Most begin with her name--Timberlake Wertenbaker. But it is better to begin here: the tiny home in the north of London, an unfashionable neighborhood, the house in need of repair. There is a front gate that swings stubbornly on its rusty hinges, the burbled sound of children playing in a nearby back garden, the watery sunlight dappling the unkempt yards.
Our subject is at once intensely private and acclaimed--an English dramatist in the league with Jim Cartwright, Doug Lucie and Nick Dear, all writers barely known in America but hailed in Britain as the next generation of Angry Young Men.
She is a playwright of notoriously obscure background: “Anglo-French American” is how it is most often described. Her anonymity is so purposed that her very name seems invented. (It isn’t). She has been working steadily in theater for only a decade, the author of a few translations and several original plays, none of them overtly feminist, but all with female protagonists derived from myth or historical narrative, and most well received.
But it wasn’t until Wertenbaker wrote “Our Country’s Good,” two years ago, an imaginative dramatic riff on Thomas Keneally’s Australian novel, “The Playmaker,” that she began earning international renown. It is a level of success about which she remains ambivalent.
“I don’t like being interviewed,” says Wertenbaker, her amicability barely masking her discomfiture at this interview for the American premiere of her play Thursday at the Mark Taper Forum. “I mean, I am private anyway. And I just feel that people have pried and revealed things that belong to me and my life.”
It is suggested that her increasing success as a dramatist also increases the likelihood of further public scrutiny. “Yes, well, I know I’m going to have to do something about that.”
“Our Country’s Good"--a drama about the first theater performance in Sydney in the 18th Century--opened last September at London’s Royal Court Theater, to rave reviews. Critics applauded the play’s nimble theatricality, its sinewy intelligence, its ability to probe philosophic questions with a clever blend of humor and pathos.
The play won an Olivier Award--London’s equivalent of Broadway’s Tony--and Wertenbaker was named Most Promising Playwright. On this summer Sunday, she has just returned from the play’s Australian opening, extremely jet-lagged, attempting to mow her postage stamp-sized lawn and serve coffee to a visitor. There is no milk and much ambivalence, sheathed in English politesse.
“Well, we were very worried about the Australian audiences reaction to what is really a play about the English going to Australia, not Australians,” Wertenbaker says, pouring the coffee. “But the actor playing the Aborigine said what I had written was really quite accurate.”
Talking to Wertenbaker is an exercise in verbal chess playing. In her throaty, cultured and oh-so-English-accented voice she artfully dodges all troublesome questions, which is to say, personal ones.
She prefers instead to mark out the discussion with a focus on theater, culture, women’s roles in society and the impact of language on an audience. “I mean, in theater, you’re treated as a conscious, thinking being,” she says. “Unlike the cinema where one of its charms is in being treated like a child. But you have to take a play on an intellectual level.”
She is thirtysomething, small-boned, with fine skin, alabaster in the English manner, untouched by makeup. She is pretty, but in a brisk, Gloria Steinem-beside-the-point way. One senses she is a woman to be taken seriously as a writer, one whose work and life are the willful product of her own imagining. “I just want to go on writing plays,” she says making it sound very much like a plea.
She was raised in the Basque region of France, educated in America and spent the early part of her career working as a journalist in New York, first as a free-lancer and later as an editor at Time Life, Inc. “It isn’t that I didn’t like journalism,” she says. “I just never did it, really.”
To discover her roots as a dramatist, one begins in Spetse, Greece, where in the late 1970’s Wertenbaker was teaching English. She became involved in a local theater troupe and wrote her first plays for children. “Yes, for children--but that was just for a short time,” she says in her slightly revisionist manner. “I also wrote plays for adults.”
Wertenbaker returned to England and began collaborating with London’s fringe theaters, the Soho Poly and the Women’s Theatre Group. But it wasn’t until she spent six months working with Mike Alfred’s innovative Shared Experience company--the project was a stage adaptation of “Arabian Nights"--that she began to find her own dramatic voice.
“It’s her intelligence and her ability to dramatize ideas, that’s what makes Timberlake unusual,” says Max Stafford-Clark, artistic director of the Royal Court and director of “Our Country’s Good.” “Most writers find it difficult when not writing from experience, but she likes to write about people discussing ideas.”
Indeed, up until “Our Country’s Good,” critics had often found Wertenbaker’s work (including “The Grace of Mary Traverse,” presented by L.A. Theatre Works in 1988) a bit didactic. One reviewer found many of her lines arch enough to be suitable for “Bartlett’s Quotations.”
“I don’t analyze my plays,” says Wertenbaker. “I think playwrighting is like ferreting, you follow your nose. I don’t think you should have come to a decision (before) you write a play. As a dramatist, you put the possibilities out there, you make the suggestions, but you don’t already know what you want to say.”
For Wertenbaker, that creative search begins with “visualizing the scenes somewhere between the actual landscape and the stage version. I plan the structure of the scenes and whatever gets said, gets said. I never start with dialogue.”
“Our Country’s Good,” is similar in theme and structure to Wertenbaker’s other work--a drama spun from historical incident and literary precedent. “Setting a play in the past frees you, you can be much more free with language. It is a much more oblique way of writing about the present.”
Her script is based partly on Robert Hughes’ historical tract on Australia, “The Fatal Shore” but mostly on Keneally’s novel, concerning the first theatrical production in Australia, a 1789 performance by English criminals of George Farquhar’s “The Recruiting Officer.”
Rehearsals included workshop sessions in which the actors were beaten--with newspapers. What emerged, Wertenbaker says, explores “what it means to be brutalized, what it means to live without hope and how theater can be a humanizing force.”
“On one level,” says Stafford-Clark, “the play is a backstage comedy. On another it’s an accurate picture of people being brutalized. At moments, it’s quite hilarious and at others it’s quite harrowing.”
Three scenes, he says, best illustrate Wertenbaker and her concerns as a playwright: scenes which at their core are philosophic discussions about the transforming power of theater, rational man’s ability to transcend his circumstances, and the power of language.
The last theme is explored further in Wertenbaker’s most recent play, “The Love of a Nightingale,” seen earlier this year at Britain’s Royal Shakespeare Company. In each case, it is women who lead the way.
“It’s actually quite a good time to be a woman in theater,” says Wertenbaker. “Because history is being directed by women at the moment. Not just Margaret Thatcher, who is a disaster, but women in general. They are much more active politically now.”
Yet “I don’t know what feminism means. I mean, I live my life in feminist terms, I earn my own living, I am independent. But when someone asks me if I am a feminist writer, I just don’t know what they mean . . . I think the whole thing about being a writer is that you have a floating identity.”
It is the most accurate self-description Wertenbaker will provide during the interview. At only one point does she let her guard slip. It is at the end of the hour, the interviewer’s tape recorder and notebook safely stowed.
Wertenbaker shows her visitor through the house, speaking warmly, delightedly, of winning her writing awards which perch on her mantle. Then, more painfully, she talks about the loss of her companion, actor John Price, who died unexpectedly last year. “Our Country’s Good” is dedicated to his memory.
“I’m still recovering,” says Wertenbaker quietly, adding that she and Price had purchased this home together. It is a moment of candor, swiftly gone. Too soon she is ushering her visitor out, leaving the playwright alone in the house’s cool and shadowy recesses with the Olivier Award standing guard.