be. The moral struggle. You don’t want to be Henry V but the unruly Scots are not allowing you to be something more benign. James III was almost about a guy who refused to rule, but I wanted it to be about a particular type of relationship and the choices a woman has to make once she has children. It’s is about what kind of love a woman should choose. James II for me is about the torture of children. When you look at what happened to those baby princes and princesses and how violent the world was it just must have been ghastly. I don’t know the true events that led to James II stabbing William Douglas but I’m prepared to put money on the fact he was a seriously disturbed young man. But to talk about being psychologically disturbed in medieval terms is a nonsense because they wouldn’t have seen it like that, which is its own challenge. I think being a parent I couldn’t think of a worse nightmare. You see it all over the world now when people have to grow up before their time. That was the darkest story I could imagine. 

One line that stuck out for me was repeated by Balvenie, the Earl of Douglas. He says it in James I and repeats it in the II: ‘the good life is invisible unless you own the land they bury you under’. When he dies his son William Douglas lays the map of Scotland over his body. Obviously that has a certain relevance for Scotland and its history of land ownership. What was the relevance of the line for you? 

It’s the line that demonstrates his character. I have to say I have no idea if the real Balvenie was like that. The main historian on James II – Dr Christine McGladdery – certainly shares the suspicion that he was the monster you see in James II. Whether he was the snivelling put–upon guy you see in James I, who knows? But I was thinking of a type of character that would be useful for the drama. If you are horribly bullied and then become a bully you are often the most dangerous because you have a sense of grievance and self–pity. But in a historical sense he’s articulating what the plays demonstrate, which is the only stories from the middle–ages that are visible are the stories of the kings and queens and the magnates. Everyone else? We can’t even guess what they were like. So even though Scotland was poor and had a very small population, those royal stories are the only ones that have survived, so that line is like an apology to the invisible dead. But on his death bed to his son [William Douglas], Balvenie is saying: you’ll lose everything – this land is my legacy. Then you see his son talking to James II saying: what is the point? I’ve been to Rome and I saw paintings and unimaginable beauty, and I come back here and I’m supposed to feel like a rich man because I have a thousand wet sheep? If that is the goal of your life, if you destroy and twist and abuse your own son and murder your nephews just to get that footnote in history of ‘I owned this land’, what is the point? I wanted to make that statement: that material wealth is actually no legacy that does you any good.

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