Interview

Talking to Award-winning Actress and Writer Lolita Chakrabarti on new play Hymn and “writing”

Winner of the 2012 Most Promising Playwright “Evening Standard “award, Lolita Chakrabarti is a British actress and writer with an extensive range of on stage and screen credits. Her stage credits include:

The Great Game, Afghanistan” for The Tricycle, “Last Seen – Joy” for the Almeida, “Free Outgoing” for the Royal Court and “John Gabriel Borkman” for the Donmar Warehouse. Her screen credits include “Vera”, “Outnumbered”, “Hustle”, “Extras”, “Christmas Special”, “Holby City”, “Silent Witness”, “Amnesia”, “William and Mary”, “Fortysomething”, “Bodies”, and “Forgiven”. She also played WPC Jamila Blake in the long running ITV drama “The Bill”. Writing credits include “The Goddess for Woman’s Hour” on BBC Radio 4, “Faith, Hope and Blue Charity”, also on BBC Radio 4 and “Last Seen – Joy” for Slung Low and the Almeida. In 2012, her “Red Velvet “was the first play performed under the Tricycle’s new artistic director Indhu Rubasingham. In 2019 her adaptation of INVISIBLE CITIES by Italo Calvino was staged at the Manchester International Festival and in February 2021 her latest play Hymn was staged virtually starring Adrian Lester and Danny Sapani. Read the review here. The play is now available for a short run on demand until 9th of March.

Hymn rehearsal photos. Lolita Chakrabarti (playwright). Credit – Marc Brenner

Why did you become a writer?

In 1996 I was looking for something creative to do between acting jobs.  I wondered if I could tell a story and so I began and didn’t stop.

Without giving away too much of the plot, what is the significance of male friendship  in the play  and what have you based the characters’ attitudes, beliefs on?

My starting point for Hymn was an exploration of men falling in love, but it was a love that was neither physical nor romantic. I felt like I hadn’t seen that on stage before. I have observed my extended family over the years – my brother-in-law, my husband’s cousins and uncles, my male friends – and seen a complexity and delicacy in those relationships that I wanted to look at. The characters are contemporary and my writing of them was very influenced by current issues.

Tell us about a bit the use of music in the play and when writing for a production without an audience were there any immediate challenges in the dialogue?

The songs in the play are tunes I like that help the story to travel. I’m a child of the ’80’s and so these are some of the tracks I listened to, that take me back to Birmingham where I grew up. I was very keen that the music was not recorded but an expression of the story telling. So both actors sing and create the music between them.

The dialogue stayed mainly the same for the live stream but the need to keep the actors distant from each other meant that there were a few words added to make sense of that. I didn’t write for no audience because even though it was live streamed somewhere out there, we had an audience.



Danny Sapani: all images (C) Marc Brenner

I saw an interview with Adrian when he said that the play is about “two men of a certain age” and I recently interviewed Craig Brewer who said that alongside diversity and gender, age will become an issue in the industry, when writing the play how was age significant to the piece? 

Very significant. I think men have much more opportunity to play a range of ages. It’s women who become invisible over a long period of their lives (in terms of stories). But having said that, focussing on two men of the same age in their 50’s is not something I have seen very often. Gil and Benny needed to have opposing experiences so that their coming together was difficult.  I wanted to create people with considerable baggage they could choose to unpack together. I am in my fifties now and the longer you live, the more detail and lived experience you have to draw on. 

What inspires the writing process for you? Is it an image, a theme, a character?

For Hymn it was the actors. I have written original stories (Red Velvet), adaptations (Life of Pi, Invisible Cities) but I wanted to write specifically for Adrian and Danny and something that allowed them to use all of their considerable abilities.  Both of them sing, act and move. I also wanted to explore men as I see them and not how they are often portrayed.

What 3 things make a good play in your opinion?

A great story. Defined characters. Universal themes.

Adrian Lester and Danny Sapani

Who are some current playwrights you think should get more attention?

I am not well enough versed in the young, new up and coming voices but I know I want different perspectives and wider views in the theatre I go to see and that was starting to happen. 

What do you think are the main obstacles they face to wider recognition?

Opportunity.

A play about black male friendships at the centre is rather rare although it should not be, do you think as we go forward we will see more organic stories that represent a diversity of stories or do you think we still have a long way to go?

Both. Things are definitely opening up, the landscape now was unimaginable a few years ago, but we still have a long way to go. I would like ‘diversity’ to mean everyone, not just a certain demographic that needs to be fulfilled because of omission in the past.

What has lockdown taught you? 

It has taught me that we take a lot for granted. I am grateful for the simplest things now. I am grateful for the different communities in my life – family, friends, colleagues, neighbours, local shops, all levels of healthcare.  

With World Book Day approaching are there any books or plays you would suggest for up and coming playwrights? 

How to name just a few? Just read, read, read. I can suggest any novel by Kazuo Ishiguro or Ann Patchett. Plays – anything by Roy Williams, Tanika Gupta or Lynn Nottage. I recently read and greatly enjoyed Against by Christopher Shinn, I and You by Lauren Gundersson, Disgraced by Ayad Akhtar.

Sum up Hymn for anyone who has not yet seen it, do you have a favourite scene?

Hymn is a story of two men in their 50’s who meet at a funeral and discover they have more in common than they ever imagined. Over the course of a year, they become very attached and find their futures depend on each other.

How can I choose a favourite scene? You have to tell me which one you liked most!

The world premiere production of Hymn, which was originally due to play to socially distanced audiences, is now available to watch on-demand until Tuesday 9 March. Book here.

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