Aside from her Olivier-garlanded, National Curriculum-anointed modern classic Our Country’s Good, it is as a reputedly reluctant interviewee that Timberlake Wertenbaker has become best known – or rather, unknown. Perhaps unsurprisingly, upon hearing the name, people often assume that Wertenbaker is male; then, upon reading her most famous play, that she lived in the eighteenth century and must now be dead.
Talking to her over a cup of green tea in the café at The Actors Centre, a community space populated by scarved thesps and earnest graduates, I discover that as well as being a woman and alive, she’s thoughtful, subtly humorous, and uncommonly tiny, not to mention the owner of a quite extraordinary corona of wavy auburn hair. She’s pleased that I’m writing in an archaic notebook with an antiquated implement known as a pen, as opposed to brandishing a sleek gadget in her face, although afterwards I look down at my unintelligible and spidery writing and decide that, before I next interview someone as thoughtful and quick-minded as Wertenbaker, I should either succumb to the technological era, or at least learn the ancient art of shorthand.
I certainly wouldn’t be surprised to discover that Wertenbaker knew, or had somewhere picked up, shorthand; her facility with languages is impressive. An idiosyncratic childhood, growing up as the daughter of American writers in the Basque Country at the southernmost tip of France, immersed the young Wertenbaker in tongues: “I spoke French first, but I read English first… It was actually Basque I spoke first.” When she began writing plays, it was in Greece for a Greek director, but performed by and for Anglophones. “Oddly enough, those first plays weren’t Greek at all!” she laughs.
Now, having translated from Greek many times, notably for the RSC in 1991, her latest play, Our Ajax – which opens at the Southwark Playhouse this week – takes its name and inspiration from the classical tragedy. I enquire as to what it is exactly – a loose adaptation of the original play, a looser variation on Sophocles’s general theme, or a full-blown flight of fancy fuelled by a mere fragment of its ancient predecessor. “It’s difficult to say what it is… ‘inspired by’… ‘with free borrowing’… I’ve written my own play. I decided at first to translate, but then I thought… it needed a different language.”
Language isn’t the only barrier facing the adaptor of a classical text today, though. What about the irreversible evolution of fundamental social concepts? The particular tragedy of Ajax is that the Greek commanders vote to award the armour of dead Achilles to another warrior, Odysseus, in an act of perceived dishonour that leads Ajax to rage, madness and eventual suicide – surely that’s within a very specific cultural context far removed from the one that gave rise to the Iraq War, for example, with its unique political motivations and tactical strategies. Wertenbaker is adamant, however, that the experience of those on the ground, at least, is much more universal than that. “For soldiers, things haven’t changed that much. When you talk to soldiers, they respond to that; they feel like they belong to a long line of heroes.” The ancient concept of honour (kleos) is merely the fact of being recognised and promoted, “terribly important then and now.”
Wertenbaker is avowedly anti-war, but that apparently made no difference to her writing. “When I was researching this play, there was absolutely no judgment… Soldiers don’t make the wars – it’s the politicians. Yes, you can choose to be a soldier, or you can reject it, but the appeal is fascinating. I wanted to understand that. Some like violence; most want to test themselves.” On the subject of the duty of a writer, and of a theatremaker in particular, to make an explicit statement of one’s position, she is quite firm, brusque even. “Nobody thinks war is a good thing, especially for the people who have to wage it. A writer has to really withhold moral judgment. If I want people to do something, I’ll march or sign a petition.” When it comes to the play, she simply intends to “help people understand.”
There is similar conviction, albeit much more wearily asserted, on the subject of gender equality. Wertenbaker refers, as in the handful of previous interviews with her that I’d read, to the “shocking statistics” concerning female playwrights, directors and practitioners. “I thought I was over this, but the battle is not won, and has to be fought.” She reports that the soldiers interviewed in preparation for Our Ajax were “very responsive to a woman writer,” her satisfaction itself a lamentable indication of general expectations.
Does she feel obliged to write about women, for women, or to champion women? “If feminism were working, you would write about what you want to write about. In terms of writing something overtly feminist, no. I write about what I see.” Of course she’s correct on all counts, and the earlier martial analogy is entirely appropriate: no one should have to fight, but a change is needed. To illustrate her point, she nods to a climactic scene in her play Three Birds Alighting on a Field during which lead actress Harriet Walter bared her breasts, “really important for the character” but garnering “short shrift” for Wertenbaker from certain feminists who “misunderstood.” She mentions that her next play will focus on a woman, indicating that she sees the necessity of doing her bit for the cause. “It’s also important to give female actors jobs – especially older women.”
Wertenbaker’s reputation as an important voice in modern theatre is all the more impressive for its unlikeliness, not just as a woman in a profession still dominated by male voices, but also because of her experimental style, which has been described as precise and unsentimental. Having named Chekhov and O’Neill among her inspirations, she admits: “I’m not what they call a naturalistic writer, whatever that is.” She professes not to have a regular method, apart from “a lot of research… I do like to interview people. It filters through, and the language of the play is very much the language I heard.” Her understanding of other writers’ processes and intentions, aided by her wide experience translating their work, is demonstrable. “Playwrights tend to repeat words. If you can spot what they’re repeating, you can spot what the play means to the playwright.” As an example, she uses Oedipus – a tragedy most would associate with patricide, incest or blindness – and proclaims it to be a play about “anger” (thumos), the word that makes the most appearances. Similarly, Antigone is about “judgment” (krisis) above all else.
Our Ajax, which stars Joe Dixon as the eponymous warrior and, unexpectedly, the comedian Adam Riches as Odysseus, fits neatly into a clear trajectory of Wertenbaker’s canon – one that mines past events, whether factual or mythical, for modern gemstones. Back in 1990, when interviewed by the New York Times on the eve of the Broadway première of Our Country’s Good, the playwright acknowledged a preference for working in a historical context: “It is a much more oblique way of writing about the present.” Unwilling to specify any more than that, nowadays her attitude towards her writing is notable for its lack of vanity and pretension. “I always change the script in rehearsals. I’ll probably change things tomorrow! It’s just about being open.”
In a strange way, it’s tempting to trace a parallel between Wertenbaker and those soldiers around whom she has crafted her play. “Soldiers don’t think of themselves as heroes.” That’s an externally imposed analysis that has little to do with soldiers’ day-to-day experiences; similarly, Wertenbaker approaches each of her projects on an individual basis, not consciously identifying and planning a career arc that would place her in a certain pantheon of authorial voices with a particular statement to make. It has been said of her, by Peter Hall no less, that she writes about “how men govern themselves.” I was extremely hesitant to put this to her in person, not only because we’ve just had a lengthy conversation about “inexcusable” sexism and the gender-specificity of Hall’s statement seems offensive in that context, but also because I imagine she would be characteristically dismissive of the assumption: ‘Well, if I’m writing a play about government and there are male characters in it, then yes I’ll write about how men govern themselves. Other than that, no.’ Ultimately, I choose not to repeat Hall’s quotation, suspecting that I’ve already answered my own question.
After a great deal of internet-trawling, proving true that reputation of hers as a rare interviewee and false my earlier claim of technophobia, I light upon a quotation that best summarises how Wertenbaker herself views the patterns within her writing, those repeated fragments that a translator might seize upon as proof of what the playwright thinks her plays are about: “What interests me in all my plays is really the area where the public situation hits the private person, how it affects their courage and their decisions.” She said that in 2004, but it truly couldn’t be any closer to describing the exact nature of the tragedy of Ajax. Maybe she’s been planning this path the whole time.
Our Ajax is at Southwark Playhouse from 6th – 30th November 2013.