Theatre interview: Ella Hickson on reimagining Peter Pan for Edinburgh's Royal Lyceum

Ten years, 12 major plays, and dozens of other writing projects; it's been a busy decade for award-winning playwright Ella Hickson since she first shot to fame in 2008 with her remarkable Edinburgh Fringe show Eight, which played to rave reviews at the Bedlam Theatre. At the time, Hickson had just graduated from Edinburgh University with a degree in art history and English literature; but when Eight '“ a series of short monologues in which each day's programme was selected by the audience in a ballot based on brief descriptions of the characters '“ won a Scotsman Fringe First Award, followed by a Carol Tambor Award transfer to New York and then a run in London, her post-university fate was sealed. At 23, she became the youngest playwright ever published by theatrical imprint Nick Hern Books; and within half a decade, she had written major plays for the Old Vic and the Royal Shakespeare Company, among many others.
Laurie Jamieson, Isobel McArthur, Bonnie Baddoo and Sally Reid in the Lyceum Christmas show, Wendy & Peter PanLaurie Jamieson, Isobel McArthur, Bonnie Baddoo and Sally Reid in the Lyceum Christmas show, Wendy & Peter Pan
Laurie Jamieson, Isobel McArthur, Bonnie Baddoo and Sally Reid in the Lyceum Christmas show, Wendy & Peter Pan

As for most young playwrights, her reviews were mixed; her 2016 epic Oil, for the Almeida Theatre in London, about a vast sweep of female history in the age of growing carbon-fuelled wealth, divided audiences and critics between breathless admiration for its ambition and questions about how well it worked out in detail. Then, earlier this year, Hickson caught the #metoo moment with her latest play The Writer, based on her personal experience of how even successful women writers can still be patronised, bullied and pushed out of shape by a male-dominated system. The play struck a profound chord in the theatrical world of 2018, and became one of the most discussed London theatre events of the year, winning a Best New Play nomination in this month’s Evening Standard awards.

So it’s with something like a sigh of relief that Hickson turns back, this Christmas, to a play she wrote for the Royal Shakespeare Company more than five years ago, and to the city where she first found her voice as a student playwright. Her version of JM Barrie’s great, disturbing Peter Pan story – retitled Wendy and Peter Pan – is this year’s Christmas show at the Lyceum Theatre, opening next week; and it’s hardly surprising, given Hickson’s feminist history, that it places the character of Wendy Darling – the little girl invited to Neverland to mother the lost boys – firmly at the centre of the story.

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“Peter Pan is actually quite a difficult story to make into a successful play,” says Hickson, reflecting on the slightly shorter version she has created for the Lyceum, reducing the show’s cast size from 21 to 12. “For one thing, it’s very dark. I was aware of the story of Barrie’s brother who drowned when he was very young; and right from the start I felt that it was about grief – it’s almost a kind of manual for grief for young readers.

“It also has this structural issue, in that its main character is a boy who refuses to grow up, and therefore never evolves, never changes. So I thought it would be more interesting to put Wendy at the centre of the story – because she does develop and change through the story, in very interesting ways.

“It’s fascinating to think that Barrie was writing this play in the very year when Emmeline Pankhurst founded the Women’s Social and Political Union, and yet the play still embodies this view of women as the ones who must do all the emotional housework, keep connections and memory alive, and always compete with each other for male approval – the two other female characters Wendy meets, Tinkerbell and Tiger Lily, both try to kill her. So it’s good to be able to write a revisionist version where all that begins to change, in ways that I hope people enjoy.”

Hickson is delighted that this re-working of Wendy and Peter Pan involves her spending time in Edinburgh, working alongside director Eleanor Rhode – an Edinburgh University contemporary of Hickson’s – and a fine cast in which Wendy will be played by Isobel McArthur, now something of a legend in Scottish theatre for her portrayal of Mr Darcy in this summer’s Pride And Prejudice* (*Sort Of) at the Tron.

Soon, though, Hickson will be off again to tackle fresh challenges, in the shape of television scripts for Roald Dahl’s Tales Of The Unexpected and Muriel Spark’s Abbess Of Crewe, and her first play for the National Theatre in London, set in East Germany in 1968.

“One of my old teachers was saying to me recently that every playwriting career has its ‘moment,’ five years or so when you just have to work flat out and take all the chances that come your way; and although I’ve already been working pretty hard over the last decade, I feel I’m in the middle of that moment now.

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“In three or four years’ time, though – well, who knows. I can see a whole new generation of women taking charge in London theatre now, and I often talk to David Greig at the Lyceum about being a playwright in charge of a big theatre organisation.

“If I were to do that, though, I would feel I had to challenge the whole power structure, the way artistic directors seem inevitably to become gatekeepers, and how that shapes the whole way of working. And that’s a big task.”

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I suggest that Hickson should take a look at John McGrath’s book A Good Night Out, which describes the 7:84 Theatre Company’s famous 1970s effort to challenge the whole basis of theatre production, in their case from a class perspective.

“It’s funny you should say that,” says Hickson, laughing, “because I bought a copy of A Good Night Out just last week; and now it’s lying here on my desk, just waiting to be read.” - Joyce McMillan

Wendy and Peter Pan is at the Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, from 29 November until 5 January