London is spread out beneath us from the 32nd floor of The Shard. We are looking out over St Paul’s Cathedral, the City and, round the bend of the river, Tate Modern and the London Eye. “There’s religion, there’s power, there’s tourism,” says my guest. “It gives you this funny perspective, being up here. It tells you something about London.”
Lucy Prebble chose The Shard because her latest play A Very Expensive Poison, about the murder of Alexander Litvinenko, is set against the backdrop of this moneyed international capital — and also because, well, “why not?”
Her breakthrough came with Enron, which dramatised the fall of the Texan energy trader with debt-devouring raptors played by actors wearing animal heads. Her timing was sublime. Rehearsals began in September 2008, the very month Lehman Brothers collapsed. Acclaim followed — although not on Broadway. Now at the age of 38, she has written four hit plays, each involving years of research. They are plays of ideas but they wear their erudition lightly, bringing their subject matter to life with bold, inventive theatrics. “I don’t do much, but I don’t do any of it by halves,” she says.
Despite or perhaps because of its exceptional views, Oblix West is decorated in the sleek, nondescript style of expensive hotels around the world. For a restaurant wrapped in glass, it has a strangely confined feel. But the mood is jolly. Our fellow diners are here to celebrate business deals and significant birthdays, all coiffed hair and shiny suits. Laughter bounces off the polished surfaces.
When we meet, Prebble is deep in rehearsals for A Very Expensive Poison, which has since opened to fine reviews at London’s Old Vic theatre; she looks dressed for work, in a plain white T-shirt with capped sleeves. I ask her how it’s going and find myself, 10 minutes later, in an involved discussion of theatrical form, in particular Poison’s complex overlapping timelines. Her conversation is not unlike her writing: funny, pacy and peppered with zingy lines.
With Enron and Poison, she says, she was drawn to dramatising events in the recent past, rather than the present, “for the simple reason that you have a third act, which nothing that’s happening contemporaneously has”. She pauses. “And nothing much in public life at the moment has. That’s what we lack: a sense of consequence.”
In classic drama, the third and final act contains the moment of revelation, and the results of the characters’ actions. In Prebble’s analogy, that’s what we’re missing today. “You hear about [a news story], you emotionally react to it, but then nothing happens: there seems to be no consequence, no jail time.”
This applies, she says, not only “to Trump or Johnson, to the bravado of idiocy”, but to the level of distraction in our everyday lives — the way we watch a couple of episodes of a new television show but don’t complete it; or have a conversation while scrolling through our phones. “Lots of things don’t get seen through to the third act. And without that, we live in a state of anxiety, of suspension, of waiting for something to happen.”
A waiter arrives. We haven’t yet opened our menus, so he agrees to come back in a minute.
“Have you looked at the prices? Oh my God!” Prebble exclaims. “I’m glad you’re not paying — I mean, not personally paying.” I reassure her that I am not personally paying and encourage her to order expensively.
For starters, we decide to share the truffle flatbread with pancetta and ricotta and a portion of crispy squid. Prebble, taking my entreaty seriously, opts for the most pricey main course, the barbecued black cod with coriander salsa, a side dish of mashed potatoes and a Diet Coke. I order the sea bass with a side of green beans and new potatoes. “And I am going to have a glass of wine,” she says. “It feels like what I should do. Also it’s Friday. Also I’m very stressed.” We order a large glass of Chardonnay and a large glass of Chenin Blanc.
The source of her stress is her latest play, which she describes as her most ambitious yet. Inspired by the journalist Luke Harding’s book of the same name, A Very Expensive Poison tells the story of the 2006 murder of the London-based ex-FSB officer Litvinenko by two Russian assassins — incompetent ones, as it turned out, who failed twice, leaving a trail of Polonium-210 across central London before offering Litvinenko a poisoned cup of tea at a meeting at the Millennium Hotel.
It tells the story, too, of the part Litvinenko played in solving his own murder from his hospital bed, and of his wife Marina’s fight for justice. (In 2013, the then UK home secretary Theresa May initially refused a public inquiry into Litvinenko’s death, citing “international relations”; the eventual inquiry concluded that his murder was carried out by suspects Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitry Kovtun and “probably” sanctioned by Vladimir Putin). Prebble’s play is as damning of the vacillation and wilful ignorance of the British government as it is of FSB corruption.
Poison skips between London and Moscow (where the Litvinenko family lived until 2000), and between the present day, 2013, 2006 and the 1990s, scrambling any notion of linear time. And then there is Putin, watching the drama unfold from a private box, interjecting to narrate his own version of events. “It’s very wayward and messy, and kind of deliberately so,” Prebble explains. “It’s meant to feel like you’re being bombarded — a bit like how it feels to be alive now.”
Our drinks arrive. Prebble lets out a whoop as the waiter uncorks the wine bottle to pour her glass. On the page she is sharp, sometimes scathing, but in person she is more fun older sister than waspish writer. We clink glasses.
“Sorry,” she says suddenly. “I feel we dived right into the formal innovation of the play without going through some of the basics,” she laughs. “Thank you very much for interviewing me.”
With someone like Prebble, you want to dive right in — small talk would feel a waste of time. I ask her about writing the character of Putin. Was it hard to get inside his head? “It’s not that hard to empathise with Putin,” she replies. “What I’m using when I think about Putin is I’m using the part of myself that wants to control the narrative. There’s a part of an authoritarian which is an author, literally. That’s what Putin is doing in the play: he’s trying to wrestle control, to tell the story he wants us to see. And that’s the writer’s job.”
Writerly control comes in different guises. “I’m really drawn to looking at things at a mass level,” Prebble explains, when I ask about her interest in international politics. Whether Russian relations or financial systems, she likes to take a “macro view”.
She looks out of the window. Far below us, the city’s ant-sized inhabitants go about their business. She laughs, realising what she’s said. “I want to see as much as possible — so no one can sneak up on me!”
A waiter delivers our starters. The truffle flatbread is soft and the ricotta creamy; the crispy squid has a good kick of lime and chilli. The tables around us have filled up and the restaurant is loud. Boozy Friday lunches are in full swing.
Prebble’s skill is to take complex, even dry subject matter and turn it into thrilling drama. “I really have quite little patience for the sort of writing which is very withholding,” she says — a sort of writing she describes as “sub-Pinter”. In her own work, she is “relentlessly driven towards clarity”, which is, perhaps, an ethical as much as an aesthetic imperative. “I grew up around lots of subtext,” she explains.
Prebble grew up in commuter-belt Surrey, the youngest of three; her father was a middle manager for an IT company and her mother worked at a school. Her siblings are both now management consultants. She got into theatre while reading English at Sheffield University; she won the Most Promising Playwright award at the National Student Drama Festival in 2002, and an internship at London’s Bush Theatre.
Success came early: Prebble wrote her first professional play, The Sugar Syndrome, about paedophile chat rooms, in 2002 while working as a secretary at the National Theatre, having just graduated; it was produced the following year, winning her several awards and a critical following.
She didn’t grow up going to the theatre, and she’s conscious of how much it demands of its audience — in time, money and attention. “It takes quite a lot for me to go, ‘The world needs this.’ I have to get to a point where I care massively about it, I’m moved by it and I think it’s important. Anything less, no.”
For a bookish child and a self-conscious teenager, writing was a way of making sense of the world — and an attempt to transcend self-doubt. “If you look to writing stuff down,” she says, “if you’re driven to do that rather than to say something to somebody, maybe it’s because saying it doesn’t achieve the effect you want. And the writing it down, and separating it from yourself, gives you — for me, I think this is very true — the authority that you worry you lack in person.”
Prebble doesn’t lack authority in person — what strikes me is her quickness and sense of fun — but she was never tempted to act at university; she didn’t like being looked at. But no young female writer can escape being looked at: an interview from 2009 opens “Lucy Prebble, 28, is a pretty Pinter.”
Our main courses arrive. My sea bass is perfectly cooked, if overpowered by a strong pesto, and the new potatoes are nicely lemony. The black cod, Prebble assures me, is “superb”. But she is mid-flow, so we don’t pause for long to discuss what we’re eating.
In her twenties, Prebble became accustomed to being mistaken “for the assistant” when auditioning actors for her plays, and even to their shock when they realised who she was (“You wrote this?”). Female writers are more often associated with work about personal relations than corporate power. I remember the surprise that greeted Enron — surprise that a young woman had written such a brilliant play about such complicated subject matter.
It could be wearing, she admits, “trying to manage other people’s reactions to me. And that’s a really deadly thing, because it takes a lot of energy”. But at the same time, she acknowledges her own “like of being underestimated”.
There is a kind of freedom in being underestimated — freedom from expectation. I ask her whether the success of Enron ever felt like a burden. “Can I say something slightly provocative?” she replies, “which is, I wonder if the problem is in that question.”
When the play opened at the Chichester Festival Theatre in 2009, she was hailed as a prescient new voice. The play transferred to the Royal Court, then to the West End, and on to Broadway. (She followed Enron with The Effect in 2012, a wrenching four-hander about clinical trials and the chemical ingredients of love. More intimate than Enron, it cemented her reputation as a talented writer of both head and heart. )
“After Enron”, she continues, she found it “very, very surprising that so many people said to me, ‘Are you really worried about what you’re going to do next?’ ” It had never occurred to her that success could be a bad thing, nor that she was expected to repeat it.
And anyway, she reminds me, Enron flopped on Broadway, closing after just 10 days following a damning review from the New York Times. But even that “would only have been a really bad thing if I had never worked again. For me as writer, there is as much, if not more, to gain from an experience of great failure as there is from success.”
Her first experience of television, while hardly a great failure, was not entirely happy: she wrote Secret Diary of a Call Girl, an adaptation of the Belle de Jour blog, which ran from 2007 to 2011 and starred her friend Billie Piper, but she left during the second series because she didn’t like the show’s direction. A decade later, her experience working on HBO’s Succession was entirely different and more supportive.
The writers’ room of television is inherently more collaborative than the process of writing for theatre. But even as a playwright, Prebble feeds off the ideas and energy of actors and directors: being alone at her desk is “the hard bit”, she admits. “I find writing excruciatingly hard.” It’s perhaps no surprise that she enjoyed the ultra-collaborative world of video games. She was fascinated by computers as a child and is a longtime gamer; she was head scene writer on the game Destiny in 2014.
When I ask her about writing for different media, she replies that games are closer to theatre than to film. In a video game, she says, “you create a world and then someone comes into it and they can look where they like. You can’t control their point of view. And that’s the same with theatre. You can show them what’s on stage, but they might look over there. But film is really all about the director and the director’s point of view.”
Our waiter returns to clear our plates. Prebble, conscious of the time, declines the offer of pudding or coffee.
The past few years have been busier than usual for her, juggling Poison, Succession and a new drama for Sky called I Hate Suzie about a woman whose phone is hacked, coming next year. She has had a flurry of offers from theatres, something she sees, in part, as a “massive reaction” to the culture shift that has accompanied the #MeToo movement. “I mean, the amount of apologetic woman-offering that’s going on right now in the business is all great, but it’s also very revealing. You have to be a little bit careful of taking on jobs [that are offered] for the wrong reasons.”
Theatres often ask her to adapt classic plays, like Greek tragedies — offers she always declines. She’s not excited by productions of old texts with “a sprinkling of contemporariness over them”, a Brexit reference here and there “if you look very closely”.
Her taxi calls. Before she leaves, she finishes her train of thought. “That’s not what theatre has to be. It can be, but it can also be risky and contemporary and dangerous and wild, and a bit messy. And that’s valid, too.”
She heads across the restaurant for the elevator, ready to rejoin the world at ground level — the world of money, politics and power, her chosen terrain.
Griselda Murray Brown is an FT Arts editor and co-host of the FT Culture Call podcast
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