Playwright Mark Ravenhill: why I took up ballet after my mum died | Mark Ravenhill

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The playwright of Shopping and Fucking, Some Explicit Polaroids and Mother Clap’s Molly House is remembering the joy of dressing up as Jemima Puddle-Duck. A trip to the cinema for The Tales of Beatrix Potter, featuring dancers from the Royal Ballet, left the young Mark Ravenhill so enamoured of the bonneted heroine that he mimicked her for hours while his father filmed the routines with a cine camera. “I was obsessed about performing the dances,” says Ravenhill. “Then I bought my little Woolworths book, How to Be a Ballet Dancer.”

The tale of four-year-old Mark, with his cardboard beak and a bedsheet for wings, is revisited in Ravenhill’s new audio play, Angela, named after his mother. It interweaves episodes from his suburban childhood and conversations, decades later, with his 84-year-old mum, disoriented by dementia. It can be upsetting but it is uplifting, too, partly through Ravenhill’s celebration of how the arts enrich everyday life. There is warm comedy when Angela introduces her husband, Ted, to her passion for am-dram, and Ted delights in acting out The Wind in the Willows to his young son. “It was my dad’s favourite book,” says the playwright. “He had different voices for all the characters.”

Angela … Ravenhill’s mum in her later years. Photograph: Courtesy of Mark Ravenhill

Ravenhill grew up in Haywards Heath, in the home where his father still lives. The arts were “always around” even if the family didn’t visit professional theatre productions or make the short journey into London much, apart from trips to see the Christmas lights. “Lots of people have access to the arts through the school play, a local amateur group, a tap-dancing class,” says Ravenhill, who has kept an awareness of that “broader community sense” of culture.

After his mum died in 2019, Ravenhill signed up for ballet lessons at City Lit in London, where he had previously done courses on poetry and joke-writing, and the classes brought back memories of clucking around as Jemima. His rekindled desire to dance, he realised, was a response to her death, “a sort of displacement for grief”. The only man in a class with “25 mostly retired ladies”, Ravenhill grappled with the discipline and precision of ballet and says it was a glorious experience. Did it feel exposing, too? “Yes, because there’s no chat. You get in, start warming up and dance. It’s a good remedy to being a chatty person, to have to dance.”

The new play is similarly exposing, its story reflecting “as much as I could” on real events, without even changing his name. When Ravenhill writes plays he usually thinks they have nothing to do with him, only to reread them a couple of years later and say to himself: “Oooh, there’s quite a lot of you in that!” When I ask how his father felt about the new play, he laughs, estimating the same “50% embarrassed, 50% proud” reaction to Ravenhill Jr’s previous plays, though you wonder if the eye-watering explicitness of Shopping and Fucking tipped that balance.

Angela was written while Ravenhill was shielding during the first lockdown. He hunkered down and got on with scripts; three more of them are ready. “As a writer you’ve trained yourself for years to be isolated and sit in a room and write, so of all the people who work in theatre you’re probably psychologically best prepared to be cut off for all those months.” After writing plays for more than 25 years, he says, “You start to think, is this just a habit? Am I just doing this because people expect me to do it? If I was on a desert island or in a prison cell would I carry on writing?” But as the weeks went by, he discovered that all he wanted to do was write.

Angela will have its UK premiere online this March in the opening season of a digital initiative, Sound Stage, from Pitlochry Festival theatre, Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum and Naked Productions. It is designed to recreate the theatregoing experience, with audiences invited to mingle in a virtual bar-cum-chatroom before the show, with bells ringing to announce the play’s start, and to stay afterwards for a discussion with the creatives. The aim is to retain a sense of theatre as a special event, after a year that has kept the majority of UK stages dark.

Prolific … pandemic lockdowns have allowed Ravenhill to complete a number of new scripts.
Prolific … pandemic lockdowns have allowed Ravenhill to complete a number of new scripts. Photograph: Graeme Robertson/the Guardian

Last March, Ravenhill’s irresistible adaptation of David Walliams’ The Boy in the Dress had just finished its run at the RSC in Stratford when the first national lockdown began. As a playwright accustomed to taking audiences into darkness, Ravenhill says he was intrigued by the notion of making people feel happy, bordering on euphoric, with the show about a kid who loves football and frocks, which has songs by Robbie Williams, Guy Chambers and Chris Heath. The pandemic has delayed a West End transfer but it is the sort of life-affirming musical the nation needs.

The new lockdown has also prohibited any return to the dance studio but Ravenhill has been glued to Pose, the TV series about voguing ballroom culture in New York, and to Strictly Come Dancing. So does he fancy a shot at the Strictly title? “God, I’m really not that good,” he replies briskly. “I’d be out in week one!”

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