In Conversation With Playwright Duncan Macmillan

The actor is breathing heavily as he tries to run around the small, circular stage. Dashing from one row of seats to another, he wipes his brow, firing pithy line after pithy line, the audience fighting to keep up with the crescendo. Then he hits you: “If you live a long life and get to the end of it without ever once feeling crushingly depressed, then you probably haven’t been paying attention.” Silence.

The actor continues but he is not heard; the line lingers. Everyone should feel crushingly depressed. Anyone who doesn’t is wrong. Pay attention! Look around you! They’re the idiots, not you. To feel that way is right.

Every Brilliant Thing, a play by Duncan Macmillan, tackles suicidal depression in the form of a six-year-old boy who makes a list of everything that is brilliant about the world to prevent his mother from trying to commit suicide again. One: ice cream. Two: kung-fu movies. Three: burning things. Four: laughing so hard you shoot milk out of your nose. Five: construction cranes. Six: me.

The list takes on a life of its own as the boy grows up and the play invites every member of the audience to read aloud a “brilliant thing” from the list of one million. It is a beautiful, heart-rending and heart-warming piece of writing, brilliantly performed by Jonny Donahoe.

“Most of what I want to say isn’t particularly coherent; it’s about trying to find a form to articulate an anxiety or concern I have,” says Macmillan. “My plays all have some internal contradiction that I can’t resolve. Am I alone in feeling that? If you articulate it fairly, people respond. They’re finding that their inarticulable thoughts are presented for them. But giving answers is patronising.

“With Every Brilliant Thing, I felt there should be a way to talk about depression and suicidal depression because it’s so common, but to talk about it in a way that is constructive and complex and nuanced and grown up and unflinching. But also accessible and funny.

“And that was quite tactical. It’s a cliché of British theatre and theatre in general – the more experimental the theatre, the more bleak it is. I wanted to see if there was a way of making something that was self-consciously experimental but also quite unfashionable in the sense that it was funny and heart-warming and uplifting and optimistic.”

Duncan Macmillan wears Jigsaw Menswear
Duncan Macmillan wears Jigsaw Menswear

Macmillan is devoted to the craft of playwriting. He turns long, unpunctuated, adjective-filled reflections about present-day anxieties – parenthood, climate change, drug addiction – into intelligent, captivating and award-winning productions. He is the playwright for his generation. “I’m forever going to be a student of the craft of play construction and how and where you place the climactic moment of a story,” he says.

“That’s what drama is: watching a character make a decision. The thematic, the intellectual, they’re all secondary to seeing a recognisable character wrestling with something really difficult. In People, Places & Things, I was very aware that I wanted the lead character to be present in every single scene, for there not to be any breaks in our relationship with that character. She’s on stage the whole time. We can’t do realism and literalism in the way television can, so what is it about the live performance that is worth giving up your time for?”

Macmillan knows the answer. Still only 35, he has written a host of critically acclaimed plays. At just 33, he co-wrote an adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984 with Robert Icke, which opened at Nottingham Playhouse in 2013 before transferring to the Playhouse Theatre in the West End for its first run in May 2014. It is now touring the US.

People, Places & Things has moved from The National to Wyndham’s Theatre in the West End. Both the play – about drug and alcohol addiction – and its leading actress Denise Gough have been nominated for an Olivier Award, with Gough winning the best actress prize at the prestigious Critic’s Circle awards. 1984 was commissioned, but People, Places & Things, Every Brilliant Thing and Lungs, the play Macmillan credits with launching his career, are all original ideas.

Macmillan is philosophical about the West End. ”My generation is less squeamish about being popular. The point is to write something with integrity that people will respond to and is generous to an audience. The theme of People, Places & Things isn’t treated with much respect and authenticity by much of the media. So the fact that it will be seen by more people, which could be a useful thing for them, or a challenging thing for them,” he says, his passion and sense of duty taking over. “The fact that it’s going to be seen by young people… to see Denise’s performance… I think she’s one of the greatest actors of our generation.”

Casting Gough was deliberate. “I had a big desire to put talented, argumentative, difficult women on stage because there are not enough of them. They’re the women I’ve grown up around and been more attracted to,” he says. Macmillan is married to a writer, with whom he has a young son.

“This is something I get on my soapbox about. I’m a white, heterosexual, middle class, middle aged [he’s not…], English speaking, white – I’ve probably said that – able-bodied man with an English passport. I’ve won the lottery on privilege. I have a responsibility to redistribute the privilege I’ve been accidentally born into to stop putting people who look like me with my little problems on stage.”

Without being worthy or patronising. “Yes. Or self-flagellating and inaccurate,” Macmillan continues. “It’s easy to think we’re much more connected to people, we have much more of a global scope and we are much more open to everything that’s happening. Actually, it’s possible that we’re becoming more polarised in our opinions because we filter our friends, we filter on Twitter, Google filters our searches. When you put people with other like-minded people then these people become even more extreme in their views. The more you collect and gather in your tribes, the thinner the slice you’re getting. I’m really interested in that and the theatre being one of the few domains where you can have nuance and argument and debate and contradiction and complexity.”

With this level of intensity and devotion, it comes as a surprise that Macmillan’s first love is music. He is a former DJ and obsessive music collector. He says you should do what you love most as a hobby, and what you love second as your job. And it’s in summing up why that Macmillan delivers his most succinct line of the day: “No one can mess with it so it can’t be ruined.” 

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By Ana Santi
Photography by Liz Seabrook

Author: Ana Santi

Writer, reader, swimmer, wannabe Wimbledon champion. Still searching for the perfect flat shoe. Jigsaw’s editor-in-chief.

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