A new adaptation of Dario Fo’s Can’t Pay? Won’t Pay!, a co-production between Northern Broadsides and York Theatre Royal, opens at York Theatre Royal in October. The Reviews Hub’s Richard Hall caught up with writer Deborah McAndrew to talk about her experience of adapting this popular play and also her career as one of Britain’s most successful female playwrights. Finding fame at an early age as a TV actress, Deborah has gone on to write a number of award-winning plays for theatre companies as varied as Stoke’s New Vic Theatre, Mikron Theatre and Northern Broadsides. Her play about the First World War, An August Bank Holiday, written for Northern Broadsides and the New Vic Theatre won both the UK Theatre Award and Manchester Theatre Award for best new play in 2014.
You’re adapting a well known play by Dario Fo and transposing it to Brexit Britain. What made you choose this particular play?
Conrad [Nelson, Director] was looking for a small-cast, classic play for the Broadsides autumn show. When he thought of Fo’s satirical comedy Can’t Pay? Won’t Pay! we had a conversation about it. I was the obvious choice to adapt, as I’d done Accidental Death of an Anarchist in 2008. At that time Dario Fo was still alive, and his team were quite particular even then about who they gave permission to adapt his work. Going back to them with a tried and tested writer seemed expedient.
From an artistic point of view, the more we looked at the play the more relevant it seemed. And as long as Fo’s estate were ok with me replacing all the Italian references with British ones and transposing the text (and the jokes) to a Northern English vernacular, we felt we were onto something that could really speak to our time and place. Fo reworked this play himself after the banking crisis of 2008. He renamed it They Don’t Pay? We Won’t Pay! – and the use of this title is non-negotiable, despite the fact that the original works much better in English. Fo was very exercised about the causes, impact and fallout of the international banking crisis, and he most notably changed the ending of his 1974 play. This is much darker than the original and presents some challenges in terms of an English equivalence, but it’s his play and I believe we have managed to honour his sentiments whilst keeping our British context alive.
Dario Fo was a political agitator and used theatre as a way of encouraging civil obedience. What do you hope that audiences will be inspired to do after seeing the play?
Fo was operating within a very different political climate in 20th Century Italy. He led a life of direct action and resistance, and his uncompromising satire of authority often made his life very uncomfortable. Our history is different, and our current political context is unique – but castigation and abuse is more likely to come from internet trolls rather than government forces. I think it’s fair to say that for us censorship is tacit, being more about media silence than authoritarian suppression.
My adaptation is not about Brexit per se – though this is the backdrop to a very desperate and difficult situation for many in our society. As with Fo, I’ve rewound the current problems back to the banking crash, but in politics, you can’t really say where anything begins. Wind back to 9/11 and the war on terror; Iraq and Afghanistan. Wind further back to the New Labour project that allowed private enterprise into the NHS and education; tuition fees. Wind back even further to the Thatcher years, the decline of industry, the miners’ strike, right to buy on social housing… How long is a piece of string? Every problem is a consequence of something else.
Dario Fo was brilliant at showing the farcical in any situation, however bleak, and running with that. I hope that audiences will recognise the absurdity at the heart of our country’s current political situation and laugh together, whatever their personal politics. It feels like the nation has a kind of split personality at the moment, and we are very divided. I hope that this production could be a release valve; a shared experience. I also hope that people will think about some of the issues raised in the play – whether they agree with Fo’s (and my) analysis or not.
Does the scale of current political and social unrest inspire or unsettle you?
I am very unsettled by the current state of British and international politics and dismayed on a daily basis. I find none of our leaders without fault – and I’m one of the many who feel politically homeless at the moment. As a writer, I differ from Fo, as my own writing is not issues led, but rooted in character and relationships. That said, I do write comedy, and I have relished the challenge of taking the template of Fo’s brilliant play to comment on what we have to call ‘Brexit Britain’.
There has been a lot of debate recently about an absence of new plays by female writers. What are your thoughts about this?
I feel a little strange talking about this, as I’m always busy. That said, the only way I’ve managed to write an original play (not an adaptation) in the past 4 years is through my own company – Claybody Theatre. There is a long way to go before women are commissioned on the same basis as men in the British theatre. The arts and culture writer Victoria Sadler’s work on this is most compelling – she has reviewed the top 6 London Theatres’ programming in relation to commissioning for the past three years. This is not conjecture, or anecdote, or opinion, but fact. I refer you to her article for the detail, but her conclusion is that female playwrights are not being platformed or supported on the main stages of London. I think the picture is better in the regional theatres, but it’s clear that the higher up the ‘food chain’ you go the fewer women writers you’ll find. A quick glance at the RSC’s new writing page shows 12 new recently produced works – 3 of which are by women.
You rose to prominence at an early age playing Angie Freeman in ITV’s Coronation Street, what did you learn from this experience that has held you in good stead for the rest of your career?
I learned very early on that I wasn’t particularly comfortable being famous. However, it was already too late. Almost 30 years since I first appeared on Corrie, and 21 years since I was last there, I get recognised on a regular basis. It’s been a mixed blessing over the years. I think my early start in telly soap has definitely shaped what some people in the industry thought I could do, but other times it has opened doors. I’m not sure what I learned from that time, but it has been a great ice-breaker in my work with communities in my adopted city of Stoke-on-Trent, where Angie was a favourite.
You have written a number of plays for Northern Broadsides how would you describe their performance style and has it influenced how you write for other theatre companies?
If you’re asking about formative influences, Broadsides was far more important for me than Corrie. It’s the ‘stable’ out which I have come as an actor, a writer – as a storyteller. The company’s direct narrative style, its commitment to the native Northern voice, and its open relationship with its audience have informed my work since I joined the company as an actor in 1995. Barrie Rutter taught me how to speak classical verse, and the people he gathered into the company have been my close and extended family for almost a quarter of a century – including my husband, Conrad. Paradoxically, the no-nonsense approach has meant that in writing for other directors and companies I feel able to write to the brief they give me, and not be too precious about my work. This means that my work is quite varied, as I try to deliver what’s required of me – rather than what I want to do. The exception to this is when I write for my own company – when I tell the stories that matter to me.
As a writer what is your proudest achievement?
That’s really hard. Of course, winning Best Play awards for An August Bank Holiday Lark was really wonderful, and my first publication, Flamingoland, was a red letter day too. But in 2013 I got Arts Council funding to put on a play of mine called Ugly Duck, directed by Conrad, in an old art school building. Everyone told us that nobody would come to a new play in a non-theatre space in Stoke-on-Trent, but we sold out the show and 5 years on our company, Claybody Theatre, is about to put on our fourth full production, Hot Lane, in the former Spode Works pottery in Stoke. The audience for our company has grown and grown, and we’re hopeful that it will sell very well.
Do you think you might be tempted to perform on stage and TV again?
I still do a bit of radio acting work. I’m a regular in the Radio 4 detective series STONE, which will be recording its 8th series some time soon. And you never know – now that our daughter is almost grown up and off to uni, I might dip my toe back in the waters of stage acting. Watch this space…
They Don’t Pay We Won’t Pay! opens at the York Theatre Royal on Tuesday 9 October and then tours to Hull Truck Theatre, Liverpool Playhouse, Lawrence Batley Theatre, Huddersfield, The Stephen Josepha Theatre, Scarborough and The Viaduct Theatre, Halifax.
Richard Hall | Image: Contributed