Interview: Rona Munro, playwright

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As dilemmas go, it's a nice one to have. Next month, playwright Rona Munro has to be at two prestigious press nights in one week.

On the Tuesday, she'll be at Edinburgh's Traverse Theatre for the opening of Pandas, a romantic comedy-thriller set between Scotland and China.

By Thursday, she'll be at London's Hampstead Theatre for the premiere of her space-race drama Little Eagles in a production by the Royal Shakespeare Company. Getting from one to the other shouldn't be too much trouble; the dilemma comes at the other end of the run.

Both shows finish on the same night, so which cast party will she attend and which company will she risk offending?

Thankfully, the decision has been made for her. Fellow Doctor Who screenwriter Stephen Greenhorn is getting married in Scotland the day after Pandas finishes, so for her to be at the Traverse is a "no-brainer".

"It's not the sort of thing you want to moan about because it's a lovely problem to have," she says during a rehearsal break in Leith. "But you end up feeling like you're cheating on one or the other."

To have two such high-profile productions opening in one week would be enough for anyone, but for Munro it is only the start of it. She's also written the screenplay for Oranges And Sunshine, on general release at the beginning of the month.

The Jim Loach movie is about the real-life case of Nottingham social worker Margaret Humphreys (Emily Watson) who uncovered the systematic deportation of thousands of children from British care homes to Australia. Variety magazine has already hailed it as a "deeply moving study".

Meanwhile, actress Fiona Knowles, trading under the name of the MsFits, has just launched an eight-month tour of Mad, Bad And Dangerous To Know, a new Munro comedy about growing old disgracefully.

It is the latest of nearly 20 one-woman shows she has written for Knowles. "The MsFits is the longest small-scale touring company Scotland's ever had," says Munro, who takes the job just as seriously whether the results will be seen in cinemas or community centres.

"It's just different styles and it's lovely to be able to do them all. One is not more important than the other."

Fortunately for her sanity, not every month is as busy as this for the Aberdeen-born playwright.

In fact, she had completed Pandas and Little Eagles before she started writing The Last Witch, the 2009 Edinburgh International Festival drama about Janet Horne, the last woman in Britain to be executed for witchcraft. "Now there'll probably be two years where I'm twiddling my thumbs," she laughs.

For audiences, you would think it could be an opportunity to get the measure of Munro, but it is not easy tracing a connection between her substantial output. What could possibly link these stories about Cold War cosmonauts, Chinese lovers, social work scandals and inter-generational friendship? Throw in earlier work such as Iron (about a woman imprisoned for murdering her husband), Long Time Dead (about fearless mountaineers) and the ever popular Bold Girls (about the daily lives of Belfast women) and the pattern gets no clearer.

"It's about trying to do something you haven't done before," says the playwright.

"I've done comedies, but before Pandas I'd never actually done the one feelgood play that makes you feel lovely without it being saccharine. With Little Eagles, it was about writing on the scale the RSC can give you because it can afford to put 19-odd actors on stage."

If there was one thing that influenced the writing of Pandas, it was Strawberries In January, a gentle comedy by Quebec's Evelyne de la Chenelire that Munro translated for the Traverse in 2006. It gave her a taste for left-field romance.

"They're both love stories and they both have slightly surreal, absurd humour," she says. "Plot-wise, there's no comparison at all, but there's something about the tone. Having done Strawberries, I was able to do Pandas."

From this emerged a story about three couples caught up in a plot about stolen Chinese rugs and mysterious shootings. "Pandas is a weird one," she says.

"There are plays where you plan it all and have to wrestle with a very structured plot. And there are plays where the characters just start talking and you don't know yourself until it comes together. Pandas is one of those magical ones, and it's got a happy ending!"

Like David Greig's Midsummer, it is a chance for Munro to tell a romantic Edinburgh story to the home crowd, although it is entirely coincidental that pandas really are on their way to Edinburgh Zoo.

"At the time it was commissioned, we were actually thinking about the Beijing Olympics," she says.

"Being able to talk directly to that Edinburgh audience is nice. You hope you're going to get laughs of recognition that you wouldn't elsewhere. The last show I did in the old Traverse was Your Turn To Clean The Stair and the whole title of the play hung on the audience's recognition of getting that notice hung on your door handle."

Of course, although she knows Edinburgh, she has never been to China. For that, she had to trust her imagination and the emotional truth of the characters.

"I desperately wanted to go to China, but never managed it," she says.

"It's ended up being a plus because you then have an imagined China. One of the characters talks about their love for the willow pattern design and one of the others says, well, you know that was just made up by the English potteries, it was never a Chinese fairy story.

"That's the China in the play. It's the dream China - except we're lucky enough to have two really good Chinese actors (Siu Hun Li and Crystal Yu] who root it in reality."

Oranges and Sunshine is on general release from 1 April.

Pandas, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, 15 April to 7 May; Little Eagles, Hampstead Theatre, London, 16 April to 7 May. Mad, Bad And Dangerous To Know is on tour until 4 NovemberThis article was first published in Scotland On Sunday, 20 March, 2011

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