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10 Questions for Playwright Joe Penhall | reviews, news & interviews

10 Questions for Playwright Joe Penhall

10 Questions for Playwright Joe Penhall

As Blue/Orange is revived, its author explains the link to the Kinks and the FBI

Joe Penhall: 'You tend to get better unless you’re very unlucky and the fire goes out'

Joe Penhall first thwacked his way to the attention of British theatregoers more than 20 years ago with a series of plays about schizos and psychos and wackos. An iconoclastic laureate of lithium, his early hit Some Voices (1994), about a care-in-the-community schizophrenic, went on to be filmed starring Daniel Craig. In 2000 he returned to the subject in Blue/Orange.

The play was first performed at the National’s Cottesloe Theatre and introduced Chiwetel Ejiofor as Christopher, a young man from a White City estate who has been sectioned under the Mental Health Act. He's about to be discharged, but has to wait for two clinical psychiatrists to agree about the wisdom of releasing him into the community. In the moral and intellectual tennis rally that forms the argument of the play, he's both ball and spectator.

Penhall’s play has been revived several times in the UK and performed all over the world, and is now coming to the Young Vic, directed by Matthew Xia. It is, by some measure, his most successful play. He also wrote the book of the Kinks musical Sunny Afternoon, worked for many years on the script of The Last King of Scotland, and this month a Netflix drama directed by David Fincher goes into production. As he tells theartsdesk, there is a link between them all.

JASPER REES: What were the circumstances in which you wrote Blue/Orange?

JOE PENHALL: I think it sort of sprang from when I was a reporter on the Hammersmith Guardian in the early Nineties. A lot of the stories were to do with care-in-the-community legislation. They were all very much the same story: people not being looked after and psychiatric wards not being resourced properly. Because I had a friend who was a schizophrenic and because a lot of these stories were fascinating and multi-layered and tragic, I just started to become more and more interested and realised the problem with a newspaper is you turn the page quite quickly. It was an inherently dramatic subject. There was a story about a local Japanese diplomat who had been arrested and interred in a psychiatric ward for speaking Japanese and waving his samurai sword and babbling about fighting fish. And when I chased the story up it turned out he was completely rational and had a very plausible reason to be talking about his fighting fish and waving his sword: he’d lent his fighting fish to the town hall for a function and they hadn’t given them back. So I just got fascinated by it.

What caused you to locate the play in London and put a man from the Afro-Caribbean community at the heart of it? (Pictured above: Daniel Kaluuya as Christopher in Blue/Orange © Johan Persson)

I wanted to write about London as I knew it, which is culturally one of the most diverse places in the world. It just didn’t seem at the time that that was being reflected in the plays particularly that I saw. It is more so now but it wasn’t then. The thing that I found nourishing about London, because I’d had a very peripatetic existence myself, is I just loved all the various communities that I lived amongst and I wanted to reflect that. If you live in Shepherd’s Bush it just seems insanity to have plays that have no Irish people, no Africans or Jamaicans. I was just reflecting the world around me as accurately as I could. My dad was South African so I grew up with African stories and I went to Africa and spent a logn time researching The Last King of Scotland, which was to do with my childhood as well. It all came to the boil with Blue/Orange. I felt very strongly at the time that London was very African and it needed to be said.

How did you go about researching a psychiatric nitty-gritty of a story that looked on the stage like a post-colonial narrative being played out – two men arguing over the fate of a black man?

I knew a lot of it, I suppose, because I’d interviewed psychiatrists as a reporter and talked to them about the issues that were dogging them. I had this friend and read up on it. So I knew about schizophrenia. It was just one of those things that I had inadvertently researched because I was fascinated by it. And then when I was in Uganda doing The Last King of Scotland I had a lot of contact with people who had a completely different way of dealing with mental illness which fascinated me. They don’t have psychiatrists. They very often have witch doctors in the villages. They don’t see schizophrenia as the organic illness that we see it as. And broadly speaking they deploy the talking cure. They understand that you just need to listen and talk and that all ameliorates things. I’m not advocating that for us at all. I was just fascinated by the different approach.

I thought 'I’m going to write a play that people are just going to keep doing'

And also I suppose what was becoming apparent that I knew very well from my friend and from the people I’d interviewed was that the delusions that schizophrenia sufferers tend to have are rooted very much in reality and very much in the culturally specific. And that really fascinated me. So in Africa you’d have people with delusions about Idi Amin. In London you’d have people with delusions about Tony Blair or Jesus or John Lennon. But as London’s changed those boundaries blur and break down, and as the world becomes more global the delusions become more global. So by the time I’d written it I did have a friend who had a patient in the Maudsley hospital from Uganda who claimed he was being hunted by Milton Obote’s spies. He had been incarcerated and sectioned and diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. And when he was let out he was shot by Milton Obote’s spies. And it turned out he was obviously not very well and traumatised, but also obviously speaking the truth. I thought that the delusions of a paranoid schizophrenic somehow added up to a great metaphor for an awful lot of cultural factors. It was a way of taking the temperature of where we were at the time and not in an obvious way.

You’ve written other plays that have responded to the zeitgeist. Why is this the one that keeps getting revived?

To reduce it to banalities, everywhere in the world has kind of the same problems and always has and always will. It is superficially about madness and mental illness but it’s also about power and it’s about cultural misunderstanding. It’s been done in something like 50 languages, because in Russia or Japan they have the same kind of cultural tension. I wanted it to be a big subject and I wanted it to be a play that cut through fashion and trends and movements and would work anywhere at any time with three chairs and a bowl of oranges. It was deliberately constructed to have a universality and a longevity. I was aware that I was never a fashionable writer, that I couldn’t write a topical, fashionable play of the moment with a gun to my head, and so I thought 'I’m going to write a play that people are just going to keep doing, and a conversation that is going to continually be relevant.'

I was bored by the conversations that were going on in the theatre in the Nineties a little bit after a while. They trivialised my reality: plays that have become period pieces and we know they have become period pieces because we haven’t seen them for 15 or 20 years. Theatre is a bit like pop music. It’s fashion-led. It’s very focused on trends and it’s very susceptible to trends. And so things become a flavour of the moment. I was aware of that even then and was trying to do something that would counteract or short-circuit that. And also it was important for me to be able to do a play that would go all over the world. The idea of just doing a play in West London or on the Southbank is the depressing idea. You’re preaching to the converted, you’re singing to the choir. And it’s incredibly reductive. It’s never been satisfying to me. I can’t think of anything worse than spending the rest of your life being trapped in the London theatre world. The joy of it was you could go to Buenos Aires and they were doing it or New Zealand and they were doing it. I love that. The best way to see the world is to travel with a play.

How has the psychiatry profession responded to it? If memory serves they did rush to see the play in the Cottesloe.

If you were in the audience and you had a psychotic episode there would be no shortage of shrinks on hand leaping over the seats to assist. I was in the toilet once during the interval of Blue/Orange and I heard some people talking, and one of them said, “I think this author was in a mental hospital. He’s very interesting.” And the other said, “No, no, he was a mental nurse.”

Have you changed the text over the years or is it the same play performed in 2000?

It is. We changed a couple of words when it went to America and we did it Off Broadway, because stupidly they don’t understand what QPR is, so we made it Manchester. For this we haven’t changed it because we realised you’re just unravelling a ball of wool if you try to change it. There’s no reason to change it because the central dynamic of it, all the juice and fuel of the machine, is all just as relevant, if not more relevant now. So we’ve left it as a period piece but in the hope that it still resonates. And in that it’s about two white men deciding the fate of a black man, in the sense that it’s knowingly conscious of post-colonial dynamics, and the sense that the silver-tongued baddie is in control, it hasn’t changed. If anything it’s worse now. We’re inculcated in the ways of silver-tongued baddies. It’s what we know and like.

Twenty years on since Some Voices first addressed mental health, are you the same writer?

I think I’m the same writer in that my voice is very similar, but formally I’m a much better writer now. It’s the same with musicians as they get older. You tend to get better unless you’re very unlucky and the fire goes out, you write yourself out. There’s no question I’m a better writer now. It’s just that your first play is the one that gets all the attention. Everybody’s got a play that gets all the attention. What you learn is your voice is ineradicable and you notice the same things and are drawn to the same things and want to say similar things. You just choose different conduits for it.

If you had been told in 1994 or even in 2000 that you’d be working on a musical about the Kinks, what would you have said? It must have blindsided you being asked to do it.

To be honest it didn’t because I’d been planning it for a long long time. I know Ray says the same thing, that he’d been planning it for a long time. But I’d be planning since 1996 when I saw him play the Bloomsbury Theatre solo show and I left him a copy of Pale Horse in his dressing room and I said, naively, “If you ever want to collaborate on something, I’m your number one fan. You’ve got a number one fan in Shepherd’s Bush who thinks you’re a fucking knockout. Let’s do something.” And then I didn’t hear from him for about 15 years. And then I got a call to go and meet him at Konk Studios.

In 1996 I thought he would be great to write a musical with. This music works for all sorts of fascinating reasons. It’s witty, it’s literate, it fills a theatre, it’s dramatic, it’s moving, it’s funny, it works on the subconscious in the way that great theatre works on the subconscious. The story of the Kinks was an incredible narrative, an epic narrative, a picaresque adventure with these very very young guys who had been fed to the monster. And I always knew it was a great story. The stories of brothers in rock’n’roll is a great story. The stories of brothers in anything is a great story. That was one of the things that I would like to do in the theatre. It’s an archetype. It’s the Sam Shepard thing that I’ve always been so in thrall to. (Pictured below, Sunny Afternoon at Hampstead Theatre)

I was given carte blanche to do whatever I wanted, except that Ray was certain he wanted to concentrate on the first five years of the Kinks, the birth of the Kinks, and that time in England which was a unique time. So those are the parameters. But beyond that I was given free rein to do whatever I wanted. So, for example, I was fascinated by his wife Rada and he wouldn’t in a million years have done that by himself, but I talked him into it. And there were songs like “Rock‘n’Roll Fantasy” and “Sitting in My Hotel” that he’d just forgotten about and couldn’t see the point of using. And I knew all these great Kinks songs that no one had heard that would make for wonderful musical theatre. We did three workshops over three years. Ray would drill the musicians in “Waterloo Sunset” while I worked on the narrative.

What’s next for you?

I’m doing this thing in America with David Fincher about the origins of the behavioural science unit at the FBI in the Seventies, which is bringing me back to psychology again. I spent a lot of time talking to clinical psychologists at the FBI. It’s called Mindhunter. I’ve just been in rehearsals and we start filming next week with a fabulous young New York actor Jonathan Groff and a motley assortment of Fincher’s favourite actors. It’s a subject that fascinates me and I know a bit about it, and it’s dramatic – it makes for great theatre because it’s about behaviour and theatre is about behaviour. It makes for great drama. The characters I’m interested in, the stories I’m interested in, there’s always a whiff of madness about them. That’s why I’m interested in the Kinks, because there was a heavy whiff of madness about them. They were barely in control and the music at its best is barely in control.

What drew you to the behavioural science unit of the FBI?

It’s about a time when a big game changer occurred, a big paradigm shift in American law enforcement when they realised there was only so far they could go by locking people up and executing them without actually talking to them, finding out what made them tick. So these young agents at the FBI went round all the maximum security jails in America and started talking to the worst serial killers, the worst psychosexual homicidal maniacs they could find, and hooked up with a psychiatrist from Pittsburgh. They went and did clinical psychology at university themselves and made a very serious diagnostic statistical manual about psychosexual homicide.

I was just fascinated that that was a time at the end of Hoover’s secretive FBI and the end of Nixon and the end of Vietnam. America was finally realising that reactionary conservatism and militarism and unforgiving psychologically banal law enforcement was not working, and they decided they needed to explore a more behavioural, more scientific, more psychological approach. Which, again, is how a lot of the world worked. The Seventies is a time when the world became more psychologically nuanced, more aware of behaviour and psychological motivation and psychological complexity. It stopped being about just arresting bad guys and throwing them in the slammer and became about trying to understand the various crime epidemics and their antecedents with a view to prevention. So I was fascinated by that, because at the end of the day it’s kind of what Blue/Orange is about: it’s about understanding an epidemic and its antecedents.

I can’t think of anything worse than spending the rest of your life being trapped in the London theatre world

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What a GREAT interview. Fascinating writer and fascinating insights into writing. Arts desk should do more writer interviews. Something you cannot find in the mainstream press, which is only interested in awarding stars and selling ads. Thanks, Arts Desk. 

Joe Penhall is a very interesting writer but the FBI Behavioral Science Unit is a joke without a shred of scintific support and he should leave it well alone as a subject. The two original officers, Ressler and Douglas are now very rich men from flogging their ridiculous books. Both of them believe that messages from the 'other side' can be useful to investigators and Ressler regards demonic possession as one of the variables that needs to be considered in profiling offenders.

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