Listen to this article
Tim Price shrugs his shoulders: “I never intended to write political plays,” he says with a sigh. He borrows a line from Lucy Kirkwood, author of Chimerica: “I’d love to write a flat-share play but there’s too much interesting stuff going on.”
The Welsh playwright started with family dramas – lyrical, tender and melancholic plays. For Once (2011) patiently detailed the impact of a fatal car accident. Salt, Root and Roe (also 2011) showed two elderly twin sisters in a suicide pact. Then came a gear shift. Pitching for National Theatre Wales’s second season, he was asked what they had missed out in the first. His hypothetical reply – a major political play – won him a commission and changed the course of his career.
The play he delivered was The Radicalisation of Bradley Manning (2012), a freewheeling account of the US whistleblowing soldier’s case set against his teenage years in Wales, which won the prestigious James Tait Black prize for drama. Since then, Price has written a biographical play with songs about Italian communist revolutionary Giangiacomo Feltrinelli (Praxis Makes Perfect); a play about Scottish independence that framed the UK as a four-piece indie band (I’m With the Band) and now, in his National Theatre debut, a one-man show about the Occupy movement. “Seriously,” he reiterates, “I’ve got some really funny flat-share stories.”
These are big, slippery, pressing current affairs; the kind that, despite theatre’s frequent claims of alacrity and pertinence, scare off most playwrights. Two years after the first tents were pitched in New York’s Zuccotti Park, Occupy has hardly registered on stage in Britain. The Royal Court staged Anders Lustgarten’s play about contemporary anti-capitalist activism, If You Don’t Let Us Dream, We Won’t Let You Sleep, in February, and Nicholas Hytner’s 2012 National Theatre Timon of Athens used Occupiers as a backdrop but, otherwise, there has been nothing: a situation Price, who is 33, dubs “absurd”.
“That  was an extraordinary year,” he expands in his Welsh lilt, “with its eruption of popular protest. I could write 100 plays on Occupy.”
To date, he’s written three, the latest being Protest Song, in which Rhys Ifans, “an actor who can change the temperature of a room”, gives a monologue as Danny, a homeless man assimilated into Tent City, the camp that clustered around St Paul’s Cathedral in London from October 2011 to February 2012.
“What a lot of people don’t realise is that there’s already a community around St Paul’s – rough sleepers and sex workers,” says Price. “A whole network occupies that space already but we don’t see or acknowledge them.” The City of London, workplace of some of Britain’s wealthiest by day, is a haven for the homeless at night. “If you want to sleep, go to the Square Mile and find an alleyway. There’s nobody there.”
It’s a fascinating lens through which to view Occupy, one that raises questions about visibility, public space and inequality, while also acknowledging the movement’s untethered idealism. Protest Song shows a journey from “a political awakening” to resignation – an arc Price suspects many will recognise.
He went down to the St Paul’s camp frequently. “It was an extraordinary thing – extraordinary and banal; a busy hubbub of ideas. It felt like something I needed to write about.”
To continue the protest? Not quite, he says, more as a space for reflection. Price is a realist. He sees the theatre as “a safe space for asking dangerous questions” rather than a site where wholesale change can be instigated. “It’s about enabling people to navigate these complex areas and articulate things that they already think.” Nonetheless, he insists he’s not just preaching to the converted.
“It’s about answering those who say, ‘What did Occupy achieve?’” Specifically, Price hopes to address those who wrote the movement off as rudderless and incapable of defining its demands. “It’s about asking thinkers and leaders to start a conversation aimed at an alternative.”
Growing up in Aberdare, a former mining town in the Welsh valleys, Price saw protest at an early age. Though the 1984-85 miners’ strike didn’t directly involve his family, it “absolutely defined my upbringing”, he says. His father, a printer, lost several jobs as Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers switched to new printing technology. “It was awful,” he remembers. “My dad’s the hardest working man on the planet and not to be allowed to work …” He pauses. “We’re valleys people. We only really know how to work.”
After university, Price had his own employment issues. “I just couldn’t get a job. I applied for everything: MI5, rock-climbing instructor, English teacher, lifeguard.” He blames the stammer that still affects his speech. “It has defined me. I couldn’t get a word out in interviews.” He took a course to fulfil best man duties for his brother’s wedding but still seems to falter on sporadic syllables. “I’ll never get rid of it but I can exercise a degree of control over it,” he says.
Does it affect his relationship with words? “You know that French phrase ‘l’esprit de l’escalier’ – the wit of the stairs, the feeling, ‘I wish I’d said that.’ That’s my life. My entire life is spent revisiting conversations, replaying them in my head, getting everything out and hitting all the punchlines. Writing is my direct route through that. It circumvents my dysfunctional speech.”
If finding his voice is one side-effect of National Theatre Wales, Price sees plenty more. “Welsh playwriting is going through its first golden era,” he says. “NTW has entirely changed the experience of being an artist in Wales. Welsh playwrights have always had to consider anglicising their stories. They’ve not interrogated Wales because there hasn’t been the support for that. That’s why there’s effectively no Welsh canon. I’d quite happily never see another production of Under Milk Wood.”
With the 60th anniversary of Dylan Thomas’s play next year, that’s wishful thinking. But then, until recently, so was the idea of Tim Price, political playwright.
‘Protest Song’, National Theatre Shed, December 16-January 11, nationaltheatre.org.uk
Get alerts on Tim Price when a new story is published