No boos, please

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 07 December, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 07 December, 2010, 12:00am

A decade ago, Dennis Kelly had no qualifications, had never worked in a job he enjoyed and had scarcely moved beyond north London, where he grew up. But all that has changed. This month alone, the 40-year-old British playwright's works are being performed all over the world, including Hong Kong.

He has a successful British television series under his belt and another in progress; and his musical version of the well-loved Roald Dahl children's classic, Matilda, is being performed in London by the Royal Shakespeare Company to critical acclaim.

So, how did Kelly change his life?

'First I went to university ... and then I stopped drinking,' says Kelly, who left school at 16 and 'mooched around doing stupid jobs', including helping on a street market stall and working in supermarkets.

'Then, when I was 30, I decided to go to university.'

He studied drama and theatre arts at Goldsmiths College in London. After realising he didn't love acting, he decided to become a playwright. But he had a problem.

'I was a drunk. I drank all the time, from morning to night. My drinking got really bad, so in the end I just had to do something about it.'

Some writers find it hard to write without alcohol, but Kelly was the opposite: 'I found it hard to write with it. My writing career took off from the moment I put the bottle down. Alcoholics are liars - you have to lie to other people to be able to drink the quantities of alcohol that you need to sustain you.

'But playwriting requires the attempt at honesty - I don't know if it requires actual honesty but you do need to attempt it because there are lots of things you need to look at, including trying to understand things about yourself that you don't like,' he says.

'My wife [Italian actor-director Monica Nappo] drinks just a little bit, and she'll sometimes open a bottle of wine and put the cork back in. I don't understand how anyone can put the cork back in. Once it's open it's got to go. I found it difficult to put the top back on a bottle of whisky, let alone a bottle of wine.

'Someone once said that the definition of an alcoholic is someone who goes into a bar and sees a sign that says, 'All you can drink for one dollar,' then goes up to the barman and says, 'Give me two dollars' worth.' That was me.'

It was never ordained that he would one day become a writer. There are no writers in his family: his dad was a bus conductor and his mum was a cleaner 'and this wasn't something we thought about at all'. Until he was 18 he had never been inside a theatre; then a friend told him about the local youth theatre troupe. 'And it was amazing, the one day a week that I felt really inspired.'

He found that he was not much of an actor, but loved the theatre, and even though he had not studied drama, he wanted to be a playwright.

Even now Kelly doesn't think studying writing is such a good idea. 'The really tricky thing about writing - the hardest thing - is that it's something you can't learn from somebody else,' he says.

'It's about being honest with yourself and being prepared to hear criticism from your colleagues. That's where most writers fail when they start out. It's such a personal thing - you really do put so much of yourself into it, for it to be criticised is very hard, but within that criticism lie the seeds of making it good.'

Orphans, the piece being performed by the Hong Kong Players at the Hong Kong Arts Centre this week, came from that creative, collaborative process.

'Sometimes I write things where I know where I'm going. But with Orphans I just had the opening image, which is of two people having dinner and someone else interrupts them and that person is covered in blood,' Kelly recalls.

'When Birmingham Repertory Theatre commissioned me for a play, I said I'd like to explore that image, even though I didn't know who those people were.'

Kelly is reluctant to give much of the plot away, but the two people turned out to be husband and wife, and the intruder was the woman's brother, covered in blood that he claims comes from someone who was injured, and whom he helped.

'But the brother has been in trouble before and the sister doesn't want to call the police and they live in an area where they feel intimidated and that's where it starts.'

Kelly tends to write in the morning, sometimes going down to a local cafe 'to get my brain moving. But really I just write. All the time.'

'I have a few commissions, so I've always got something I should be writing for someone. The thing about me is that I'm essentially a lazy person and that keeps me working hard because of this fear that this lazy person is just going to burst out.'

Are his parents proud of him?

'My dad's dead. I think my mum's a bit proud. It's hard to know; we're not a family who talks about that kind of stuff. She's never been to one of my shows.' That probably has more to do with the subject matter, he adds after a pause.

'Up until now, with most of my plays, some people think they are dark. I don't think they are dark, but maybe they are not the best to bring my mum to. Perhaps Matilda's the one. Yes. I think Matilda is definitely the one.'

Dec 8-10, 8pm; Dec 11, 2.30pm and 7.30pm. The closing performance is followed by a Q&A session with Dennis Kelly. Inquiries: 2111 5999