An Evening With David Hare
I didn't want to make theatre. I wanted to overthrow capitalism.
Good theatre holds a mirror up to society, forcing audiences to shine a light on the darkest corners and recesses of society. In these tumultuous times, it’s easy to wonder where is our world headed, and how we might navigate the new obstacles that arise when we get there?
Fortunately, British playwright David Hare, is no stranger to pondering these mind bending questions. During his illustrious career he has written over 30 plays often examining the machinations of British politics and institutions, and its these plays that have seen him named, “the premier political dramatist writing in English” by The Washington Post.
So how has writing shaped David Hare’s vision for where society is headed? And how might creativity unlock a way to adapt to what the future holds? In discussion with theatre producer Jo Dyer, David Hare speaks about his remarkable career as a playwright, and his creative plans for the future.
UNSW Centre for Ideas: Welcome to the UNSW Centre for Ideas podcast – a place to hear ideas from the world's leading thinkers and UNSW Sydney's brightest minds. The conversation you are about to hear, An Evening with David Hare, features playwright and author David Hare and writer, curator and producer, Jo Dyer and was recorded live. We hope you enjoy the conversation.
Jo Dyer: Good evening, ladies, gentlemen, others, friends. Welcome here to the University of New South Wales and Centre for Ideas. My name is Jo Dyer and I'm fortunate to be sitting in the hosts’ chair tonight. I am a former Director of Adelaide Writers’ Week and CEO of Sydney Writers’ Festival and perhaps, most pertinently for tonight's conversation, I am a producer of theatre and film and was a longtime Executive Producer at Sydney Theatre Company when we both presented and produced a number of tonight's guests works.
Before we go on, I would like to acknowledge the Bidjigal people who are the traditional custodians of this land and pay my respects to elders past and present and extend that respect to any Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who are here tonight. David Hare is one of Britain's most eminent, accomplished, and celebrated playwrights and screenwriters. The author of such plays as Amy's View, The Judas Kiss, Stuff Happens and Plenty, which proved a worthy vehicle for Cate Blanchett’s London theatrical debut and which he also adapted into a film starring Meryl Streep. David was nominated for Academy Awards for his screenplay for The Hours, for which our Nic won her Oscar, and The Reader, for which Kate Winslet won her’s. And his work has also been nominated for multiple Tony and Golden Globe awards and won numerous Oliviers and BAFTAs.
Here in Sydney, we have been fortunate to see fine productions of many of David’s plays, notably under the directorship of Neil Armfield including a wonderful production of the Judas’ Kiss starring the inimitable Billy Brown as Oscar Wilde. A production that Neil and David revived to great acclaim on The West End, starring Rupert Everett and some directed by his longtime collaborator, Max Stafford-Clark, including out of joint co-production with the UK National Theatre (The Permanent Way), and Sydney Theatre Company’s production of The Breath of Life, starring Robin Nevin and Noni Hazlehurst. Please join me in welcoming David Hare.
So, David, let's get started. Firstly, I thought we might just chat a little bit about writing itself. Your favourite first play was born somewhat serendipitously – as it turned out when you had to fill in the gap in your theatre company's schedule when someone else had failed to deliver a play and that ultimately led to your revelation that after an early life where it had been a drawback, to see things differently.
In playwriting, you had stumbled upon a profession where it was an asset, that didn't mean it was easy, your most important discovery about playwriting was that you had no control. “You can make all the plans you'd like”, you said, “but ultimately, you are at the mercy of your imagination. The page either fills or it doesn't”. Has writing maintained its essential mystery for you over the years?
David Hare: Yes. It’s mysterious what subject you choose and what subject suits you. When I’ve been asked for instance, when I wrote about the Chinese Revolution, which I thoroughly enjoyed writing about. Immediately, somebody came to me and said, “Oh, you’re very good at writing about revolutions. Can you do the Russian Revolution for me?” and similarly, when I went to the Middle East and wrote Via Dolorosa about Israel and Palestine, from a personal point of view where I, myself presented it and acted in it – to be a sort of ‘one person view’ of how the situation was then. Somebody immediately said, “Can you now go to Northern Ireland?”, and it's very hard to explain to – particularly if you're a political playwright – it's
very, very hard to explain that for you, subject matter is mysterious as it is for a painter. There is no apparent reason why Francis Bacon paints Popes.
There are critics who say ‘”well, he chooses to paint Popes because he's talking about authority, or he's talking about the role of hierarchy or he's talking about men or he's talking about this”, But really, I don't think Francis Bacon knows why he likes painting Popes, except he likes painting Popes – that's his subject matter. And that affinity between subject matter and artists just as you say, something is photogenic. And that's mysterious. Things are ‘dramagenic’ and you have a mysterious pull to those subjects, which you can't really explain. But all you know is your imagination is fired up. But unfortunately, your imagination is something that has nothing to do with you. It's a person that you contain, within your head, who's up to all sorts of things that don't seem necessarily to be the things that you thought you were interested in.
Jo Dyer: Initially, when you got involved in the theatre, you said your desire was to use it for political ends, and at the start, for no other end. Even if given your imaginations, autonomy, sometimes conceptions weren't quite realised, you wrote that what you really hated in theatre was a sort of playpen or kindergarten for the psychiatrist. Can you describe the distinction between this playpen because I think we've all seen a lot of that theatre in our time, and the type of theatre that you wanted to make as an idealistic young artist?
David Hare: Yeah, I didn't really want to make theatre. I wanted to overthrow capitalism. I mean, that was the plan. But it came to grief. At the end of the 1970s, for my generation, obviously not for yours. But for my generation, it came to grief at the end of the 1970s, when the world which was meant to turn leftwards, turned rightwards. And it turned rightwards, essentially because capitalism found within itself means of regeneration. And Reagan and Thatcher together devised schemes for deregulating and kicking up the engine again, and you know firing up inequality on a level that was sort of unimaginable beforehand, which got the whole casino culture going again. But you have to remember in the 1970s, that isn't how the world looked. So, by the time I left university, all I wanted to do was form a travelling theatre company in which we'd go and present short, brutal, nasty little plays to upset as many people as possible – who were people who hadn't by and large, not seen plays. So, the idea was there was a theatrical aim, which was that you could get a new audience only by going to new places.
Jo Dyer: Yes.
David Hare: So we went to prisons, we went to army camps, we went to schools, we went to university canteen floors, we would come and do the play in your home, if you invited us – we'd come around, and you could have your friends around, and we'd perform for you. And the aim was to do things in places where they weren't expected.
Jo Dyer: And did you match the content of the plays that you were presenting in these different contexts?
David Hare: Ludicrously highbrow, right? We'd present Kafka’s Diaries in you know, industrial towns, where people had never heard of Kafka. And then we began to present much more potent political plays. But we still blew into town and upset people and left basically, that was touring theatre in those days. But there was a limit and we tried to crash the problem of aesthetics. And what I mean by that was we did the plays as simply as possible – you turn the lights on, I worked the tape recorder and by just putting things down, we would have done a play here quite happily in that space there. Our concern was that the interest in theatre was primarily aesthetic.
There's primarily a public that goes to see Hamlet, and they don't go to Hamlet in order to consider whether they should kill themselves or not. They go to Hamlet to decide whether this Hamlet was better than last week's Hamlet. And not as good as this. ”Oh, but he took that speech quite differently”. And, you know, those people are the people – I call the matchbox collectors. They're the people who see theatre, as other people see sports – It’s something they collect, and it’s culture they're collecting. The profound questions that Shakespeare asks in that play, are not questions they consider. Whereas, when the play was presented in Eastern Europe, before the fall of the wall, it was more or less the most subversive thing that somebody could do if they put on a production of Hamlet. Everybody knew what they were doing. They were talking about killing your father. And nobody in the audience mistook what that was about – that was about killing your father. And it meant a lot to the audience in Eastern Europe.
Jo Dyer: And you had a similar experience, I think when you went to Israel, and we'll come to Via Dolorosa because I think that's very pertinent for this time as well. But to that point, where they put on a Romeo and Juliet, didn't they…
David Hare: They put on a version between the Israelis and the Palestinians to create a version of Romeo and Juliet with the Palestinians playing the Capulets and the Israelis playing the Montagues and as you can imagine, it was quite a highly charged production.
What was wonderful was that when I said to people, “How was it?”, the Palestinians said to me, “We were far, far better than the Israelis”. It became a point of competition. But my point was that, you know, the theatre attracts those people – how do you get people actually to address the subject matter of a play? And at the beginning, I thought the only way to do it is just to crash aesthetics, do things as badly or crudely as possible, so that no one can compare it with the other productions of the same thing. It'll be totally unlike them because it won't have any aesthetic values at all. It simply crashes them. And I've seen theatre groups who try to do that. But ultimately, you get drawn into questions of how to do things well. And that unfortunately, sort of drives you crazy. You start going, I'd like to do this better. And once you get on to the question of how to do art better, that all too easily becomes the only thing you think about.
Jo Dyer: I mean, there is a tendency that I think we’ve seen here in Sydney. You’ve certainly seen in London, where there’s a lot of technology which is introduced into theatre. It becomes what we saw here, The Picture of Dorian Grey. Ivo van Hove, who’s got a production in Adelaide that you may well see when you go there.
Little Life, which is a good theatre but technologically-driven and reliant on big budgets and sets. And I think there is a sense that, as you put it – I think raw theatre with fine details that you lose some of what it is, that makes theatre so special and so potent when you dress it up in these ways.
David Hare: Look, I was drawn into theatre by the idea that the individual voice was incredibly valuable, and that there were people who existed and these people tended to be writers – they didn't have to be writers. There are also people of my generation, people like Joan Littlewood, or Peter Brook who were also hugely inventive people who used writers in order to express what they wanted to express. But the whole idea was not that you were meant to express what everybody was feeling already, but you were sort of meant to be out in front and expressing something which had not yet been expressed. And almost by definition, that can only be done by the individual. If you have group-created theatre, the danger is that it only expresses the common wisdom, it only expresses what we have already, what we can already agree among ourselves is the thing and there is always a danger in group-created theatre, that it will simply be the opinion of the most reactionary member of the group. Whereas the person who really feels something that nobody else feels, is in my view – out ahead. And it takes time for people to catch up with them. And there was something, my first agent Peggy Ramsay – a very famous agent, always said that “the new is very ugly”. And the first response to the new is to say, “oh, my God, that’s ugly”. And that's what people said, when they first heard Samuel Beckett, when they first saw Waiting for Godot, they said, “oh, my God, that play is ugly”.
Now to us, of course, it seems absolutely standard, we know it terribly well. Picasso plainly, because when Picasso first painted, everybody went, “oh, my God, that's ugly”. And that was the first response. And so, the people who to me have always been important in the theatre – and let the theatre thrive in a thousand different ways – it doesn’t concern me, but the thing I always wanted were the people who were out ahead a bit, doing something and thinking something, and having ideas that nobody else yet had. So, post-modernism is a bore to me, it's just a massive bore, because it's commentary on ideas that already exist. That's boring.
Jo Dyer: I think early in your career, you've commented that you were more concerned than you are now about the state of the theatre, and what the theatre was doing more generally, and that some of the subject matter of the plays that you chose were because you thought the theatre should be commenting on these things like your Grand Irish play, which was I think, also England's Ireland. You sought to replicate in the creation of the works, the kind of the communist ideal that you were still striving for back then. Yeah, and I think it's clear that you've moved on from some of those structural ideas about artmaking generally.
David Hare: Well, I tried group writing. That's something. I mean, it thrives in America. Clearly, you know, the best drama and great, great drama – it comes out of American television that is group written in a writers’ room, but you almost always will find that one person is absolutely driving it. You know; however, many people wrote The Sopranos, there is one person – I think is called David Chase. And David Chase is the person who's got the vision, and he's pushing it through. And he's like a horse pulling 12 ponies behind him, who are the other writers? But David Chase is the creator. And anyone who's ever worked with David Chase will say it's created by David Chase. And that's how that very, very great series is, is. But I could never go back to group writing. Because I no longer believe you can, will plays into existence on subjects that you think ought to be covered, and that the theatre ought to be covering. And anything that's created out of a sense of duty, is going to be boring, and it's unlikely to fire your imagination.
Jo Dyer: We're in a world talking of people like David Chase, where there just seems to be more stories than ever that are being told. And I think fundamentally, you've described the defining mark of a modern civilisation as the producing of more stories. So why do we do it? Like why do we fabulate? You said, it's not just because we’re bored now, we don't have to till the field. How is it that a higher truth can be reached through the stratagem of invention? And what relationship do you think the invented should have to the true?
David Hare: Oh, my goodness me? How do I begin to answer a few short paragraphs? Well, clearly, there is a huge proliferation of stories that kept everybody occupied during lockdown. And by which everybody is now thoroughly bored. And you can see that everybody watched television during that period. And there were some great, you know, it seems there was a golden period of television about 10 years ago. And it doesn't feel like a very golden period. If you turn on some of the television now, it feels like the excitement of that. But that surely was the discovery of a new form. And so, there are a lot of incredibly talented people discovering what long form television was about.
But if you ask the question – why make stories at all? I would have thought that proliferation of stories is to do with what I've referred to as the speeding up of history. And so, you know, I've written a book in which I say in an essay, that whatever plans I had for the 21st century, were quickly laid by so many things happening so fast, principally, obviously – 9/11, the invasion of Iraq, a massive financial crash, and we've just had a COVID, you know, a pandemic, or global pandemic. And these things, all of which I found myself writing about, all of which I've been drawn to write about. And it's as if we, the fabulators are running along, behind all the time trying to make sense of how fast the world is changing in ways which we hadn't anticipated. That's what it that's what it feels like. And my instinct is always to say, I'm feeling this. And is there anyone else out there? Who's feeling what I'm feeling? And that is essentially a question to the audience.
And when you write a successful play, then you can see the light in the audience because the audience goes, “oh, thank God, I'm not the only person who was feeling this”. Here's a person who's articulating exactly what I'm feeling. And when you write an unsuccessful play, you can see the audience thinking, “I don't haven't got the slightest idea what this person is talking about”. And believe me, I've written some unsuccessful plays, where you just in the audience have this feeling of… “I know, he's talking about something which feels incredibly important to him. But I have absolutely no idea why he thinks this is so important”. So, everything you write is a speculation. I hope there are people out there to whom this matters, as much as it matters to me.
Jo Dyer: And what do you think it is that the theatre can uniquely do and how it can tell its stories? Because I know there's lots of reasons why we all love the theatre.
David Hare: And what are they? You tell me.
Jo Dyer: Well, for me, it is the real time, real space experience that we all share together. You don't know what you said. I will say what you've said because I think it's very funny and it did very much relate to me. It resonated with me is that you never know at 7.30pm, how you're going to feel at 10.15pm. Because as we all know, and you've articulated as well, there is nothing as bad as a bad night in the theatre. Really, and when you know early and you've got those hours stretching out in front of you, and particularly if you work in a theatre, and you can't leave, because the actors will know and they'll see your empty seat. Like, there's nothing as bad as bad theatre. But then there's nothing as enlivening, I think, has great theatre. And what do you think it is, that the magic..?
David Hare: There’s a wonderful thing that Philip Larkin says, where he says, you know, “the great discovery of my life was that you can leave a play”.
Jo Dyer: Well, our casting director, who I think you would probably know, now, as a casting director in the industry – you can't leave a play but she would, develop these extraordinary coughing fits, where the only polite thing to do is to leave the play.
David Hare: I for me, and I recently had to work out what the best… I just wanted to make a list.
I mean, look, we're living in the 21st century. I don't know how it is in Australia, I haven't got the slightest idea. It is hard not to feel that theatre is drifting off slightly to the side of society. It doesn't have the centrality that it had when I was young. By centrality I mean, the existence of plays, of which people who do not work in the theatre have heard. So, in other words, there was a play when I was young called Waiting for Godot. Everyone, you know, everyone throughout society had heard of this play called Waiting for Godot, everyone throughout society have heard of Look Back in Anger, everyone throughout society had heard of Harold Pinter. They knew what the words Harold Pinter meant. Now, there hasn't been in England, at least a play – Angels in America might be the last play that actually resonated out beyond the walls of the fortified culture of theatre and out into society at large. And I suspect it's not a coincidence that such a play has not been written for some time. So those of us who work in the theatre can feel the drift.
Some newspapers, for instance, have abandoned having theatre critics. The New Statesman, which is the principal left wing, serious liberal magazine in London, England now doesn't have a theatre critic, doesn't bother covering the theatre, no longer regards it as something that you culturally have to cover. It has a television critic, it has a film critic, and most of all, it has a visual arts critic, and the visual arts critic, by and large, is given the largest space, long articles about the visual arts, nothing at all about the theatre. And so, you sense it's drifting off, because it seems harder and harder to persuade people to believe that there are still people out ahead in the way that I'm talking about. There are people who have thoughts they can contribute, which are new in the way that Ibsen or Chekhov had thoughts about the societies in which they are living, which are new.
I also believe that great playwrights by and large came out of great theatre cultures. So, Shakespeare clearly came out of a great theatre culture, Moliere came out of what was already a great theatre culture. Ibsen came out of a great theatre culture. So did Chekhov. Brecht. Eugene O'Neill is almost the only great playwright who had to create the culture himself. There was no serious American theatre. If you had said beforehand, there's going to be this great American playwright and he's going to turn contemporary American stories into Greek myths. The American theatre would have said good luck, you know, they really would not have given him a chance and it killed him. You know, it literally killed him. The endeavour to create a serious American theatre, and all American playwrights are indebted to him for what he did. But by and large, a great theatre culture creates great playwrights. I just don't see theatre having that central role anymore in the way that television clearly does. And music clearly does. You know, music is very, very important in a way that it wasn't as important when I was young.
Jo Dyer: Do you think part of that is theatre’s fault? Or is that just yeah… I mean, because you've said before, that, you know, the quality…
David Hare: It’s theatre’s fault. I think we the playwrights, are not trusted. And I think there has been a tremendous move to you know… Somebody said to me about the Royal Court Theatre. The Royal Court Theatre – which was the crucible of new plays and produced for a long period the most significant playwrights at the time. And somebody said to me at The Royal Court Theatre, “oh, it's great. We don't have to do plays anymore”. We just issue a statement about racism. We just issue a statement about the environment. We just issue a statement about MeToo. We just issue a statement about what we were feeling and that way, we don't have to do any boring plays. We just issue our feelings about what we're thinking about at the moment, and that does the job for us. Now, of course, this person was talking satirically. But it's a joke, which isn't funny.
Jo Dyer: And do you think that's born of a timidity in our culture? Timidity about being the person out in front? Because you've talked about how the quality of the relevance of plays is often determined by who is empowered to write them. Did we not empower the right people? Are there many people still in the margins, who are waiting to have their say that theatre is kept out?
David Hare: I was involved at the beginning in all this communal stuff. And when all of us who can’t… You know, I was in a communal theatre group that closely examined the text and brought the writer to heal any minor issue, you know not being exactly, acceptable in the way they are talking about… Such and such. This was the 1970s, 80s, you know, a long time ago – 40 years ago. And we went into workshop, we went into production and the play at the end was not nearly as good as the play had been in the beginning.
And I’ve worked at The Royal Court Theatre and when Christopher Hampton first wrote his play about Rimbaud and Verlaine, which was called Total Eclipse. There was a scene that wasn't very good, and the Director went up to see the Artistic Director and said, “Do you think I should get Christopher to rewrite this scene?” to which the Artistic Director said, “No, let him see the scene fail in front of the public, and then he'll write a better scene”. And now that kind of attitude – which is we trust the writer and the writer will develop and learn by their own experience of their work being performed, not by the constant intervention of 200 people who call themselves Associate Producers and Dramaturgs. That trust. And that you will put your money down on the imagination of that person as being really important to the society. I don’t feel that trust given to many writers now in England. I know nothing about Australia, so it may be completely different here. But in England, it’s changed.
Jo Dyer: And that kind of conversation which has taken place between the playwrights and the audience on any given night. I mean, to come back to the point of what makes theatre, theatre. I mean, that really, is it? Isn’t it? I mean you describe it as the play being in the air. But it is a way – a theatre piece can never be finished or completed until you’ve had the audience response coming at you, for better or worse.
David Hare: For better or worse. You know, when I wrote Pravda which was a pre-historic Murdoch satire, the first of the genre, I believe. And Anthony Hopkins, you know, walked out onto the stage and at the first preview, Howard Brenton. And I’d written it with Howard Brenton. The two of us wrote it together. And Howard – I turned to Howard and said, ”Has it occurred to you that you and I are the only two people who may think that this play is funny”, and Howard said to me, “Well, in that case, we’re in for a very long evening”. And what was extraordinary about that play was that the minute Anthony Hopkins started, you could feel the whole audience starting to laugh. Howard turned to me and said, “Why are they laughing? He hasn't even said anything funny”, and I said, “I think we may be in that strange situation where the audience want to play”. They actually want this play and my God; they actually wanted that play. And so, ripping into Rupert Murdoch turned out to be popular in a way that I could never have possibly foretold. This was 1985 – he’d only just bought the Times of London. And so, you just found yourself sailing on this great current that you had never imagined and that was you know, one of the most exciting nights of my life. The first preview of Pravda because you just went, “oh my God, we've struck a common feeling here”. On the other hand, I’ve known the opposite. Where you just go, “the audience is never ever going to be interested in this”.
Jo Dyer: Which would make for a very long night in theatre today. And with theatre, I mean the thing that always ponders me is the disproportionality of it, in a way, like the effort that you put into theatre – the time, the money. There’s something which is wonderful about that, but there’s also something frustrating about that, that you can put so much time and effort into it in the end. Are they ever going to be enough people who take enough out of it to justify everything that we do?
David Hare: Yeah, I’d work for a year or whatever on my second play. And you know, you’ve put in all this work and then there have been all these rehearsals and you’ve been so deadly serious about it. And oh my god, the theatre is serious, and you know, all this po-faced – we’re doing something very important. Oh, that goes on a lot. And absolutely it is your life, and you know it means so much to you. And at the sort of early preview – there was a couple coming out of this play and the wife puts her arm around her husband and as they left, she said, “I’m sorry, darling, that was my idea”. And the play is dead. From that moment on, that play never recovered for me. I never ever, ever felt the same about that play. It just was finished. And all that work you've put in, and it takes whatever. 10 words.
Jo Dyer: “Sorry, darling”. But the piece that you did right and indeed as a very rare occurrence, performed in – was the piece you’ve already cited, Via Dolorosa that you wrote about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict after you went there in 1997. And to grapple with the issue, you wrote that you thought that – honour could only be done to it, to these complicated questions of faith and belief by dropping the familiar apparatus of playmaking and you became that one man out with a bat cloth behind you trying to hold the audience on your own, as John Osborne has described. Can you talk a little bit about that? Because that does seem to be where you were… you’re back to your original intent in some ways, trying to use the medium of theatre for a political end. Even though, you know again, what will theatre achieve? What will our art add to the Middle East? But nonetheless, it was something that you felt moved to do?
David Hare: I was asked to write a play about the mandate period. When I got there to Israel and to Gaza and to the West Bank, I just found everything not as I was expecting it. Nothing was as it had been described to me. I just for instance, the conflicts within the societies were as profound as the conflicts between the societies. Nobody had told me this. So, the fissures were as deep on either side as they were between the sides. And this was fascinating. The whole religious side of what it was, that people wanted from the idea of Israel, was completely fascinating to me and new to me. In other words, I didn’t know anything about the building of the Third Temple and all this, so all this came with the force of revelation. And I thought, well, I want to report on this but I can see the utter falsity of going back to London and there being some Jewish actors from North London who don’t resemble Israelis, and maybe, I’ll be able to find a Pakistani and maybe, we’ll find an Egyptian, and maybe we’ll find an Iranian and then we’ll put them together and we’ll call them Palestinians and they’ll be standing with plastic machine guns... Well, you can see that play already. It’s terrible. I don’t want to see that play. It’s not going to convince me.
So, I thought the only way I will be convinced is if I report on what I saw. The only way the audience will know whether to believe me or not is if I’m up there, and it’s me on the line and I’m there. So, I said to Stephen Daldry, “I’ve got very bad news. It’s a monologue and we all hate monologues”. He said, “Yeah, I hate monologues”. I said, “it’s worse than that. I’ve got to do it”, and I said, “and I can’t act. You’ve got to teach me to act”. So, Stephen Daldry started teaching me to act and I often thought it was a piss-take. In other words, I often thought he is preparing me for the whole audience to burst into fits of laughter, doing things that feels to me utterly false. What am I doing? For instance, there was a moment at which the temple had to come out of the floor, and I had to be deeply moved. And by this prop coming out of the floor of the stage, you know and there’s props on wires and he says, “Well, you’ve got to look like that”. Well, this golden thing appears, and I’m not moved. He says, “No but you have to pretend to be moved”. So I said,
“okay, I’ll pretend to be moved”, and I said, “does that convince you?” and he said, “yeah, it’s very, very convincing”. And I said, “well, all I can tell you is that it feels absolutely horrible because I’m pretending to have a feeling that I don’t have”. And he said, “yes! That’s what’s called acting”.
Jo Dyer: For a man in the theatre, you might have been expected to know that before.
David Hare: I know, but it isn’t until you do this ugly and really, distasteful thing yourself – which is fake emotions you don’t have that you realise how profoundly unnatural it is. And embarrassing, actually.
Jo Dyer: And these actors have actually got something in them. The way they can do it night after night.
David Hare: Yeah, and so every night when I came off, I had to say to Stephen, “was I any good?”. Because I had no monitor which actors plainly do. Actors plainly come off going, well I was great in that, because they have some sort of monitor. But we non-actors have no monitor, and I can only tell you don’t do it unless you really can master those ugly feelings.
Jo Dyer: But the play was very well received, and I think there was one review that stated that one leaves this performance with the conviction that one word can be worth a thousand pictures.
David Hare: Yeah, that's not the review that stuck with me.
Jo Dyer: It's never the good ones.
David Hare: The review that stuck with me – and believe me, I promise you it was said affectionately, though it may not seem so. But it was by the actor Simon Callow, who has a way with words, and it said, “David Hare walks out entirely unprotected by technique”.
Jo Dyer: I can understand how that’s a fine compliment. But if your measure for the project’s success was – what does it illuminate? If anything, how do you think you did what that project?
David Hare: I think we could be listened to. And I don't think we can now… I think it's tragic. I think I have never expressed an opinion on… And believe me, I have been asked to sign so many petitions on the situation between Israel and the Palestinians. And I'm asked all the time to give money, express opinions, sign petitions, do this, do that. And I've always said, look, I wrote a play where both sides listened. The Palestinians listened. Occasionally, some Palestinians had objections and they would make them clear to me, and occasionally, some Israelis had objections and they made those clear to me. But by and large – in 1999, it was possible to produce a work which was listened to by both sides, and I thought this was really fantastic. Only one idiot accused me of antisemitism and only one Palestinian got really exercised and heated and difficult with me personally. But by and large, people said, “it is absolutely clear that you are enlightening us that you're telling us things we didn't know”. And by doing that, you hope to cast light on the situation rather than to take up simple positions. For that reason, I've never written polemically about the Middle East, because I don't want anybody to know what my opinions are because once you can say, oh, David Hare believes this – you will read and you will begin to discount my work. I'm afraid I don't think that is possible now. Twenty years later, you know, there was still some feeling that some kind of rapport might one day be possible. Now, you can see that people take up such absolute positions. A work which actually is listened to by both sides, I fear is impossible.
Jo Dyer: Well, you're about to fly into a bit of a storm on this very issue in Adelaide over the next few days, where there has been incredible polarising of views around whether or not people should even be given a platform. David Hare: You know, I have experience of this – that if you are in Israel, you will hear Israelis speak about Palestinians in terms that are so shocking and so dismissive. And you will then hear Palestinians, you know, regularly describe Israelis as Nazis, you will hear this all the time. So, at the centre of the problem, thought crime or hate speech, you couldn't just be upset by anybody's hate speech – because everybody lives with the problem. They also think about the problem, they breathe the problem, the problem is with them in their lives.
So actually, they're not very touchy about it. On the contrary, you're able to discuss things because everybody lives the problem. It's when – the further you get away from the problem, the worse things get. In London, you know, it's a little bit touchy.
If you go to New York, then people will start objecting. And then I wrote a play, Stuff Happens, in which a Palestinian appeared at the beginning of the second act. Flip, flip, flip, flip, flip – the seats and people are walking out, and they live 8,000 miles away, or 6,000 miles away or whatever it is from Tel Aviv and yet they’re walking out and whereas Israelis would never walk out. And they walk out, and there are some actors waiting in the wings – I’m sorry, in the vomitorium, in the foyer to go on, and they said to the people who were walking out, “do you object to the Palestinian, to what the Palestinian is saying?”, and they replied, “No, we object to there being a Palestinian on the American stage”. And so that, you go, that is because you are so far removed from the reality of the problem that you can afford to take up this insanely touchy, oversensitive position, because you actually aren't involved in the problem. If you're involved in the problem, hello, you meet Palestinians all day. If you're Israeli and you rarely meet… You live at the centre and frankly, you expect both sides to be grossly abusive of each other in a way that is sort of, would not be tolerated in the West.
Jo Dyer: I think if I just wanted to touch on stuff on Stuff Happens quickly, because we had a great production of that, that Neil directed here. One of the things that you said about… For me, Stuff Happens was a very important piece, because it really fed into that idea of theatre of testimony.
That it was important in its way to even… While something as you wrote, very dishonourable had happened. It was important as it seemed to be slipping off and receding into history, that we remind people actually what it was that happened, and how appalling it was. And that theatre had an important role to play. To illustrate the difference between what people say, and what people are doing, and particularly so, in an age of mendacity in politics. Can you talk a little bit about playing witness in some ways?
David Hare: I think it's worth putting down a little flag. You know, of course, millions of people marched. In every major city in the world, there were marches against that invasion. But on the other hand, the truth about how that came about was at the time that I wrote Stuff Happens – extremely controversial, in other words. The theory that the invasion of Iraq had been cooked up by Rumsfeld and Cheney as something that they had long wanted to do. And for which 9/11 gave them a pretext, and a completely dishonest excuse. That idea was really not entertained, at least in Britain at all, by – you know respectable politicians.
And so it was very, very important. And the point of view that Stuff Happens puts, which is basically a play, which takes you from 9/11 through to the first day of the bombing of Baghdad, as it were a theory that I had about what happened has actually just been vindicated over and over and over again.
All the evidence that has emerged since 2003, in particular, about what Colin Powell said to the United Nations, everything that has happened, has happened. That has appeared since, corroborates. We forget how gung-ho liberal opinion was for that war. Respectable liberal opinion. You know, The New York Times was for that war, The New Yorker – to that eternal disgrace – was for that war. Neither The New York Times nor The New Yorker have ever come to terms with what the way they supported that invasion. And, you know, I now read them with less than total confidence as the voice of liberal America. And certainly, in England, you know, there was nobody that you know, officially, you know, which now say, oh, Tony Blair lied to us. It's nonsense, you know, they went along with it, they would have gone along with it, whoever was lying to them.
Jo Dyer: And it seemed that the people were way ahead of the institutions and the people were – they marched on the streets, we all knew... Why did they not know?
David Hare: The people knew and the politicians knew – it changed my attitude to politics I’m afraid. I’d written up until then you know, Neil Kinnock, who was a Labour leader, who was unsuccessful Labour leader. One of many, and who failed to become Prime Minister. He’d been kind enough to let me into his kitchen cabinet meetings during an election and I’d written a play about politics out of which, I had come believing that politicians were sincere and well-motivated people who believed… You know, who were doing their very best and much misunderstood. It was very hard after the invasion of Iraq to believe that about politicians, I'm afraid. And my view has been very much changed and nothing I may say that’s happened in Britain in the last eight years. You know, I mean when you actually elect as the leader of your party, someone who has twice been sacked for lying from jobs, you know, from posts who is known to lie and lie and lie, and his only qualification for leading the Conservative Party is that he is a compulsive liar. It’s just… You know, politics in my country has reached some stage that is beyond parity.
Jo Dyer: We have a little bit of familiarity with that as well… Had to be said. So now, I’m going to ask some of your questions. By all means, keep sending them in. One of the ones is about theatre, it says it seems to me that the theatre has become a director-driven spectacle with the script as simply a vehicle which seems to be the opposite of your intention. And indeed, the opposite of some of the key collaborations that you’ve had with directors. Has that been your, either, a direct experience in London, or perhaps a broader observation of the way theatre is going? Or has been going?
David Hare: Look. I’m not remotely anti-director. As I said, the two greatest… Or the two of the greatest. When I started, there was a balance between people who pushed writers to the side of the rehearsal room. Joan Littlewood was a great, great director who created A Taste of Honey and all these wonderful things – the Brendon Behan plays, and Oh, What a Lovely War! which was one of the greatest things I ever saw in the theatre. And she pushed the writer to the side of the writing room because she had something that she really wanted to go for. And she used the writer as a contributing figure.
Peter Brook, the same. You know, The Mahabharata, he was lucky enough to work with a writer who was happy to just be a contributor to what Peter Brook wanted to do and again, one of the greatest evenings in the theatre I’ve ever had. But now, we just have a generation, in both cases, they were people who had mastered conventional theatre and wanted to create unconventional theatre. When I mostly now go and see so-called avant-garde productions, they are people who could not do a straight production of Hamlet if you paid them. And there… There is no competence. You know, first you have to master the art that you want to advance. If you can’t master the art you want to advance, you won’t advance it. And what I’m seeing these days is an awful lot of work by people who I don’t believe could if they chose, do a production without revolving boxes and rain coming down.
Jo Dyer: Here’s another question. Which is about… I guess it comes to again, whose voices we are hearing on our stages.
Does opening up the establishment of theatre to the more theatrical elite to more diverse voices help reinvigorate the theatre in the form of theatre itself? Thinking particularly of LinManuel Miranda, and what happened with Hamilton albeit in musical theatre of course.
David Hare: So many things that are now wanted in theatre… You know, I worked for Joe Papp at The Public Theatre in the 1970s and 80s. What he was trying to do, Black and Hispanic work. Black and Hispanic playwrights. He only finally did my work and Caryl Churchill’s work, and he did it with utmost ill grace.
He said, “I’ve spent my whole life resisting people like you, I’ve never wanted to do that, you know White English people’s work. I’m only doing it because it’s the kind of epic theatre that we need to create in America”. And Caryl and I were only allowed in Joe’s theatre as a kind of sufferance as examples in the hope that we would inspire Black and Hispanic writers to write that kind of thing. Joe was 40 years ahead in everything he was doing. He had a female Hamlet for goodness’ sake. Diane Venora was playing Hamlet in 1982.
And everything to do with… You know, women casting and everything to do with ethnic diversity. That was everything Joe did so many years ago. Exactly, the same applies to all the endless plays. I wrote one after another in which the women were the leading parts. I was fighting for the representation of women on the stage. It made not a damn bit of difference. Absolutely nothing changed in the theatre until society changed. And once society began to change, then you began to have much, much better ethnic and racial and gender representation in the theatre but it wasn’t the theatre that led the change. It was society too that led the theatre to make that change because it had to. To catch up with society.
Jo Dyer: We haven’t talked much about your film career as either a writer or director tonight, and I did like reading… I think in your memoir, I think maybe it was that you talked about how when you write a film, it has to move you and it has to have heart and emotion whereas theatre, whilst you want to engage emotions – it can also be or it can principally be about ideas. But Toby has asked, in relation to your film career, how have you avoided selling out to Hollywood?
David Hare: Well… Hollywood. It’s miraculous. Just extreme force of character. I just… You know, I just seem… Must be integrity. Just… I had a hilarious… Yeah… It’s not been very hard.
I was asked to write Star Wars number four and number five. George Lucas was very keen that I should write them, and I made a joke, which he didn’t think was terribly funny. I said to him, “oh, my god, does that mean I'd have to watch the first three?”. His beard did not move. Not an inch.
Jo Dyer: Do you bring a different approach when you’re writing a screenplay? And for a piece like say, Plenty which you had conceived – I think you described it as being a play which was designed to be cinematic and that somehow, you’d undermine that essential quality of the play. If you then adapt to this… Do you bring a different approach to your work and film?
David Hare: No, it’s just… I don’t think I’m any good at adapting my own work for the cinema. If you’ve cast something in one form and I think novelists will find this – it’s very hard. If you’ve written a novel to then write the screenplay, it just oh… It’s the material, it seems to be the shape it’s in. And Plenty, for instance, which is really, it’s not the only film I’ve done of my work but of my other stage play but I can never judge Plenty because all I can feel is the shape of the play underneath. I can’t see it as a thing in itself. And so, that’s because I wanted the material to be a certain way. That’s why I wrote it a certain way and to write it the other way just seems stupid. On the other hand, I don’t want anyone else to do it.
Jo Dyer: Do you enjoy writing for film? Do you do the collaboration? I mean, it's a very different medium, clearly, and…
David Hare: I love it. I don’t think there’s anything better in the world than getting up at six o’clock in the morning and driving out to a film set and seeing a rehearsal with great actors. You know, if you’re just the writer not directing.
You go out and you see these fabulous actors, and then you can go, ‘Oh no, well, I don’t need that line,’ and then they will say to you, “oh, well, could you have the… You know, could I have a line here, where I do this..”, and then perhaps, “if you did this and then she could do that”. And that is the most creative I ever feel in my life is that sort of, seven o’clock in the morning with a cup of coffee and a group of great actors deciding what the day’s work is going to be. And some of the stuff I’ve ever written is – is the stuff that I’ve written on the spot with the actors at that camera rehearsal. It’s boring as hell staying for the whole day but I just love that time. It’s so creative and exciting.
Jo Dyer: It is the mantra of the film set is to hurry up and wait, as I recall from my own film sets. A question here, about trusting the playwright – do you see there is a role for the dramaturg? Or is that like the associate producer and so on, that you find it’s too many cooks getting in your carefully prepared broth?
David Hare: I have nothing against dramaturgs. I just agree… Ian McKellan recently said that, “the balance in theatre has become insane, in that there are so many people on the staff and so few actors on the stage. Something is wrong, something is wrong in the balance”. When we moved into the National Theatre, there was offices to spare. If you wanted an office, there are loads of empty offices. Now they’re building more offices for more people to work upstairs and there are fewer and fewer plays being done.
We were doing a repertory of three plays a week in three theatres, nine plays on at a time. Now, they do one play every so often. In one theatre. They do far fewer plays, they employ far fewer actors. And yet, there are more people upstairs and the theatre spends whatever it is – 15 million pounds a year just to turn over, just to exist.
Now something is wrong because creativity is on the stage, not in the office. And something has gone deeply wrong in theatre between in that balance, in institutional theatre.
Jo Dyer: This is a question from Xavier. What is the most career defining piece of advice that you have received?
David Hare: A career defining piece of advice? It’s terribly boring – It’s the problem is in the previous scene. Have you heard of that one before? No. Okay.
Peggy Ramsay, who I’ve quoted already, who was a great inspiration in my life, she said, “the problem is always in the previous scene”. She said, “you think the problem’s in the scene but it’s not the problem. It’s in the previous scene”.’ And that is fantastic advice. It’s not the scene itself, it’s the way you’re reaching it and that is great, dramatic structural advice. That was immense help to me and there’s remained an amount to me… But she also taught me the obligation scene. There’s a scene the audience want – they don’t know what it is but when it comes, they go, thank God, we finally got that scene, and that is the scene you have to deliver and if you don’t deliver that scene, they leave cheated. And all playwrights have that scene and you’re moving towards that scene and that scene is deeply fulfilling. But you don’t know what that scene is, until you’ve written it and then you go, oh, I’ve written the obligation scene. And those two pieces of structural advice – fantastically useful.
Jo Dyer: Well. The next question I was going to ask you is, there are some young theatremakers in the audience. Which is… What advice you would have for young theatre makers who are setting out on what can be?
David Hare: Just do it, just do it. For goodness’ sakes, don’t wait for these bastards to let you do it. Do it yourselves? Well, you know we did. We just got out and got into the van and did it. We didn’t need to be mediated through the approval of people who already liked us.
They disliked us intensely and so that is it, and try and do it in any circumstances you can and as cheaply as you can, and you will learn so much about how to make plays by doing them. You won’t learn anything about how to make plays by sitting in playwriting class with you know, the best intentions in the world. You will learn the minute you begin to put them up on their feet.
Jo Dyer: And I think, that was one of the great things about portable theatres that you said, because you were literally doing everything to stage managing, putting on the lights and it also meant that you were sitting through.
David Hare: Sitting through your own plays. Yeah.
Jo Dyer: You can feel when whether it was the line, scenes…
David Hare: Oh this isn’t working, Oh they hate this bit, Oh look, that person’s asleep. And all that… You know, live that stuff. Because it’s really important and how will I stop these people from falling asleep becomes a really urgent question – which I’ve tried to answer in my life.
Jo Dyer: And another thing that, was a mantra that you live by was, ‘whatever they criticise you for, amplify it’.
David Hare: Yeah, whatever they criticise you for, amplify it. That is wonderful advice and that you know, we were a generation of playwrights and I wasn’t the only one.
They hated all of us and nowadays, when new writers appear, they’re sort of treated very kindly like children. They’re given three-star reviews and well, maybe this play didn’t work but this is very encouraging and you know, maybe they’ll write a better play soon. And everyone’s very benign towards young writers and oh yes, wants to help them.
They didn’t want to help us. They wanted to kill us because they thought we were going to destroy the kind of theatre they loved, which was bourgeois comedy. They loved that. And they didn’t want theatre made serious. They wanted to strangle us at birth. And that adversity – in a way was quite good for us. It didn't feel it at the time. It was horrible to live through. I hated it. And I don't want to ever live through it again. But universally bad reviews just make you decide what is important to you. No, hang on. I believe in this. I believe in this. I think I was right about this. And if you feel that, then you begin to discover your own artistic identity. And that's very important.
Jo Dyer: Well, when David acknowledged and accepted that he was first and foremost, a creative writer – first, a playwright and then a screenwriter. He made two promises to himself. First, he would never write a word if he had nothing to say and second, he would never write a word for money. He kept those promises only for money obviously he wanted to get paid.
He kept those promises across the many years, plays and films that followed. And David – as an audience, we are very grateful that you never ran out of things to say and that as you wrote by caring exclusively about vocation, I found myself free-gifted a career, a career for which we are all the better. Thank you very much for coming along David, tonight.
UNSW Centre for Ideas: Thanks for listening. This event is presented by the UNSW Centre for Ideas and supported by UNSW Arts, Design and Architecture and Adelaide Writers’ Week. For more information, visit centreforideas.com and don't forget to subscribe whenever you get your podcasts.
An Evening with David Hare
David Hare was described by The Washington Post as “the premiere political dramatist writing in English”. He has written over 30 stage plays and 30 screenplays for film and television. The plays include Plenty, Pravda (with Howard Brenton), The Secret Rapture, Racing Demon, Skylight, Amy’s View, The Blue Room, Via Dolorosa, Stuff Happens, The Absence of War, The Judas Kiss and Straight Line Crazy. For cinema, he has written The Hours, The Reader, Damage, Denial, Wetherby and The White Crow among others, while his television films include Licking Hitler, The Worricker Trilogy, Collateral and Roadkill. In a millennial poll of the greatest plays of the 20th century, five of the top 100 were his.
Jo Dyer is a writer and literary curator, and producer of film and theatre. Through her production company Soft Tread Enterprises, she has created and presented theatre projects across Australia, Europe, the US and India in venues including the Sydney Opera House, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the National Centre for Performing Arts in Mumbai and the legendary Tropicana in Las Vegas. She has held significant roles in the Australian cultural industry, including as Director of Adelaide Writers’ Week, CEO of Sydney Writers’ Festival, General Manager of Bangarra Dance Theatre and Executive Producer of Sydney Theatre Company. Jo is also a two-time AACTA nominee for Best Film for her debut film, Lucky Miles (Michael James Rowland) (2007) and Girl Asleep (Rosemary Myers) (2016). Her films have screened in cinemas and at Festivals and won awards worldwide, most notably at the Berlin International Film Festival. Jo is a regular contributor to the Chaser’s The Shot and her first book, Burning Down the House: Deconstructing Modern Politics, was published in February 2022 by Monash University Publishing.