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Joe Penhall: 'The subject of Mood Music is close to my heart - perhaps too close'

Writing life: Mood Music playwright Joe Penhall: Getty Images
Writing life: Mood Music playwright Joe Penhall: Getty Images

In our Play Talk series, playwrights discuss the joys and struggles of the writing life. This week, Joe Penhall talks about writing his latest play Mood Music, which opens at the Old Vic this week.

What was the first play to make you want to write plays?

Arthur Miller's Death Of A Saleman. There was a music cue involving a melancholy Chet Baker trumpet and lime green light every time Willy Loman had a memory. I was mesmerised by a character who was reliving his past inside his head as his future was meant to be unfolding. All his mistakes, futile ambitions and passions implode on him at once, as he struggles to conform to the myth of the American Dream. It was a kind of polyphonic assault on the senses – light, music, performance, emotion – it seemed the most vivid way of expressing the human condition.

What was your background to becoming a playwright?

I was a teenage rock reporter and playing in various bands but I was worried that once I turned twenty I'd be too old for it all, so I drifted through a few things before winding up a news reporter on local newspapers. I was confused and looking for an outlet, seeing a lot of plays and films, and had sent something to the Royal Court Young Peoples' Theatre in Portobello Road. They invited me to join the group and every week fabulous writers like Hanif Kureishi came and taught us what they could and we'd all go to the pub afterwards. I read every play I could get my hands on, siphoning off news stories I'd written and using them to jump start plays. My first full length play was Some Voices and Ian Rickson championed it to Stephen Daldry, who decided to programme it at the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs. I quit my job immediately and became a full time playwright, somehow certain I'd found my metier...!

What’s the hardest play you’ve ever written?

The one I've just written, Mood Music. In terms of form, it's contrapuntal and complex and quite berserk, like a piece of music -- a fugue for human voices. It was very confusing to write and even more confusing to rehearse. And the subject is something very close to my heart – perhaps too close for comfort. It's brought me pain and pleasure in equal measure.

Which brought you the most joy?

Sunny Afternoon. The most fun I've ever had in my life. We were on a mission from God.

Which playwrights have influenced you the most?

Sam Shepard, Orton, Pinter, Checkhov, Moliere, Caryl Churchill.

What is your favourite line or scene from any play?

True West by Sam Shepard: a play about duality, identity and psychological turmoil with a laconic lack of pretention.

Bookish screenwriter Austin has finally gone to the dark side; he comes home from a night of prowling the neighbourhood with a collection of stolen toasters and makes toast, while his petty criminal brother Lee struggles at the typewriter, trying to write a screenplay.

AUSTIN (Polishing toasters.): "There's gonna be a general lack of toast in the neighbourhood this morning..."

What’s been the biggest surprise to you since you’ve had your writing performed by actors?

Actors are like musicians and a play is like a song. I never know what it is until I've heard it played. The right actor with the right words can be exquisitely expressive. The best ones can capture lighting in a bottle. But you have to be careful because the good ones can make bad writing sound good. And the bad ones will make good writing sound bad...

What’s been your biggest setback as a writer?

Having plays turned down by theatres is pretty soul destroying. It's only happened a couple of times, but a couple is enough. Sometimes the ones that are turned down by somebody are the ones that go on to become big hits. To write a truly great play I have to be extremely personally invested in it. But it hurts like hell if nobody understand what you're on about.

And the hardest lesson you’ve had to learn?

You have to figure out who to trust and who to not trust. It's very hard to know what notes and advice to take and what to ignore. It can be disastrous if you get the wrong notes – or none at all. The play really needs to be heard out loud before it becomes obvious what it is. I always arrange a reading with actors before I send it off or take any meetings. I rely on actors to tell me before I ask anybody else.

What do you think is the best thing about theatre? And the worst?

The best thing? The dedication and excitement of the people involved in putting on a production smart, clever, passionate people dedicating their various skills, time, blood sweat and tears with alacrity, generosity and spirit.

The worst? The liberal echo chamber. It's not that I'm not interested, I just expect more from the theatre. It needs to operate on a higher plane. As the great Irish playwright Billy Roche once said to me, "God spare me from debates."

What’s your best piece of advice for writers who are starting out?

It's all about re-writing.

Are there any themes and stories you find yourself re-visiting with your plays?

Alienation, madness and death.

Are you on Twitter? Do you find it a help or a hindrance as a writer?

I'm not on it. I don't mind it at all. But for me there's nothing more interesting than going eyeball to eyeball with a real, living breathing human being and hearing their testimony, from the horse's mouth. As a playwright you're communicating with hundreds of people, eyeball to eyeball every night, and they want to make contact, so you have to be good at it.

Why did you write Mood Music?

I wrote Mood Music because I thought it was time to write a love letter to music – which was my first love, my inspiration and security blanket and still is. I wanted to write something that was more structurally complex, formally challenging and discombobulating than what I usually do. I suddenly got tired of writing the "well made play." Although I still like watching them.

How do you spend opening night?

In the stalls, surrounded by my friends, a big cold beer in my hand, hands cupped to my ears, absolutely glued to it.

What’s the best play you’ve seen this year?

Dennis Kelly's Girls And Boys at the Royal Court.

What’s your favourite place to watch theatre in London?

Wherever there's a good vibe, a good bar, happening people and a warm welcome.

What other art forms do you love when you’re not in a theatre?

I love cinema because, as Anthony Minghella said, it's essentially pictures set to music.

If the Prime Minister said they were abolishing the theatre tomorrow, what would you do?

Set David Eldridge on her. He doesn't take any s***.

Mood Music is at the Old Vic until June 16