Samantha Ellis and I met at school when we were 11: both children of immigrant parents – mine Greek Cypriot, her’s Iraqi Jews – we bonded over common stories of overprotective and patriarchal attitudes, deep-rooted superstition and dreams other than our cultures allowed. We went on to university together, where Samantha discovered a passion for theatre and I indulged my love of painting making sets for her plays. We had been friends for 10 years already when she changed my life. I had graduated with no sense of direction: I didn’t want to work for my parents (nor did she want to go into her family’s business), I no longer felt confident that I could be a music journalist (nor did she think any more that she would be a poet), I was maundering in uncertainty, so she sent me to the National Student Drama Festival, just to see what might happen. I spent a week writing about theatre, won a criticism prize, and that was that: fate sealed.
In the years since, we’ve worked together at the Evening Standard (where her patient crafting of sentences made me think of sculptors shaping clay), moved on together to the Guardian (I still cherish her column, Curtain Up), struggled to climb career ladders of which most of the rungs are missing, and continued a conversation about theatre, cultural expectations, feminism, disability and more that nourishes and challenges me in equal measure.
Her new play, Operation Magic Carpet, is Samantha’s first full-length to be staged in a few years. In the interim she’s written a feminist-lit-crit-
MC: When we first became friends our cultures were important to us and were what bound us together, but we’ve always had complex relationships with them. The complexity of mine has partly been to do with not knowing that country, then going to that country and hating it, then my parents returning there and hating it –
SE: But all the while loving the food.
MC: Yes! But at the same time, especially in the context of conversations happening around diversity and privilege, knowing that I tick the “White (Other)” box –
SE: Is that what box you use? Sometimes I just do “Other”. I think we are both white (other) but sometimes you have to busk it.
MC: It depends what’s offered. But I really like being from somewhere else, and having that immigrant perspective: it’s a white immigrant perspective, but it’s not the same white immigrant perspective as someone from France or someone from Denmark.
SE: We both come from quite traditional families that have quite specific expectations on women, that’s something we talked about a lot at school and it’s definitely affected our work. We’ve both not done the things we were expected to do exactly, or not in the way we were, and that’s something we keep talking about as we continue not doing these things. I agree, I find it really useful: theatre’s all about every audience member having their own show, there isn’t a universal perspective, so any way your perspective can be, not fractured, what’s the word, confused, is good I think.
I know it’s a fraught area but I feel like theatre is becoming more diverse in the way it deals with gender and disability as well as with ethnicity. I think it’s a good time to have a little bit of outside perspective. I think when I started writing, all the characters were white and middle-class, I don’t know if I even specified. That’s not the case in my plays now: there are more likely to be characters who are different, or outsiders is a better word.
One of the things I’ve realised is the more specific you are, the more universal it is: if you try and take out all the specifics, it becomes meaningless. When I did my play Cling To Me Like Ivy with Birmingham Rep, it did a tour to village halls and churches for a few weeks, and someone came up to a cast member one night and said: ‘I’ve never met a Jew before but you’re just like us!’ That’s almost in a nutshell what you want: that’s not what you do theatre for but it’s something about empathising and connecting to other people’s experience.
Part of what’s really lovely about theatre is that imaginative complicity with the audience. You can’t sit back and watch and think, these people are not like me: you have to join in with whatever’s on stage, you’re being asked to and you have to. That means that you have to empathise, and theatre is better at empathy than many other art forms, creating empathy and creating links between people. Do you find that outsider perspective useful as a critic?
MC: I think so. I certainly bring it to bear on lots of things, although I’m not sure I know how consciously I’m doing that. I feel quite alienated from something that feels like it’s speaking to a white middle-class perspective sometimes. Also I think there’s an othering I’m trying to do with theatre criticism: I’m not whatever the stereotype is of a white middle-class person, so why would I write into those stereotypes of what a review is considered to be?
SE: It’s very exciting, because who decides what is good? The more critics there are, the more destabilised – in a good way – that is. But I think theatre’s good at that anyway: every audience member has their own show, but also, all the characters on stage – even in a monologue this happens – have a different point of view and a different take on the story. So you end up with many perspectives anyway: everyone’s othered by someone.
MC: I want to think about that invitation to join in: it feels like there’s been a parting of the ways between us. Our tastes were pretty similar for years, but then I had that overdose period of seeing too much, which looking back I describe as seeing a lot of theatre that wasn’t truthful, finding acting dishonest. Coming out of that I’ve seen a lot more work that identifies as live art or performance art or presents itself as interactive in some way, and the more of that I see inevitably the less fourth-wall I see. It means that when I’m in a fourth-wall situation I’m having to do a lot of work with myself to say: this can be as truthful, this can be as specific. Whereas you’re very committed to fourth-wall theatre and have an active preference for that.
SE: I do like fourth-wall theatre – although I break the fourth-wall in Operation Magic Carpet slightly, with a bit of direct address. The lead is a young girl who is growing up in an Iraqi family, like my family: they all speak Arabic over her head, as my family did, and so she speaks to the audience a bit – I had my brother to talk to, but if I hadn’t, I probably would have talked to an audience. I wanted to have lots of Arabic in the play but I didn’t want it to be forbidding. It turns out very early on that she speaks Arabic, she’s taught it to herself by listening to them, which I did as well, you pick it up. She says to the audience: ‘They don’t know but I understand, do you understand too?’ And she clicks her fingers and the characters start speaking in English – which means we don’t have to have lots of faffy translation, which has always been an issue before.
I think I’ve gone to loads more non-fourth-wall theatre because of you, and we’ve gone to lots of great things together: She She Pop’s Testament was amazing and heartbreaking and very interesting being the daughter of refugees, because that story was within it. For me I’m more interested in breaking new ground with content than with form: I’m trying to tell stories that aren’t always told. I’ve written a lot about Orthodox Jews because I don’t see them represented; I don’t see disability represented as much as I’d like so I’ve written a lot about that. Also, in my play about Orthodox Jews, I didn’t want to have a character who was the white person that everyone explained everything to. I did have two characters in that play who weren’t Orthodox Jews, but one was a second-generation immigrant from India who was a Hindu woman training to be a doctor, so she had her own stuff which became very relevant, and the other one was an eco-anarchist tree sitter, so although he was technically the white person, his narrative was very important to the play. He wasn’t sitting there going: ‘What are you doing, you seem to have two sinks there, explain it to me.’ I didn’t want that sense of foreignness to be replicated on the stage: we feel that all the time anyway.
Since the 90s, and particularly since 2003, I’ve seen lots and lots of plays about Iraq, but apart from Hassan Abdulrazzak’s Baghdad Wedding – which was great – I haven’t seen much about Iraqi families, Iraqi exiles, the Iraqi diaspora, which is huge now.
MC: It’s primarily been war?
SE: Yes, which I am very interested in, and I’ve written a play about Gertrude Bell, which I would love to see on. But I’m also interested in… Operation Magic Carpet is a play about a girl whose dream is to go to Baghdad. I did a workshop with some kids about it – the kids weren’t Iraqi or Middle Eastern – and asked them: what are your associations with Iraq? They said bombs. Then I asked about their associations with the Thousand and One Nights, and they came up with fabulous stuff like perfume in carpets, magic and flying. Then I said: do you realise those stories are set in Iraq and were probably written in Iraq? And they didn’t. When I was little, Iraq was a dream land that I was desperate to go to, even though my parents had had a terrible experience there. I’ve had so many dreams, recurring dreams about Iraq, some of them really horrible but some of them amazing, based on my parents stories, ever since I was a child, and I still have those. I hope to go at some point but I’m never going to live there.
MC: I feel quite protective about you going to Iraq, although it’s nothing to do with the obvious thing. My first trip to Cyprus, when I was 19, my dad took us to find the village where he lived for the three years after his parents had moved to the UK. We got lost in the mountains and drove through a ghost village: it had formerly been a Turkish village. I carry that ghost village kind of like a scar because it was so intensely disturbing, and I sort of want to protect you from that, but it sounds like the nightmares are giving you that anyway.
SE: It will be like that because the Jewish community in Iraq is gone, supposedly there’s only five Jews in the whole of Iraq, from having been hundreds of thousands of us. My family had loads of non-Jewish friends but you do feel like you’re not going back to anything you would know at all.
MC: That “back” is really interesting because it’s sort of in brackets.
SE: Absolutely, I always say that and then I have to correct myself. But there’s a sense when you are second generation, it’s not yours but you have to claim it a bit. I think we both started cooking the food about the same time, I remember you suddenly cooking much better, cooking more your mum’s stuff and your aunties’ stuff, and I suddenly started really cooking the food, getting the recipes from my mum. The food was great because it was like feeling with your hands something that was yours, something very physical. And then a lot of the writing about Iraq is about claiming it a bit, saying ‘this is mine’, because of course it’s not mine, it’s my parents.
The characters in the play say what my dad always used to say: ‘You’re lucky to be born in this country with its moderate climate, moderate people and moderate politics.’ Which is absolutely right, we are, and I’m glad that they came here, but at the same time – we’ve used this as the marketing line for the play, but I really believe this – you have to know where you’ve come from to know where you’re going, and you have to claim that if you’re second generation. So the play is partly about a girl who’s second generation, claiming Iraq. She gets to eat the famous buffalo milk cream from Baghdad with the famous date syrup from Basra, and sees shooting stars the minute she gets there. I wanted to fulfil some dreams because she’s claiming it. Some bad things happen because the history is dark, the legacy is dark; her parents, like lots of my family, have been in prison and had to leave in a difficult way, but she claims that too. I think that’s something that is common – that’s what we’ve both got in common.
MC: This goes back to the question of how otherness feeds into criticism for me: I’ve suddenly remembered that Cyprus is a former British colony and it’s had a massive effect on me politically, which I’m bringing to bear on theatre.
SE: That’s really interesting. I was quite upset by a lot of the characterisation of Iraq and Iraqis in theatre from people who didn’t know or understand or bother to do the research, often coming from a good place but just getting it wrong. There were things that were being misinterpreted for political reasons that I was upset about so I wanted to tell that story.
MC: I’m really cross that the Gertrude Bell play hasn’t been staged. Can we talk about the fraught time you’ve had with theatre in the past few years?
SE: I think it’s very hard to get anything on at the moment: most playwrights I know have more plays in the drawer than previously. I don’t know in my case if those plays are bad, maybe they are. When the chance came to write a book I thought I would take that because sometimes those weird left turns are quite fruitful, and actually writing a book about heroines made me think about character in a really different way and has been really, really important. This play has a child heroine, I wanted her to be bold and curious and have agency; the stories she’s been told, family stories and from the Thousand and One Nights, have given her the kit, the skills that she needs to be heroic and to solve problems and to fix things for other people and for herself and to win through.
And then with Agent 160, our launch plays and Fun Palace was women playwrights who can write about anything, which I think is totally valid – but because I’d been thinking about heroines and because I’d been thinking about Equity’s campaign for roles for women, which I’m hugely in support of, and about representation, I started thinking it wasn’t enough just to have women playwrights writing about whatever we wanted: maybe we should make a statement and write roles for women.
What I’m trying to say is I took a year and a half out to write a book and that was useful for theatre. It’s a good thing to go away into the world and come back again. When I started doing readings for the book, an actor told me I’d essentially written a dramatic monologue. I’m doing another book, but I love theatre and have plays I want to write – I like it for that multi-perspective. But it is a tough time: theatres are more risk averse in their programming, there’s less money, the arts cuts have been brutal, and I think it’s generally acknowledged now it affected new writing disproportionately. It’s difficult to be mid-career, which I think I probably am. I think I am sometimes writing about characters who are other or outsiders and maybe people don’t connect to that very well. I’m not writing relationship comedies about twenty-something middle-class white people any more, or if I am they’re both Jewish and one of them is possessed by a dybbuk.
I’d like to see more writers running theatres – I think the Stephen Joseph is the only theatre run by a playwright. And I would love to ban the phrase: ‘We’ll put your play on for you.’ If I write a play and a theatre wants to put that on I’m very pleased, but they’re not doing me a favour: I’ve got a product which I’m selling to them and they’re selling the finished product to an audience. I find this idea that you’re helping out a playwright depressing: I’m constantly seeing it with competitions and opportunities, and often that comes when there isn’t the proper funding.
MC: Have you had it with self-producing?
SE: I did it in my 20s and with Agent 160 we’ve done two shows; I don’t know what we’ll do in the future. I enjoyed it, but it’s hard. Writer-led theatre is very interesting: finding collaborators who were up for that took a little bit of doing. A lot of people don’t like the idea of writer-led theatre and think it means that there’ll be no freedom in the rehearsal room. As a playwright in the rehearsal room I’m definitely collaborating: it’s not just a bunch of people realising my vision. Ages ago, an actor told me that you have to give the play to the director and the director has to give it to the actors and the actors have to give it to the audience, and if any of those moments of exchange are not done open-heartedly and carefully then you can tell. I think you can tell when people are holding on to something.
MC: I interviewed Conor McPherson a few years ago and asked him whether he started directing his own plays because he’s a control freak. He said no: it’s because even when he could see a bit of text didn’t work, a director would always be trying to do what’s on the page.
SE: Sometimes it is a bit of a tussle, you’re in rehearsal and when there’s a question everyone’s looking at you, but then there’s a bit where you kind of have to go: you work this out, it’s up to you. In rehearsal the other day, someone came up with an interpretation of the play that was completely wild, I’m still not sure if I agree with it or what I think about it but it’s been tugging at me all week in a really exciting way. The director, Rosamunde Hutt, said, ‘that’s what happens when you write mythic plays’, and I thought: ooh, have I done that?
MC: It makes sense that it’s a mythic play because it’s constructed on what is essentially a mythology: everything about your parents’ experience of escaping Iraq is true but it communicates as myth.
SE: All of our stories, not just refugee stories, but your parents’ stories are your fairy tales when you’re little.
MC: Leila [my daughter] is constantly asking me why her dad and I married, she’s trying to construct –
SE: – where she’s come from so she knows where she’s going. That’s a brilliant question that she’s asking.
MC: I’m pretty sure I answer it differently every time.
SE: Then she’s rewriting, that’s lovely. Anyone’s parents stories are myths, then you claim it and write it and write your way out of it. I keep thinking about the TS Eliot line about shoring my fragments against my ruins: you’re constantly trying to build something out of whatever you’ve got. I think theatre’s really good at that because it’s about improvisation and things turning into other things and belief and what you can do with belief and shreds and patches, all sorts of things. It’s really good at myth-making and myth-rewriting and writing your own story.
Operation Magic Carpet is at the Polka Theatre, London, from 3rd April – 24th May 2015