Gwyneth Lewis in conversation with Penny James
PJ: How big has been the leap for you from writing poetry to writing for a stage drama?
GL: For me poetry comes naturally but theatre is new to me. For writing Clytemnestra I wanted to make sure I was going in the right direction so I took an Introduction to Theatre class with the undergraduates at Harvard to make sure I understood the basics.
It has been a steep learning curve but I love theatre and doing this has been like retuning to an old friend. I do think of poetry as theatrical. Writing Clytemnestra has taken three years – much longer than a poem. I’m not sure if this time taken is usual or it is just me as it has been the first one!
PJ: Some say the ancient Greeks paved the way for Western theatre as we know it today. What do you think is so special about their style of story telling?
GL: Greek drama is the roots of theatre and yet it’s still fresh. The myths don’t date or lose their grip. I thought it would be very dark writing about Clytemnestra but it has been full of a richness of emotions. It is not unrelated to modern soap operas. The Greeks were as outrageous as the writers of Bad Girls! I did a lot of reading as I’m obsessive about research.
PJ: Explain why you have given the story the setting that you have in your version of the Clytemnestra story.
GL: I didn’t want togas! I set the story in the future setting because I wanted to imagine an extreme situation which could be real. We are in a world now where we are talking about food shortages and oil prices, global warming and things are becoming scarcer. It is fascinating to think of how humans behave in extreme circumstances – this is what Greek drama has always been about.
PJ: Why do you think the story of Clytemnestra is so compelling?
GL: I am drawn to the story of Clytemnestra as she was such a difficult character to come to terms with. Of course, you have to sympathize with her when you consider that her husband has killed her daughter. How would any woman feel? And yet, she’s problematic because it can’t be a good thing to murder your husband. It’s taken me a long time to figure out what I feel about her.
PJ: What do you think will be the key emotions that the audience will experience when they come and see the play?
GL: I hope that they will feel empathy and fear for the characters and thrilled by how full of life they are. Tragedy’s all about seeing human nature at its most extreme and although it can be hard, it’s also thrilling.
PJ: What has the process of writing a play for the first time given you in terms of experience as a writer? Have you learnt anything new?
GL: It has been exciting. I have been living with hunger, murder and adultery in my head for three years. I’ve written a lot of drafts and will still be involved with the production through to the end, attending rehearsals and contributing where I can. Director Amy Hodge and I have worked closely together, which has been great. For a poet, it’s good to work as part of a team - usually as a writer I am very much Billy No Mates working on my own!
PJ: Sherman Cymru champions new writing and writers. How important do you think that role is in Wales?
GL: It is absolutely crucial because you can’t rest on past writing. We are imagining stories for the future and need new writers as well as audiences. This is our cultural future. The Greeks helped mould society through theatre. Theatre tells us about our own time and debates it like a theatrical Prime Minister’s Question Time. Sherman Cymru has taken the risk of entrusting me to write Clytemnestra but in order to have new things you have to take risks. I am very grateful that they have given me this chance.
PJ: When and where do you normally write?
GL: I write in the mornings usually. I write in bed a lot. I write when I’m out and at home, it doesn’t matter where. I am disciplined when writing at home, you have to be. Even my husband isn’t allowed to speak!
PJ: Would you have any advice to new poets and writers based on your experience and how much do you draw on your experiences as a writer?
GL: My advice….Drink less write more! I certainly think that your experiences are a big part of your skill in writing. Though experiences in life can difficult, baggage from life is really handy in a writing life.
PJ: The opening night of Clytemnestra is April 18. What do you think will be your emotions that evening?
I grew up with The Sherman and it really will be a huge thrill for me to see my play performed here. But I will be wearing a big hat that night! I will feel terrified, very exposed. I will probably feel more nervous that I have ever before. My husband will be there with me as a supporter.
PJ: After living with the play for three years, what will you do once Clytemnestra is over?
GL: I am going to Pembrokeshire to learn to sail board. That will be my celebration.