Interview: David Harrower, playwright

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David Harrower is a writer who sets great store by what is left unsaid, so it's perhaps surprising his latest play is a torrent of speech in intertwining monologues

LOOKING back on David Harrower's plays, I am struck most by what they leave unsaid. Take Blackbird, his smash hit at the Edinburgh International Festival in 2005, in which a man and a woman struggle with the deep undercurrents from the relationship they had when he was 40 and she was 12. Or his blistering debut play, Knives in Hens, where the simple, pragmatic language masks a complex interplay of emotions.

Not so, he says, with his new play. The two characters in A Slow Air, which opens this week at the Tron in Glasgow, just won't stop talking. In a pair of interweaving monologues, an estranged brother and sister tell conflicting sides of the same story, with Harrower himself directing actors (and real-life brother and sister) Lewis and Kathryn Howden.

"In relation to other characters that I've created, they are very verbose," he says. "I wanted to write something about people I know, voices I grew up with in Edinburgh. I just got into the language and these people just wouldn't stop talking. There's so much on the cutting room floor upstairs, it's unbelievable. There's another play."

The act of talking to David Harrower is a little like exploring the question of restraint and articulacy. He relishes interviews about as much as a swim in a tank full of poisonous jellyfish, and tends to preface each answer with: "I don't know, umm, I haven't really thought about that," before going on to speak eloquently on the topic in hand.

A Slow Air came out of a desire to write "a little paean to the Edinburgh I remember". "This was before the days of the Scottish government, around the time of the constitutional convention, the poll tax marches. There are landmarks I associate with that time. The Mound was always the place you marched up in a 1,000-strong crowd, usually to The Meadows. You'd see Hamish Henderson in Sandy Bell's, it felt like being in touch with the older, more radical Scotland."

His characters, Morna and Atholl, grew up in that world, but are now estranged both politically and geographically: one lives in Edinburgh, one in Glasgow, with all the distance that implies. "One's a bit of a f***-up and one's done pretty well for themselves. It's about where do they think they are now, where are they in Scotland, where is Scotland in the modern world?"

Given that the play is opening in Andy Arnold's politically focused Mayfesto season at the Tron, might we expect a state-of-the-nation piece of theatre? "No. Some people are very good at that. I'm not, and it doesn't interest me. I'm really distrustful of that, I could say this is my view of where we are now, and it would be behind the times already, since the election. The drama that I like is reverberative drama, more akin to poetry which bleeds into you.

"I'll take characters, and (the drama] will lead from the characters and the situations, what they feel about their lives. For me there are all sorts of nuances to discover even in the most ordinary of people in terms of what they feel they're entitled to, what kind of education they got, how much they can afford to buy into the culture we have now. That's a political thing in itself. Equality of opportunity is dead in Britain, I would argue, and it's getting worse."

Harrower grew up in Edinburgh and South Queensferry, and developed a love of books and a desire to be a writer while at school. "I took it seriously from quite a young age. I did ludicrous things like sitting down from nine till five at a typewriter. For a 25-year-old to be sitting at home in utter silence, it was either going to break me or make me. It kind of half broke me."

By his late twenties, he had written Knives in Hens, a taut three-hander set in pre-industrial Scotland which garnered rave reviews when it opened at the Traverse in 1995, and become one of Scotland's biggest theatrical exports since Peter Pan.

"I get production shots sent to me of really space-age productions with neon and scaffolding and stuff like that," he says. "It's still a living, breathing play for people which is fantastic." Next month, the National Theatre of Scotland will stage a major Scottish revival of the play, directed by Lies Pauwels, an associate of experimental Belgian theatre company Victoria.

Harrower hasn't been involved, but says he's looking forward to seeing the production. "I'm fascinated to see the European take on it, on Scottish soil, using Scottish actors. I don't tend to think about my past work very much, I'm too worried about whether I will be able to write the next bloody thing. I'm convinced that my ability to write is just going to dry up, it's all been too easy. I've never had major writer's block - I feel that something is lying ahead of me." He chuckles, grimly.

Knives in Hens shot him to a kind of playwriting stardom, and he continued to produce acclaimed work like Kill The Old, Torture Their Young and Presence, about the early days of The Beatles in Hamburg, as well as adaptations of Brecht, Schiller, and Norwegian Jon Fosse, whose play The Girl on the Sofa he adapted for the Edinburgh International Festival in 2002.

But nothing reached the worldwide success of Knives in Hens until Blackbird, directed for the Festival in 2005 by Peter Stein, a daring, disturbing two-hander full of complexity. It transferred to the West End, where it won an Olivier Award for Best New Play, and has been performed around the world, including off-Broadway, with actor Jeff Daniels, and in Sydney, where it was directed by Cate Blanchett. Hollywood A-list actresses are reputedly clamouring for the chance to play the part of Una.

Harrower suspects it comes back to the issue of what is unsaid.

"There's a lot for actors to play, both in Blackbird and Knives in Hens," he says. "There is a lot for an actor to bring to it, to create their interior life. There's mystery at the heart of both of them in a way. Either the language falls short of describing that, or it does a good enough job but it's still hiding stuff. I think that's one reason for the success of both plays."

Having initially dismissed the idea of Blackbird as a film, he has now written the screenplay which is in the hands of "a very exciting young director". Actors' names are now being discussed - "very, very exciting actors, unbelievably exciting actors" - and he hopes the film could be made later this year. Other recent projects include a new version of Gogol's The Government Inspector for the Young Vic, which opens this month starring Julian Barratt from The Mighty Boosh, and he is working on an adaptation of the book Callum's Road for Communicado and the National Theatre of Scotland.

He says he's still learning his craft. Screenwriting is a challenge, so is directing. "I want to keep it difficult for myself, I want to set challenges for myself. Maybe there's a thing where I think, 'I can do that', 'I can do that better so I'll try it'." He half grins. "I just hope I never think that about a novel."

• A Slow Air is at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow, until 21 May. The National Theatre of Scotland production of Knives in Hens opens at the Traverse on 4 June and tours Scotland until 16 July. For dates and venues see www.nationaltheatrescotland.com

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