When Dennis Kelly’s After the End opens at the Theatre Royal Stratford East later this month it will be the first time that the play, which premiered by Paines Plough in a production by Roxana Silbert at the Traverse in Edinburgh in 2005, will have been seen in the UK for many years.
“I haven’t let it be done,” says Kelly, “and that’s because it’s got a really, really difficult scene of violence. The original production was done with great sensitivity but then I saw other productions and I’ve thought ‘you’ve got that really wrong’ and it’s given me the heebie jeebies. Just the idea of this play in the wrong hands makes me anxious.”
For Kelly the right hands are those of director Lyndsey Turner, the self-effacing and brilliant director whose highly acclaimed production of Caryl Churchill’s A Number is currently running at the Old Vic, and who was at the helm of Kelly’s difficult and challenging play Girls and Boys which was at the Royal Court in 2018 starring Carey Mulligan as a woman whose whole life has been brutally destroyed. Like After the End that was a play that dealt with male violence, something that Kelly says has been a theme running through many of his plays.
“I still wonder why I am always writing about this stuff, and I think maybe it is because it scares me. I am not a violent person, but there may be a version of me out there in an alternate universe who is a violent man,” he says, telling me about a period when he fell in with a group at school and looking back seeing “how I could have gone down that road.” He argues that “there are a lot of good decent men out there who choose not to allow those parts of themselves to become the prominent part of their personality, but if we are ever going to change male violence, we have to understand it and where it comes from. We have to stop going “oh that’s just boys.”
As he demonstrated in so many plays, including the book for the musical Matilda, Kelly also writes brilliantly about power and how it shifts in relationships.
Production image from Matilda. Photo by Manuel Harlan.
“Power is endlessly fascinating because it is insanely complicated, and it’s something we all deal with every day with our friends, our partners and our families. Some power relationships are clearly abusive, but others are more complicated. We are all constantly guarding our power and it is only when we realise that we are forcing our agendas and taking agency away from someone else, maybe someone we love, and we back off that there can ever be balance."
After the End pivots around power. It begins with Louise, always the popular girl in the office, waking up the morning after her leaving drinks to find herself in a nuclear bunker with geeky co-worker Mark. She’s lucky, there has been a terrorist attack, a dirty bomb has been set off, and she’s been saved by a well-prepared man who she might not have given a second glance at in the office. Outside many, maybe thousands, have not been so fortunate.
The play was written in the wake of 9/11 and the War on Terror and the way it niggles and gnaws around questions about power, the desire to be safe, how that desire can manipulated by governments and individuals and whether we do or don’t behave in our best interests, or indeed as our best selves, seems pertinent not just to that era but to our own pandemic times.
Kelly has already written about the pandemic in the 2021 BBC TV drama, Together, starring his Pulling collaborator Sharon Horgan and James McAvoy, a piece that like a lot of Kelly’s work succeeded in being bleakly comic and full of quiet hope. He says that it was weird writing about something that people all over the world were experiencing simultaneously.
“Normally when you are writing about something you are telling people something they don’t know because they weren’t there. But the pandemic has been a communal event—partly because of the interconnectedness of the world—and everyone has been touched by it in some way.”
He’s angry by the way that the government has handled the crisis, and particularly by the normalisation of death.
“If there had been an outbreak of Legionnaires' disease in a nursing home in say, Scarborough, and 70 people had died, it would be seen as catastrophic. We’d be talking about it for years, people would be given help and support and there would be inquiries. But we have more than 150,000 dead, all these families dealing with trauma, people are still dying in numbers, and there is very little about it on the news. It’s bizarre.”
He understands some of the reasons why theatre might not yet be addressing that trauma—not least because it has been hard hit by the pandemic and in times of national crisis there is a tendency to programme the comforting-- but he thinks that it should and must because artists have a responsibility “to talk about those things and bits of the world that we find difficult. We can hold people’s hands as we take them to these difficult places. We have to or otherwise these things remain remote.”
He points to the fact that 150,000 dead is “just a statistic” but “bring one of those people alive on stage and it is a tragedy. So I do feel it is a writer’s job to bring these things alive. I’ve always thought that a good play has lots of things in it and it is valid to make people laugh and feel kindness and warmth and love, but it is also valid to make them feel uncomfortable and maybe a bit scared too. I have always thought that plays are feeling things. Of course, a good play is backed up with intellect. But if as a playwright you’ve got to choose, then choose feeling, because it is in feeling that a play and theatre really lives.”
Does he think that plays have the power to bring about change?
“It’s not like you are going to write a play and everyone is going to rush out afterwards and man the barricades, but I think that you can write a play which influences someone, which contributes to the conversation about who we are and what the world is like.”
From left to right; writer Dennis Kelly, Nick Blood and Amaka Okafor, who star in After the End.
But he is insistent that doing that requires honesty. When talking with younger playwrights he always advises them that trying to be scrupulously honest, however difficult that might be, is the only policy.
“Things like structure and character, you can figure that shit out. And if you can’t then probably you shouldn’t be writing plays. The harder thing is the struggle to be honest when you are writing. You have to be because plays are transparent and people can see straight through them and if you try to hide something they will see that you are not being honest, not being yourself.”
When Kelly first took another look at After the End when this production was suggested, he wondered how relevant it might feel to the times we are in.
“But I was surprised. It does. I think the last scene now feels like it really matters. It’s a play about what kind of person you are, and what kind of person you choose to be and whether you stand by what it is that you say that you believe in. All the other scenes exist for the last scene and that’s the one that’s most important to me because it’s really about someone deciding that despite everything, despite all the terrible things that have happened, that they are going to be the kind of person they always wanted to be. It’s all in the title really. After the End.”
After the End runs from the 25th Feb to the 26th Mar 2022 at Theatre Royal Stratford East. Tickets can be found here.