Arnold Wesker: ‘It is always the poets, the painters and the intellectuals who are sent to jail first. Tyrants always hate people who are happy’
On the eve of his 80th birthday season at The King’s Head, Arnold Wesker talks about his life as a prolific playwright
I half expected to have chicken soup with barley for lunch with Arnold Wesker when I went to his home in Hove to talk about the season of his plays being staged at the King’s Head to mark his 80th birthday.
One of Britain’s most prolific dramatists, the curtain opens on Wesker’s false memory syndrome play, Denial. This is followed by a revival of his opera Caritas, set against the backdrop of the Peasants’ Revolt in 1377.
In April next year, there’ll be The Wesker Trilogy, a stage adaptation of the unproduced film script of his three best-known plays – Chicken Soup With Barley, Roots and I’m Talking About Jerusalem.
The theatre hopes to raise the funds to stage his latest play, Joy And Tyranny, written last year and born out of the Arab Spring at the time Osama bin Laden had been killed, Ratko Mladic captured and Muammar Gaddafi was on the run. It is a play about the way tyrants feel intimidated by joy, he says.
“It is always the poets, the painters and the intellectuals who are sent to jail first. Tyrants always hate people who are happy.”
Sir Arnold, knighted in 2006, describes the season as a “rethinking” of his past.
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“It came completely out of the blue. Adam Spreadbury-Maher, the artistic director, contacted me. He originally wanted to do seven productions but, so far, he’s only managed to raise the finance for three.”
Three or more plays, the genial Wesker is clearly thrilled. His plays have been translated into 17 languages and performed all over the world for decades and this season comes hot on the heels of last year’s revival of Chicken Soup at the Royal Court and a new production of The Kitchen at the National.
He is the last of Britain’s “Angry Young Men” – a group which included John Osborne, N. F. Simpson and John Arden. Their original and unexpected writing in the 50s challenged audiences’ traditional view of theatre and, as part of the influential English Stage Company at the Royal Court under artistic directors George Devine and Tony Richardson, they were the New Wave – social realists bringing new things to the stage.
Wesker is quick to point out that every decade brings a New Wave but admits that they were the first to write plays about the working classes – the “kitchen sink” drama.
He started writing plays aged 24 and laughs when he describes reading his first (Chicken Soup) to his mother and her friend Mrs Harris in the front room of the family’s council flat in Clapton.
“I knew it was a good play and was really excited to finish it. I read the whole play to them and my mother said, ‘It’s not bad but who’s going to be interested in that?’
“It drew on our working class Jewish background. The Kitchen similarly drew on my experience of working in the kitchen at the Bell Hotel in Norwich where I might have ended up a chef.”
Wesker was born in the East End. His father was a Russian-Jewish tailor and his mother a cook of Hungarian-Jewish extraction.
He failed his 11-Plus exam and was sent to a school “where they sent students who fail their 11-Plus”, where he learned basic things like typing to equip him to become a clerk or similar.
His typing now is a godsend as he has Parkinson’s disease and his hand can shake too much to write with a pen.
Conscripted into the Royal Air Force in 1950 – an experience he later wrote about in his play Chips With Everything – in 1958 he received a bursary from the Arts Council of Great Britain.
His colourful life includes being sentenced to a month in prison (together with Bertrand Russell and others) after demonstrations against the use of nuclear weapons in 1961.
While living in Highgate, he became the artistic director of Centre 42, a cultural movement for popularising the arts, founded at the Roundhouse in 1964.
In 1997, he wrote the book The Birth Of Shylock And The Death of Zero Mostel about his play The Merchant when, on its first night previewing out of Broadway, his leading man, the exuberant Broadway star Zero Mostel, cast as Shylock, died.
He’s written 42 plays in all, the result of a life spent involved in social projects and observing cultural horizons.
The King’s Head’s quirky and landmark season fits Wesker’s interesting career in which he has, at times, earned more distinction abroad than at home.
“On this, my 50th anniversary as a playwright, I have about half a dozen works, including a musical of The Kitchen, looking for a home in this country. Others, such as Denial, The Wedding Feast and Shylock have been performed only in the regions. Seventeen of them have had their premiere abroad and a couple of them have never been performed at all like Wild Spring and Lady Othello. But here I am at 80 with this season of plays at the King’s Head. It couldn’t get much better.”
I suspect that as long as Sir Arnold can keep typing, he’ll keep writing. His life and work is detailed in nearly 50 books including an autobiography As Much As I Dare.
We finish our lunch – not chicken soup with barley but something wonderfully tasty cooked by his wife Dusty whom he met while working in Norwich.
During the King’s Head season, he will mark his birthday with a party where friends and family will make a bit of an unscripted production which, of course, could quite possibly become another Wesker play.
Denial will run from May 15 to June 9, Caritas from May 20 to June 10 and The Wesker Trilogy Revisited in April 2013. For details, visit www.kingsheadtheatre.com.