Victoria Rudland: You’ve gained remarkable success in a relatively short space of time, and your path has seemed sure. Was becoming a playwright always the plan?
Nick Payne: Well, when I was younger, I never went to the theatre at all; I knew virtually nothing about it. Then I did Drama at A Level, for which you had to do a little bit of writing, and in a slightly bland, obvious kind of way, I really enjoyed writing something original. And then when I went to university at York, they had an amazing library there, with really contemporary stuff as well as old stuff – Greek, Classical, Restoration, Elizabethan – stuff I’d never read or even heard of. I’m not really that academic and I was slightly terrified when I got there because everyone was… quite clever! [laughs] I just thought, “Shit, I don’t know how I’m going to manage this.” Basically, for a year, I did nothing. I sort of got there and just did the work I had to do, went out a lot and had fun. Then, in the second year, I got into what was called Drama Soc[iety] and I put on two plays, which I directed – I use the word really loosely – myself.
And after university?
After uni, I moved to London and I just sent plays out. I suppose the first big thing was that I got an agent, and he sent If There Is [I Haven’t Found It Yet] to the Bush. They liked it, but they weren’t sure they had the money to do it because they’d already programmed the season. So they optioned it and got the rights to it for a year, with a view to try to raise some cash. And then it won the George Devine Award. I had no idea about it. I mean, I knew about the award, but I didn’t realise my agent had sent it in. I got a call from Harriet Devine at about eight in the morning when I was asleep, and I just said, “Is this a joke?” So when it won this award, it made raising the money to stage If There Is a bit easier.
What was the inspiration behind If There Is?
I was interested in – it’s now a bit of a cliché – climate change. I’m pretty scared shitless about it. I read a load of books on it, which were always dedicated to the families of the authors, and I just found that quite moving. So I emailed one of the writers and said, “I’d love to know a bit about your working day because I’m writing a play about someone who’s trying to write a book about climate change and totally neglects his family because he becomes so consumed by it.” I think I had all sorts of lofty ideas… The young girl in If There Is is neglected by her parents – not in an overtly abusive, detrimental way; hopefully in a much quieter, subtler way – and I suppose the idea was that, in effect, Anna was a kind of metaphor for what is happening to the planet.
And what about Wanderlust? You seem to have these recurring themes of sexual awakening and dysfunctional families…
Yeah, I know, it’s funny isn’t it? It probably tells you a lot about me. I was interested in the commodification of sex, really. I think the way we think about sex and about eroticism is pretty much just driven by the male gaze. There’s all these adverts and posters with scantily clad women all over the place, which I think, in a way, legitimises a real sort of sexual hunger, but at the same time, I feel like we’re, curiously, still a bit prudish about sex. The character of Joy in Wanderlust: for me, it was never that she doesn’t want to have sex. She does want to have sex, she just wants to have it within parameters that she’s able to set; she doesn’t want her husband kind of encroaching or just forcing himself. And again, I don’t think it’s an overtly destructive relationship. I’m always trying to make it seem fairly everyday. I think that these are the kind of quiet squabbles that are going on in bedrooms across England!