After graduating in Theatre from the University of Hull Matt Hartley “didn’t have a clue” what he wanted to do. He thought about becoming an agent but found his way into playwriting by attending courses run by the Royal Court and Paines Plough. His first play went on to win a Bruntwood Award, he received high praise for his Edinburgh double bill The Bird and the Bee with Al Smith, and his latest play, Microcosm, is on at the Soho Theatre. I pull him from rehearsals to discuss the play, his advice for aspiring playwrights and whether it was really his first ever play that won the Bruntwood.
Microcosm is “about paranoia” and spirals out from a confrontation between a young man in his late 20s/early 30s with a group of kids outside his house. Hartley explains “I wanted to write something that was about my generation”. His aim with the play was to ask “what does having a home mean, and what do you do when you don’t actually feel safe within your own four walls?” The play’s central confrontation was “loosely” inspired by an event in Hartley’s own life in which he intervened in a situation and “there was a moment where I went ‘I shouldn’t have done that’.” Microcosm, however, isn’t a personal story but taps into “a general sense of what it is to be a good person, and the notion of should we be scared of people who are younger than us?”
The play is set during a heat wave and the aim is to “create that same feeling of unease [that the characters feel] for the audience”. Hartley references the master of suspense as an inspiration on Microcosm which was “written to try and build the same sort of tension as Rear Window”. The show is on in the Soho Theatre Upstairs which Hartley hopes will lend itself to the atmosphere – if you’ve ever been in the close confines of that space you’ll know immediately where he’s coming from. Hartley and director Derek Bond have been working on Microcosm for two years, and in that time the play’s structure has gone through a lot of development.
“Everything escalates, building up, slowly ticking along into a sort of pressure boiler and it was a deliberate structural style to try and lure the audience in. I hope it opens as a comedy so the audience think they’re in something nice and fun, and a comedy about manners and how that slowly progresses, as you discover who the people are that live in the flats next to you and what’s on your doorstep.”
Hartley has been lucky with Microcosm to have a director who “has lived and breathed the play as much as I have”, he’s good friends with Bond and so it’s “been a very easy process in terms of our working relationship”. Hartley also makes sure to highly praise the creative team working on the show who are “going beyond what I hoped for” with Bond getting “exceptional performances from his actors”. Performing in the show are Chris Brandon who “I think is the most underrated actor of his generation”, John Lightbody – “I don’t know how he isn’t a superstar” – and Jenny Rainsford and Philip McGinley who are “red hot at the moment”. It seems only a fitting team for such a highly praised, award-winning writer.
On to the matter of the Bruntwood Award: was it really Hartley’s first ever play that won it? Thankfully not; Hartley admits he wrote a lot of bad plays, “even the titles were awful”, before 65 Miles which won the award. “I wrote them really quickly because I knew they were bad, and I thought maybe if I just keep writing and writing hopefully they’ll get better”. Clearly they did, and with 65 Miles Hartley felt he’d figured out “yeah, I know what I want to be telling now, I’m not trying to steal Simon Stephens’s play I’m trying to write something that is my own work”. He hastily points out, however, that his Bruntwood Award-winning play didn’t get put on for five years after winning and he has now been writing for between eight and ten years.
One of Hartley’s main values as a writer is “time and failure”. He believes first time success is a “myth… it’s such a lot of hard work”. In terms of his own writing process Hartley admits “I’m very lazy… I like the pressure of it being the last week before it’s got to be done, I like to think about ideas for years”. As well as writing for theatre, Hartley has spent time writing for longstanding TV show Hollyoaks which he describes as a “learning curve”, and for radio which he believes is a “very freeing medium” and something young writers should be writing more of. Theatre, he says, “is a writer’s medium. You can write anything you dream of… if you really want to write a play you can write whatever you want, anything can happen in it and that’s why for me it’s the most exciting medium”.
So, what is Hartley’s advice for any aspiring playwrights? “Don’t take rejection to heart, take it as a cue for the next thing to be better” and “learn those people whose advice you really appreciate”. His big thing, though, is “just live life. Meet people, go travelling, do jobs that you hate, do jobs that you love, don’t just restrict yourself to thinking about being a writer; think about how you meet people, how you talk to people, put yourself in environments where you’re out of your comfort zone.” It is clear that this is what Hartley thinks truly makes a writer, however he offers one more piece of advice: “don’t be afraid to put a play in a drawer for a couple of years and come back to it” – which was exactly what he did with Microcosm and “I’m so glad it hadn’t gone on before because it’s a much better play now”.
Microcosm is at the Soho Theatre until 25 May. For more information and tickets visit the Soho Theatre website.