Features Essays Published 18 November 2014

Discovering Robert Holman

Lee Anderson goes on a journey of discovery with the work of the "playwright's playwright".
Lee Anderson

I first discovered the work of Robert Holman whilst studying at university. It was the second term of my second year and our theatre department had arranged a visit from playwrights Simon Stephens and David Eldridge. Thus far, our collective reading for the module we were studying in post-war British playwriting had furnished us with a list of works from the usual suspects: we spent our fair share of time discussing Osborne, confronting Wesker and admiring Churchill, before moving on to untangling Crimp, debating Kane and puzzling over Neilson. But it wasn’t until the arrival of Stephens and Eldridge, opening up to a room full of students about their respective influences, that this particular discovery was made.

It was around this time that I had begun trying my hand at writing plays. And as hopelessly derivative and embarrassingly amateurish as my initial attempts were, I was nevertheless excited to have the opportunity of speaking to Stephens and Eldridge about the kind of writers they admired. I remember Stephens in particular, springing to life excitedly in his chair, his features growing increasingly animated as he leaned forward and beamed: “If you’re really interested in playwriting – read Robert Holman”. Their visit had coincided with the run up to A Thousand Stars Explode in the Sky (2012) – the sprawling, end-of-days family drama written in collaboration with Holman for the Lyric Hammersmith. But at this point Holman’s name was news to me. So, with my curiosity suitably piqued, I set about laying my hands on as much of his work as I could.

What should have been simple was no easy feat. A cursory visit to the otherwise well-stocked campus library followed by a thorough trawl through Amazon and eBay brought no joy. Indeed, with the exception of those recent revivals and collaborations, it remains frustratingly difficult to track down copies of Holman’s individual plays. Sadly, there exists no published volume of ‘Collected Plays’ and much of Holman’s finest work is now out of print. Nonetheless, I persisted in my search and eventually managed to obtain a handful of second-hand, dog-eared former library-copies. Having taken the trouble to track down and obtain these seemingly rarefied objects, I was understandably eager to delve inside and discover the apparent treasures within.

On first reading, I couldn’t see what all the fuss was about. As embarrassing as it is to admit now, my initial response to Holman’s plays was bemusement and disappointment. Even allowing for the fact that plays are only ever half-glimpsed in the reading, my initial foray into Holman had proved far from revelatory. I was confused as to how writers like Eldridge and Stephens – whose plays I lauded for their urgency, clarity of vision and engagement with contemporary subjects – could claim kinship with a writer such as Holman. The play I had started with was The Overgrown Path  (1985) – a work I now consider to be one of the finest in Holman’s criminally undervalued oeuvre – but at the time, I was convinced he had little to offer me. Having nourished myself for so long on the likes of Pinter, Kane and Churchill, I was ill-prepared for Holman. His work seemed so quaint, so arid, so dull in my precocious appetite for something immediate gratifying. I realise now how wrong I was.

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Making Noise Quietly at the Donmar Warehouse.

Making Noise Quietly at the Donmar Warehouse.

Today, the common narrative that gets trotted out in discussions of Holman’s work is that his plays are “unfashionable”. Critics and commentators have dubbed him the “quiet man” of modern British theatre and sought to characterise his plays as low-key and meditative affairs. At best, these descriptions depict Holman as a writer of cozy, slow-burn dramas; at worse, they present him as an antediluvian figure out-of-step with current trends. Weirdly, such descriptions are often intended as positive appraisals – as evidenced by the swathe of positive reviews that garnered the revival of Making Noise Quietly. That production, directed by Peter Gill and staged at the Donmar Warehouse in 2012, marks one of a handful of revivals that have been cropping up in recent years. In 2003, the Royal Exchange Manchester curated a mini-festival of Holman plays and most recently we’ve seen Jonah and Otto enjoying a successful revival at London’s Park Theatre.

As welcome as these revivals are, the question remains: how has the work of such an enormously influential playwright like Holman been allowed to pass into relative obscurity? Playwright Ben Musgrave, whose play Pretend We Have Big Buildings won him the Bruntwood Prize in 2005, suggests a number of potential explanations: “One issue is that his work is so particular, so of itself in its language, so English, that it’s very hard to translate, and so Robert doesn’t have the international reputation that he deserves. Also, I’d imagine it would be hard to put his plays on a syllabus because they don’t quite explore ‘issues’ in the way that an exam board would find convenient.”

While it’s true that Holman’s plays share a distinctly “English” sensibility, they’re never parochial or insular. Indeed, it’s difficult to recall a Holman play that remains fixed to any one time zone or location. With the exception of his 2008 play Jonah and Otto – a modern-day, Godot-esque two-hander set in a crumbling seaside town – Holman takes his characters on journeys that traverse great distances and vast periods of time. In Bad Weather (1988, RSC), Holman begins the action on a Middlesborough council-estate and ends it two-years later, in the bucolic surroundings of southern France. Similarly, in Across Oka (1988, RSC) – recently staged by playwright David Eldridge in a rehearsed reading for the Royal Court – the action moves from Northern England to the wilderness of the former Soviet Union and traces young Matty’s journey to return crane-eggs back into their natural habitat. This is because Holman’s plays are journeys in the truest sense of the word; they traverse time and place, often-taking divergent paths instead of the more direct and obvious route.

***

The more I think about the notion of discovery, the more I realise how bound up the very idea itself is in Holman’s writing – both in a thematic sense and in terms of how the plays themselves are written. In each of Holman’s plays, there exists the abiding sense of submerged feelings being coaxed to the surface. The dramatic power of Holman’s plays isn’t located in fanciful action or pyrotechnical flourishes, but in the characters’ continual struggle to uncover something suppressed or buried within themselves. At their heart, Holman’s plays dramatise our internal struggle to know ourselves and be better people. Sometimes, Holman gives this theme literal poignancy, such as in Rafts and Dreams (1990), when Neil and Leo unearth a secret, subterranean lake in Leo’s garden. At other times, it takes the form of a subtle interpersonal conflict, such as in Jonah and Otto (Royal Exchange, 2008), in which two complete strangers – Otto, an old clergyman and Jonah, a wayward young man – confess their deepest secrets to each other and learn to trust themselves over the course of a single day.

It is this dramatic impulse – and the moments that it creates between characters – that imbues Holman’s plays with their powerful emotional candour. “I don’t think he’s ironizing”, affirms Samantha Ellis, playwright, non-fiction author and friend of Holman. “I think there’s a lot of ironic, distancing theatre, but he’s writing about those moments of genuine connection when people really do open their hearts. I think he’s very interested in the question of how much you can know another person and how much of that person remains unknowable. We’re used to a lot more declarative and angry plays – plays with a lot more certainty about them – and actually it’s very hard to know anyone else, or even know yourself. I think he honours that and I think it’s very brave.”

Despite a 30-year career writing plays, there has been very little scholarship on Holman as a playwright. Many critics tend to focus overwhelmingly on the literary qualities within Holman’s playwriting – such as his intriguing use of language – ad refer to him repeatedly as the “playwright’s playwright”. While it’s true that Holman’s most vocal champions remain other playwrights, I believe this label does Holman the added disservice of sealing him off from those without a special interest. It also glosses over the fact that Holman is a theatre writer first and foremost. “Although he is often described as a ‘quiet’ playwright, he’s also very theatrical”, explains Ellis. “In Jonah and Otto, when Jonah undresses Otto and changes into his clothes – it’s almost like vaudeville. It’s very theatrical. So, while I think it’s fine to talk about the quieter virtues of Holman’s work, he is still very much a theatre writer to his core”.

Indeed, despite the oft-mentioned “understated” nature of his plays, there is an electrifying theatrical current running through Holman’s plays: the flooding of the world in Rafts and Dreams (Royal Court, 1990), in which Neil and Leo discover a underground lake after pulling up tangled tree-roots, or the fatal lightning-strike that splits the tree asunder in The Overgrown Path (Royal Court, 1985), are just two moments that exemplify Holman’s painterly talent for crafting extraordinary theatrical images. In other ways, Holman demonstrates a capacity for surreal comedy and vivid symbolism. In Other Worlds (Royal Court, 1983), Holman dramatises the struggles of a farming population on the North Yorkshire coast. Set in the 18th century, the play features the hanging of a monkey at the hands of a fishing community who suspect the primate of being a French spy conspiring for imminent invasion. But as Musgrave points out, Holman’s uses of imagery – his invocation of those “extraordinary” moments on-stage – are never simply deployed as conjuring tricks: “The reason that they work and that I find them captivating is that all those moments are not treated by him as ‘extraordinary’ – in a showy or self-conscious way. They’re painstakingly real, seen through absolutely fully on stage.  The flooding of the world in Rafts and Dreams is not some kind of stage metaphor, a fanciful moment of ‘theatrical magic’.  He really sees it happen. It’s real”.

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What I find continually fascinating about Holman is both his versatility and his endless capacity to defy expectations. This mercurial quality – all too rarely acknowledged from critics and commentators – makes him a difficult artist to pin down. The breadth and scope of his plays elude pat generalisations and easy categories. He has written historical narratives (Other Worlds), biographical character studies (Outside The Whale), surreal Noah-esque parable scenarios (Rafts and Dreams), and realist family dramas (Bad Weather and Holes in the Skin). His is a voice worth cherishing and one that deserves to reach as wide an audience as possible.

Furthermore, both Musgrave and Ellis both believe that there is still much to learn from Holman’s craft. “I think we can learn from Robert’s discipline, his rigour, his determination that every line, every word of the play is true and real”, explains Musgrave. “I think we can learn that we need to trust ourselves, to take more responsibility for fully seeing through what we do”. For Ellis, Holman’s impact on her own journey as a playwright has been particularly personal: “There’s something he said to me once which I now have pinned up above my desk: the energy of a play comes from what the writer learns when they’re writing it. That’s brilliant! Because it means the work can be surprising but also it works so against the culture of ‘you have to know what you’re writing before you write it”. But while there is no denying the profound influence Holman has had on many of today’s writers, he is also far more than the shy, elusive muse he is often characterised as being by commentators. His is a powerful and unique voice well worth cherishing for its own sake. A discovery worth making.

The Exeunt review of Jonah and Otto at Park Theatre.

The Exeunt review of Making Noise Quietly at the Donmar

Jonah and Otto is at the Park Theatre, London, until 23rd November 2014.

Main photo: Jack Sain.

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Lee Anderson

Lee is a writer and critic living in London. Despite subsisting solely on a diet of Marmite sandwhiches, black coffee and Marlboro Light, Lee survived the crush of academia and graduated with a first-class degree in English & Film and Theatre from the University of Reading in 2011 (a decision he has struggled to explain to his parents ever since). As well as slating work as a critic, Lee is also making work as a playwright, thus both having his cake and eating it too. He is also an Associate Artist of SQUINT theatre company.

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