By Jacqueline Grima
Nick Dear is a BAFTA award-winning playwright and screenwriter who has written for television, radio and even the opera. His work has been staged by both the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre and, in 2011, his stage adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein starred Benedict Cumberbatch and was directed by Danny Boyle. This week, Nick visited Manchester Metropolitan University to talk to Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing Julie Wilkinson about his work.
Julie began by asking Nick about the representation of women in his writing, with particular reference to his play The Dark Earth and the Light Sky, which features poets Edward Thomas and Robert Frost and Thomas’ wife, Helen. Julie referred to Helen as the audience’s “way into the play”. She added, “One of the reasons I enjoy your work is because you give women the power of choice.”
Nick answered by telling the audience how, when he began writing in the early 1980s, the feminist movement was strong. Women, however, were still clearly underrepresented in drama. He said, “I was interested to find ways to try and mirror the reality of life in that women have always had power but it has often been backgrounded.”
He went on to say that his decisions in writing were often less about gender and more about creating strong characters who were able to tell the story. He said, “There are no formulas for what makes a successful show but there are formulas that make it a more enjoyable experience. I try to make sure that every character has a good bit. We can’t afford to have a maid come on and say two lines. Every actor has a serious bit of work to do.”
Julie then went on to ask about Nick’s adaptation of Frankenstein. Nick told how he began working on the script as long ago as the 1990s but the idea was abandoned after the release of Kenneth Brannagh’s film version of the story. After he returned to the idea in 2003, it took him a further eight years to write a script that both he and director Danny Boyle were happy with, stating that he had never seen an adaptation of the story that did justice to the original novel. Talking about the logistics of creating Shelly’s creature for the stage, he said: “You are immediately in a different ball park from the movies.” He added, “This is not a story about what it’s like to be a monster. This is a story about what it’s like to be a man.”
Responding to a question from Manchester Met’s Senior Lecturer in English Literature, Dr Emma Liggins, regarding the Gothic Horror aspect of the story, he said, “You don’t actually find a lot of Gothic Horror in it. 90% of the book is not Gothic Horror.” He continued, “I don’t want to be inside genre. I want to step outside and do something original.”
Julie then asked Nick about his historical writing and his deliberate use of contemporary language in plays such as In the Ruins, which explores the madness of King George III, and Power, which depicts Louis XIV’s relationship with his Finance Minister. Julie said: “You bring us up short with modern phrases.”
Nick answered, “There are plays set in the past where people talk to each other like dummies, make speeches at each other.” He went on to say how he aims to write plays which enable the audience to forget about what era the piece is set in and to simply enjoy the story. Of his 1995 screenplay of Jane Austen’s Persuasion, he said, “It is never exactly what Jane Austen wrote because it sounds wrong. We’re giving it a makeover.”
Nick’s career has also taken him to Hollywood, where he worked with renowned film director Steven Spielberg. The experience, however, was far from satisfactory, Nick stating of the Hollywood movie industry, “Writers are so far down the food chain. They are hired and fired at the drop of a hat.” He added, “I was much happier working on a much smaller scale in the UK making less money.” He subsequently went on to write for UK television drama Poirot.
Talking about Nick’s flexibility as a writer, Julie commented upon the huge variety of areas he has worked in, to which Nick replied that his motivation was simply having to support his family and stay in work. He said, “One of the ways in which I could earn a living as a dramatist was to say ‘So you want an opera? Okay, I’ll have a go.’”
The event concluded with questions from the audience, one student asking Nick what advice he would give to new and emerging writers. Nick answered, “Be prepared to be rejected and get used to it. For as long as you are a writer, you will carry on being rejected. It’s a constant.”