Five years ago the head of the new writing department at Bolton’s Octagon Theatre decided, along with her counterparts at Manchester’s Royal Exchange and the Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse, to work with Salford University to co-deliver an MA course in playwriting. It’s safe to say that Elizabeth Newman didn’t anticipate one of the results of that collaboration.
Fast forward and Newman (who is now artistic director of the Octagon) is directing the world premiere of a new play by one of her theatrical heroes. What’s more, Winter Hill by Timberlake Wertenbaker, the acclaimed writer of the Olivier Award-winning Our Country’s Good and, most recently, Jefferson’s Garden, boasts an entirely female cast, including Liverpool-born Cathy Tyson, Denise Black, Louise Jameson, Janet Henfrey, Fiona Hampton, Souad Faress and Eva-Jane Willis.
“I’ve been a massive fan ever since I could read a play,” Newman enthuses. “When we had to select a senior playwright for the MA course, I said ‘I doubt if she would ever say yes but I’d love it to be Timberlake Wertenbaker’. We approached her and to my amazement she did say ‘yes’. So, she and I co-delivered master classes and workshops and taught quite a lot of the playwriting together, which was a lot of fun. A commission was also part of it.”
Set in Bolton in the near future, the play centres on a group of local women as they deal with the ramifications of land on nearby Winter Hill being sold to developers determined to create the largest skyscraper hotel in Europe. Although the worried local community have been promised that a new school and social housing will also be built on the hill, as the money begins to run out the developers look set to renege on their attempt at appeasement and the women are meeting up in a half-built hotel to discuss what, if anything, can be done about it and if power can ever truly belong to the people.
“I wanted to look at what it means for women to resist, how far they’ll go and what the consequences might be,” says Wertenbaker. “I’ve always been fascinated by landscape, real and imaginary, its place in theatre, and how characters inhabit and affect it. When I was asked to write a play by Elizabeth it felt important to be inspired by Bolton. Then one day, I took a walk up Winter Hill and found the broad lines of the play. Since I started writing Winter Hill, the world has changed a lot and some questions feel even more urgent than when I began.”
Newman adds: “Writers write their best plays when they write what they want to write, and something’s gone a bit wrong with theatre, not just in Britain but in the rest of the world too, when directors or producers dictate to writers ‘we want something that’s a cross between this and that’. If you’re approaching a great writer then they should write the play that they need to share. So, when Timberlake said ‘what do you want?’, I said ‘anything you want to write’. The only thing I’d ask is that it’s got all women in it and that they are over the age of 30 or more, because we need plays with women being women, talking about the world and how to change it, not just talking about men. I also said that for us the culture of Bolton is very important to who we are as an organisation so, ideally, it should be connected to Bolton. But if you decide you want to write a play with all men and set it in outer space, that’s also fine.”
When it came in, the play, presumably to Newman’s considerable relief, was not set in outer space but in the open air of nearby Winter Hill.
“I think we have a mixed relationship with Winter Hill here in Bolton,” she reflects. “The broadcasting mast is obviously famous, but I also think Bolton has the most extraordinary green spaces. Our natural resources are one of our greatest assets and we should be protecting and using that resource to better our life experiences, which the play explores.
“The idea of Winter Hill being at the centre of it is that it does come with a level of history to it and the play looks at what the idea of being a classic heroine means. Often those heroines in classic literature find themselves outdoors connecting with nature to find the answers about self. This group of women are trying to make sense of their world on top of Winter Hill, but in a man-made hotel. How have we jumped in 200 years from being out in the air, hair streaming in the wind, running through the moors, to being encased in a Dubai-inspired lobby?”
She continues: “Obviously, I’ve had a season of work already but this is what I’d call my first ‘season ticket’ season of work and I couldn’t imagine not having Timberlake’s play leading the way for our relationship with new work. I think she’s one of the most extraordinary people I’ve ever met. I find her so inspiring and moving and insightful and generous and I think the play that she’s written is a really important piece, which I am honoured to work on and to present for the first time to audiences here in Bolton.
“Since we commissioned Timberlake four years ago, she has given a great deal of time to exploring and understanding our Bolton communities and has created a resonant drama that puts formidable women at the centre of an exploration of what it is to follow your beliefs, no matter the cost.”
Listening to us chat are two of the play’s actresses, Louise Jameson and Cathy Tyson, taking a break after the play’s first full day of rehearsals. The notion of a play specifically commissioned to feature more mature actresses must have been music to their ears?
“Absolutely,” enthuses Jameson. “We’ve been complaining for years about female parts but now I do feel that we are part of a wave. I see this as being a fantastic opportunity but these fantastic opportunities need consistency and momentum.
“The nearest experience I’d had to this before was Tenko in 1981 and, like it or loathe it, there is a different atmosphere when it is all-women. Because Timberlake is spearheading the project, I think her qualities of complete generosity and affection that Elizabeth was just talking about expand to everyone in the room.”
Tyson adds: “This will be the third time I’ve had the privilege of working with Timberlake. She is fascinating, but has a massive heart as well. When I was looking at this script and wondering why I was so excited by it, it occurred to me that what appeals to me as an actress are plays that make me a bit uncomfortable, that make me wrestle with questions about myself, that even make me want to research some of the language and the precise meaning of a beautiful phrase like ‘regressive kleptocracy’.
“It’s also remarkably funny and doesn’t take itself seriously, even though the incredibly serious big theme of the play is how to protest and where do you fight your battles? What is worth sacrificing for what, whether you’re looking at the smaller picture of your local community or at saving the world and where do you sit within that? This play is also about female leadership, for me, how to bring that about and the cost of that, whether the use of violence is ever justified.”
Newman explains that a running theme of her current work “seems to be about women having choices, and choice come from understanding and learning and education. What this play does is to invite the audience to be part of a conversation which will inform, educate and inspire them, hopefully, to leave the theatre ready to begin engaging with new ideas, to make different choices.
“If you look at our season brochure, there is an equal balance of male and female writers, while at the end of this season there will have been an equal gender balance of male and female actors and there will have been a broad spectrum of ages and so on. That didn’t involve sitting in conferences until you lose the will to live – and I don’t think I can ever sit on another panel about gender equality – but actually doing something. You just make choices, then you just make it happen. Action is what we’re talking about here and the only way the landscape is going to change not just in theatre but in TV and film too is if people start making different decisions.
“I think it’s a misconception that people don’t want to go to see plays about women or new writing. Women are just people and we like seeing plays about people. What people care about is whether we’re telling stories that are relevant to their lives and, another question that doesn’t get asked enough, can they afford to come?”
By Kevin Bourke, Theatre Editor
Winter Hill is at the Octagon Theatre Bolton from May 11 to June 3, 2017