North-East writer Sean O'Brien tells David Whetstone about Keepers Of The Flame, his new play for the Royal Shakespeare Company.
It has taken more than a quarter of a century, but finally we have something to suggest the RSC's special relationship with the North-East amounts to more than an annual takeover of Newcastle's theatres.
The 2003 season opens with a very special world premiere at Live Theatre. Keepers Of The Flame, a blank verse play by Sean O'Brien, who has lived in Newcastle for 13 years, is a Live Theatre production "in association with the RSC".
Live's artistic director, Max Roberts, directs while the cast features Live Theatre stalwarts (Trevor Fox, Deka Walmsley, Donald McBride) and others recruited with RSC clout - Alan Howard and David Rintoul. There's also a part for talented Live youth theatre performer Laura Norton and the set is the work of Tyneside-based Imogen Cloët.
Suddenly it feels as if North-East talent is being recognised.
Sean O'Brien has made his name principally as a poet, although he is also critic, editor and professor of poetry at Sheffield Hallam University.
His first venture into drama - if you disregard a school play he wrote as a teacher featuring the staff dressed up as cannibal snowmen - was Laughter When We're Dead, a darkly comic verse play about politics which was performed at Live Theatre in 2000.
He then wrote a new version of The Birds, by the Greek playwright Aristophanes, for the National Theatre. The move into drama is easily explained. "I've always been interested in poetry that's dramatic in the sense that it deals with its subject in three dimensions," explains Sean in the dark morning void of Live's auditorium.
"That's poetry that is written as an event rather than a description. I've always liked to be in the action."
He enjoyed writing his first play for Live. "To be able to write at length, in great detail, and to develop a number of characters was a wonderful experience.
"I also like working with actors - and it gets me out of the house instead of sitting at a desk all day."
Looking back at that play with his hyper-critical eye, he says: "I think it was a good start. The RSC had an interest in it. It was the first big thing I'd done but it was naive in all kinds of ways - structurally and dramatically. But it had lots of energy."
If the first Live play was flawed, then it raises further the expectations of this new play which opens with an octogenarian poet, Richard Jameson (Howard), going through mental agonies over events of 50 years previously. Sean sets the scene, turning the clock back to the years after the First World War when a host of poets - "Auden, Louis MacNeice, Stephen Spender and so on" - were growing up in a world primed for change. For them, socialism seemed the agent of that change and they embraced it.
But what of the counter-argument? "It just so happens," says Sean "that in that generation you won't find any absolutely first rate poets on the political right."
He can name one half decent example, a South African called Roy Campbell. "But really the most productive energies of the period seem to have ended up with people like Auden and MacNeice."
What if, Sean wondered, one of these remarkably talented poets had gone the other way?
His fictional "What if?" is Jameson, a sentimentalist who attributes an "almost religious sense of importance" to the English landscape and "is also rather a good writer".
Without giving too much away, Jameson becomes a propagandist for the fictional British Fascist Party led by a press baron. It leads him along a road that will lead to major disquiet in old age (actually in 1987 which is the play's point of reflection).
Of Jameson, Sean says: "It's not that I like him but I find him interesting... well, what he does; his behaviour is terrible.
"Part of the play is about the fact that somebody can behave very badly and yet produce work which is of high quality."
Citing poets of a slightly earlier generation, Sean says this is "a regular experience in literary terms. Ezra Pound supported Mussolini and nearly got hanged for his pains. But his work has survived all that. You could say the same of Eliot. It's often said he was anti-Semitic and yet his work still demands to be read."
More recently the work of Ted Hughes and Philip Larkin has been re-appraised in the light of biographical revelations.
"We live in a world obsessed with biography," says Sean. "But not all work is necessarily autobiographical. You might not like X at all but sometimes the work is the redeeming feature of X." As a final taster, Sean promises a Faustian element to Keepers Of The Flame, Faust being the chap who sold his soul to the devil in return for earthly advantage.
Newcastle Journal, 28.10.03.