‘We think we are super ‘woke’,” says playwright Polly Stenham, “yet in reality we rely on a whole cast of modern slaves. On the one hand, we are reading the Guardian and on the other, we may be paying the cleaner cash in hand.”
Stenham is at the National Theatre in London working on her fifth play, Julie, an adaptation of August Strindberg’s Miss Julie. Her lead, played by the Bafta-winning Vanessa Kirby, is a rich, thirtysomething Londoner while Jean, a Ghanaian immigrant, is her driver. Katrina is a Brazilian maid and like Jean, a victim of the zero-hours economy.
“It becomes really intersectional and really fucking political,” says Stenham. “I wanted to show the dark heart of liberalism, especially in this building which is populated by the liberal elite, and to go for the jugular. I’m part of it: Julie is not a million miles off me as a character.”
Just over a decade ago, Stenham became a preternaturally young darling of British theatre. The stratospheric success of her first play, That Face – from the Royal Court in 2007 to the West End of London, Broadway and the world – came at 19, with all of theatreland sounding breathless praise for this new teen prodigy.
A mythology of family pain, spliced with partying and privilege, has arisen around Stenham since then – the double pull that appears as a recurring theme in almost all of her plays. In 2006, a day before That Face was accepted by the Royal Court, her father, Anthony, died suddenly – he had parented Polly and her sister, Daisy, alone after his divorce. Her mother, who was an alcoholic, died when Stenham was 26. But there is also the house in Highgate she has shared with 11 friends, the art gallery she owns in the heart of Camden Town and the expensive education (Wycombe Abbey, then Rugby) that she has talked about with a note of apology.
I expect to meet a languorous party girl. But when Stenham, now 31, slips into the stage door she is instantly likable and utterly unstarry in a baggy T-shirt, All Stars and hoodie, her hair scraped back, her face clean of makeup: the picture of the millennial starlet in mufti.
Stenham lives with just one friend now, she says, and is single (she has dated men and women, including the actor Harry Treadaway and the artist Eloise Fornieles). She checks her privilege repeatedly – the boarding schools, the childhood trips to the theatre with her city-businessman father who loved the arts: “I’ve been insanely lucky.” And she speaks with the fierce political passion of a Generation Zer, mentioning, more than once, “the dark heart of neoliberalism” that has turned us into a “sick society”.
Her first four plays were powered by the dark, hard edges of family dysfunction: That Face dramatised the trauma of siblings in the face of their mother’s alcoholism (she has since adapted it for screen); children are left to parent themselves in her second play, Tusk Tusk, and notions of how parents damage their children are revisited in No Quarter. Her fourth play, Hotel, is a thriller set in Kenya that uses the legacy of colonialism as a metaphor for one country’s irresponsible parenting of another.
So why adapt Miss Julie, a well-worn canonical work from 1888? Because the story of an aristocrat and her two servants is the perfect vehicle for causing contemporary explosions, she says. “You can get a big star and a big space with a classic, and you can truffle in much more radical material, too. It can be hidden in the Trojan horse of the classic and much more can be detonated inside it.”
On reading her slick, imaginative reworking, I see what she means. Stenham’s Julie is situated in her familiar world of family privilege and pain, but politics and power play a big part in the sexual drama between characters.
The play becomes all the more radical because Jean is black. “Well, diversity is still a massive issue in theatre,” she says. “And why would Jean not be black? I wanted to look at place. Where we are from has become really interesting in a time of economic migration.”
Stenham has recently explored her own sense of place in a forthcoming digital project for the Young Vic called My England. Artistic director Kwame Kwei-Armah asked Stenham, among other playwrights, to write a three-minute monologue on Englishness that will be shown on the theatre’s social media channels. So what does Englishness mean to her?
She is reluctant to talk about it. “It was really hard to write that monologue. I sat down and thought, ‘How to do it without hectoring or pastiche or sentimentality?’” She only hints at what it might contain, talking about being half-Irish – her mother, Anne O’Rawe, was a Northern Irish Catholic who didn’t allow Stenham to wear camouflage as a child because it reminded her too much of the Troubles. “I’ve grown up with that conflict.”
It is surprising that Stenham signed up to the Young Vic’s social media project at all. You won’t find her on Twitter, and she has an Instagram account but has never posted. She even feels antipathy towards her phone. “I think we’ll look back on mobile phones and it’ll be like looking back at smoking. The way we keep them next to our beds … Everyone is pretending there’s not something deeply unsettling about it all.”
I ask her about being a woman in theatre in an era of #MeToo, and if she stands by her words in a 2016 interview – that this is the best time to be one. Yes, she insists, it is, but just as she said then, it does not mean the battle is done. “Pretty much everyone I know has been sexually assaulted, whether that’s a hand up a skirt at a club or rape.” But as far as theatre is concerned, she has been occasionally patronised – nothing more. “But then I’m a director; I’m not in the same vulnerable position as actors.”
She is hopeful for the future of women in theatre’s upper echelons. She recently met some female peers for dinner – Laura Wade, Lucy Prebble, Ella Hickson and Lucy Kirkwood. “Yes, we are going to filter up,” she says, steely-eyed. “The talent and the ambition and awareness among us is phenomenal. We must filter up. It’s politically important.”
What she finds more depressing is how intransigently middle-class theatre remains. “It’s a dreadful pity that funding for the arts has been cut by this government. The right to be part of theatre should transcend privilege, but sadly it doesn’t.” The democracy of access is all the more important, she believes, for its ability to heal.
It is not just about culture but mental health, too. “Theatre explains things that are hard to articulate,” Shenham says. “Why you would murder your own children, the tragedies, the dark, hidden desires as well as the good things. You forgive humanity, in a way. You see what we can do to each other and understand the imperfections of each other, despite fighting for the world to be a better place.”
Theatre has not only healed her, she says, but given her shelter as well. When her father died, the Royal Court let her sleep in the dressing room. And when her mother wanted to see the play but was possibly going to be difficult, the theatre protected her. “I was very young and very grief-stricken. I will be eternally grateful.”
What to make of that devastating grief now? How has it metabolised 12 years on? It becomes part of you, she says, and grips her arm, as if feeling for a missing limb. “You don’t get over any of it. But it can make you brave. It can make you cherish your relationships. You are brutally aware of how finite everything is. You love more fiercely. These are the good things it does: you love harder.”