Lucy Kirkwood discusses The Children and being emotionally driven in her work as a playwright.
In an isolated cottage on the English coast, two retired nuclear physicists are living a quiet existence. Life is tough, electricity is rationed, and they keep a Geiger counter on hand. But they have worked all their lives for their retirement and now they are determined to enjoy it. Until one day, an old friend and colleague arrives unexpectedly, bringing memories of the past and a frightening challenge for the future.
Where did the first seed for The Children come from?
I had been trying to find a form for a long time to write about climate change in a way that was emotionally rather than intellectually driven. What is important and theatrical to me is not the facts of climate change – we all know the facts now, and most of the average left leaning theatre audience will believe in them too. What is interesting is this: if we know the facts, why are we failing so catastrophically to change our behaviours? Well, for one thing, it’s because those changes are enormous and frightening and demand that we give up things we have all come to feel we are entitled to. The scale of such a change can only feel like a death of sorts, and as Hazel says [in The Children], who would consciously want to move towards their own death? Capitalism has instilled a set of desires in us that are very difficult to de-program. I wanted to write something that didn’t harangue or nag an audience, but was generous, honest and unsentimental about how difficult it will be to make the changes that we need to, about how overwhelming that might feel – an awakening perhaps, but a terrifying one. The idea you can do nothing because the disaster is already too large is an infantilising one (one of the many reasons for the title), and the play is about three people growing up into active agents. And of course the way in which they do that was very much inspired by what happened at Fukushima. When I heard about the heroism of the retired work-force returning to the plant to help with the clean up, lots of different and long gestating ideas started to finally come together for me.
This play has a strong message of generational responsibility. Is this something you feel passionately about?
I do, but my hope is that audiences will not feel that the play is about a single generation – it is not a satire on baby-boomers, it’s about all of us – in 35 years I will be Hazel’s age and I am certain that the next generations will be asking the same questions of me as mine ask of hers.
Your play is entirely set inside a coastal home, however we get this great sense of the landscape outside the front door. Where did your inspiration for this setting come from?
I am wary of telling you because one of the things I enjoyed about the UK production was that everyone was convinced they knew where it was and most of them were wrong! But that sense of ownership meant that they had emotionally connected with the setting. I wouldn’t want to rob anyone of such a lovely misconception.
You have said that you find reading your past work excruciating – why do you think this is?
Oh, because you want to fiddle and rewrite and it’s too late. Your failures are in print and you can’t change them but in the meantime you have changed as a person and a writer. It’s like looking at pictures of haircuts you had when you were 15. You probably made choices you wouldn’t make now.
You’ve woven politics into many of your works. Do you set out to create theatre that challenges its audience, or does this happen organically for you?
To write a play takes a long time. This means that whatever I chose to write about has to sustain my interest for at least a couple of years, sometimes much longer. So I find myself drawn to writing about things where the roots of the emotions and ideas go deep and the branches go high. This isn’t consciously political, it’s just about what holds me. Hopefully if something can hold me for three years it will hold an audience for two hours. And I do believe that most theatre is an inherently political act because it demands we step outside of ourselves and imagine others. And it demands that we do that communally.
Sexual politics and the power of sex are central to this narrative. Can you tell us about this as a narrative choice?
An answer of two halves: (1) the play is an attempt to look at a crisis of desire on a political level – Hazel’s line, ‘I don’t know how to want less’ is perhaps the most crucial line in the play. Capitalism depends on growth. Our entire economic system depends on us wanting more and more, on boundless desire – and if we continue to pursue those desires they will destroy us. And I wanted this ache of desires that couldn’t be fulfilled, or which in being fulfilled would simply cause more pain, and no satisfaction, to pulse between the characters too. So that’s what’s burning in Rose, this irresolvable desire. And we watch her battle and to some extent subdue it. (2) In some sense it wasn’t a choice at all, the moment I started writing, and I knew Rose had been hit in the face, it was clear to me that Rose was in Hazel’s territory and that she had been in her territory before. Often writing is intuitive not conscious. Those women told me sex was important to them through bloody noses and passive aggression.
Do you have any writing habits or rituals you could share with us?
Coffee, walking, rinse, repeat.
What are you currently working on?
I have just opened another play in London so I am trying to be a fallow field for a week or two before I start working on something else I have been sketching for a year or so.
What is your favourite part of the theatre-making process?
Spending so much time alone at a desk, I always love finally getting into rehearsal. I think we all want to be part of something bigger than ourselves, I find myself returning to that idea a lot, and that’s also what I find exhilarating about making work in the theatre, the collaboration of it.
What do you find most challenging about completing a new work?
I find the first preview very hard, watching a play with an audience for the first time. It’s like ripping off a layer of skin, sharing something so private in such a public space.
Did you envisage that The Children would be played on international stages? Do your characters feel inherently British to you, or are they somewhat universal?
Yes they feel very British to me, and I didn’t envisage that at all. But I’m also aware that beneath that superficial level, the emotional traffic between them is universal – a fear of growing older, of dying, an anxiety about how our actions impact the world, the battles we fight through and on and with our bodies, how we try to control and self medicate with yoga or fags or drink, the dreariness of trying to stay healthy and the terror of being ill. And of course, remembering how sexy we were in our 20s when we were simple and so was the world.