THE BIG INTERVIEW: Role Reversal  

Moira Buffini, 53, is an award-winning playwright and director whose innovative reworking of Macbeth is part of the current National Youth Theatre Rep Season. Susan Elkin met her to talk about her career so far.

Moira Buffini meets me after work in Islington on a chilly, dark autumn evening. Always busy she has been working round the corner on series 3 of Harlots – an original costume drama about the sex trade in 1760s London when one woman in five was involved in it and all told from the point of view of the women themselves. “It’s very popular in America” she tells me “But at present it isn’t available here.”

This project typifies Moira’s work. Women are at the centre of most of what she does, and she seems delighted – as she sips her mint tea reflectively – when I tell her that I see lots of drama school student show cases and that it would be a very unusual one not to include a bit of her work. “Good!” she says warmly. “I’m really pleased to hear that. I think it’s probably because I write well for women.”

So where did it all start? “I was lucky enough to go to a school – a grammar school because that was the system at the time in Cheshire where I grew up – which valued, really valued, the arts”. She goes on to explain that once a year the whole school came off timetable so that every single pupil could be involved in an arts week. “Of course, the staff all supported us, irrespective of subject, but the point was we had to do everything ourselves including writing and staging a play, presenting a musical event, decorating a classroom and more”.

“Writing plays is all about improvising what people say and that’s what you learn to do at drama school”

She mentions this formative experience several times in our conversation. “When I was about 14” she says “The group I was in needed a play, so I said ‘OK. I’ll do that’ and it was a life changer because I found could do it. Before that I’d enjoyed creative writing and been an avid reader from infancy.” She stresses that her mother, who was widowed when Moira was quite young, was a great valuer of education and encouraged her in every way. So the foundations were all in place.

Becoming a National Youth Theatre member was another life changing experience. “We did Titus Andronicus in my first summer with them. Imagine that!” Without a detailed life plan it was then south to University of London Goldsmith’s College for a degree in English and Drama. “By then I thought I wanted to be an actor, so I did post grad training at Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, where, incidentally, I met my husband.”

And she worked as an actor for a while. “I think I was a competent enough actor, but I was absolutely hopeless at interviews, auditions and presenting myself so, usually, I didn’t get the job” she chuckles. Nonetheless she argues that actor training is the best possible preparation for a playwright. “Writing plays is all about improvising what people say and that’s what you learn to do at drama school and that’s really helpful. It’s what I’d advise anyone who wants to write plays to do.”

Meanwhile she wrote when she was unemployed and had some fringe plays staged. One of these was seen by the literary manager of Soho Theatre who offered her a seed commission. “That means a very small fee – £250 in this case – and the certainty that your work will be read and, at least considered. I decided to write about Guernsey in World War Two and spent the fee on a research trip there, thinking all the time ‘I’m going to make sure that you cannot turn this play down’.”

They didn’t. Gabriel was staged at Soho Theatre in 1997 where it won that year’s Plays on Stage award and the Meyer Whitworth Award.  Published, like all Moira’s work since, by Faber and Faber, it was revived last year for a Theatre6 tour. It was the break she needed.

‘I’m going to make sure that you cannot turn this play down’

“When you write plays one commission leads to another and that’s what has happened to me for a long time now” says Moira explaining that the only time when she hasn’t been totally productive professionally was while her children were pre-schoolers. “It’s totally different from acting when that just doesn’t happen and each job could be the last”, she says.

In the last 21 years Moira has written for National Theatre, RSC, Birmingham Rep and many other companies – such as Tricycle Theatre who originally produced her play Handbagged about the Queen’s relationship with Margaret Thatcher – as well as working extensively in film and television. She’s got plenty on too. “There’s another NT play, Storm Ted, coming soon” she says. “And in the pipeline there’s a BBC Films/Pathé film currently called The Dig (but that may change). It’s got a really great cast, but their names are still under wraps.”

Moira is passionate about the creation of more female roles and addresses it continually in her work. “We women are 50% of society but only 30% of roles in plays and even then few of them are actually driving the plot” she says recalling one summer when she was in her teens and NYT said it simply didn’t have enough for girls to do that year. “It was a devastating smack down” she says, “It felt like real rejection – as if I wasn’t good enough.”

That’s why she is an enthusiast for shaking up plays such as Shakespeare’s and casting them in a way that the Millennium generation understands and accepts. “In the NYT Macbeth, which Natasha Nixon directs, we have a female Macbeth so that she and Lady Macbeth become two women in a loving relationship. And Duncan is a Queen, not a king. And why does the porter have to be a man?”

She continues: “The casting is 50/50 as the company is and the result is fascinating because it reinvents the play and makes you hear it afresh.” Moira’s adaptation respects the verse and the rhythms (“Of course” she says firmly when I ask about that) but changes pronouns wherever necessary and finds other monosyllables for patriarchal words such as “king” and “lord”.  This, is of course, part of a trend (Glenda Jackson as Lear at The Old Vic, Golda Rosheuvel as Othello at Liverpool Everyman and Phyllida Lloyd’s all female trilogy at Donmar Warehouse for example) and, for Moira it’s a very welcome one. “Women have been treated as second class citizens in the theatre for far too long” she declares.

She’s also passionate about education and the arts and the current declining emphasis on the latter. “Apart from the transformational power of the arts for individuals the industry is a huge part of the British economy” Moira says. “We export actors, musicians, other performers, designers and technicians all over the world. If this generation loses out on the foundations in schools, then all of that will be threatened and the economy will suffer.”

Acknowledging that if some schools, even now, still do well with the arts while others don’t, she admits that the issue isn’t just about cuts. There must surely be an element of choice involved? “That may be true” she flashes back, “Some heads are more committed than others but however keen a head is she or he will struggle if the local authority, the governing trust or, ultimately, the government doesn’t support them.”

Moira’s husband is a teacher – drama and, increasingly special educational needs. Like her he had a shortlived acting career and then a change of direction. And they have two teenaged children, so Moira sees the current state of education every day from more than one angle. Her elder sister, Fiona, on the other hand, has just moved on from a very successful tenure as associate director at Nottingham Playhouse where she established an impressive network of local schools – another product of that arts-rich education back in Cheshire.

Refreshingly, successful as she is, Moira still has unfulfilled ambitions. “I’d like to create and direct a film” she says. “In the film world it’s the director who writes it. Think of all those films ‘by Stephen Frears’ or ‘by Mike Leigh’. The screenplay writer is secondary. This is totally different from theatre when every single person involved is there to serve the play itself as it is written by a playwright.”

“One day …” she says, determinedly, as we pack up, leave the Islington restaurant/bar we’ve been chatting in, exchange email addresses and go our separate ways.

The National Youth Theatre presents Macbeth at the Garrick Theatre from 20 November to 7 December.