Nicholas Wright is a humble and beautifully spoken South African born British playwright. He began his career as a child actor, and studied at The London School of Music and Dramatic Arts. He has since opened and managed The Theatre Upstairs at the Royal Court Theatre and is a former associate director of the Royal National Theatre. He has had a nearly 70-year career in theatre and has 99 published plays under his belt. I had the privilege of talking to him recently about a play he wrote, which is very close to his heart – A Human Being Died That Night.
What drew you to this project?
I was in a bookshop in Charing Cross road and saw Pumla’s book. I didn’t know anything about it, but that it was about South Africa. It turned out to be a tremendous piece of writing and imagination. I sensed it would make an excellent play. When I realised Eric Abrahams was the publisher I called him up. He was enthusiastic about it and he offered to commission the play and that’s what happened. It’s taken quite a few years to get to stage, probably as long as five years.
What is your particular interest in South Africa? You don’t sound South African?
No I suppose I don’t, but I am South African. I was born in Cape Town. I left when I had just turned 18. I feel very nostalgic about Cape Town. Pumla, who wrote the book on which the play is based, had a house in Fish Hoek close to where my late brother had lived. We have a family plaque on a bench along the beach there in memory of our mother. This play is deeply personal for me in its feeling for South Africa and for recent changes there. Cape Town is a city with such a fascinating personality. I think it’s a bit of a lost Lotus Land really. It’s a ‘Last orders on the Titanic’ kind of place. I’ve tried to work that into the play.
How did you go about creating the play script from the book?
Pumla used, as a source for her book, a lot of tapes that she made when she was interviewing de Kock in Pretoria Central Prison. I used those transcripts and the dialogue in the book. I had to do a sort of collage of different sources. I bridged the gap with writing of my own, in which I took on Eugene’s voice in the way that a playwright does. It was a long and complex job.
What challenges did you have trying to portray such a huge story using just two characters?
I had to limit the story and make it just about these two people. The challenge writing it was that it’s not a play of action; instead it’s the interplay of personalities. What really drew me to the whole subject was the fact that it wasn’t just a South African story. South Africa is far from the only country where people have been guilty of serious human rights abuses.
When you write, do you imagine how it will fit on the stage and write accordingly or do you focus more on dialogue and character?
That was the challenge of the play – what the audience is looking at for 80 minutes is the same picture – you have to keep the audience’s interest. The staging at Hampstead is very much how I imagined it to be. The voices are important – Pumla’s voice is partly from her dialogue in the book. I also got to meet with her a few times and I know how she talks, what she’s like and a bit about her personality. I never met de Kock. I’ve had to imagine him using the recordings I’ve heard and also basing him on Afrikaans speaking South African men I know.
Did you find it hard to portray de Kock so that the audience would be able to empathise with him?
No, not at all. But I didn’t do that consciously; I didn’t try to get sympathy for him. I just had confidence that if I wrote him as an ordinary human being the audience would empathise with him. He’s a very interesting, intelligent man. Things he says are often quite amusing, very well put. He speaks extremely good English considering he spent his life speaking mostly Afrikaans. He’s rather witty and quite dry, rather ironic.
What are you working on now?
Now I’m just thinking about what I’m going to do next… I’ve written three plays since ‘A Human Being Died That Night’.