Interview with Stewart Permutt

conducted by Eckart Voigts and Sarah J. Ablett

London, March 2017

EV: An interesting thing that we have found is that there are very few plays addressing the contemporary British-Jewish situation here in London. Your play A Dark Night in Dalston (2017) is an exception, actually.

SP: I think that Ryan Craig’s play The Glass Room (2006) probably is. He wrote about a Holocaust denier. I just think it’s difficult. Some people have been upset by my plays, saying they’re critical of orthodox Jewish men. But it’s a fact; some orthodox Jewish men do carry on like that.

EV: Have they sent emails?

SP: No, not horrible hate mail. But they expressed that they felt offended. You see, orthodox Jewish men and orthodox Muslim men can’t make love to their women until they are married, so they go elsewhere, and that’s a fact.

SJA: So that’s what they took offense with?

SP: No, I don’t think it was that. I think they thought I was being unfair to them.

EV: I was thinking the main character in your play is an orthodox Jewish man. Isn’t it a contradiction that he is in a film school and he has a project on about a transgender woman called Marlene?

SP: He is trying to prove that he is orthodox and that you could be both. That’s why I did that, to show that he is not shut out. He doesn’t want a traditional life, to marry a nice Jewish girl, to be an accountant – he doesn’t want that.

SJA: But do you think it’s possible? Somehow it is like a utopia, these two being able to live in this multi-cultural context, or to co-exist. But both characters are ultimately tragic, as well, aren’t they? 

SP: I left it open. I think that they are both victims. She is a victim of her lover, of having a breakdown, and being a discredited nurse. She’s a victim of her daughter. And he is a victim of what people want him to do – so they are both victims. I think, he’ll get out. I think he will get out and say, ‘I don’t want to marry. I can do what I want’. Whether he’ll go back and see her, I don’t know. He might. I like plays that are open; so, you know, it is possible.

EV: That’s what Pinter said about his characters, that he never really knows where they’ll all end up.

SP: He never liked if you asked him questions, like Beckett. He didn’t like you asking questions about his characters.

EV: But it’s interesting that there is this generational thing, this clash of cultures; it starts off with not understanding each other. She has these specks of Jewish culture, the old-fashioned, but she is not in tune with what a young orthodox man would be.

SP: The sort of Jewish people that she came across is the very old generation, like my parents’ generation, that were not fanatical at all. They might be going to synagogue and not eat bacon, the East End type, working-class Jews. And that’s the Jewish culture that she was in contact with. Not his. He is not obviously Hassidic, but he’s very orthodox.

EV: You said in this interview that you were influenced by American writers.

SP: Yes, and Irish writers. It’s their rhythm. Tennessee Williams, Eugene O’Neill, Arthur Miller write with rhythms, which English writers don’t.

SJA: They can’t do rhythms?

SP: They don’t have the same rhythms as the Americans. They don’t have the same poetical dialogue as the American writers do or Irish writers. 

SJA: Do you have any idea of why that could be?

SP: I think it’s just their culture. It’s the oppressive culture, like the Jews have. And Tennessee Williams is writing from an oppressed gay American culture, to a certain extent. A lot of English writers are very consciously clever. And they are consciously aware of words and stage craft, which is entertaining, but the American writers go deeper into characters, what’s going on, and the passions. I find a lot of what is coming from English writers doesn’t have any real passions – they have the intellect.

EV: There is Harold Pinter and Samuel Beckett. That would be a good example of Irish playwrights.

SP: I love Harold Pinter, I can’t get on with Beckett, although I was an actor and I’ve been in his plays. I find him incomprehensible, in an annoying way. 

EV: How did this transition from acting to playwriting come about?

SP: I’ve always written plays and then I acted, and then I got to a point where I wasn’t getting enough roles. I teach, as well, I teach adults. So, I decided to just give up the acting and concentrate on writing and teaching. But I’ve always written.

SJA: And when you write, do you often write about Jewish topics?

SP: Well, this one A Dark Night in Dalston, yes. And I wrote a play a few years back called Many Roads to Paradise (2008)which centred on a blind Jewish woman in a home looked after by a Muslim nurse – and she didn’t know she was Muslim. And then I wrote a play that was done at the Watford Palace about four elderly ladies trying to save their synagogue from being turned into a strip club, so that was a Jewish theme.

SJA: When you teach, where do you tell your students to get their inspiration from?

SP: I tell them to use their own experience, and to be influenced by other people, but not to copy them. And I tell them that they should write all the time. We do workshops with performances. I tell them to listen to people talking, and that gives them the feel of dialogue. And to research characters, as well. But they are actors who write, so they got all that. I also teach theatre studies, where we go and see plays and talk about them. And I do a general class in Creative Writing, which is everything – poetry, novels, and short stories. But the main thing is to write all the time.

SJA: So, I guess drama is your favourite genre. What do you think are the advantages?

SP: It’s the hard one to do. You got to get someone to put it on. You got to get actors, directors, set designers. A novel is just views – I’ve never written a novel, and I don’t know if I could. And that’s where playwriting is the hardest of all, of all the writing. It’s very hard to get it on, and it’s very hard to have to trust so many people.

EV: The Park Theatre struck me as very interesting; it’s four years old. It’s a minor trend that new theatres have opened, isn’t it? 

SP: Well, this was a project of a young chap called Jez Bond, who found this property, and funded it with the building upstairs. There’s a bigger space and a rehearsal room, and he got the funding, but they have no subsidies. So, our producers are paying to be there. I think he only does his own productions about once every two years. It’s a receiving house, not a producing house. 

SJA: Can I ask you about Unsuspecting Susan (2003),which was well received in the US? How was your experience in the US compared to here?

SP: Well, the thing about America, New York, is that they like English stuff, they like English people, so they had an English actress not very well-known in America, but she got very good reviews. The American sort of theatre world: if you have a success, they’ll flock you and tell you they’ll make a film. It’s all about the moment. It was a success. It was a bigger success in New York than it was in London.

SJA: Do you find that the culture is more open?

SP: I think that it was. It was written in 2003, just after 9/11, and it was about some people who are a middle-class family, being radicalised and blown up in an Israeli restaurant. Now, for some people, that wasn’t possible. Two years later we did it in New York, and they believed it. That was it, some people didn’t believe it, and in fact it has been proved that I was right.

SJA: Who do you write for?

SP: I write characters first, and then the situation. Themes kind of come. Then I get my story. 

SJA: What drew you to write that female character in A Dark Night in Dalston?

SP: I was approached to write a play for the actress Michelle Collins. I’d seen her, I wrote it for her.

EV: That is so interesting for us because we have no insight into East Enders.

SP: She also was in Coronation Street.

EV: In this project, we are looking for Jewish characters, Jewish themes. But, for example, in Pinter, even when he doesn’t write Jewish characters, you could also say that there is a kind of a Jewish dimension that is not so overt, and we’re looking for that, too.

SP: Well, he was born in Hackney, where I was, and he’s got that Jewish sort of East London, because that’s where all the Jewish people lived, and then they moved to North London. Originally, they were all from Hackney and the East End. He’s got that feeling. And also, he will write a play with no exposition. The Caretaker (1960) is just wonderful. There is no exposition, but there is a story. Whereas with Beckett there is no exposition, there is no story. But with Pinter there is a definite structure.

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