True to His Beliefs: David Edgar Has Homed in on British Politics Again. He Tells Helen Chappell Why He Is Still a Revolutionary
Chappell, Helen, New Statesman (1996)
I was warned about meeting David Edgar. Daunting, ponderous, awkward--and these were the descriptions from his friends. So it is a surprise when he emerges, fresh from rehearsals at the National Theatre, beaming from ear to ear. "Are we having wine? We must agree not to mention it. I did another interview where they said I started to slur my words." I may be breaking my promise here, but I can't say I noticed any slackness over lunch, where Edgar tucked into a plate of the National's sausages and mash. With a glass of wine.
Recently, he has written several political plays set in Europe and America. Why return to British politics now, in Playing With Fire? "I was a bit alarmed," he says, "to think I hadn't written a play set in Britain since That Summer, my play about the miners' strike, which I wrote in the late 1980s." When Nicholas Hytner, director of the National, asked him to fill the "political slot" at the end of the [pounds sterling]10 Travelex season, as Edgar puts it, he was up for it. And has the press release got it right, describing the new work as a "metro v retro comedy of misunderstanding which becomes a chilling drama about multicultural Britain"? He pretends to be offended. "Actually, I wrote that."
The starting point was the 2001 race riots in Oldham, Bradford and Burnley. "I started to talk to people in local government and discovered there was an unreported war going on between new Labour and what it sees as the last bastion of old socialism in northern town halls." The first half follows an ambitious new Labourite, Alex Clifton, as he arrives in a northern town to "modernise" the councillors who have failed a government audit. "For me, the situation had elements of a classic western, such as High Noon--a stranger riding in to clean the place up. With maybe a dash of Cold Comfort Farm."
One of Edgar's "broken-backed" plays, which deliberately change tone after the interval, Playing With Fire moves from comedy to wrestle with more dangerous material. How does the political wrangling affect already strained race relations in the town? Does either side grasp how volatile things are in a community split by religious and racial ghettoes?
"I reject the idea that riots and terrorists are on a continuum from fundamentalist Islam. Suicide bombers are special cases. But do we need to renew our ideas about cultural diversity? Ask what is holding us together, as well as celebrating differences."
He says the best way to work out what he thinks about something is to write a play about it. He has also started to put elements of himself into his work.
"People tell me there's always a David Edgar character in my plays. In this one it's Jack, the character I like least. He's pretty sure he's the cleverest person in the room; he's a bit manipulative. But I'm quite fond of the leader of the council, desperately trying to find a down-to-earth compromise. He has a nice, dry wit. If I'm viewing myself more kindly, there's a bit of me in him, too."
The contradictions of Edgar's personality stem from his surprisingly anti-intellectual origins. He was born in Birmingham in 1948 into a long-standing theatrical family. His father, Barrie, was an actor and stage manager at the Birmingham Rep, becoming an early BBCTV producer of shows such as Come Dancing and Songs of Praise. "As a boy, I would travel around the country with him, watching outside broadcasts from theatres and end-of-pier shows. …