Elinor Cook remembers when she first wanted to be a playwright. It was 2005 and she was doing a postgraduate degree at drama school, watching friends troop in and out of auditions. “The men were going up for these exciting parts,” she says, “and the women were grateful that they were being chucked Third Wench.”
Many actors would have sighed and buckled down, hoping that Third Wench would eventually – somehow – metamorphose into something more meaningful. But Cook began to write instead: at first cautiously, then with more confidence. The following year, she won a place on the Royal Court young writers’ programme; soon she was working on her first full-length script. It took a few years for one of her plays to be professionally staged but she was sure she had found her path. “I felt a hunger,” she explains. “I needed to do it.”
Cook has just completed her most high-profile project yet, a new adaptation for London’s Donmar theatre of Ibsen’s mysterious 1888 masterpiece, The Lady from the Sea. Directed by Kwame Kwei-Armah – recently announced as the Young Vic’s new boss – the production will disconcert anyone expecting frock coats and fjords: this new version is set in the 1950s Caribbean, in an atmosphere heavy with bougainvillea and repressed longing. Ellida, the play’s restless, sea-struck heroine, is black, played by the Nigerian-born actor Nikki Amuka-Bird; the man to whom she’s unhappily married, Dr Wangel (Finbar Lynch), is white. Ellida’s own struggles with the shackles of convention are also those of the island itself, still freeing itself from British rule. The concept came from Kwei-Armah, whose parents were born in Grenada.
Inspired by a trip to the fjords that Ibsen made in 1885, the play has an improvisatory quality that has reminded many of Chekhov, others of folktale and myth (the working title was The Mermaid). Summery and languid, the script seems far from the imprisoning intensity of dramas such as A Doll’s House and Hedda Gabler. It feels like the Ibsen that got away, Cook observes: “It’s a gem that needs more light shone on it.”
Part of the puzzle is that The Lady from the Sea, though it addresses familiar Ibsen concerns, turns them on their head. Like Nora and Hedda, Ellida is struggling to reconcile her duties to her well-meaning but fusty husband with her own search for independence (here, memories of a sailor she loved in her youth). Unlike Nora, walking out at the play’s end, or Hedda, who shoots herself, Ellida takes another course, even more unexpected. “In a way she’s a kind of Hamlet figure – she’s in the grip of this existential crisis,” says Cook. “There’s this spectre of a past love; she’s ransacked by this monster, but he’s utterly compelling.” The notion of freedom haunts the play, and haunts Ellida most of all; in this new version, the word is barely off her lips. “We so often see male stories about maturity,” Cook reflects, “and it’s so unusual to see that from the female perspective.”
How women find and follow their own routes through life has been a recurrent theme in Cook’s work. Her most recent script, Out of Love, which debuted at the Edinburgh festival, is among much else a hymn to female friendship. A play before that, Pilgrims (2016), portrays a young female folk historian balancing the demands and desires of two callow, adventure-obsessed blokes. She boldly sets out on her own path at the play’s end – in defiance of an entire canon of female heroines she studies.
But despite its political sharpness and awareness, what’s striking about Cook’s work is how warm it is, and often how funny. Her dialogue is minimal, but sculpted; full of colour, but applied with the lightest of touches. Paul Miller, artistic director of London’s Orange Tree theatre, was an early champion. Cook’s writing reminds him of George Eliot, he says: that same keen sympathy for how life is actually lived. “She gives us direct access to the peculiar clumsiness of intimate friendships, and she’s not scared of tenderness and benevolence.”
Before her lightbulb moment at drama school, Cook had always wanted to be an actor. She grew up in west London in a comfortable middle-class household, before heading to York to study English (“so textbook,” she laughs, with a faint grimace). But writing didn’t really seem like an option, either financially or creatively; instead, she worked her way through jobs in literary agencies, reading scripts for the Royal Court in the off-hours and polishing her craft. Only in the last year has she been able to write full-time; en route, she often struggled to muster the confidence to continue.
“I do a lot of teaching in secondary schools, playwriting workshops and stuff, and I often find I’m having a similar conversation with young women – they’re going: ‘Why would anyone care about what I have to say?,’ and I think that must have been how I felt.” Has it begun to change, for her? “Well, it’s quite telling that someone who’s had the opportunities I’ve had still feels that measure of nervousness. It’s a real battle.”
We talk about the RSC’s recent announcement of a season directed entirely by women – a laudable project, Cook says, but something that doesn’t address the imbalances that still plague British theatre, particularly in new writing. Research by the writer Victoria Sadler points out, among numerous egregious examples, that David Hare got as many commissions from the National Theatre in 2016 as solo female playwrights. Scanning statistics like these, Cook finds herself caught between bemusement and outrage. “I find it shocking that [the notion of a female playwright] can be seen as so out there. I’m white and privileged and straight, and if I’ve found it difficult to break through, how much harder is it if you’re not those three things?”
Shortly after we talk, the Weinstein scandal breaks. When I call her up to gauge her thoughts, Cook admits that in the last few days she’s been able to think about little else. “It’s really made me focus on how we still live in a culture where treating women as equals in a professional setting is still … well, we’re just not there yet, are we?” A few days later, the Guardian reveals that the veteran director Max Stafford-Clark was forced out of his company Out of Joint after making lewd comments to a female member of staff, following which 19 leading artistic directors sign a joint statement condemning “sexual harassment and abuse of power in our industry”.
Cook says it’s important to recognise that British theatre has many of the same issues as Hollywood – the objectification, the harassment. “The number of professional conversations I’ve had with older men where there’s been a comment about how young I seem for my age, or how nice my eyes look. I don’t think that two guys have a meeting where one of them reassures the other one that their eyes look great today. It’s the low-level buzz that women put up with all the time. Even if you’re uncomfortable, it’s so hard to have the nerve to say: ‘Look, can we talk about the fucking work?’”
What needs to change? “We need to tear it down and start again.” She grins. “I could really rant about this.”
Everyone in the industry has stories. Cook mentions a friend who was bullied and intimidated by a well-known theatre director, and who is reconsidering her options in light of the Weinstein revelations. “It’s all so depressing, but it’s also galvanising. It feels like we’re gaining in power.”
For herself, the writing is, if not the solution, at least one solution. “If I’m unhappy with how female stories are portrayed, then at least I can do something about it. The great thing about being a writer is that you’re able to get hold of a narrative.” She pauses for a moment, assessing the thought. “It’s great,” she adds. “It’s powerful.”