Playwright David Edgar talks about reviving his 1983 play Maydays, performing in his one man show, and why he owes the theatre everything.

You come from a family with a strong links to theatre and broadcasting – what’s your background?

My parents met on the stage door steps of the Birmingham Repertory Theatre – so, literally, I owe the theatre everything. Dad was an actor/stage manager, greeting Mum (none too politely) as she joined the theatre as a student actor. During World War Two, Dad served in the navy, Mum was a BBC newsreader. They were married in 1943, and, after the war, Dad followed my grandfather into BBC Midlands, as an outside broadcast producer.

What first inspired you to engage with world politics?

The first political cause I took up was nuclear disarmament – I saw the crisis over nuclear Soviet nuclear weapons in Cuba as a conspiracy by the world superpowers to stop me reaching my 15th birthday. Then, I was at university during the worldwide student uprising of the late 1960s against the Vietnam war, and was inspired by that.

David Edgar watches the rehearsals, elbows supporting him.
David Edgar in rehearsal for the 2018 production of Maydays.
Photo by Richard Lakos © RSC Browse and license our images

What inspired you to write Maydays in 1983? Have you made any changes for 2018?  

I realised that politics was changing in the late 70s, and that a new, muscular Conservatism was emerging on both sides of the Atlantic. I was particularly struck by the fact that both Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan were heavily influenced by ideological gurus who had been on the far-left in their youth. So I started thinking about how my generation might move to the right in middle age. As a kind of thought-experiment, I tried to work out how that might happen to me, partly to stop that happening. Which it hasn’t.

Although the story is the same, I have done a lot of rewriting, to turn a play set in the present into a history play. I’ve also enjoyed the opportunity to write a coda, bringing the characters’ stories up to date.

How is the play still relevant today?

Many of the big issues of our time – notably discrimination on the grounds of gender and ethnicity – became prominent political questions in the period of the play. #MeToo and Black Lives Matter would not exist in their present form without the Women’s Liberation Movement and the Black Power campaigns of 50 years ago.

After a long period of political quietness, there is a new upsurge of political activism – and a fear of social and cultural collapse – which is very reminiscent of the 1960s and 1970s. And, once again, a clear generational divide has emerged in politics, between a suspicious and fearful older generation, and young people who – in the words of the 1960s – don’t trust anyone over 30.

Two men, one holding a glass, stand talking. Girl stands in the background looking uncomfortable.
Chris Nayak, Lily Nichol and Mark Quartley in rehearsal for Maydays
Photo by Richard Lakos © RSC Browse and license our images

As well as Maydays, you’re performing your one man show, Trying It On at the RSC, making your debut as a performer. Where did the idea come from for this show?

At about the same time as I was badgering the RSC to revive Maydays, I met the Director of Warwick Arts Centre, to whom I confided that I’d always wanted to do a solo show, and that my upcoming 70th birthday year seemed a good time to do it. “What would it be about?” he asked. Hastily, I improvised: “it’s about a conversation between my 20-year-old self, in 1968, and my 70-year-old self now”. Wisely or not, he commissioned the show on the spot. I’ve done it at Warwick and the Rep, and I’m looking forward to October performances at the Midlands Arts Centre, the RSC and the Royal Court in London.

Your adaptation of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is also returning to the Royal Shakespeare Theatre this Winter. What can we expect?

They can expect a grumpy old misanthrope who is visited by three ghosts who change his life. They can also expect something about the early Victorian England which inspired Dickens to write it. And colour and music and dancing and laughs and maybe even a tear or two. In other words, it’s the Christmas show.

You celebrated your 70th birthday this year.  What’s next for you?

I’m hoping to continue to perform Trying it On, and there are two new plays on their way. So I’m not hanging up my pen. But I’m hoping that next year isn’t quite as full as this one has been.

Maydays runs in The Other Place between 27 September and 20 October. Trying it On runs in The Other Place between 18-20 October, with a performance on 12 October at Midlands Arts Centre.