The year is 2006 and our news feeds are full with pictures of the bald, yellow-tinged face of Alexander Litvinenko in a hospital bed. The British citizen, but former Russian secret service officer, had been poisoned – assassinated – and no-one knew why. It’s still the case today – almost 13 years later.
British playwright, Lucy Prebble (writer of Sugar Syndrome, Secret Diary of a Call Girl) wants to change that. After reading of Litvinenko’s death in a profile written by Moscow journalist, Luke Harding, she had an idea that would surely change the need for, and importance of, theatre for a long time.
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Secret London caught up with Lucy Prebble to talk Trump, BoJo and her brand new, exciting thriller, A Very Expensive Poison…
‘I’m doing previews for the show and it’s the biggest thing I’ve ever done – it has the technical ambition of a musical but it’s a play!’ Lucy says. ‘We’re changing stuff in the show every night, I’m trying to make it better every night so we go onstage with completely new stuff which is so exciting. It is a bit like doing naked karaoke with 1000 people who have turned up to see the show,’ she laughs. ‘You never know how they’re going to react’…
Firstly, we’d like to know a little bit about you! Tell us, when was it you first fell in love with theatre and television?
‘My love for the arts started very much as a child – I think of myself as a little girl reading everything available to me. I was a real bookworm, but also loved TV and video games – I felt very safe in literature. Looking back on that I remember going on holiday with my family and I broke my arm, so I spent the rest of the holiday in my room in the B&B and I came across The Unbearable Lightness of Being, I was nine but loved the sex scenes in it! It was ludicrously complex and I felt very grown up. I thought: ‘I would rather be here with these books than out having fun with my family!’ I found comfort in books.
‘I used to tape TV shows too, with my tape recorder, and take it up to my bedroom and play it over in bed. I wanted to hear the words, and be around them. It wasn’t until I was a bit older that I started to write down things myself – poetry as a teenager and that. I studied English at Sheffield University and found that the most fun people to be around were actors so I hung out with them. I wrote them plays, which was a big moment for me as my words were always in a shoebox under my bed and that changed at uni.’
After venturing into theatre with The Sugar Syndrome in 2004, three years later you moved into TV with the hugely successful Secret Diary of a Call Girl. How different was it to write for television, as opposed to theatre?
‘Well, when I was at uni we went to a festival in my final year in Scarborough, and we performed something I’d written which wasn’t very good but it was fun putting it on in front of people. It introduced me to people that did this for a living and it had never really occurred me to me that I could do that, too. I was told to join a writer’s group, so I soon went to London to work in admin and did a writer’s course at The Royal Court. At the end of the 10 weeks you had to write a play and mine was an early version of The Sugar Syndrome. My teacher read mine and said there was something interesting in it, so we worked on it and the Royal Court Theatre put it on which was amazing. I had only ever written for friends or myself so it being performed in front of 90 people was a massive deal.
‘Writing for TV as opposed to theatre is so different. I had some good meetings with people from TV when I was writing at Royal Court and they recognised that I was good at writing dialogue. One day I went to them and said I came across a blog called Belle du Jour and they said ‘yeah let’s do that!’ I didn’t know what the fuck I was doing and it was a total baptism of fire. I wanted to do something interesting and complex about the sex industry – the women are either Julia Roberts in ‘Pretty Woman’ or they’re carried away in body bags at the start of the episode. It was wonderful in that I met Billie Piper and she’s an incredible friend and I learn a lot from her artistically. In the end, I learned a lot about the difference between theatre and television.’
Tell us about the inspiration behind A Very Expensive Poison…
‘I was sent a book by Luke Harding, the Moscow correspondent for The Guardian, called A Very Expensive Poison. He was covering the Alexander Litvinenko murder, after he was killed in London in 2006. When I was reading it I couldn’t believe how lurid it was – the Russian assassins were complete idiots and spread poison all over London! The case was just hushed up and I didn’t realise how bad it was.
‘Behind that all though is the element of heartbreak in the form of Marina, Alexander’s widow. She fought for years after his death for answers, and why it had happened. No one wanted to press the UK government either because they were getting oil and gas off the Russians. The book felt like a vivid thriller and a very moving, emotional tale of a woman who lost her husband and just wanted someone to acknowledge the truth.’
A common theme in your work seems to be men or women on the edge of society – call girls, ex Russian detectives, their families – do you find that these people have the best stories to tell?
‘I like to make the people on the edge of society the protagonists. Alexander was an asylum seeker who came to Britain and a lot of people might think as a refuge, or simply as a ‘foreigner’ with how right-wing we are now. Sex workers fit in that category as well. That horrific treatment of sex workers being murdered in the 70s and 80s and a lot of crimes not being investigated. Those stories are interesting to tell.
‘There’s a very moving part of the play when Alexander is unbelievably proud to have been made a British citizen the month before he died. He got his passport and Marina describes in the book how he came home and shows it off in front of her. It’s very easy for people to take for granted the types of privileges we have until you see someone ‘outside’ showing you what society looks like for them.’
Does the play parallel with the political climate we feel in the UK, and overseas at the moment?
‘I’m pretty shocked at how the timing has hit the play. It’s really about how easy we can slide into authoritarianism, which is what happened to Russia in the 2000s. There’s a character in the play who makes us laugh then he starts to become a dictator and the audience realise that they’ve laughed themselves into hell. We see it with Boris Johnson, about how nobody took him seriously and now things are getting very serious. It’s the same with Trump, about how he was a joke and suddenly you’re not laughing about the Muslim bans and children in cages.’
Last March, Sergei Skripal, a former Russian military officer and his daughter Yulia were poisoned in Salisbury. Is AVEP a play for them, too?
‘They’re not mentioned in the show but I didn’t need to – people know it’s for them. It’s easy to forget that Dawn Sturgess died in a heartbreaking way, purely by accident as she believed the poison that was for Sergei was perfume. Those assassins still haven’t been punished and they’ve not been extradited – they went on TV and made jokes about the Salisbury Cathedral spire.’
What impact do you want A Very Expensive Poison to have on audiences?
‘I want people to take away how easy it is to slide into authoritarianism. It can happen here, too, and not just in other countries. The second thing I want them to take away is personal. I want them to know that theatre can be a place of something completely new and extraordinary. The form of this play is very strange and exciting and it’s not like a play you’ve seen before. I want young people to see that theatre isn’t just for old white men, it’s for everyone. If they have an idea that feels new and different they should just do it, and they can do it in theatre. I hope they think ‘I didn’t know a play could do that’. It takes that push to get the writing out from under the bed.’
Finally, what’s next for you?
‘I want to go to bed forever but that’s not going to happen! Next I’m working with Billie Piper on a show about a celebrity who gets their phone hacked and her life explodes as a result. The phone hack reveals a lot about her, and she has to face who she really is – it’s a dark comedy. We’re all carrying around our own personal box of little secrets and that’s what the show is about – it should be on air in 2020.’
A Very Expensive Poison runs at The Old Vic until October 5.
Words by Emmie Harrison-West