Last June, a play by the 28-year-old playwright Cordelia Lynn opened at London’s Royal Court Theatre. Set in the febrile aftermath of a terrorist incident in a western city, it pulled few punches. A family cower in their home, glued to social media and TV news. Helicopters clatter overhead; panic is overtaking the streets. When a young man arrives at the door wearing a backpack, the question seems obvious: can he really be an innocent bystander? This paper’s critic thought immediately of the Moscow hostage crisis of 2002; others of the Bataclan or Manchester Arena attacks.
What made One for Sorrow stand out, though, was that it dared to find humour in this grisly situation. The family are insufferably upper-middle-class, locked in existential conflict between daughters (performatively woke) and parents (surreptitiously illiberal). It was a bit like watching a play by Sarah Kane through the prism of Noël Coward — not to mention an usually poised and accomplished piece of work.
Backstage at the Almeida Theatre in north London, Lynn is every bit as self-possessed as you might expect. Occasionally I have the sense that I’m the one being interviewed. When I venture that it takes nerve to turn a terrorist atrocity into comedy, she eyes me coolly. “In my experience, you don’t go, ‘This is a bold or shocking idea,’ ” she replies. “If latches into your brain, then you sort of have to do it.”
Though less obviously controversial, her latest project is hardly one for the faint-hearted: a new version of Chekhov’s Three Sisters. Directed by the hotly tipped Rebecca Frecknall, whose revival of Tennessee Williams’s Summer and Smoke was a surprise revelation of the London stage last year, it aims to make us experience the sisters of the title as we’ve never quite seen them — not just young women endlessly yearning for Moscow, but representatives of a generation betrayed by forces beyond their control.
Talking to Lynn about her approach, it’s the play’s politics that come to the fore. She points out that Three Sisters was written on the cusp of the 20th century, as the pressure cooker of late-tsarist Russia was preparing to blow. Less than four years after it premiered, the country was convulsed by a series of violent revolutions; one reason Chekhov’s characters — many of them under the age of 30 — are so dissatisfied is that they feel that they have so little stake in the future.
“I do sort of feel like they’re a bunch of millennials,” Lynn says. “They’re sitting around going, ‘How the hell do we live life? The world is changing, what’s it going to look like, what’s our part going to be?’ Then you’ve got another generation looking down, accusing them of being self-involved and petty.” She looks ironic. “What does that remind you of?”
Working from a literal translation, Lynn hasn’t felt the need to update the text beyond a minor wash-and-brush-up (“devil take him” is out, “f*** it” is in). But she hopes that the play’s themes — frustrated ideals and impossible love, stunted ambition — will be given more resonance by the experience of many real-life young Europeans, grappling with a world whose certainties seem to be eroding by the day.
“There’s such emptiness in the play, everyone on stage seems to be trying to fill it. And if you think of our own times, maybe we’re trying to fill the space too. A failed form of capitalism or neoliberalism followed by populism and this swing to the right across the globe . . . ”
Lynn herself is 29; does the play resonate for her? “Oh, absolutely,” she adds quietly. “It’s a really young play. We sometimes forget that.”
When it comes to the Russian aspects of Chekhov, Lynn knows whereof she speaks. Her father was a Reuters international correspondent, her mother a freelance journalist, and the family trekked peripatetically across Europe and Asia through her childhood. Between the ages of five and nine, Lynn studied at a specialist music academy in Moscow, before transferring to the Yehudi Menuhin School in London.
Her first ambition was to be a concert pianist, but that hope faded in her mid-teens. Her Russian is now “gone”, she says, but she encountered Chekhov in school and loved it. And the love for music remains, evidenced by Lynn’s sharp ear for the pulse and drive of speech, notated with exacting precision. Her training has also led to work as a librettist; a Shakespearean adaptation of the English composer Henry Purcell called Miranda debuted under Katie Mitchell’s direction at the Opéra Comique in Paris in 2017.
Her theatrical break came in 2012, when she invited the Royal Court’s literary manager to see one of her plays on the London fringe — another bold move, one she claims she “wouldn’t have the nerve” to do now (I’m not so sure). He was sufficiently impressed that he invited her to join the theatre’s influential young writers’ programme. A bursary to produce a new work, Lela and Co — a boisterous and disconcertingly upbeat monologue by a woman who finds herself caught in a civil war — followed in 2015.
Questions about a woman’s place in a world controlled by men also dominate Lynn’s other big upcoming project, an adaptation of another warhorse, Hedda Gabler, for the Chichester Festival and touring company Headlong. Except it isn’t quite called that: Lynn has ditched the heroine’s maiden name and rechristened her version Hedda Tesman, suggesting that Hedda is more bound to her marriage to the well-meaning but fatally dull Tesman than she might like to admit.
Unlike Three Sisters, Hedda Tesman will be a full-on contemporary working. Lynn explains that she and the director, Holly Race Roughan, have been attempting to answer perhaps the play’s most glaring question for modern audiences: why on earth doesn’t Hedda just leave? The solution they have come up with is likely to surprise audiences.
“The change is quite small, but it’s a little radical in terms of what it does to the rest of the play,” says Lynn, with a glint in her eye. Can she be more specific? “That’s all I’m going to say.”
I suggest it’s interesting that, having started writing her own scripts and setting them in the contemporary world, she’s tackled two dead white males in a row. Lynn points out that the timing wasn’t planned — Hedda was finished long before Three Sisters came up, and other projects have been in the mix. But she admits, though perhaps it sounds weird, she felt a kind of duty. “Those big male writers are so often adapted by other big male writers: your Frayns, your Friels. Young women often aren’t allowed to do that work the way older men are.”
Has the encounter with these classics affected her own writing? “I think it’s made me more courageous, particularly Chekhov: be bold with time, with space. Let things happen slowly.”
2019 is a big year, but she’s already thinking beyond it, to a new play she’s finished (“it’s about a family of women living by the sea, contemporary but sort of mythic”). Another opera project, this time involving the Israeli-American contemporary composer Sivan Eldar, is hopefully on the cards. Her head is buzzing with ideas, characters, concepts; finding time, and feeling that she can make the ideas work, is the issue. “I want to try so many different things,” she says. “The ideas feel ready; it’s more that I need to let myself catch up.”
As we’re preparing to leave, she admits that she’d nearly said no to Three Sisters — she’d worried that she wouldn’t be up to it. She smiles, perhaps a little embarrassed at having exposed this chink of vulnerability. “But things don’t always come along when you want, do they?” she adds brightly. “Sometimes you need to do them now.”
To June 1, almeida.co.uk
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