The award-winning writer and director, Murray Watts, recently showcased two of his plays at The King’s Head Theatre. Here, the man who brought us The Miracle Maker speaks of Mr Darwin’s Tree and First Light, as well as taking us back to where it all began.
Your work has won many awards and fans, was writing something you always wanted to do?
“I can’t say I always wanted to be a writer. It was something that gradually evolved. When I was in my teenage years I was preoccupied with the idea of becoming an archaeologist – it is interesting because a lot of the things I’ve written have been about uncovering the past.
“I started writing quite young. I won literary awards for things I wrote at school, which gave me encouragement. I started by writing broadcasts for Radio Merseyside right at the beginning of the station. Then, with a group of friends, considered doing a thought-provoking event around issues of faith and belief. This is now my 40th year as a playwright.”
Congratulations. It is interesting your early work aimed to challenge people, as your new work looks at similar themes. Have you noticed a change in the way audiences receive this theme of faith since then?
“There has been a change in the last few years, it is true to say that issues of faith are back on the agenda. I don’t like to put it like that, though, because we’re talking about our humanity. Whenever you deal with any issues in a play, issues of belief and spirituality will always be there.”
So do you believe there is still a place for faith in the theatre in today’s increasingly secular society?
“I think since 9/11, the wars in the early part of the century and huge economic fluctuation, people have begun to question rampant materialism. I think there has been quite a considerable shift of people searching in new ways, and we’re seeing incredible responses from audiences.”
Who are watching plays that explore these themes?
“I’ve had plays on in all sorts of situations ranging from mainstream theatres, to prisons, churches – almost everything you could do I’ve done some of it. I’m used to audiences who are predominately Christian, but that is not at all true of The Kings Head – it is a very well known fringe theatre where a lot of punters go.
“These are challenging plays, thought-provoking, even provocative. Significant issues of doubt are discussed as well. The theatre is a place of questioning and searching. Both these plays bring extremely different perspectives on faith.”
Some Christians struggle to find a place for Darwin’s work within their beliefs, what made you accept the challenge of tackling the topic?
“I have always been very interested in Charles Darwin and I did a lot of research in the early 1990s for an American television series on the subject. My father, who is 100 years old this year, was a scientist, so I grew up with a man who is very quiet and deep in his faith, yet very understanding of the natural world. I grew up with someone who saw no contradiction between scientific theory and belief. God was the creator, but how he created it was a matter for increasing scientific investigation – it wasn’t a problem that human beings might have developed gradually. It always worried me there was a polarised view of the two.
“I was commissioned to right a play about Darwin and I knew his wife was a Christian. It was interesting to explore a love relation where one person was losing their faith and the other person keeping theirs.”
So what does Mr Darwin’s Tree examine?
“The play examines the way of looking at faith and science. Mr Darwin’s Tree wouldn’t be comfortable to watch for someone who believes the world was created in six days – the play is not about challenging Darwin’s theory. It is based around the assumptions that scientists make, it is not a play that is siding one way or another.”
What do you hope the audience will take away with them from these plays?
“I don’t think there ever is one thing. When you write a play what fascinates you is the people. I hope you can go away with a real sense of mystery – a sense of the grandeur of the spirit world.
“I also hope some people go away with a feeling that there may be more than can be examined in a laboratory. That was the point of view of Darwin’s wife Emma.”
We’ve spoken a lot about Darwin’s Tree, what can we expect from First Light?
“First Light deals with issues of behaviour between teachers and children at school and the play explores issues such as faith and belief.”
Will people have a chance to see these plays after the London showcase?
“We have to wait and see. I think a lot of people are responding very well to the plays. The question will be whether I can put these plays on anywhere else, and that depends on backers – so really it all depends on money. I would hope the plays will be seen by a larger audience.”
Finally, what can we expect next from you?
“I am planning a show that I have already created. It’s a solo performance, like Darwin, with one actor. I have done a lot of shows like this over the past 30 years. The show is about the book of Galatians. I hope to see it tour around churches, and hope many will be interested in this very simple, 20-minute show.”