Martin Crimp: ‘I wrote a play called Cruel and Tender – I hope to be both’

Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley have starred in his bleakly funny, sometimes dowright horrible plays. As The Treatment is revived at the Almeida, Martin Crimp talks about how his work can scandalise and surprise

The first volume of Martin Crimp’s collected plays begins, not with plays, but with a few tantalising fragments of prose. In one, the narrator describes being invaded by a figure balefully called “the Writer”. The Writer smashes up the narrator’s house, ruins his piano, steals his electric toothbrush. Worst of all are the things he writes. “How can someone who spends so many hours watching the trees change colour, or children skipping, come up with all that pain and brutality?”, the narrator pleads. “Isn’t it perverse?”

In the 35-odd years Crimp has been working, the question has often been asked. Oblique and elusive, his plays occupy a universe not fully like our own – a place sometimes alienating, often bleakly funny, occasionally downright horrible. It’s hard to say how they achieve this effect, except that they embody something first realised by the Greek tragedians: that what we fear is what we can’t exactly see. Asked once to explain what lay behind the cruelty in his works, Crimp replied crisply that “dialogue is inherently cruel”.

There is no getting away from the challenge of his plays; nor their bracing brilliance. The piece many people regard as his masterwork is 1997’s Attempts on Her Life, a kaleidoscopic depiction of a woman called Anne/Anny/Anushka, whom we never actually meet (possibly she’s a terrorist; equally likely, she’s a porn star). In The City (2008), which starred a young Benedict Cumberbatch at the Royal Court, there is a hint that the entire scenario is being imagined by one of the characters, a translator.

Crimp’s own translations are numerous, and given the time he takes to write new plays (the last, In the Republic of Happiness, was first staged in 2012), they have become the most reliable way to encounter his writing. It was his surgically sharp version of Chekhov’s The Seagull, directed by Katie Mitchell, that scandalised audiences at the National Theatre in 2006, and his brashly contemporary verse version of Molière’s The Misanthrope that offered Keira Knightley her first taste of the West End in 2009. Early in the latter, the misanthropic playwright Alceste advises an oafish reviewer pointedly called Covington not to bother: “If someone has zero facility / it’s a disability / they should conceal.” Critics beware.

Brash and bold … Keira Knightley and Damian Lewis in Crimp’s version of The Misanthrope in 2009.
Brash and bold … Keira Knightley and Damian Lewis in Crimp’s version of The Misanthrope in 2009. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

In a corner seat at the Almeida theatre in north London, Crimp does look like he might be about to pounce – rangy to the point of cadaverous, with a vehement gaze and a sweep of shoulder-length white hair. Though scrupulously polite, he is wary, perhaps shy; more than once, I catch him eyeing the clock. I’m beginning to understand why he rarely gives interviews. Dialogue may be cruel, but being forced to talk about it is perhaps crueller.

We’re here because the theatre is mounting a rare restaging of his 1993 drama The Treatment. Set in a stylised and unreal New York, the play is an unsettling fable of a woman who takes her story to a film company and finds her life spinning out of control. One producer wants significantly more than a script massage; a writer is taken off the scrapheap, then discarded again. Shakespearian revenge is enacted with – of all things – a sharpened fork. The title is perhaps a play on words: this “treatment” isn’t mere jargon for a script synopsis, but something medical – shock therapy for the audience, as well as for those on stage.

For Crimp, the play isn’t so much about the movie business as it is an examination of the damage we inflict when real life becomes just another story to be sold. “It’s more of a mythical world. A young woman encounters some rather strange film producers and tells them the story of her life. That story is modified, commodified, changed and she is spat out at the end of it.”

Hattie Morahan and Benedict Cumberbatch in The City at the Royal Court, London, in 2008.
Hattie Morahan and Benedict Cumberbatch in The City at the Royal Court, London, in 2008. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

The play had its origins in a trip Crimp himself made to New York in 1991; perhaps more revealingly, it also drew on his own brief but unhappy experiences writing scripts for short films (none was ever made). He encountered nothing quite as brutal as The Treatment, he laughs – but one time he found himself trying to find the location where one of his projects was being shot, only to find it had vanished. “I got on the train, went to Manchester, looked for the film, couldn’t find it. I came home again. That’s my film story.”

The scenario sounds rather Crimp-like; did he wonder if the whole thing was a con? He raises his eyebrows sarcastically. “It was probably all my own fault.” Though some early plays were broadcast on radio and TV, he has avoided the screen ever since.

Though The Treatment is now nearly 25 years old, I’m struck by how current it feels, with its portrayal of an industry that can’t seem to shake its sexist (and sometimes racist) reputation. “There have been lots of conversations about it in the rehearsal room. I suppose it’s all part of the bigger subject, isn’t it, how far women are on the way to achieving equality with men. Perhaps the answer is not as far as they should be. It’s an issue that doesn’t go away.”

Crimp, 61, has said he never intended to become a playwright; the way he describes his trade, it sounds rather like that early short story in Plays: One, in which writing seems less of a calling than a kind of possession – all-consuming, sometimes spine-crawlingly unpleasant. More than once in our conversation he refers to the “agony” of composition; I’m given to understand he uses the phrase ironically, but it’s not wholly a joke. When I ask if writing has got harder or easier over the years, there is a judicious pause. “It’s got harder to write and easier to write well.”

What he likes is the anonymity of writing dialogue, he reflects: he can disappear into it. “One thing it’s not bad to have as a skill is to be able to line up behind every character and speak as them. If you allow a character to speak for a long time, then they will take you somewhere, rather than you pushing them to that place. I like to be led by a voice.”

Was it always theatre for him? “I flirted with other things. There were some short stories, and I wrote a novel, like many people in their 20s.” What was it about? He fixes me with a magnificent stare. “That was one of its problems.”

Crimp’s works have lost none of their incisive Swiftian wit. Attempts features a glorious surreal sequence in which Anne is described as if she’s a car (“We now understand that the /Anny / comes with electric windows as standard,” purrs a voiceover). Republic has an extended section in which characters spout senseless therapy-speak. One proclaims: “I am in control of my own life – I choose how I dress – I choose how to live.” Another declares: “I live how I choose to live / plus / do what I do.”

He is sometimes described as a satirist; does he accept the label? “Not any more. Maybe early on. But there are always real relationships in the plays, some strange corner that’s being turned. Satire itself would simply be scoring points, wouldn’t it.”

George Benjamin’s Written on Skin at the Royal Opera House, London, in 2013.
George Benjamin’s Written on Skin at the Royal Opera House, London, in 2013. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

But so many of his plays rail against the inanity of modern life – the vapidities of marketing and PR, the anaesthetising jingles of technocrats. They don’t reflect his own views? He emits a short bark of laughter. “I’m never going to answer that question. Those people are speaking. I’m not.”

One thing he is open about is the connection he feels with opera, a discovery that came when he was asked to write the text for George Benjamin’s miniaturised version of the Pied Piper story, Into the Little Hill. The critics were impressed when it premiered in 2006, but this was as nothing to the rave reviews that greeted their next collaboration, Written on Skin (2012). Based on a gory medieval French tale in which a woman whose vengeful husband feeds her the heart of her young lover, it is an astounding work in which Benjamin’s music, violent and sensuous, is balanced by the glinting precision of Crimp’s words.

Crimp himself seems enjoyably surprised by his late-in-life rebirth as a librettist. “It’s made me less British in the way I deal with emotions. My practice was already changing, but the fact is with opera, the transaction has to be emotionally powerful. Otherwise the enhancement brought about by music will be false.”

Music crops up frequently in his plays, and the scripts themselves are fastidiously scored; does he see similarities between the artforms? He plays the piano and harpsichord, he says, but these days only for his own pleasure. “And actually I see writing and music as very different. Meaning operates so differently.” He sighs a little. “Perhaps in another life I would be a composer, so that I wouldn’t have to deal with these issues of meaning and interpretation. That would be quite … restful.” So journalists wouldn’t bother him with annoying questions? There is a sharkish smile. “Exactly.”

He has just completed a play for the National Theatre, but is sworn to secrecy. And news of a fresh collaboration with Benjamin, Lessons in Love and Violence, has also just been announced. It is scheduled for May 2018, but again Crimp can’t say much. “All I can really explain is that it’s about a person who is torn between the private and the political.”

Lessons in Love and Violence sounds like a decent summary of his back catalogue, I suggest. “I once wrote a play called Cruel and Tender,” he says. “I hope to be both.”

The Treatment is at the Almeida, London N1, 28 April–10 June.


Andrew Dickson

The GuardianTramp

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