Doug Lucie almost doesn’t make it to our interview. He’s coming from his home in Oxford, and the director of his show informs me that, unusually, Lucie doesn’t own a mobile phone, so there is no way of contacting him. When he does arrive, it turns out there was a mix up with the money that was supposed to pay for his bus to London. “I’m skint.” Lucie explains. “Can’t afford the bus fare – simple as that.”
We’re meeting at the Courtyard Theatre, where two of Lucie’s plays, Blind and Doing the Business, are playing as a double bill. Blind was originally a radio play; Lucie adapted it for the stage to play here, where it’s receiving its London premiere – and Lucie’s first London premiere in 10 years. His play Solid Air ran at the Theatre Royal Plymouth last November, and his 1982 play Hard Feelings was revived at the Finborough last summer, but this is the first time one of his plays has premiered since 2003.
When asked how it feels to have a play back on in London, his reply is simple. “I’m happy wherever my plays go on,” he says. This seems to be at the heart of Lucie’s attitude: times have been financially tough for him, and the result is a great sense of modesty about having his work performed. He details how his plays have often been warmly received by audiences, but expresses disappointment that they rarely receive revivals. However, he is optimistic about the double bill, which is receiving its press night on the evening we meet. “It is nice to be back in London,” he muses, “and, you know, the fringe is where I started. It kind of makes sense that I’m back there.”
Despite giving off an air of humility about these plays being on, Lucie is by no means passive. The opposite is true – he is loaded with strong opinions, especially since being involved in student politics during his university days in the 1970s, and even goes as far to describe today’s society as a “dystopia”. This lends itself to Blind and Doing the Business – both plays are about the danger of arts funding and sponsorship, and, despite being written 10 or 20 years ago, still manage to carry great resonance today.
Lucie puts this resonance down to his style of writing. “I regard what I do essentially as being contemporary history plays.” The worlds on stage in Lucie’s plays are mostly naturalistic, occasionally surreal, and most definitely grounded in the real world; he argues that the topics explored in his plays gain “an added layer of resonance” each time they are revived.
The plays in the double bill look at both sides of the argument on subsidy and sponsorship – a topic that, naturally, Lucie has an opinion on. He is disillusioned by claims that arts are not in need of subsidy. “Even now,” he argues, “you go on any forum where it’s discussed and there’ll be hundreds of people on there – ‘Michelangelo didn’t need a grant from the Arts Council!’ Yeah, but he did need the Pope.”
In Blind, the beneficial and superficial sides of arts sponsorship are balanced, which prevents the play’s ideas becoming one-sided. The depth of Lucie’s characters is a huge help in achieving this, and, as is quite common in Lucie’s writing, are often drawn from real life. “I take them, make composites, then exaggerate what I think of their faults or virtues. Although not always – in Blind, you’ve got two characters who could be located in the real world, and two who are really just figments of my imagination.”
“I think we all within us contain the seeds of the utopian and the dystopian,” he says, on the society many of his characters are derived from. “And quite a few of the characters I’ve written have been sort of borderline sociopaths, psychopaths, because that’s an area I’ve always been fascinated by.”
During our conversation, we hit on one of Lucie’s pet hates: writers’ groups. He firmly believes that playwriting can’t be taught, and that these groups encourage a sort of orthodoxy, or what he describes as “singing from the same hymn book.” His greatest writing interest is the nature of relationships, and using his ear for speech to fashion “transactional” ones. He tells me that he ensures there are always deep layers of subtext, so that even the most banal of lines can be loaded. “Even when it seems quite pleasant and they’re just chatting about old times,” each line is an exchange, if an unspoken one.
His plays are invariably witty, something that becomes apparent when I ask him if he has any advice for aspiring playwrights. “Go into advertising,” he says instantly. Luckily, this is quickly followed by a laugh and further advice. “Read, read, read. And although you’ll get a lot of good help and advice, don’t let anybody tell you how to write a play. If you don’t know roughly how to write a play, do something else. And you’ll only know that when you try.”
Too many writers limit themselves, he tells me, to the simplest of jobs, and he believes new writers need to be as ambitious as possible. “Aim for the best you can do. Get off the beaten track a bit as well,” he says. “That’s what inspires me. Just be brave.”
Blind and Doing the Business play at the Courtyard Theatre until 23 February. For more information and tickets, visit the Courtyard’s website.