Playwright David Eldridge: ‘What’s important to me is to move people’ | David Eldridge

Sam Troughton and Justine Mitchell in Beginning by David Eldridge.

David Eldridge is an acclaimed dramatist and screenwriter. Born in Romford, where his father was a shoemaker, his plays include Market Boy, In Basildon and an adaptation of Thomas Vinterberg’s film Festen. His new play, Middle, is at the National Theatre, the second in a trilogy of dramas about couples that began in 2017 with the West End hit Beginning. He has three sons, lives in north London, and attends every West Ham home game.

Was Beginning always going to be the first part of a trilogy?
No. But on the night of its third preview, it suddenly occurred to me I could write a sequel, catching a couple who were 10 years older than the pair in Beginning, and who might be at a crossroads in their relationship. I’ve learned over the years that if I have an idea that won’t go away, I should listen to it, but I was also sensible enough to not even think about going down that road unless I had an idea for a third play [to be called, inevitably, End]. I brooded and brooded, and when I finally did [have an idea], I remember thinking: thank God.

But you chose not to stick with the same characters. Why?
I thought that would be the less interesting route. I hoped that in telling the stories of three different couples, I might be able to say something bigger about what it means to be with someone, about loneliness, about whether progress as a couple is ever really possible.

What’s it like rehearsing with a cast of only two?
It’s about trust: the trust they feel in each other, and in us. We’re all trying to find an empathy for the characters, to help Claire [Rushbrook] and Daniel [Ryan] play them in a truthful, detailed way, and this means that everyone in the room, including stage management and the choreographer, ends up sharing their own experiences. Polly Findlay [the play’s director] talks of the Eldridge iceberg. There’s the obvious subtext, and then there’s what Ted Hughes used to call the “hidden-most”: the really deep stuff of which not even the characters are aware.

Your work is intimate, and often interested in family dynamics. Do you feel too much theatre now is determined only to tackle big political and historical issues?
I’m not hopping over the question, but it was ever thus. I think of my first play in 1996: I was 22. I was part of a generation of playwrights that were regarded as in-your-face: Jez Butterworth, Sarah Kane, Joe Penhall. A year later, along came Conor McPherson’s The Weir. It was the best play of the past 10 years, and it was counter to everything then current. One byproduct of getting older is a sense of perspective. What I can say, though, is that Middle wasn’t written as a response to anything else. What’s important to me is to move people. John Osborne said he wanted to give lessons in feeling. That’s always struck a chord with me.

Sam Troughton and Justine Mitchell in Beginning by David Eldridge.
Sam Troughton and Justine Mitchell in Beginning by David Eldridge. Photograph: Johan Persson/ArenaPAL

You’re relatively productive for a playwright. What’s your secret? Does making plays get easier?
No, it’s always terrifying to deliver a play, and I feel more and more responsibility to make work that is good and worthwhile. It still feels massive to me. But you need an insouciance, too. To write well for actors, you want it to feel like it lives on the moment. It’s a weird, contradictory energy.

When did you discover the theatre?
The first play I ever saw was King Lear, at 17. I got taken to the RSC’s production starring John Wood. It was an A-level set text, but half of us hadn’t read it yet; we were going to get into it in the upper sixth. I had a terrible adolescent attitude to it. I said to my friend Angus: “Shakespeare? Boring.” Angus said: “Don’t worry, there’s a good bit in the middle where someone gets their eyes pulled out.” But by the time we emerged for the interval, I could not believe what I was seeing. The icing on the cake was that, at the end, I was expecting Lear to be holding Cordelia’s hand, and he was carrying her body! It was mind-blowing. It changed my life.

You won a scholarship to a public school [Brentford School, in Essex]. What do you feel about that now?
It didn’t make for a very happy adolescence. But perhaps most people feel like that, and the education I got was great. It’s interesting, thinking about what happens notionally when you move out of one class bracket into another. The best class story that gets told in our family is from when I was a kid. My uncle John and his wife, Irene, did well out of the 80s. He had a garage; she did that quintessentially Thatcherite thing of setting up her own small cleaning business. They lived round the corner, but in a nicer house than ours. One day, my uncle came round. My dad was having bread and jam for breakfast. I remember seeing my dad walk out of the back door and into the garden. He’d offered my uncle some bread and jam, and my uncle had said: “I don’t like bread and jam, it reminds me of being poor.” I’m not dissing my uncle. I love him, and I’m in this territory myself now.

Claire Rushbrook and Daniel Ryan in Middle.
Claire Rushbrook and Daniel Ryan in Middle. Photograph: David Stewart/The National Theatre

Do you still feel not enough working-class voices are heard in the theatre?
I can’t complain personally. I’ve made plays like In Basildon. We did put a play set in Romford Market on the Olivier Stage at the National Theatre. I’ve given blue-collar voices a Chekhovian form. But I do still feel it, in quite a raw way, when I talk to younger writers. Playwrights who are not from a middle-class background often feel they are being patronised by the development culture. The script editor will be middle-class, and doesn’t necessarily understand their world.

In recent months, you’ve lost both your mother and your great mentor and friend, the playwright Robert Holman. Is it hard, bringing a play to the stage without them behind you?
I always used to love seeing Mum and Dad at the theatre together. When something connects with my family, it’s a great feeling. I wrote a version of Ibsen’s The Wild Duck, and my sister was sitting behind me during it, and just before the interval, when the penny was starting to drop, I heard her say to her husband: ‘He’s the father isn’t he? He’s the fucking father!” She was so caught up in it. It was the best thing that had ever happened. My mum’s no longer part of that constellation now, and it’s a blow. I was on the phone to my dad the other day, talking about when he’s going to come and see Middle. I said: “Do you want me to take you? Or Fay [Eldridge’s sister]? Or your mate Ray?” It is going to feel weird without mum. With Robert, it was strange, walking through the park on the first day of rehearsals. For the past 23 years, on every first day of a play of mine, he has always rung me. He was like dad number two to me.

Which do you see more often: football, or theatre?
Since the pandemic, I’ve only seen one play: The Normal Heart [Larry Kramer’s Aids drama, at the National Theatre]. My son, George, was born in 2020, and from last summer, we knew Mum was on the way out, so it has been difficult. I suppose West Ham is my main thing… I have a season ticket with my brother. Sometimes we take Dad, sometimes I take my older son, or my nephew. Sometimes it’s no kids, and we have pizza and a few beers and bring a mate.

Is football a kind of theatre?
People say that, but I’m not sure – though in the sense that it’s about the day, not just the match, maybe it is a bit like an experiential thing by Punchdrunk.