Last year, Gary Owen’s play about Doctor Who and consent, Violence and Son, had a run at the Royal Court, while his cuts-bashing monologue Iphigenia In Splott earned a five star review in the Guardian, went up to Edinburgh as part of the British Council showcase and, in a few days time, will open at the National Theatre.
Both plays are set in Wales, and it’s where Owen’s always lived. Did he like growing up there?
I don’t know if I was really conscious of it as it being the place where I was growing up. It was more just that teenage is a troubling time for most people. There’s a lot to do in terms of going from a child to an adult. And it probably isn’t finished yet.
He studied philosophy at Cambridge – the first one in his extended family to go beyond 16 at school, and the first to pursue an artistic career.
I liked studying very much but it wasn’t a place I fitted in very well. I didn’t really speak to anyone for three years. I’d just never really moved outside a working class context before, so it was a real shock to me to discover that the class system was a real thing, there was an establishment in Britain, it was real and it ran the country. I spent most of my three years in shock about that and then feeling guilty because I’d sold out to them.
Is that how it felt just by being there?
Absolutely. I was benefiting from the wealth of the establishment. I learned Welsh while I was there just as a reaction against Cambridge.
How much do you see that sense of privilege and ruling class bleeding into theatre? It’s a culture that tries to break down a lot of those barriers, and certainly a lot of people within theatre like to think it blazes a trail in terms of equality and diversity. But how many theatres are still run by white men? And how many from Oxbridge?
It’s obvious that there’s an inheritance from Oxbridge into the theatre world. There are an awful lot of public school boys running things. And theatre is making strides – certainly in Wales, there were no women running anything at all and that’s shifted in the last two or three years and that’s great.
That’s true – Tamara Harvey has just taken over at Theatre Clwyd, Kully Thiarai was announced as the next AD of National Theatre Wales, and Rachel O’Riordan runs Sherman Cymru, where Iphigenia In Splott premiered.
Owen didn’t write at all while at Cambridge. After graduating and being on the dole he noticed that other philosophy graduates were in the same situation, but they all claimed to be writing novels. So he took up the challenge: working on a demo tape in the mornings, writing a novel in the afternoons. 50,000 words later, he was surprised at what had come out of his head.
Then he won a scholarship to the European Film College in Denmark to study film and TV making for a year.
While I was there I did all the technical things because I couldn’t quite admit that I wanted to do the artistic things. So I learned editing and all the tech side of it, and in the last month I went ‘I’d maybe like to try some writing’ and wrote a couple of short films. That changed everything for me, just saying I’d like to do writing. I went back to Wales and met some people who wanted to be actors. They said ‘if you write something for us that we can perform on stage we will put it on, we will all become famous and become film actors’. So that’s how I first cam to write a play. I didn’t know much about plays but I knew that Alan Bennett was a playwright and I’d seen his monologues on TV, so I set out to write monologues because they seemed like something you could put on quite easily. Those were the pieces that became Crazy Gary’s Mobile Disco.
[the next section contains spoilers about Iphigenia In Splott]
With Iphigenia it’s back to the monologue, one that boils the ancient mythological story of Iphigenia at Aulis down to a concentrated form: a woman is asked to make an enormous sacrifice for the good of the state. Owen insists that plays are born of a multitude of influences and ideas, but two specific sources stand out: one a news article, the other an intensely personal part of Owen’s own life.
I’d read something about a woman who’d lost a child because she’d given birth in the waiting room of a maternity ward. Had she been actually in the maternity ward it would have been relatively straightforward, but because she was in the waiting room the baby died. The hospital were sued for negligence and didn’t defend it at all. They said it happened because of cuts, because they didn’t have the staff to cope with everyone, and things would only get worse if they have to make a huge compensation payment. What an awful position to be in, especially as the person who’s lost their child. Yes you can have this money, but you will just be making it worse for everyone else.
Then I’d lived in an area of Cardiff called Splott for about ten years. It’s an area where a lot of people are struggling and don’t have much money, where people are particularly dependent on public services, and in which those public services are being withdrawn. And almost everything that’s mentioned in the play about libraries closing and play centres being shut down are just literal things that are happening in Splot right now. That community is going to be affect by those cuts much more than wealthier communities and other parts on Cardiff. The burden falls especially heavily on those sorts of areas. They’re the ones that face the worst cuts even though they’re the least able to take them.
The end of the story is a more tragic version of the thankfully very happy birth of my second son, who was born four weeks early. Labour was misdiagnosed as not labour. It was four in the morning, snow was falling rather unseasonally in March, there was no place at the hospital. The nearest two special care beds are Abergavenny or Birmingham: Birmingham is along safe roads, but the baby might come in the ambulance on the way, or Abergavenny is much nearer but it’s up into the mountains and those roads close with the slightest bit of snow.
It was only much later after he was discharged that it occurred to me how close we’d come to losing him. He needed to be intubated the second he was born. He was in a pretty bad way that a Special Care Unit could cope with. It’s almost not a problem, because medicine is very well developed and doctors and nurses are very skilled, but if you’re born outside that context you’re in real trouble.
It’s happening a lot in Wales that these special care neonatal units are being closed in lots of hospitals. Premature babies by definition come when no one’s expecting them. Undoubtedly children are going to die. They obviously are. And they wouldn’t if those special care wards are open.
There is a white hot anger that rages towards the end of the play, and it’s beginning to burn through into our conversation. Effie, the play’s narrator, almost stops being a character in the final section and starts being a mouthpiece for Owen’s politics and his anger. It’s unsubtle, it’s laying completely bare the disgraceful effects of unnecessary cuts. It’s accusatory, it’s finger-pointing, it’s aggressive and helpless at the same time. I ask about the lack of subtlety in the narrative’s political message.
There’s a time for being subtle, and there’s a time for pinning your colours to the mast. There is no doubt about what’s happening now. Cuts are being imposed on the people who are least able to take them. We’ve got a government that is giving tax breaks to people so that they can hand on their million pound homes to their children. That is something they are choosing to do. Clearly a structural deficit in the nation’s economy can’t go on forever, but the idea that what you do is impose massive cuts in a recession is ridiculous.
If you look at the figures the UK has suffered a longer recession. The USA suffered 12 months of recession following the financial crisis, Germany suffered 12 months of recession. We suffered 27 months of recession because of our incompetent economic leadership. This is not an accident. Cameron’s and Osborne’s Tories have a different version of what the state is. They want a minimalist state that will not look like the state that was born after World War 2. The political settlement that has kept Britain together for 60 years, they are throwing it away, and you can see the tensions rising. 45% of Scotland wanted to leave the Union and Cameron trumpets that as a victory that he kept the Union together. 45% of Scotland would rather take a risk on a country that they don’t know anything about, not even what currency it will have, but it is better than staying as part of the UK with what’s happening to Britain now. And I don’t blame them. If I was there I’d be voting yes. I think we’ve got a better chance struggling on our own than struggling under a government that is going to turn this country into nothing like the country we grew up with. So no, this is not a time to be subtle.
What effect is Owen hoping to have?
Naively, I hope it sends people out into the streets. I hope it delivers the understanding that there is a deliberate agenda. I don’t see anything good happening from what Cameron is doing. Violence and Son turns into being about consent. People often came out of that play with very different opinions about who was right and that was what I was trying to do with that piece. Iphigenia is a very different piece. There’s no point in aiming for balance or objectivity if you’re just going ‘but this is wrong. This is wrong.’
Read our review of Iphigenia In Splott here.
Iphigenia In Splott is on at the National Theatre from 27th January – 20th February. You can book tickets here.