Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Izzy Tennyson: Brute

By | Published on Wednesday 9 March 2016


We came across ‘Brute’, an exploration of school days, bullying and adolescent violence, written and performed by Izzy Tennyson, when she took it up to the Edinburgh Festival last summer. It’s an impressively clever piece, beautifully written, and incredibly well portrayed.
When I heard it was headed to London’s Soho Theatre, I jumped at the chance to talk to Izzy, about this show and what inspired it.

CM: Tell us about Brute. Where does the narrative take us?
IT: It is set in 2007 in an all-girls state school in provincial Kent. Poppy is 14 and has just started at her new school. There are rules with no logic, sadistic jokes that aren’t actually funny and the most sinister games played out of boredom. And, you better not be fat or clever or you’re fucked. Brute is an exciting piece of new writing based on the true events of a rather twisted, horrible schoolgirl. I guarantee that you will feel like you have been hit by a car when you leave the theatre.

CM: I’m told it’s based on a true story – just how close do we get to what really happened? How much has the tale been changed or exaggerated?
IT: I’m going to say that I’m about 90 per cent honest in it. It’s not verbatim, so it can’t be 100 per cent but it’s very, very close to the truth. Uncomfortably so.

CM: What inspired you to write it? What made you want to tackle this subject?
IT: Well, I lay on the floor in the foetal position, thinking about me a lot. Like most artists. I suppose there is a catharsis aspect to the whole thing, with it being a true story. I didn’t know why I was doing it until I actually did it.

I spoke to some audience members after performing it, and it seemed to trigger a nostalgia in them along with feelings of almost horror and guilt to what school kids are like and how they were. It’s something everyone has gone through, so this play will probably trigger memories – good or bad – of what happened to you at school, that you may have forgotten.

CM: Having explored the problems of bullying, peer pressure and violence through this play, do you think there is any way we could tackle them?
IT: Straight answer: No. It’s an instinctual thing, unfortunately: there is a tribal dynamic in schools and you need to learn how to survive it to help you fare well in the ‘real world’ as an ‘adult’.

However, this period in your life, if you’re getting bullied, can also create all of the anxieties and bad traits that you carry with you. Throughout university I would actually pretend to be stupid; I would act like I didn’t know things I actually knew, because it worked for me at school, and I thought it would make people like me, as I wouldn’t be a threat to them.

Saying all of this, I do think it is important that we talk about this time so we can learn from it and hopefully be better adults for it.

CM: You perform the show as well, of course. Did you always plan to, when writing it?
IT: No, not at all – I’m definitely a writer above everything else. I sort of fell into playing Poppy. She is a younger version of myself, so in early stages when we were just reading it out, it just came to life. I actually find performing terrifying and I’m not your traditional actor, but I have a habit of always jumping into the deep end when it comes to theatre – I mean, what’s the point if you’re not taking a risk?

CM: What made you think this would work well as a one-person play?
IT: Well, first of all, financially it’s a lot more viable staging a one person show. Specially for someone my age – I knew from the start that I couldn’t have a full on Greek chorus following me around. So that was a huge factor (if not a rather boring one). However, I find the idea of the ‘unreliable narrator’ very interesting. With the character Poppy you get a real sense that you are getting her interpretation of the events; if you combine that with the mind of a teenager who has a tendency to exaggerate and confuse things, you end up getting a really fantastical story. In terms of performing it myself, it would have been hard passing Poppy over to another actor, Poppy is a bit of a mess which is something I ‘play’ very well!

CM: You do spoken word and comedy as well as writing and acting, don’t you? Can you tell us a bit about that other stuff? Is there one thing you prefer or does it all feed into each other?
IT: I know, I seem to dip my toe into everything!

I’ll be completely honest with you, I’m not a massive fan of poetry, I find it a bit dull. It’s always been playwriting that interested me. In university, no one really took me very seriously, I was never cast in any of the plays, people thought I was just the inappropriate drunk at pre lashes. So it was a really defining moment for me when I wrote my first play and directed it myself.

Since then I have always done my own thing, and done it all myself. I did stand-up comedy to work on my stage fright after not getting into drama school. I did poetry when no one was reading my plays so I made my monologues into poems and entered poetry slams so people would see them.

More recently I have got into film. My mentor film-maker Penny Woolcock really got me into it, so I had my series ‘Career Boy’ premier at Raindance Film Festival last year – so film is where I think I’ll be going after this. I have written ‘Brute’ into a screen play with lots of characters, so I’m hoping to do something with that.

CM: Where do you see yourself in ten years time?
IT: Dead, probably. I’m very clumsy, never look where I’m going so I think I’ll walk into a car. If I do survive I will probably at some point get a dog. And career wise I will hopefully continue making work on a larger scale, or I guess this could be it and you’ll never hear about me again.

CM: What plans do you have for the next year or so? Any new projects coming up?
IT: I will be releasing my online series ‘Career boy’, along with a short film with The Roundhouse. I’ve got some film projects I’m working on, and some more plays. I’ve written my next play ‘Grotty’, which I’m hoping to have on at the end of this year or early next year – its absolutely disgusting and I’m really excited about it!

Izzy performs ‘Brute’ at Soho Theatre on 15, 17 and 19 Mar. See this page here for more info and to book your tickets.


Photo: Richard Davenport