Dennis Kelly: I can’t imagine a more violent writer than Shakespeare
Evening Standard 09.03.10
People are shocked when they meet me,” says Dennis Kelly. “I think they expect me to kill a cat in front of them or something.” Small wonder. In plays such as Osama the Hero, Orphans and After the End, this mild-mannered 40-year-old has imagined the very worst that human beings can do to each other: assault, abuse, infanticide, terror and race-hate attacks, torture. Oh, and in the grimly funny BBC sitcom Pulling, he and co-writer Sharon Horgan scripted the killing of a sick feline. “I can’t deny the evidence — though I’d like to — that my plays are a bit dark,” he concedes.
His latest, staged by the Royal Shakespeare Company at Hampstead Theatre, where it previews from Friday, is no exception, although Kelly has stayed true to his habit of adopting a new dramatic form with each new script. The Gods Weep is a “big, unwieldy, flawed and messy” riff on Akira Kurosawa’s film adaptation of King Lear, Ran. It addresses the rapacious human impulses that implicate us all in the recession. Corporate in-fighting in the first act tips imaginatively into civil war in the second. There are several brutal killings and a scene in which a son methodically breaks the arm of the Lear character, Colm (Jeremy Irons), to prove his ruthlessness. “Well, we’re at the RSC,” says Kelly. “I can’t imagine a more violent writer than Shakespeare.”
In the third act, he points out, a kind of peace is found as two antipathetic characters learn to rub along together after the apocalypse. “The moments I find most powerful in anything I’ve ever written are the moments of kindness,” says Kelly. “I know I can be incredibly kind but I can also be a complete sod. Every human being has that capacity, and the denial of either aspect is a lie.”
The play fits neatly, alongside David Greig‘s Macbeth sequel, Dunsinane, into the RSC’s policy of commissioning responses to Shakespeare. So it’s a surprise to find Kelly wrote it off his own bat. He started with the image of a man who discovered everything he worked for was a lie, “who created hell, then lived in it”. When the credit crunch happened, economics seeped into the play.
“When I took [the script] to the RSC I’d been working on it for two or three years and it was a big mess, almost five hours long,” he says. “In the new writing world we tend to iron all the writing out of things and dramaturg them to death. We don’t do that with Shakespeare: we love his plays because they are messy. So I thought the RSC might respond to that in The Gods Weep.” He smiles. “Actually, I didn’t really. I didn’t think anyone would ever put it on.”
Kelly constantly audits the veracity of his responses like this. He is garrulous, blunt-spoken and disarmingly frank, but fierce in his commitment to “truthful” writing. On Pulling, largely based on his and Horgan’s own shameful experiences of drunken dating and shabby flatshares, “it was important not to judge the characters. It wasn’t about laughing at them.” He was surprised recently to be asked by an overseas journalist if he hated his characters. “Of course I care very much about them. But it’s my responsibility to put them in bad situations and see what happens.” He is driven, partly because he started late.
Kelly grew up on a council estate in Barnet, the middle child of five, his father a Catholic bus driver. He left school at 16 and — so the received narrative goes —spent most of his twenties sunk in alcohol and dead-end supermarket jobs, before getting turned on to drama as a mature student at Goldsmiths College in his thirties. The truth is a little more nuanced.
Kelly gets justifiably annoyed with the stereotype of council estates as full of violent, thick, racist tabloid-readers, towards which directors steered him early on in his career. He’s glad the vogue for such plays has passed.
“There’s a huge variety of people that live on estates, especially in London,” he says. “We grew up in a council house, not in a sink estate. We were a bit poorer than other people but it wasn’t a terrible childhood. We didn’t read books, and telly in our house was ITV on Saturday night: I don’t think I went to a theatre, or knew what one was, until I was about 17.” But he also describes the delight of reading alone as a teenager (Lord of the Rings, since you ask), of finding “weird foreign films I didn’t really f***ing understand” on the infant Channel 4, and of joining Barnet youth theatre at 17.
“I sometimes think we patronise our audiences,” he says. “I came across Pinter’s plays at youth theatre, and although I wasn’t particularly smart, when I read the stuff I knew it was good. It doesn’t matter where you come from, you can feel that sort of stuff.”
Tempering this more refined image of Kelly is the heavy drinker who in his twenties was downing “about a bottle of spirits a day”. He was gobby and got into fights. “I wasn’t very good at hitting people but I was very good at being hit. I probably have been beaten up more than the average playwright.”
Finally, after years of trying, he gave up with the help of Alcoholics Anonymous eight years ago, just as Pulling was taking off. He says it’s no accident his theatre career burgeoned after that. “You are a liar as an active alcoholic. The process of getting sober is that you have to face some really uncomfortable truths about yourself, and that is really useful as a writer. It makes you examine what you’re doing.” His experiences fed his writing, and starting late meant he “worked like a bastard” to prove and improve himself.
Now, as well as The Gods Weep, Kelly has a film script about an alcoholic in development. He’s adapting Kleist’s The Prince of Homburg for the Donmar Warehouse in the summer and is also writing a musical adaptation with Tim Minchin of Roald Dahl‘s Matilda for the RSC. Amid all this, he managed to get married to the Neapolitan actress Monica Nappo in Arizona in September. Now based in Deptford, they met five years ago when she was appearing in the Italian premiere of one of his early plays.
“I thought it’d be OK to have a crush on her because she was in another country, but it wasn’t,” he says. They started a clumsily bilingual email relationship. “Thing was, at the time, I was writing After the End, in which a character had a monologue about having an email relationship with a French girl and ends up admitting he killed her,” says Kelly, highly amused. “So there was a point when I said, listen, Monica, I’d better show you this play I’ve been writing …” Fortunately, she obviously saw through the darkness of his writing to the underlying kindness and humanity that characterises it.
The Gods Weep is at Hampstead Theatre (020 7722 9301; http://www.hampsteadtheatre.com) from Friday to 3 April.