S5 Ep3: Eve Leigh talks to Simon Stephens

Series 5 of the Royal Court Playwright’s Podcast was released in partnership with Berliner Theatertreffen Stückemarkt.

The following content may contain strong language.

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This conversation has been transcribed and can be accessed here: https://royalcourttheatre.com/podcasts/playwrights-podcast-transcript-of-series-5-episode-3-eve-leigh-talks-to-simon-stephens/

You can watch a livestreamed performance of Eve Leigh’s Midnight Movie here: https://digital.berlinerfestspiele.de/stueckemarkt/midnight-movie
All readings/recordings will be available for 24 hours for the 18 May.

Full introduction by Simon Stephens:

One of the most exasperating myths in the various narratives that surround new playwriting culture is that playwrights ever burst into the playwriting world from nowhere. A prominent literary figure at the Royal Court used to talk about such hypothetical playwrights coming ‘from Mars.’ The truth is that those playwrights who arrive suddenly into the new writing scene have often spent years working with tenacity and determination on their craft and process before they appear to emerge from outer space and take the world by surprise.

Occasionally over the past couple of decades it has been a privilege to watch some writers make that journey. One striking example for me is the playwright Eve Leigh whose Midnight Movie is one of the juror choices in this year’s Stückemarkt.

I first met Eve in the early years of the last decade when she sent her play Stone Face to the Lyric Hammersmith while I was Associate there. The play was striking for the clarity of its vision and the muscular poetry of its writing. We met to talk about her work and have stayed in touch over the last decade. I am proud to think of her as a friend.

Over that time, she has written at least a play a year. Receiving her work has always been a joy. But there was a moment two or three years ago, with her plays Salty Irina and The Trick when it became clear that the years of work had started to play off. Here were plays of force and confidence. The lyrical petrify was now being matched by a sense of theatrical adventure and musical and clarity and cogency of idea.

And then in 2019 she appeared from nowhere, a playwright coming from outer space to hit our major stages. While earlier productions had caught some people’s eye: Spooky Action At A Distance was produced by the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama at the Gate theatre. Roy Alexander Weise directed Stone Face at the Finborough. It was in 2019 that The Trick premiered at the celebrated Bush theatre. Salty Irina was shortlisted for the Bruntwood Prize and Rachel Bagshaw directed Midnight Movie at the Royal Court.

Leigh is a writer of range and conviction.  Her work is defined by a formal exploration as much as an intellectual one. Her theatre is built on an understanding of the importance of the presence of the audience in her work. She invents games for them to play. She imagines magic tricks for them to take part in. She makes music for them to listen to.

She is a writer of real political exploration. In recent years her commitment to the investigation of issues of ability and access in the theatre have been integrated into her work in a way that is as theatrical and playful as it is serious and nuanced. She has examined, as a journalist as a well as a dramatist, the repeated depiction of violence against women in drama. She has written with compassion and understanding of the experience of the Eastern European diaspora, a diaspora that her own family was informed by and built around.

If 2019 was a breakthrough year then 2020 may have been an unwelcome interruption, but one of the most surprising oddities of that baffling pandemic – and one of the most playful explorations of theatre in its lockdowns – was the series of emails she sent headed Invisible Summer. Gifs, short films, poems, pieces of music that explore the territory surrounding Midnight Movie.

Midnight Movie is a play about the internet. It is also a play that seeks to dramatise the form of the internet. It’s a play about how we can become addicted to the solace and titillation, the voyeuristic horrors and the sense of community however dislocated or fictional or untrustworthy, that the internet can offer. It is a play that spans continents in the way the internet does, and which reshapes and reimagines itself with every refresh the way the internet does.

It tells the story of a night of migraine induced insomnia for the unnamed narrator of the play that seems to be a fictionalised version of Leigh. It returns to those investigations of diaspora, disability and voyeurism. It builds those investigations into its very form. Its opening stage directions insist that It should be performed by multiple people, ideally with visible and invisible disabilities, and that the performers and artistic team should consider some of the languages of accessibility – sign languages, captioning, audio description, live voice – and how they might be part of telling this story. 

Returning to our old email conversations in preparation for this interview, I found one from 2013 in which Eve exclaimed how much she had loved visiting the Theatertreffen and the Stückemarkt, and wondering if I knew any ways that she may be able to return.

I am thrilled that the way she managed to get back there, even if only virtually, is through the calibre and brilliance of her work.