Dawn King is feeling pretty jet-lagged. The writer of spy thriller, Ciphers, which tours to Edinburgh's Traverse Theatre this week in a co-production between Out of Joint, the Northcott Theatre, Exeter and The Bush flew out of Portland, Oregon the afternoon before, only to find it was still lunch-time when she arrived back in London.
King was in Portland to see a new production of her début full-length play, Foxfinder, a dystopian rural parable with a Gothic bent that was a London hit in 2011 after winning the Papatango playwriting competition as well as a clutch of other accolades. She was in Sweden earlier in the year to see one there as well, and is off to Reykjavik next week to see how it works in Icelandic. There have also been productions of Foxfinder in Australia and Greece.
If such a jet-setting lifestyle sounds like something straight out of a film, it's also testament to King's expansive vision, which imbues an investigative depth into popular forms. For Ciphers, King has looked to a real-life incident to tell a story about spies, double agents, secret identities and what is described on the play's publicity material as the 'opaqueness of the soul.'
“I was sort of inspired by the real case of Gareth Williams,” King says, referring to the GCHQ employee who was seconded to MI6 before being found dead in his London flat in 2010. The fact that he was discovered in a bag, padlocked from the outside and left in his bath-tub may have suggested foul play, but no fingerprints or any signs of forced entry were evident, and to date no-one has ever been charged for a death which the coroner decreed was 'unnatural and likely to have been criminally meditated. “It became known as the spy in the bath-tub case, and was very strange. Weird things were being said about him, which for me sounded very sad, because obviously he had a family who were grieving and wondering what happened to him.”
In Ciphers, this translates into the story of a woman investigating how her sister died, and who subsequently uncovers a labyrinthine world of subterfuge, secrets and lies that could infiltrate an episode of Spooks or Alias without batting an eyelid.
“It is a spy thriller,” King says of her play. “It definitely has that structure and all the twists and turns that go with it, but I hope it's about something bigger than that as well. It's about whether you can really ever get close to someone if they're living a lie.
“Like anything I do dramatically, I'm always trying to get bigger things into something that's accessible. It has to work on that level, or nobody's going to be interested. As well as looking at bigger things, it's also part of my job to entertain.”
In terms of research, while avoiding watching any episodes of Spooks lest she be unduly influenced, King read a lot of books on the spying game, many of which somewhat predictably contradicted themselves. She also looked to the real MI5, who, as it turns out, have a very good website.
“It was really useful,” she says. “and tells you all the different jobs they do. Obviously given that the Secret Service is secret, there's only so far you can go, and you can't get any closer. That's what I like about this job, the ambiguity of it.”
There is an entire scene in Ciphers, King points out, which is lifted directly from the MI5 website, which somewhat intriguingly involves “someone eating toast.”
While the acclaim for Foxfinder suggested that King was something of an overnight success, she has actually been writing seriously for more than a decade after falling in love with theatre while growing up in Stroud in Gloucestershire.
“I was really into theatre as a kid,” she says, “but because I didn't want ton be an actor, after I'd done my A levels I thought that was it, and went off to study for a media degree.”
King moved to London, where she was “really unhappy, so I thought I'd better do do something creative.”
king went to a writing workshop at Soho Theatre, and was offered a place at the theatre's young writer's group.
“Someone dropped out,” King says, “and I was next in line.”
King was also invited to join the Royal Court Young Writers group, and in 2004 took an M.A.. in playwriting at Goldsmith's.
“I was fully committed to it by that time,” King recalls, “so I thought I'd better go off and learn how to do this thing I was going to spend the rest of my life doing.”
After assorted apprentice pieces, King wrote Foxfinder without a commission, but “just to find out what would happen with it, get it on somewhere and get it reviewed so I could feel like a real writer. I certainly didn't expect it to happen in the way it did, but there seems to be something about that story that crosses borders.”
Whether something similar happens with Ciphers remains to be seen, but beyond it, King is going on attachment with the National Theatre Studio, where she will be allowed to develop new ideas and “figure out what my next play is about,” in an environment which gives theatre artists space to explore. There are also TV and film ideas in development, as well as more radio work likely.
“I hope that will happen,” King says, “and I think it's possible to do them all, but I still want to work in theatre. That's where my secret heart lies, and I wouldn't want to chase TV work to the extent that I couldn't do theatre. I look at one of my writing heroes, Dennis Kelly,” she says of the man behind Matilda the musical, BBC 3 sitcom, Pulling, and even an episode of Spooks while still writing plays for the Royal Court, Paines Plough and others, “and I think, well, if he can do it...”
In whatever medium her work ends up in, King's work is possessed with the same forensic desire to find out what happens next.
!I get an idea, get obsessed and then have to write about it,” she says. “That's what drives me. Obsession.”
Ciphers, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, November 12th-16th
Dawn King – A Life in Letters
Dawn King took a media degree before taking part in a playwriting workshop at Soho Theatre, where she became part of the theatre's Young Writers Group. Her early play, Garlic, received a reading there in 2002, with another play, Arrival With Baggage, receiving a reading at the Royal Court, where she was invited to join the theatre's Young Writers programme. The same year, King contributed to the early stages of Filter's show, Faster, seen at Battersea Arts Centre.
Other early short plays include How To Live Forever (2004) , What Happens At The Zoo (2005), Early One Morning As the Sun Set (2005), The Bitches Ball (2006), Doghead Boy and Sharkmouth Go To Ikea (2006), Little Deaths (2006), Worms (2006), Face Value (2007) and Water Sculptures (2007).
Foxfinder won the Papatango writing competition in 2011 and was produced at the Finborough Theatre, where King was a Pearson writer in residence in 2012. Foxfinder went on to win King the Most Promising Playwright award at the OffWestEnd Awards 2012, and she was a finalist for the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, as well as being shortlisted for the inaugural James Tate Black Prize for Drama.
King is currently participating in the Channel Four television writing scheme, 4 Screenwriting 2013. She writes regularly for BBC Radio, and her latest work, an adaptation of a New Testament parable, was heard on BBC Radio 3 in December 2012. Her feature film script, The Squatter’s Handbook, won the UK Film Council’s 25 Words or Less pitching competition in 2005, and her short film, The Karman Line, is in post production.
The Herald, November 12th 2013