Extremely exciting is right. Not only has the play won him a Channel 4 Playwright’s Scheme bursary (formerly the Pearson Playwright Award) and a residency at the Finborough, his second play Albion will be premiering at the Bush Theatre later this year. Despite his growing prestige Thompson is philosophical on its rewards. “It feels good not to be lonely professionally anymore. As a writer you’re lonely.”
Having worked in social services for over twelve years, the writer tag is taking some getting used to. Describing Carthage as a deeply personal response to his career, the play explores the fallout arising from the death of a young boy in care as well as the culpability of those who were tasked with protecting him. Though not based on any specific case, the play draws heavily on the emotional complexity that accompanies a career in the social services. “I remember being scared,” says Thompson. “I remember crying in the toilets not wanting to do a visit to check up on a child. I don’t feel sorry for myself, though. You have this privileged insight into people’s lives.”
Thompson stresses that heavy themes don’t make for a heavy play. On the contrary, the play is fused with the humour that has allowed him to navigate his way through his years as a social worker. “The play has turned out to be very funny and rehearsals have been hilarious.” Director Robert Hastie agrees, citing “lovely moments of small victories” for the characters in the play as providing a deft contrast with the play’s darker moments. “What’s beautiful about Chris’s writing is the comfort these characters take in each other when confronted with such adversity.”
Hastie first met both play and playwright over a year ago when asked to direct a reading of an earlier version for the 2012 Vibrant Festival. “I immediately fell for it. I just loved it and count myself very lucky that it came my way.”
Thompson asks whether Hastie has ever found it difficult working with him, given that he has no prior background in the arts, but Hastie refuses to let such modesty go unchecked: “I’ve never met anyone so curious as to what theatre can and should be, and that challenge has really enriched my understanding of what we do.”
The curiosity with which both men approach the work goes hand in hand with a deep-seated trust and mutual respect for each other’s abilities. Asked how he has found the collaborative aspects of being in the rehearsal room, Thompson is both assured and relaxed: “I’m very comfortable with the process of it all. You have to let go.”
Getting to this point hasn’t always been easy. Hastie speaks of how earlier on in the process his main challenge was in making Thompson comfortable with speaking on an emotional level about his thoughts and his experiences, to which Thompson quips that, as a social worker, he’s dead inside, before going on to express his gratitude: “I used to go to the theatre all the time, and love what I saw, but social work killed that for me. It’s not that the plays were bad, but that I’ve seen so many bleak and horrible things. But in being spoken to like a writer – and in being treated like one – Rob’s really brought me out of my shell.”
Now both men eagerly await what their audiences are going to bring to and take away from the work. Both stress that the play is not about social workers per se, but rather one which takes a wider societal view interrogating the systems we put in place and rely upon, and what happens when they fail. These are questions for the audience to wrestle with during the play and after. “It doesn’t feel a judgemental play to me,” says Thompson. “I think everyone has to leave with their own sense of the complexities and the greyness.”
Thompson is hesitant about imparting too much advice to aspiring writers but he strongly believes we should keep numerous avenues and routes into the profession open because people need time to find their voices. “As a writer, do something else other than theatre: listen to people, watch people, meet people, see people.”
Hastie argues that aspiring directors need to ensure they are engaging with writers and not just their texts – or the texts of dead writers. “There isn’t a theatre without that first creative spark. It doesn’t need to be a writer, but while there are great writers like Chris out there you would be foolish not to get to know them. Use that spark. There are as many ways of making good plays as there are good plays.”
Carthage is at the Finborough Theatre until 22 February. For more information and tickets visit the Finborough’s website.
Rehearsal photos (c) Darren Bell.