In Conversation with Matt Hartley

Rhys John Edwards meets writer Matt Hartley to discuss his latest play The Wife of Cyncoed, currently playing at the Sherman Theatre in Cardiff. 

Matt Hartley wrote The Wife of Cyncoed to challenge himself. His play Eyam had just gifted him with a career highlight – a run of performances at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre – when he found himself drawn to the prospect of writing his first monologue. He was keen to scale back on the excess afforded to such expansive productions and discover whether he could still engage an audience with a sole performer, armed only with his words.

He wanted to tap into the psyche of what he considers to be a ‘lost generation’ and analyse why the ideal retirement that many strive for, now sits at odds with a modern world.

But mostly, he fancied writing something that would be a bit of a laugh.

‘I wonder if that’s old fashioned now… to just want to entertain?’ he speculates, as we meet ahead of The Wife of Cyncoed’s opening at the Sherman Theatre, Cardiff.  

‘I don’t want it to provoke or spark debate. Primarily, I want it to be fun.’ Matt says, adding a caveat that ‘of course, there is room to explore social and political commentary within entertainment’ – but too often he comes across plays that haven’t quite worked because they’ve made this a priority over ensuring the audience ‘has a good night out.’  

It’s a fair point. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never left a play feeling disappointed that it hadn’t encouraged me to start a revolution.  

Thankfully, Matt seems more focussed on his audience enjoying themselves first and foremost. ‘I want to move people, leave them with an experience. And with this play in particular, I want to give people a sense of hope…’ 

The Wife of Cyncoed was the first monologue Matt had ever written, but not the first to be performed – Pentabus Theatre Company’s Idyll beat it to the post when it was performed in 2021. It was initially commissioned by the Sherman’s former Artistic Director Rachel O’Riordan but was delayed by – you guessed it – the coronavirus pandemic.  Fortunately, it was later resurrected by O’Riordan’s successor Joe Murphy, who Matt credits with embracing it when he didn’t have to.  

‘As an incoming Artistic Director, there’s no obligation to honour existing commissions but Joe really got it and supported the piece. I think he saw the strength in telling a story like this – a side of life that’s not represented much on stage.’  

Vivien Parry in The Wife of Cyncoed. Photo by Mark-Douet

The play was partly born out of Matt’s experiences on the school run, where he found that he was surrounded by an array of grandparents that dominated the playground.  

‘I was immediately drawn to question who these people were, what their lives looked like. You know, having already been parents themselves… now they were called upon as grandparents… maybe because of the increased financial pressures of recent years? I just found that they were more visible to me in a way that I’d never seen before.’ 

The title is a play on Chaucer’s The Wife of Bath, but Matt stresses that this is a ‘nod’ to the Canterbury Tale rather than an indication that the story is a straight-up reinterpretation. They are related only in the sense that the themes of sexual desire in Bath are used as a reference point for protagonist Jayne – played by Vivien Parry – with her undergoing a comparable reawakening that comes to her unexpectedly later in life.  

However, Matt mentions that he is more than happy for the audience to draw their own conclusions regarding the link: ‘The Wife of Bath is a work of literal genius, so if there are any sort of comparisons, I’d happily take them!’ 

The play is set in Cardiff and audiences can expect plenty of references to the capital throughout. In a recent preview performance Matt was intrigued by the audience’s overwhelmingly positive response to these specific Cardiffian cues.  

‘People take pride in where they’re from. They really respond to the fact that these stories can be told from where they are. But at the same time, I think you could drop this story beat for beat in the middle of Sheffield or Bristol and it would be the same.’ 

‘I like watching things when you feel the character really knows that particular town or village to such a point. Because if they know that place, I know that place too.’  

He mentions that when running creative writing courses, one aspect he tries to get students to focus on is how environment influences character behaviour. He would never recommend that a writer is vague in establishing the setting of their story and he thinks its naïve to think an audience will feel alienated by specificity. The more specific you are, the more universally relatable the story will be. 

‘Personally, I don’t get why people wouldn’t do it. I feel like you’re missing out on something to not know the home of your character inside out. It just enriches it.’ 

On the subject of aspiring writers, Matt has an interesting take on whether the industry has now effectively devolved outside of London. He once lived and worked in London but is now based in Cardiff and believes that the move had no negative knock-on effect on his career.

‘I’m always amazed at how people can afford to live in that city. It’s becoming harder and harder for young writers, directors and actors to sustain a career there… but it’s also unnecessary in many ways.’ 

That’s not to say he’s discouraging of writers making the move to London if they can. ‘I would always recommend giving it a go for a few years, if possible. If theatre is your world, then obviously London has a lot of opportunities, but I believe that exists here too. Particularly in this building – the Sherman – I would give a lot of credit to Joe in the work he continues to do to make it as open as it is.’ 

An increase in remote working has also helped. ‘There are so many producers I have worked with over the last few years that I haven’t met in person. Particularly in TV, working through zoom is becoming the norm. It’s a much more democratic process now, in terms of not necessarily needing to be tied to a certain city.’ 

Writer Matt Hartley and Director Hannah Noone. Photo by Mark Douet

Writing The Wife of Cyncoed may have been a challenge for Matt but working on it in rehearsals has clearly been an unadulterated joy.  ‘I can’t put into words just how much of an extraordinary artist Vivien Parry is. There is something unique about seeing someone demonstrate that level of skill in rehearsals and then on stage…’ 

‘Hopefully audiences will see people like Jayne in a new light. You know, because I think we forget that her generation came of age in the sixties and seventies – they’re far more open minded and raucous and debauched than the generations that followed! I don’t know why we have these preconceived notions but maybe this play could go some way to change that…’  

In the same thought, he modestly reflects that it is Vivien’s performance that has essentially allowed him to realise his overall aim for the play.  ‘Aside from anything I’ve brought to it, this has ended up being just 80 minutes of the most brilliant, engaging performance… and that is what makes the play such a great, fun night out for the audience. I’m delighted with how it’s turned out…’

The Wife of Cyncoed is playing at the Sherman Theatre, Cardiff till Saturday 23 May 2024.