Interview with Martin Crimp

Interview with Martin Crimp
Originally in the Kensington & Chelsea Review, June 2012————The whole blue sky over Pimlico is clear today as I await Martin Crimp’s arrival, sipping a half-pint to steel my nerves. I’m excited and a touch nauseous to meet the writer of two of my favourite plays; the labyrinthineAttempts on Her Life and Fewer Emergencies, that sinister trilogy that felt like a quiet revelation to a much younger self.Recently, Martin’s translation of Botho Strauss’ Gross und Klein (Big and Small) has astounded audiences at the Barbican (featuring a “mesmerizing”, “beyond terrific” Cate Blanchett). For the Orange Tree Theatre’s 40thbirthday Martin has mirrored himself; the 56 year-old has written Play House, featuring a pair of volatile young lovers, to compliment Definitely the Bahamas, a play about a couple in their late fifties/early sixties written when he was 30. For the first time he also directs.Soon enough Martin arrives. We order our tapas and I get rolling, a younger writer to an elder.

AF: Did you enjoy directing?

MC: I really enjoyed it. Compared to being a writer, it’s much more intense. If I’m having a good day as a writer I might be working from 9 in the morning to 2 o’clock and then thinking, ‘Ok, I’ve done my days’ work’. As a director you’re working from the moment you wake up till 10 at night. Because I had two plays I was rehearsing simultaneously, I’d really gone in at the deep end.

AF: To a director a play text, even your own, can be an artifact to be interpreted. Has directing had an affect on your writing process?

MC: It’s really early to say. I’m sure it would have some influence, however subliminal. It’s a matter of dividing myself into two. I have to become this other person who analyses those plays in a way I would never normally analyse a play. Not in a million years.
Fortunately I’ve worked with people like Katie Mitchell who’s been very helpful in my learning about how to direct. I’ve been able to cherry pick from directors I’ve worked with.

AF: Where do you find a play?

MC: I find a play on the page. By the process of writing. I’m very much someone who likes to improvise with my piece of paper. I write long-hand with a pen. Sometimes I will come back to something after a couple of years, that I’ve abandoned, and think, ‘There was some mileage in that’.
It’s a matter of trying to build up a critical mass.

AF: You could start with nothing?

MC: Yes. Obviously there are exceptions, but I like to let the writing do the discovery.

AF: What is more important to you – to illicit humour or grief?

MC: That’s a good question. I think comedy – dialogue being funny – is an intrinsic part of my makeup. Having said that, every line that I write I find it both funny and not funny at the same time. It has to make me smile but at the same time it has to be serious.
When your work is produced in translation some of the tiny, tiny, tiny things which will make people smile in your own language – are taken away in other countries. You learn that you cannot depend on tics of style to achieve your aims. There has to be something more serious and deeper at work.

I’ve been so lucky to have work produced by Luc Bondy because he has an extreme lightness of touch and although he’s a very intellectual man, he also has a wonderful sense of humour.

AF: That’s what I most enjoyed about Neil Dudgeon’s [now lead in Midsommer Murders] performance in Fewer Emergencies.

MC: Yes. There are some actors like Neil who have that quality. Which is very good to interpret my work.

AF: Is a writer responsible for what his character say or do?

MC: That’s a really good question. Obviously at one level – yes, because that was decided by the writer. The interesting thing is when you find voices that will speak autonomously. And then they will move the action forward, those voices will make the discoveries for you – they do the speaking. That’s the situation you always aim for.

(Aside) It’s pouring with rain.

AF: That happened quick! Are you ever shocked by what the characters are doing?

MC: Sometimes. In Face to the Wall, when the voices lead me into such a dark story, about shooting children, that’s quite a shock. I found that quite hard to write, as it got into the long speech about diving into blood. There’s a voice leading you somewhere that you don’t necessarily want to go. That’s quite worrying. No, it’s not worrying, no. I’m being precious. It’s quite exciting really. When a character takes you somewhere that you weren’t expecting (Laughs). Generally shock would not be the right word.You’re just pleased if a voice takes you anywhere.

AF: Do you feel more comfortable with a shorter play or longer?

MC: Haha. A short text, I find easier to write. I think there’s part of me that’s a short story writer. That’s why I think some of these short plays are quite successful, like Playhouse, I really like as a play. If something’s a pleasure to write that’s always a good sign. Having said that, I’m not a fan of the short play in itself. I’m not a fan of the play that is 60 or 75 minutes long which is served up as a whole evening in the theatre. I’m quite conservative in that respect. ‘cos I think, because the theatre is a public arena, I think it’s quite important to spend time there, because you can imagine that either of the plays in the double bill at the Orange Tree, in another theatre, one of those plays could have been given as the whole evening. That could happen. But for me that would not be a satisfying experience. Because I think you’d be booted out into the street before you’d really had time to just sit there and become properly engaged.

I’m very comfortable writing a short play, it gives me pleasure, but I’m not comfortable with the idea of a short play being a whole evening in the theatre. I do think there is a kind of test about how much time you can spend with an audience. And how long a journey you can take them on. For me that remains important. Even my shorter plays, The Country and The City are about 90 minutes long and I think that’s okay. I do worry about the 60 or 70 minute play. I have a lot of friends who write plays of that length, I’m not criticising their plays, I’m criticising a transaction with the audience I suppose.

AF: I have one last question.

MC: Go on then.

AF: What do you enjoy about writing?

MC: You ask some really good questions you know.

(A pause for some time where we dab at our dishes)

I enjoy being completely on my own.
I enjoy making marks on a piece of paper. I enjoy travelling in my own mind, via the voices I can discover in my own head. I love making structures.
I love words. Themselves. As objects. As food. Things you can eat. I love the sound of the human voice. Playwriting – it’s not just the marks on a page, it’s the sounds as well. I love that music. And…I like the sense of being able to stop time. To get hold of a piece of time. And hold it. Stop it. And preserve it.
Those are the things I like.

A lot of things I really hate (Laughs).

AF: Maybe next time.

MC: Next time maybe.


On the day, Martin said ‘That’s a good question’ or variations of that sentiment four times, the final time being, “You ask some really good questions you know.” I’ve spent some time considering whether to include these remarks.

This was my first professional interview. Martin just happened to have enormously affected my creative life and I was very nervous. I was proud that he appreciated my questions – which is why I removed these remarks from the first print version. I wasn’t sure I was including them for entirely robust reasons.

I include them now (in part) as I think they say something about the subject –  surely the central purpose of an interview.