Nick Gill is wearing blue overalls and protective eye-wear. I’ve come to interview over lunch and agreed to come to his place of work: an old-fashioned letter press in Whitechapel. He’s using an enormous terrifying looking machine to the form the letters that will then be used for printing. He explains how it works to me. I don’t really understand but I keep staring at it. It looks like some kind of steampunk fantasy. Big dippers and molten iron. This model is from the 1960s, he tells me. They don’t make them anymore, of course. The last one was made in the 1980s, he says. It was meant to be shipped to Nigeria but the deal fell through and it’s still sitting in a box somewhere.I first met Nick when he was working behind the bar at the Royal Court and I was ushering. This would have been around 2005. Occasionally we’d both be nominally of duty in the Balcony level of the theatre during a show but there wouldn’t be a lot to do so we’d shoot the shit, as they say, about theatre and everything that was wrong with it.
Once I remember Nick sketching something. It was a layout for a fictional theatre space. He’s always had a restless mind but when I go for lunch with him at Wilton’s Music Hall, he seems to have mellowed out. Around that same time, Nick had become involved with a collective of aspiring playwrights all graduates of the Royal Court’s Young Writers’ Programme at more or less the same time. They formed a group called The Apathists. Nick explains the group’s purpose: “We’d all done this course but we still didn’t really know what we were doing and it got to the point where some of us were getting commissions and we really wanted the space to try things out, a way of experimenting”. The other writers were Mike Bartlett, Duncan Macmillan, Simon Vinnicombe, Morgan Lloyd Malcolm and Rachel Wagstaff. The evenings took place, for the most part at Theatre 503 and consisted of evenings of short plays. The directors were “whoever we could rope in at the last minute” (though they included Lyndsey Turner, Clare Lizzimore and Polly Findlay). Many of the writers, like Nick, had experience of university drama and similar environments but he “didn’t know how people who didn’t know me would react”. The Apathists’ events were a way of discovering that.
He looks back on the different personalities and approaches at that time: “Mike and Duncan particularly were very clear about what they wanted to do. They wanted to be playwrights and that was something they were definite about. I was always doing other things alongside it though. That’s probably why I was the last one in the group to have a full length play on.”
This play was Mirror Teeth at the Finborough Theatre in 2011, which Nick “wrote over a weekend when my girlfriend at the time went away”. He sent to four people he trusted including the actor Leander Deeny, who is now married to the director Kate Wasserberg. Wasserberg had been an associate at the Finborough and decided she wanted to direct it. Nick describes the play as “one of the weirder things they might have wanted to put on” but also “one of the most accessible things I’ve written”.
Reflecting on his non-meteoric rise, he smiles and says: “I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit actually and I think it’s this: I didn’t really want to be a writer because it involves meetings and pitches and compromises. The great joy of having a job that you like is that you don’t need to make compromises the whole time. If it’s not right you can just say no because you’re not relying on writing to pay the bills.”
fiji land, about to open at Southwark Playhouse after a short run at the Burton Taylor Studio in Oxford, was actually written before Mirror Teeth. It was a winner of an Amnesty International ‘Save The Human’ Award in 2007 and had a reading at Soho Theatre at the time. The play features three men in a camp who receive instructions from an outside force. It soon emerges that they are guarding “them” and there’s a low lying current of violence that is always ready to explode. Though Nick wrote a new draft in the lead up to this production, it’s a long time since he did the original research. The issue of torture and extraordinary rendition may not be something that public opinion was wildly shifted over however.
“The trouble with writing a play is that you’re going to get a more or less leftwing audience. I mean I’m not sure what a rightwing play about torture would be. Maybe 24 or Homeland or something like that. So I don’t think the audience are going to be that far off my position in their own beliefs. What I was interested in though was this idea that, when it comes to something like this, certain things are okay and certain things are not and we have rules and regulations specifically about that. That’s inherently absurd. It leads to the question of what kind of society do we become when we start condoning torture. What kind of society condones torture? It’s that Nietzsche quote: “if you look into the abyss, the abyss looks into you”.
Going back to the question of the leftwing audience, I wonder if there’s ever been a play that has changed Nick’s mind about something. “No, I don’t think so. I mean you can’t change someone’s mind by arguing with them anyway, really, can you? They may concede that you have a point but that’s as far as it’ll go. I don’t think anyone’s going to disagree that torture’s bad but I wanted to explore how how we are connected to these processes, how they are done “for” us. I know that’s not some great original insight but it’s still important and I really wrote it to remind myself of that.”
Has he ever changed his mind about anything? “Not in a instantaneous sort of way. I think changing your mind about something is a cumulative thing. I mean, I didn’t sit down one day and suddenly decide that naturalistic theatre didn’t do it for me. If I really wanted to change people’s mind about something, theatre wouldn’t be the best way to do it anyway. I mean, in terms of cost-effectiveness, it’s not the best way to raise awareness. You could print loads of flyers, run a big social media campaign for the price of a single theatre production. Really, I write things because I want to.”
I think back to the workshop, the terrifying, fascinating machinery. Since he knows so much about typefaces, does he think about how his writing’s going to look on the page as well as how it will sound when it’s spoken: “Yes definitely. There’s this brilliant book by Douglas Hofstadter called Le Ton Beau de Marot. It’s all about translation and artificial intelligence. It’s about translating concepts mostly but he also touches on the translation of written into the performed. I think that how it looks affects how it sounds. For this play, I’ve chosen the Joanna typeface because it’s such a delicate font and I wanted something to balance the brutality of the situation.”
Nick’s also a talented musician (the bands The Monroe Transfer and Fireworks Night). Is the script on the page a little like the vinyl you go and buy from the shop. It’s a beautiful object; it has a weight to it, a physicality. “Yes and it’s been through some many processes to get there in a similar way. So, for example, you could say that the layout on the page is a bit like the mixing that went into making the record. Eventually though someone has to put the needle on the record.”
Main image: fiji land in rehearsals.