Victoria Willing, a playwright,
in conversation with Julie Peakman

Her current play, SAD, is on at the Omnibus Theatre, Clapham Common North Side.We met in the small but perfectly formed Omnibus theatre Clapham Common North Side, where her play is about to open its first night.

Victoria Willing is thrilled that the play is finally being put on, delayed because of Covid. I was pleased to hear that she spent a lot of time procrastinating like many of us – putting off work, which is challenging, in favour of finding anything else to do. ‘It was supposed to be on in February, but Omicron was rising so it was delayed. It has been a long journey, even the writing process up to it.’ Victoria, as with the rest of us was worried about her elderly mother, her family and was she going to die? But the hiatus gave her time to rewrite the drafts of her scripts.

She started writing in her forties and has had to develop her writing muscles (as she put it), but she reckons there are practical advantages in starting late as a writer; she had a place to live and less money worries than younger people, but there are downsides. ‘The problem with being an older woman writer is that we are not taken seriously, there are very few ways of getting yourself read, listened to, or seen.’ In her work, she has certainly grasped the whole ‘invisible older woman’ topic and has created forceful central female characters. Her earlier play ‘Spring Offensive’ which was lauded for its caustic wit; The Independent wrote, ‘A black comedy set in ‘“the best bed and breakfast on the Somme” delivers both on bleakness and glorious belly laughter.

How did she get influenced by WWI?

‘I went on holiday with my then partner (now husband) who was obsessed by the first world war. We went on a Somme Tour and stayed in various places. I became fascinated with the expats on the Somme running B & B’s and the whole machine around WWI tourism. I found it strange that there was this fetishizing about all these weapons, and rusty bits and pieces, while DNA from dead soldiers lie under your feet; on top of it they are selling trinkets like helmets with poppies coming out of them. I found it all very odd but interesting as a concept.’ The landlady character, she says, is the ‘bad side’ of herself, a role she relished playing. She was writing what she wanted to, not for commission, and found it a liberating experience. She has since decided not to act in her own work as she wants to step back, write plays and watch them, not as a vehicle for herself.

The main advantage in getting her most recent play, SAD, produced was her relationship over many years with Marie McCarthy who directed it. Their collaboration started when McCarthy directed some shorts which Willing wrote. ‘That has been a huge advantage to me…There are plenty of opportunities for young people, say under thirty, but not for those who emerge later. We all need a break, but older people have a lot to say too.’ Omnibus Theatre also trusted her enough as a writer to give her the opportunity to produce a full piece of work. ‘I have been lucky in that I had a lot of control in this play and Marie knows well what I want. I feel very much part of what was happening in rehearsal room. I am a stickler for script though, as there is a music in my head.’

The idea of the play emerged seven years ago in 2015, developed from a 10-minute short. She changed the gender of the character (the main character was originally male); ‘I wanted my central character to be female. It came from a mixture of anecdotes of what people of my age have to go through’. She was influenced by rereading Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tapeand got the idea of this person telling her own biography. ‘It was interesting to write about a relationship between an older couple who met in later life and show a relationship which was volatile, complex, conflicted, just like we are in real life.’

As an actor with over 30 years’ experience, as she gets older, she is sent for more superfluous roles, which is what seems to have propelled her into writing roles for older women, ‘I feel less and less connected for the things I am going up for. I don’t know where the voices are that show women a central character anything other than a batty old lady, wife, mother or someone’s auntie. I wanted to write about a relationship about two older people…a role that has all the same feelings and desires as those at any age.’

Being an actor informs her as a playwright. ‘Just in terms of ear for dialogue and understanding emotional conflict…how you express yourself – as an actor constantly thinking OK, this is what I am saying, but how am I showing this or is there another way of doing this?’ Over the years she has also read hundreds of scripts, which gave her an insight into developing drama.

She has had a very varied life. As well as acting and playwriting, she had done puppeteering. She was involved with the Jim Henson Production company where she started puppeteering. ‘I was doing a TV series for children, like a voice for the puppets…someone told me I had a bit of an ability for puppeteering, and it was good money, so I was drawn into it.’

Like me, she is annoyed and frustrated that a theatre industry dominated by men who have little interest in writing or producing plays with strong female central characters. Similarly, there are many more plays produced which have been written by men. ‘It is men who tend to get the look in, and women are not taken quite so seriously. There is an instant sort of prejudice.’

How could the industry do better to help older women get into playwrighting? Obviously by putting on more plays produced by women, and taking more risks on older female writers. ’There is a very entrenched agism, not intentionally cruel, but it is there…it is the last accepted prejudice and people do not know what they are doing. Because everyone it is telling different stories, there is room for everyone’.

The theatre is in a really difficult situation because of covid, cutbacks, stripped of funding, but it is not given the respect it deserves or the finances. ‘Theatres are not seen as vital. The people who rise to the top are white middle-class men in their thirties, but whoever is in power it is important they see the broader picture.’ With writers having to rely on the backers and the money-spinners, they are in a difficult place. Backers don’t want to take risks. ‘They want to back things that are tired and trusted.’

So, what is she planning next?

‘I am going to try and keep writing. I don’t have grand dreams; I just want to write the next thing.’ She is half Portuguese and want to write something set in the 1974 Portuguese revolution looking at female friendship.  I am looking forward to it. We can trust Victoria Willing to give us some bite, some humour and plenty of wonderful female characters.