PLAYWRIGHT Tim Price used to be a journalist and, he reckons, a pretty good one. Go on then, give us your biggest scoop. “The Welsh Valleys was a great news patch,” he says.
“Row upon row of terraced houses in working-class communities that were full of folk who were happy to show you the best bits of their lives, and the horrors. I was very pleased to get a woman to talk to me whose son had killed his girlfriend and baby.” Standard door-knock stuff – anything else? “Well, at the height of the Harry Potter craze, I found a tot with the same name. The parents even let me put a pair of specs on him for the photo. My first-ever front-page byline.”
He made the right choice switching to drama although his newshound instinct hasn’t entirely deserted him. His new play, currently being rehearsed for its Edinburgh premiere in a Leith garage, is about Scottish independence. The one before that, also coming to the Festival Fringe, concerns Wikileaks and the next one will be his take on the Occupy movement. “I like topical,” he says. “I’m going to nick a line from my friend the playwright Lucy Kirkwood here. She said: ‘I’d love to have the time to write a play about a gang of mates sharing a flat but I don’t.’ To me, theatre is at its best when it comes from stories of the moment.”
We’re talking while the four actors-cum-musicians in Price’s I’m With The Band tune up with fretboard-flashing gusto in the other room. The play sounds like the premise for a very old joke. There’s a Scotsman, an Englishman, a Northern Irishman and a Welshman, members of an indie-rock group called The Union.
“On the face of it, Scottish independence is a really dry and boring political issue,” he says. “You can’t really put it on the stage; it would be a turn-off.” Hopefully he’s got round that with his musical metaphor. “The four members correspond to regional stereotypes. The Englishman is the singer and he’s an egomaniac, the Northern Irish drummer has the propensity for self-destruction and the Welsh guy on bass suffers from low self-esteem. The Union have been peddling their soft-rock for too long. Then Barry the miserablist Scottish guitarist decides to go solo. Can the others survive as a trio?”
The band setting is an obvious one for Price, 33, who loved the Britpop of his teens. So if The Union were a real UK supergroup, what would be his dream-line-up? “Gruff Rhys from Super Furry Animals would be the Welshman - we worked together on a play about the Marxist millionaire publisher of Doctor Zhivago. And Norman Blake would represent Scotland - I love Teenage Fanclub. You’re spoiled for choice with Englishmen but maybe Morrissey. And I’m sorry: there’s a really obvious Northern Irishman only I can’t quite think of him... ”
The independence theme is just as obvious for Price. “I’m fascinated by it. What you guys do [in next year’s referendum] throws up lots of questions for Wales. But there are no pat answers. One thing, though: Scots tend to view independence as a two-sided issue involving them and England. It’s f****n’ four-sided! If Scotland were to leave the UK, Wales wouldn’t get a Labour government ever again.”
In studying how Scotland is approaching the referendum, Price is somewhat underwhelmed. “When I hear the issue being discussed it’s in a very English way. The vision doesn’t seem especially Scottish, the power dynamics are the existing ones, and it’s as if the aim is to re-do the Westminster version. You’re not looking at different ways of being independent although I accept part of the problem is the yes/no question being asked. The issue is a lot more complicated.”
We discuss Wales, and that moment recently when actor Michael Sheen, the songbirds Katherine Jenkins and Duffy, the TV comedy Gavin & Stacey and the red-shirted rugby team were all in alignment and the future seemed Welsh. Would he like to see an independent Wales?
“It’s tempting, but the reality is Scotland has a banking sector, an entrepreneurial class, and we don’t. Scotland has oil and maybe we’ve got water but we need more in the way of economic independence. Scotland can also express itself through state apparatus, its law and education systems. Our only repository for Welshness is culture. We make great performers but great politicians are taking time to come to the fore. Holyrood is our role model - it’s where we want to be in ten years’ time.”
One area in which Wales doesn’t lag behind is radicalism. A long tradition stretches from the Chartists all the way to Aneurin Bevan. And Price believes his second Edinburgh play, The Radicalisation of Bradley Manning, is in that tradition.
Manning went from Pembrokeshire schoolboy to US soldier to being accused of the biggest leak of government secrets in American history. Before learning about his Welsh teenagehood, Price was intrigued by Wikileaks; afterwards he was obsessed.
“I’d been commissioned by NTW to write a political play. This was finished and there was a meeting to finalise the brochure. I’d just found out that Bradley would have learned Welsh, played rugby, got to know the bus timetables for Haverfordwest. Yet a few years later he was the world’s foremost prisoner-of-conscience, who’d been tortured, trying to call the US president as a defence witness. I said: “We’re doing the wrong play.”
Edinburgh will be the first time the piece has been performed outside the Principality, where it was seen by Oaklahoma-born Manning’s Welsh mother in his old school. But, with the Wikileaks whistleblower’s trial ongoing, it would never have existed if Price hadn’t hollered in time-honoured tradition: “Hold the front page.” n
I’m With The Band is at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, 2-25 August. The Radicalisation of Bradley Manning is at the Pleasance at St Thomas of Aquin’s High School, Edinburgh, 6-25 August. www.edfringe.com