London, New Zealand and which to call home: An interview with Stella Duffy

Written for Spoonfed, London Theatre:
Best known for her many novels, including The Room of Lost Things, writer Stella Duffy has most recently been spending her time scribbling lists on the walls of Ovalhouse. She’s devising a new play, Taniwha Thames, as part of the theatre’s season of work by female artists. Bluntly titled ‘Lady-Led’, it’s been put together by co-artistic directors Rebecca Atkinson-Lord and Rachel Briscoe to bring together notable works created by women.

Together with New Zealand theatre company Shaky Isles, Stella is using the highly collaborative open space format to devise the play. “Every now and then there’s a glorious moment where it all comes together,” she tells me between rehearsals.“But for a good 90% of the time, it feels like swimming through mud. Which is actually kind of good for this show because it’s about water and the earth and what’s underneath. As time progresses and you get closer to opening, there’s less mud and more water, but it’s a very start-and-stop process.”

Since its first showing at Camden Fringe, Taniwha Thames, a play about the way we identify ourselves, has been in continuous development. It looks at where we belong and the elusiveness of the places we call home. The death of her parents and the decades she’s spent in London have caused Duffy to reassess this issue personally: “It’s the physicality of the land that I miss,” she says of New Zealand, and “the emotive quality of home”. Equally, the show plays with the notion of how to qualify home. “It’s about what happens when home is not what you thought it was; when home is a place that you’ve made home, rather than the one that your family comes from.”

“So many Londoners are not from here, and so many people who are not in London carry London with them,” she elaborates. “My mother, for example, lived in London and then New Zealand for 33 years, but she never stopped being a Londoner. It was an identity that was important to her, as I think anyone’s identity is. But, identities – we all have several.”

These ideas on the multiple, ever-changing nomenclature we use to describe ourselves are what makes Taniwha Thames fit into the Lady-Led season so naturally. Rebecca and Rachel, the season’s curators, will soon have their vision filtered through the lens of London’s theatre critics, whose reviews will act as a permanent record of what happens for such a short time on stage. Globally, it seems that theatre can do away with labels – Asian playwrights can make shows about the white working class, as seen in Rigged, whilst atheists can create plays about Christians without any raised eyebrows – but when it comes to writing about these feats of transcending social constructs, we tend to put those labels back in.

But the co-artistic directors find themselves in a position to change the conversation about women in theatre. “We’re more sophisticated consumers of media now,” says Rebecca, of Ovalhouse’s intelligent audiences. “We don’t need to talk about theatre in simplistic ways. I’d like this season to be recorded as a ‘turn’, so we can identify that this is how we’ve tended to talk about it in the past, and this is how it’s changing.”

Rachel also notes that highlighting the work of women is about “what we expect people to make shows about. It’s odd to think that the only play by a female playwright to be put on in the Olivier was a play about suffragettes. In a way, there’s a grand narrative where we can say we wanted a season about this, this and this – that’s part of it. The other part is that we have four pieces of great work that we want to showcase. They’re so different but they have this thing in common: female theatre makers. So it’s about differences as well as similarity.”

Refreshingly, the number of women in theatre don’t seem to have been factored into the Lady-Led season. “Statistics are there so that people can say ‘are you aware of this?’” says Rachel. “But when you talk of things in terms of statistics, in a way you’re homogenising. I’m really happy to be in a season with Stella Duffy but I’m not saying we’re the same. We’re not, and that’s good.”

Taniwha Thames runs at Ovalhouse from 15th November until 3rd Decemeber and Same Same by Shireen Mula runs as part of the same season from 22nd November until 10th December. Also showing is Tomboy Blues.

Images by Alex Brenner

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