In 2016, Beth Steel was in rehearsals for her play Labyrinth at Hampstead theatre when the EU referendum result was announced. People around her were surprised by the outcome. Steel wasn’t. “I was fascinated by how shocked they were. My entire family and my hometown [Mansfield] voted over 70% leave.”
Her new play, The House of Shades, is not about Brexit specifically, but is an intergenerational drama that revolves around a working-class Nottinghamshire family over the course of decades and different governments. In its majestic sweep it examines the currents that run through the Webster family amid the bigger political dramas that frame their lives. To understand the current moment, she thinks, and especially the causes and effects of Brexit, we have to go back. “You’ve got to see where this tidal wave [of Brexit] originates, and it goes way further back than you think.”
Steel is at the Almeida theatre in north London – bright pink jacket, statement earrings and silver boots – and she speaks in eloquent sentences that carry a distinctive Nottinghamshire twang (“It’s not just a dialect, it’s an energy”). Her characters talk with the same energy and although the Websters are not based on her own family, they live in a fictionalised town not unlike Mansfield.
The play travels from 1965 under Harold Wilson’s Labour government to the fallout from the Thatcher years and ends in the midst of the current version of Conservatism. It does not shy away from exploring edgy national conversations and antagonisms; one character feels that the town is being overrun by eastern European economic migrants. Does Steel think this conversation has been openly addressed in public discourse?
“The difficulty in having the conversation is that if there is racism in it, which there is, there’s also a ton of other stuff … We say: ‘I can’t engage with you because you’re prejudiced,’ but I have to engage with it.”
She speaks of someone she knows who got an Islamophobic tattoo, as one example: “Did that tattoo make me fucking furious? Yeah. But there’s so much more to it and I have to roll my sleeves up and get stuck in.” While she understands why some want to disengage, she feels there “has to be enough people prepared to roll their sleeves up” in order to have the conversation, study the causes and then move forward.
The Websters are tough people, especially the women, who include the indomitable, embittered Constance, a mother and miner’s wife (played by Anne-Marie Duff) whose dreams of becoming a singer are thwarted.
Steel has previously spoken of her interest in working-class masculinity and explored this head-on in Wonderland (2014), which featured miners in a pit on stage. Her new play puts its female characters centre stage: the women are big, strong, vividly drawn, bursting with personality and complications. Did she set out to write a play about women?
“Yes, I felt I’d explored the male voice much more and you usually hear even less of the female voice when it’s [a play] about the working class.”
Steel complicates the idea of sisterhood: Constance is both a protector and an upholder of patriarchy so it becomes hard to judge her. “Exactly,” says Steel. “It’s about sitting with complexity. I think the play does that politically as opposed to having a very clear point of view.”
The Almeida is where Steel’s idea for a family drama was first born. It came to her at the staging of Robert Icke’s version of Oresteia in 2015. Watching the bloodbath cascade down the ages in Aeschylus’s tragedy as one generation killed off the next, she felt drawn to writing her own contemporary variation on the theme. Until then, she had written plays about big, real world issues, from the economy (Labyrinth) to mining and Thatcherism (Wonderland) and the climate (Ditch). But sitting in the Almeida’s auditorium she thought: “God, when a family drama’s good, it’s fucking good. It’s juicy and sexy and riveting.”
The question of whether she could put a working-class family at the centre of her work stalled her momentarily. “As soon as I thought ‘I want to write the play and it’s going to be a working-class family’ I thought, ‘How can a family drama [focusing on working-class lives] be The Oresteia? How can it be stately and poetic and grand?’”
It’s not that she thinks working-class lives are less epic, but that they are never visibly so on stage: the family drama is so often the middle-class family drama.
“Those plays [about working-class families] are in the studio [of a theatre]. I’ve watched them and been incredibly moved but it’s not what I want to do.” She envisaged this play to be big – teeming with characters and stretching across decades, right from the start. “Then I realised – of course I could do it. You don’t have to be invited to do it. You do it.”
Family dramas are not quite out of her system yet, either. Having been a writer-in-residence at the National Theatre, she is set to stage another one there – her first at the venue – but does not want to say much more about it for now.
Steel’s writing process is long and labour-intensive. The House of Shades took over two years to complete and it shows in the richness of its world. The research took her to Greece with a suitcase of ancient Greek dramas in tow.
“I thought that to unlock some of these plays I had to be there. So I booked a flight to Athens and I read [almost every single one] for a month, so a play a day. I could’ve done that anywhere but there is something you forget in these plays and when you get out there, in those amphitheatres, you realise they’re speaking to the sun and generating stuff from the earth.”
By night, she went to sleep listening to talks about Greek tragedy. Did she want to absorb it all by osmosis?
“Yes,” she says. That was the way she learned to write in the first place. Brought up by her miner father (she spoke to him as part of her research for Wonderland) and her mother, a part-time shop assistant, she and her twin sister were encouraged to have a library card and draw at home: “I know these are basic things but they’re kind of profound in the environment you’re in.”
She loved school but was bullied, so three days after finishing her GCSEs, she left for Greece with her sister (now an artist). She modelled fur coats, and then set up her own clothes shop there, all before she was 18. She came back and settled in London at 21, waitressing for some time.
After leaving school and during her time in Greece she only read one book – Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things. But she then began reading at a rapid rate, feeling famished because of all she had missed. She could not afford to see many live theatre performances at the time but gobbled up the canon by reading one play after another, including David Harrower’s Blackbird, which marked her profoundly and sparked her decision to become a playwright.
A curious legacy from this time is that there are several celebrated plays that she has only encountered on the page, not on stage. Hamlet is among them, and she jokes about her deliberate hesitancy around “popping my Hamlet cherry” now when she can well afford to see it. “It’d have to be an ur-Hamlet – maybe when Robert Icke does it again, she says, laughing. “That’s the Hamlet I regret not seeing. But there will be others. I’ve just clung on to the hymen for too long.”