Sunday, 23 October 2011

Abi Morgan - The Hour Has Come

If Abi Morgan hadn't met a couple of nuns on train, her new play for
the National Theatre of Scotland might not have happened. The writer of
lauded TV drama The Hour and forthcoming Margaret Thatcher biopic, The
Iron Lady, starring Meryl Streep, was travelling up to the Edinburgh
Festival, and fell into conversation with the pair sitting opposite her.

“They were in their late seventies or early eighties,” Morgan
remembers, “and were very sweet and very inspiring. But during the
course of the journey it became apparent that they were being left
behind, and that there were no new young women coming up in their
order. Suddenly they were looking beneath them at this society they'd
lived in all their adult lives, and there was no new blood. These
women’s' lives can be traced and mapped out. They don't have children,
they don't smoke, they've never married, and there's something
anthropological going on there about a way of life which is maybe going
to die out in the twenty-first century.”

Around the same time, Morgan was reading Ageing With Grace, a study of
almost seven hundred Catholic sisters aged between seventy-four and 106
by Alzheimer's Disease expert Dr David Snowdon.

“It's a beautifully written book,” according to Morgan, “and I saw the
parallels of two inherent forms of belief that exist in the world of a
scientist and the world of nuns. Science is a belief in something that
can be proven to exist, and religion is a belief in something that
cannot be proven. So I had this idea of imagining a very different type
of scientist and a notion of a study group under pressure. This doctor
has had a life out of art, and for him if something doesn't exist then
it doesn't exist. He comes into contact with Ursula, this Mother
Superior who fell in love with art and literature, and who has to
believe in a God that she can't see, and who she can't always
understand. These are two very intelligent people with two very
different kinds of faith.”

The result of all this is 27, which opens at Edinburgh's Royal Lyceum
Theatre this coming weekend in a production directed by NTS artistic
director Vicky Featherstone. This will be a professional reunion of two
artists who first worked together a decade ago when Featherstone was in
charge of new writing company, Paines Plough. The pair worked on two
plays by Morgan which were produced within a year of each other, and
which both toured to Edinburgh's Traverse Theatre.

The first, Splendour, was a relatively conventional study of four women
waiting for civil war while ensconced in a private residence in an east
European state. The second, Tiny Dynamite, was a collaboration between
Paines Plough and the more physically inclined Frantic Assembly, who
recently co-produced the high-octane boxing epic, Beautiful Burnout,
with the NTS. Coincidentally, during the run-up to 27, Morgan opened a
new collaboration with Frantic Assembly. Lovesong, which features Sian
Phillips in the cast, will tour to Glasgow's Citizens Theatre in
January 2012.

“I was really lucky to meet Vicky,” Morgan says. “There's been a series
of really inspiring women who've been incredibly supportive of my work.
There were all these women coming into positions of power who've
championed me, and I've been very lucky to be part of that wave. After
Vicky said she was interested in 27, its been really interesting watch
it evolve from very early workshops. It's been like watching this
really ugly baby being born and watching it grow into a swan.”

Somewhere between these two stints with Featherstone alongside several
other stage plays, Morgan became a writer of serious television drama.
She first made her mark in 2004 with Sex Traffic, a two-part drama
which won eight BAFTAs. Morgan followed this two years later with
BBC/HBO mini-series, Tsunami: The Aftermath, which won a slew of BAFTA,
Emmy and Golden Globe awards. In 2007 Morgan co-wrote (with Laura
Jones) an adaptation of Monica Ali's novel, Brick Lane, which won a
best screenplay award at the Dinard Festival of British Cinema. In
2010's TV film, Royal Wedding, Morgan looked at family life in the
Thatcher's Britain of 1981 set against the back-drop of a street party
to celebrate the wedding of Prince Charles and the then Lady Diana

All of Morgan's film and television work looks at the human stories
behind a recognisable historical social or political fabric. This was
even more pronounced in The Hour, the glossily stylised BBC drama set
among fictional BBC radio types in the run up to the 1956 Suez crisis.
The Iron Lady too looks set to be a talking point.

“I tend to write about big political events,” Morgan observes, “but
through very personal eyes. The Iron Lady is about power, but it's also
about a very personal view of politics.”

The daughter of actress Pat England and theatre director Gareth Morgan,
Morgan was aged eleven when Thatcher was elected. Growing up and coming
of age during the Conservative Prime Minister's three terms in office
may go some way to explaining Morgan's all too human concerns in her

“It's interesting that I've comer back to theatre, because I find
writing plays really hard. It's like pulling teeth for me, which I
think is something to do do with the intensity of focus. With TV and
film the director is the author, and you don't own the work in the same
way as theatre, where the playwright is much more central.”

It doesn't take too much thought to recognise other parallels in
Morgan's description of 27 with the creative process itself. As a
writer and an artist, she too must square up to the dichotomy between
an abstract idea and a blank screen on a daily basis, and some kind of
leap of faith must be required to marry the two.

“I suppose there are parallels between a writer and a nun,” Morgan
concedes. “They're both involved in a silent course of study, trying to
make order out of chaos, and I think we all have our rituals. There's
an isolation required to both as well, and there's a spiritual side to
that, so you could call it a leap of faith of you wanted.”

With two stage plays up and running and The Iron Lady pending, there is
plenty more of Morgan's work to come. A TV adaptation of Sebastian
Faulks' World War One novel, Birdsong, is in post-production, while
Shame, a collaboration with Turner Prize winning artist and director of
Hunger, Steve McQueen, due to be released in January 2012, has already
picked up five awards at this year's Venice Film Festival.

Morgan is currently writing the second series of The Hour (co-executive
produced, incidentally, by Morgan with Jane Featherstone, sister of
Vicky and managing director of Kudos Productions, makers of Spooks),
and there are “a couple of films” on the go.

“I just keep my head down and keep on writing,” Morgan says. “Writing
is how I keep myself stable and sane, and it's definitely my
compulsion. But I'm looking forward to having some time where I can
just look out the window and observe. There's a desire there I have to
connect with the world beyond that window, but I'm sure I'll go very
quiet after all this and you'll never hear from me again.”

27, Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, October 21-November 12

The Herald, October 18th 2011


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