Madness a playwright's path to success!
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Madness a playwright's path to success!

For 50 years, the Royal Court Theatre in London's Sloane Square has acted as a crucible of young writing

india Updated: Aug 22, 2006 13:31 IST
Barbara Lewis (Reuters)
Barbara Lewis (Reuters)

For 50 years, the Royal Court Theatre in London's Sloane Square has acted as a crucible of young writing talent, launching many careers. The theatre supported radical playwrights like Joe Orton and John Osborne, whose seminal Look Back in Anger, now regarded as a classic expression of its times, was initially dismissed by the critics.

Osborne is not the only writer for whom Royal Court approval failed to guarantee instant acclaim. Irish-born playwright Chris Lee, who belonged to the Royal Court's writers' group from 1991-1994, is experiencing a renaissance after years of struggle.

His story casts light on life in the difficult world of stage, where success can be elusive, patchy and imperfect. To pay the bills, Lee balanced his writing with a parallel career as a social worker, heading a team frequently involved in sectioning mental health patients.

The Ash Boy, his harrowing story of mental imbalance and old age, was performed this year to critical acclaim at London's Theatre 503, a tiny, independent venue that has been lauded as one of Britain's most important centres of new writing, second only to the Royal Court.

Another of Lee's plays, The Map Maker's Sorrow will be staged in Paris in September after playing New York last year.

Lee has learned the hard way not to be complacent. "I never felt I was going to give up, but I did feel it was entirely hopeless," he said. "It was hard to keep the bitterness at bay."

Lee's subject matter is not for the faint-hearted. "I think they (the plays) are about failure. I'm interested in failure much more than I'm interested in success," he said.

Mental instability, as witnessed in his day job, is another dominant theme. "The suffering and resilience of people facing mental distress has deeply affected what I write," said Lee.

"At worst this can lead me to view the world through catastrophe-tinted spectacles. At best, it provides the privilege of insight into lives, just hanging on in the desperate spaces of this beautiful and terrifying city."

As an Irish-born writer living in London, Lee has also tackled the theme of Irishness, but is wary of stereotypes.

"The English look on the Irish as slightly different. They want an Irish play to lilt and to be about rural life," he said. "It's a vision that's completely out of date." Lee began writing plays as a university student in Dublin.

"It gradually became an interest, an obsession. I can't now think of life without writing plays," he said. "There's an incredible buzz when you see something done and everyone's reasonably happy with it."

After graduation, Lee followed the example of many illustrious Irish writers and moved to London, where he found the Royal Court, as well as a career as a social worker. Although the Royal Court workshopped four of Lee's plays, he considers his real break was at Dublin's Abbey Theatre, the national theatre of Ireland.

The Abbey made him Writer in Association and staged two of his plays, but then his luck ran out. "The regime at the Abbey changed. I was no longer the writer they wanted," he said.

"It's fantastic to find patronage. Holding on to it is hard." Fallow years followed. Lee had almost given up hope of The Ash Boy being performed when it fell into the hands of a director looking for a play to stage at Theatre 503.

He is now working on a new play based on the correspondence between Catherine the Great and French philosopher and satirist Voltaire. Both of whom probably had a sense of failure, Lee thinks.

Playwright curries "Voltaire did not live to see reason hold sway in the governments of Europe and Catherine was totally perplexed by the French Revolution."

First Published: Aug 22, 2006 13:31 IST