I came across Robert Holman a bit late in life, but I hope that's more to do with the neglect of his work by London theatres than a failure of curiosity on my part. Reading Lyn Gardner's interview with him for the Guardian in 2003, I knew instantly that he was a playwright I would cherish. And I do, but mostly in theory. I've still read only one play, because for reasons I find wholly inexplicable – the publishing strand of theatreland being in pernicious cahoots with the artistic-direction strand, I suppose – they haven't yet been collected, and anyway I prefer to encounter plays for the first time on stage. I fear my optimism may be in overdrive in applying this preference to Holman.
The one play I have read is Jonah and Otto, and that's only because for a brief period around leaving the Guardian desk job I contemplated working inside theatre rather than writing about it, and as an experiment became a reader for Soho. And oh, what a dispiriting experience this was. I read a lot of really bad plays, plays that stolidly constructed a world without curiosity or surprise. I diligently wrote reports that I hoped would be constructive, all the while doubting my own right to do so, and fearing that I would be breaking people's hearts. When I did hit upon something of promise, I knew it would never reach the stage, least of all untouched, but would get trapped in reading/workshop limbo, which teaches a playwright something, I'm sure, but not as much as an actual production. And then I was sent Jonah and Otto.
From the first page I could see the whole thing on stage, and at the same time it seemed to be physically impossible. There is so much magic and mystery in this play, so much that is elusive. And then there are lines in it that shoot so directly from the heart that I felt them like an arrow in mine. When Otto admits to Jonah: “Whenever I look at myself I get scared.” When Jonah, in the midst of a panic attack, says, with exquisite cadence: “I know I’m useless. I’m worthless. I’m very small.” I knew the director who took it on would be rare and brave and brilliant, and that what they would pluck from it would be the song of a phoenix. And I felt just as certain that I would never see it performed.
Here's the opening line from my report to Soho: “This is the kind of play that should be sent out to first-time playwrights to show them what it means to be ambitious.” Not my most elegant sentence, but I stand by the argument. It's not just that (on paper, at least) Holman tests to the limit his audience's ability or willingness to suspend disbelief. He painstakingly strips layer after layer from his characters until what we see is their essence, their very souls. And he does it so gently, so tenderly. Look, aspiring playwrights: this is how you reveal the innermost truth about characters. This is how you tell us about human relationships, society, the world.
My closing paragraph to Soho buried fury in melancholy: “I can see why his work is so rarely staged. Jonah and Otto doesn’t seem very Soho: in fact, it doesn’t seem to be any London theatre in particular. It exists in its own realm, outside of time and politics, concerned with our place in the world on a more metaphysical level.” This was 2006, when Lisa Goldman was in charge; now that Steve Marmion is running the show, I can see it fitting right in (and yes, damn it, that is a direct challenge). Eighteen months after I filed my report, the play was staged, in Manchester (Clare Lizzimore, I salute you), but because I was in the thick of mothering a small person I didn't even know about the production, let alone see it. In any case, I'd succumbed to pessimism well before then. You couldn't read a play like Jonah and Otto, know for a fact it wouldn't be staged in London, and carry on as if nothing had happened. I tried, but the whole enterprise seemed meaningless. A few weeks later, I walked away from Soho's literary department and never looked back.
When Making Noise Quietly was announced for Josie Rourke's first Donmar season, I felt a lot of slightly conflicting things simultaneously: excitement, obviously, and relief that the waiting was over, but apprehension, too, that I might be in for disappointment. Seven years is a long time to build up expectation. But how reassuring that it was Peter Gill directing: after The York Realist at the Royal Court in 2002, after Small Change at the Donmar in 2008, after soaking myself in Gill's plays in advance of doing a really rubbish interview with him for the Guardian (daunted by him, daunted by the Review space), I trusted that at the very least I would see Making Noise Quietly to its best possible advantage. Judging by Susannah Clapp's review, my trust proved true.
In my head, what makes Gill the perfect conduit for Holman is this: both are writers who create for the stage still pools of incredible depth, into which you can gaze and gaze without ever seeing the bottom, because down there are the very mysteries of life. They make people's behaviour look perfectly clear and comprehensible, rooted in culture and circumstance, but even as they trawl the mud of nature and nurture they allow us to feel that there is something unfathomable about their characters, something innate that guides them for good or ill but usually both intermingled. That something pulses not only in the words spoken but in the space between them, the nuances of glance and gesture. And Gill handles those nuances in Making Noise Quietly with the care of a lapidary. I loved the teasing sexual tension between solid, self-questioning Oliver and assured, eyelash-fluttering Eric in the first play: the moment when Eric puts a bag of cherries in the space between them and, holding eye contact the entire time, tears the bag so that its contents spill suggestively to the ground made me giggle and shiver. In the second, the tension lies in the unnavigable distance between hurt, bereaved mother May and Geoffrey, the man who comes to tell her more about her son than her son ever bothered to tell himself. Their two bodies were like magnets: they might so easily fuse, but facing the way they were all they could do was repel. And in the third play, the two adult characters, Helene and Alan, prowl around each other like wild animals assessing their opponents before coming to a grudging mutual acceptance; caught between them is a mere cub, Sam, whose alternately violent and loving behaviour shows the adults what they really are.
What Gill also captures beautifully (in his own plays and directing Holman) is the moment of self-discovery each character experiences, and the moments of discovering each character we experience watching them. In Making Noise Quietly, you can almost hear the crackle of electricity as a thought travels from a character's subconscious to the front of their mind. Always it's something devastating, but neither Holman nor Gill allows that thought or that discovery any crass emphasis: when Oliver realises he wants to enlist, or May confesses her hatred of her son, these things are spoken softly, and feel all the more seismic for it. The final play is the most troubling, because its questions about the future are so painful: what happens to that boy if he stays with Alan, risking his adopted father's volcanic temper? What happens if he doesn't, if, like Alan, he enters the care system and finds only violence, without love? Neither outcome is perfect or desirable. And this, too, is what makes Gill and Holman a perfect pairing: their ability to look at people's lives in all their smouldering complexity, and show what they live with day after day, in all its uneasiness.
I had so succeeded in managing expectations before seeing Making Noise Quietly that I was pretty much prepared to be slumped in disappointment afterwards; in the event, expectation was exceeded. Better still, I took a friend who doesn't see much theatre except with me, who watched the whole thing rapt, described the first play as like a long slow fuck, found the second desperately upsetting and was really challenged by the third. Holman is so much the playwright's playwright, we're in danger of forgetting that he communicates powerfully to a wider audience, too. If, that is, he's given the chance to.