Taking Care of Baby has been a tough assignment for Kelly

PUBLISHED: 18:15 08 June 2007 | UPDATED: 14:34 07 September 2010

It has been a long, slow climb into the theatre spotlight which makes DENNIS KELLY grateful every day, reports features editor BRIDGET GALTON DENNIS Kelly scrutinises his motives for using contentious subject matter in his plays. His 2003 debut, Debr

It has been a long, slow climb into the theatre spotlight which makes DENNIS KELLY grateful every day, reports features editor BRIDGET GALTON

DENNIS Kelly scrutinises his motives for using contentious subject matter in his plays. His 2003 debut, Debris, featured a homespun crucifixion, rotting corpses and an abandoned baby, while his last play at Hampstead Theatre depicted a teenage fan of Osama bin Laden having his teeth stoved in with a hammer.

Now Taking Care Of Baby examines the subjectivity of truth via drama-documentary-style interviews with a woman jailed for murdering her children.

"You have to examine your conscience to make sure it's not gratuitous," says the 36-year-old, who was born in New Barnet and now lives in Deptford.

"You can think, 'I don't know enough about this', or, 'You have to be a great intellectual to write about these subjects.' But then I thought, 'F*** it, give it a go.' I would rather fail because I tried."

Kelly cites earlier in-yer-face theatre that justifiably used violence - Edward Bond's Saved, which illustrated impoverished working-class lives with the stoning of a baby, and Sarah Kane's Blasted, which used anal rape and cannibalism to draw parallels between emotional and physical abuse.

He believes contemporary writers must be courageous and ambitious in tackling the issues of our media-saturated, dysfunctional, terrorist-fearing consumerist world.

But he needn't worry. His plays are commendably complex and inventive and have earned him critical plaudits as an exciting, unique new voice.

He had been writing for some time before Debris was staged, but a rash of simultaneous commissions reaped a series of works at the Young Vic, Hampstead and The Bush, including Love & Money, After The End and Osama The Hero.

"It was a long, slow process. I had to have a lot of patience and sit through a lot of meetings where people told me how much they would love to put my work on. Then it all happened at the same time. I now feel lucky that I didn't have a first play that made a big impact, followed by huge pressure to come up with a second."

He is currently under commission to the RSC and the National Theatre - he is penning a film script and co-writing the BBC3 sit-com Pulling.

Not bad for a bloke who left school at 16 - although Kelly is reluctant to overplay such triumph over adversity for fear of being ensnared by his backstory.

(One literary agent who rejected a three-location play set on a council estate, in the future, and on Mars told him: "You do council estate really well.")

"What does it matter where you are from? You want people to judge you on your plays not your life story. Coming from a working-class background is so loaded in British theatre and can hurt you in a way.

"In Debris I wrote about families. Setting it in a council house and Osama The Hero on an estate were not conscious decisions, they were just the way of being brought up that I knew - what else was I going to write about?

"It's not that I want to get away from where I was brought up, I just want the freedom to write about different things. I admire playwrights like Caryl Churchill because she reinvents herself every time."

Taking Care Of Baby consciously foregrounds Kelly's writing process as a disembodied voice conducts interviews with convicted murderer Donna McAuliffe, her politician mother Lynn, and the doctor who identifies the syndrome from which she is suffering.

He constantly challenges the audience over who and what they believe, and says he wrote the play because he thinks our perception of truth has become compromised by daily public lies such as the claim that Saddam Hussein had WMD ready to launch within 45 minutes.

"We all know it's a lie. Our brains are built to detect lies and we get tired of looking at yet another politician or authority figure who we don't believe. In these cases [mothers accused of murdering their children], the truth really matters - I can't think of a situation where it matters more."

Kelly says contemporary playwrights have felt pressured to write more literally - less excitingly since 9/11.

"People feel a responsibility to write about more serious issues because we live in a more serious world. There has been a very realistic way of seeing theatre and a lot of televisual plays which seems a waste of what theatre can do. I think we should write the most exciting, theatrical plays we can write, to keep audiences engaged."

Kelly had never been to the theatre before he joined a local drama group as a teenager.

"I was working in a supermarket and I loved everything about it. What we did was rubbish but it was amazing. I hadn't done that well at school - I was a bit of a dreamer - and it was the first time it occurred to me I might be bright and that there were different types of being clever."

He eventually studied drama at Goldsmiths as a mature student, graduating in 2001. "It's always people with degrees who tell you that you don't need to go to university to write," says Kelly drily. "But after working in a shit job for 10 years, I couldn't believe how brilliant it was to get up at any time and be asked to think about stuff. It makes a big difference in your thinking."

The knock-on effect is that Kelly will never take his position for granted.

"There isn't a day I don't wake up and think, 'God this is a great job.'"

Taking Care Of Baby runs at Hampstead Theatre until June 23.

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