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Owen Sheers Interview

27 January 2016 | Lydia Cooper

The Welsh poet, author and playwright Owen Sheers discusses the new production of his work Pink Mist at the Bush Theatre, along with his literary influences and works in progress.

London Calling: Pink Mist has been performed at the Bristol Old Vic before, but its London premiere is in January. Have you been heavily involved in the new production process?
 
Owen Sheers: Unfortunately I’ve been working out of the country from a few days into rehearsals for the new run, but I did just have time to visit the cast for a morning before leaving. This was mostly about going over some questions of emphasis and motivation with the directors, and to spend time with Rebecca Killick who has joined the production for the first time in the part of Lisa. We discussed her character and the nature of her relationship with Taff - how across the course of her story she effectively ‘loses’ her husband twice, once to the army and then to the psychological wounding resulting from his service. It was a great session, and a reminder of how lucky you can be as a writer when intelligent, intuitive actors lend their experience and nervous systems to your writing.

LC: What in particular about the form of verse drama makes it so fitting for the subject of war? And why have you returned to this subject throughout your body of work?
 
OS: In terms of my returning to the subject, there are two reasons I think. The first has been an organic progression from project to project - the influence of one piece of writing upon another. The post 9/11 conflicts have run exactly parallel with my professional writing life so even when writing about historical conflicts it’s always been about using them as a prism through which to reflect contemporary events.

The second reason is because we’re still doing it. Resorting to violent conflict for political or financial gain or to settle our differences is, alongside inequality and poverty, one of humanity’s most persistent failures. What partly fuels this is blunted public narratives around the subject so I do see some of my writing as an opportunity to describe and question conflict and its aftermath with a sharper nuance - to provide a counter tide of detail to the anonymising force of war.

The lyrical and rhythmical elements of Pink Mist are there for several reasons. It was a voice that felt true to the nature of the experiences described to me in the interviews I conducted as part of my research for the play, but it's also a form in which the weight of traumatic content can be lightened somewhat by a beauty of expression. What is particularly vital about the form, though, is in providing a counterpoint to the dominant note of telling in the play. Unlike in a conventional drama the characters of Pink Mist are telling us, rather than showing us, their stories - reporting back from the other side of the crucible. This telling hopefully lends a timeless quality to the play, which is very much something I was after, but telling alone is rarely dramatically engaging. This is where the poetry comes in, in enabling the characters to also ‘show’ us their stories via patterns of rhythm, rhyme and imagery rather than immediate dramatic action.

LC: The work originated from interviews with ex-servicemen that you conducted for a different project, and the medieval Welsh poem Y Gododdin was also a literary influence. Are there any other cultural or intertextual references that an audience should be aware of?
 
OS: Apart from those two, I think just the wonderful piece of WWI writing In Parenthesis, by David Jones. Jones uses Y Gododdin too, to introduce the seven parts of his work, but the primary drive of his endeavour was about illuminating the ordinary foot soldier’s experience of conflict - both in his time and across time. I took a strong cue from that aspiration. Some awareness of the contemporary music scene in Bristol might help - from the trip hop of the 90s to the more recent dubstep.

LC: Pink Mist was broadcast on Radio 4, and as a verse drama it has a uniquely oral quality. Do you have any plans to write pieces designed specifically for an audio-only performance?
 
OS: I recently finished a film poem for the National Trust which takes a listener/viewer on a journey along the Gower coastline. Although this was a film, from my point of view I was very much writing for the ear. I haven’t got any other radio projects in the pipeline as yet, but hopefully I’ll get the chance to write for the medium again soon. Radio in the UK is a huge patron of poetry, and I’m grateful for it leading me to the voice I discovered in Pink Mist. It’s a voice I’m certainly interested in using again in writing about other subjects.

LC: Thus far your career has been extremely varied - from working as a researcher on The Big Breakfast, to a stint in Zimbabwe and a residency with the Welsh rugby team. Is there anywhere else in the world you’d like to live, or any other institutions you’d like to work with?
 
OS: Part of that variety has been because of the financial necessities of living as a writer in the 21st century, in that you have to be pretty fleet of foot to write what you want while also keeping your head above water. But much of it has also been because I enjoy dovetailing the more solitary pursuits of poetry and fiction with the collaborative worlds of theatre, TV and film. In terms of places to live, there are probably too many to mention but I’ve always fancied a year in the Alps, to see them go through the full cycle of the seasons. That said the Black Mountains in Wales are very much home now, so I think in future it’ll be more about brief travels from there as opposed to full-scale moves. Institutions? I’ve been lucky enough to do a project with CERN recently which was fantastic. I’d love to write a play for the National Theatre, or for them to take on my WWI site specific play Mametz - it would be good to see them literally getting out into the field. I suppose if a writer’s residency ever came up on the International Space Station I’d be up for that!

LC: Your literary projects have similarly been extremely versatile in form and varied in content. What’s next?
 
OS: I’m just starting a second draft of a one hour poetry film for the BBC to mark the 50th anniversary of the Aberfan disaster. Once that’s put to bed I’ll be getting on with the next novel and returning to a couple of plays that are at various stages of development. I’ll also be filming a BBC documentary about David Jones (see above) this spring, for broadcast over the summer.

 

Pink Mist is at the Bush theatre until 13 February 2016. Find out more and book tickets here.

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