Hello Amy, delighted to have a chat with you about your brilliant career up till now, and your play HENNA NIGHT which is being produced by Fabricate Theatre.
Hello! Good to talk to you.
I see we have something in common having both taken the MPhil in Playwriting at Birmingham University. I learnt that I respond really well to pressure, writing better and faster, because I’m an excitement junky. What did you learn about yourself?
Ah wow, lucky us! I hope you enjoyed the Birmingham course as much as I did. It was actually an MA when I did it, back in 1998 – and I learned a LOT about myself that year! In playwriting terms, I learned an unexpected appreciation of craft, structure and form – that the architecture of a play can be thrilling rather than intimidating – and that I like writing late at night with a glass of red wine and early in the morning (without). In terms of life, I learned I have a scary tolerance for red wine.
HENNA NIGHT was your debut play in 1999 and it won the Sunday Times Drama Award (1999), did you know you were onto a winner whilst writing it?
In fact HENNA NIGHT was my second play; the first was SITTING PRETTY, which was written on the MA and performed for the first time in 2001. I don’t think I ever really have a sense that I’m on to a winner – I wish I did – but with HENNA NIGHT I did have a passionate need to articulate something, and I’ve been happily surprised ever since by how it resonates with people. It came about because some talented Drama graduate friends were looking for a two-hander for two women, and I had a conversation in my head that felt pertinent, so I wrote it for them. I discovered a lifelong love of writing for specific actors, crafting it to their strengths and writing with their voices in mind.
You come from an extremely talented family, with dad being the screenwriter Jack Rosenthal and mum being Maureen Lipman (It’s an ‘ology – that still makes me laugh). I just wondered what your home life was like, was it laugh a minute?
I wouldn’t say a laugh a minute – we had all the usual conflicts and dramas (especially during the teenage years) – but we did have a lot of fun. It was, on the whole, a happy childhood in a warm, creative home; I was aware that we were lucky and I look back nostalgically. My dad was an incredibly kind man as well as a brilliant one, and because he worked from home, his presence filled the house. My mum was – and is - my heroine and they were a great double-act. Maybe the most quietly talented and funniest is my brother Adam (also a writer). So okay, maybe a laugh an hour.
Did either of them drive you on to writing plays?
I wanted to act, having spent years sitting in my mum’s dressing room, testing her on her lines and watching from the wings, but I was a terrible actress and neither of them seemed to dispute that. But they were both hugely encouraging about my writing. My dad was puzzled when I had problems with writers’ block and I wish he’d lived to see me push through it. I think, like most parents, they mainly wanted me to be secure and happy, so my mum is always pleased when I’m teaching and mentoring as well as writing – the writing life can be uncertain and lonely at any stage.
Having been raised in the Jewish faith, is this something that you’ve found helps in writing plays, or surfaces in your plays without you noticing maybe?
It’s definitely a key part of my identity. I think there’s an unconscious framework to my thinking and rhythm to my dialogue that’s essentially Jewish. My world-view is tragicomic and that’s part of my cultural legacy – the belief that comedy and tragedy are one and the same. I always want to make people laugh with my work, it matters to me more than anything. I trust that any pain or pathos will come through, but if a funny line doesn’t get a laugh, it feels like a punch in the nose. I think the need to be funny is in my DNA. Also what I think of as anxious optimism – fear mixed with hope.
What’s the hardest part of writing a play, have any of them been a particular struggle? Why?
The hardest part for me is the beginning. Once I’ve got scene one, I’m sort of okay. But the journey to scene one can be hellish. I’ve struggled with almost everything I’ve written. My play ON THE ROCKS took 17 years – from having the idea to seeing it staged at Hampstead Theatre in 2008 (I did do other things in the meantime). It’s usually a crisis of confidence or an ability to make key choices; and for me personally, if I can’t identify my central protagonist, I can’t see the shape of the story.
Having had such an early success with HENNA NIGHT, did it help you to find your style and how would you describe it?
I’m not sure! I try to make the plays different but I always hear my own voice in them. I suppose what unites them is that tragicomic element, the desire to make people laugh as well as touch them. My friend Nick says my plays are driven by urgency and regret – probably true. But my tone is light.
Out of your very many published and performed plays, which is the one/s of which you’re most proud (apart from Henna Night)? And why?
I’m most proud of ON THE ROCKS, because it was such a long, painful process, like (I imagine) giving birth to a horse. It’s about the writers D.H.Lawrence and Katherine Mansfield, but it’s really about friendship and love. I’m also – maybe prematurely - proud of the play I’m working on now, about the Mitford sisters. And I’m proud of my developing work in musical theatre, a whole new adventure.
If you’re involved with the rehearsals of your HENNA NIGHT, could you tell me whether there have been any changes to the script, or whether anything has particularly struck you about the actors or directing?
I haven’t been involved with this production, but I’ve approved some small changes to the text to update my antique references. The play was written twenty years ago, and so much has changed in terms of technology – when I wrote it, no one I knew had a mobile phone, or email, or social media.
When HENNA NIGHT opens, what are you particularly looking forward to seeing?
It’s always intriguing to see what new productions do with the work, how different actors and directors interpret it. I’ve heard great stuff about Fabricate Theatre and look forward to seeing their take on it. And with this play in particular, how it translates to a younger audience. It’s odd to look back at your life through the lens of someone else’s vision. I’m 44 now and I feel quite divorced from the Amy who wrote it. So I always watch it with a mixture of affection, embarrassment and curiosity!
Amy, thanks very much indeed for your time
Amy Rosenthal was interviewed by Heather Jeffery
HENNA NIGHT by Amy Rosenthal
White Bear Theatre, 138 Kennington Park Road, London SE11 4DJ,
16th - 20th October 2018, Tuesday - Saturday 7pm, Saturday matinée 3pm, £12 (£10)
http://whitebeartheatre.co.uk/, 0333 666 3366
A story of love, loss and rivalry.
Judith leaves her ex-boyfriend a desperate message saying that she’s not coping with their break-up, that she has bought some razor blades and some henna in order to either slash her wrists or dye her hair. Oh and she might be pregnant. However, it is his new partner, Ros, who listens to the message and rushes to Judith’s flat to discover her intentions.
A darkly humorous look at how a friendship can emerge from even the strangest circumstances and, if rivalry is put to one side, what we stand to gain from one another.
Images on the left show cast members, Lois Deeny with Sophie Stevens, and director Richard Pepper in rehearsals
@October 2018 All Rights Reserved
London Pub Theatres Magazine Limited
Playwright Amy Rosenthal has been writing for stage and radio since 1998. Theatre work includes SITTING PRETTY, HENNA NIGHT and ON THE ROCKS, shortlisted for the international Susan Smith Blackburn Prize for female dramatists. She is currently working on two new plays and two musicals.