Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Judith Burnley: Anything That Flies

By | Published on Wednesday 18 October 2017

You might already be aware of the work of writer Judith Burnley, who first won acclaim back in the seventies with her novel ‘The Wife’. You might not know that in more recent years, she has turned her hand to writing scripts, and that the first of her plays to be produced opens at Jermyn Street Theatre this month.

To find out more about the play, and what prompted her to begin writing for the theatre, I arranged a quick chat.

CM: Can you start by giving us an idea of what the play is about? What story does it tell?
JB: Otto Huberman is a German Jewish refugee who came to England as a student well before WW2 and made a success by inventing the very best music speakers (think Bose or Bang and Olufsen) for which he won the Queen’s Award for Industry. He is an almost professional standard viola player who describes music as his emotional elastoplast – something he’s much in need of to staunch the wound of his failure to persuade his family to leave Nazi Germany where they all perished.

In the play, it is now 1991, soon after the Berlin Wall came down, and his tranquil life in Belsize Park is upended by the arrival of Lottie, an aristocratic (Aryan) German woman to be his carer…

CM: What themes does it explore?
JB: The play explores the way Jews who lived through the war are haunted by the horror of Nazi persecution, and asks if they can ever forgive or forget. It also examines what it means to live in exile in another country with another language – a plight made immediate by the current immigration crisis.

CM: How many characters are there, and who plays them?
JB: ‘Anything That Flies’ is a two-hander, featuring the aforementioned Otto and Lottie. Otto is played by Clive Merrison, the famous radio Sherlock Holmes, who played the headmaster in Alan Bennett’s ‘History Boys’ at the National Theatre. Lottie is played by award winning actress and singer Issy Van Randwyck of Fascinating Aida fame.

CM: What inspired you to write this? Where did the idea come from?
JB: I’ve always been fascinated by the foreign backgrounds of people living here in England – how they adjust, but remain themselves with all their baggage.

CM: This is your first play to be staged, isn’t it? What made you decide to write something for the theatre?
JB: I’ve written three plays, this is the second one, and the first to be performed. I was happily writing novels until I started going to the theatre five times a week with the then-drama critic of The Sunday Times, John Peter, who is now my husband.

CM: How different is play-writing from working on novels? Was it hard or easy to make that shift?
JB: I didn’t find the move into drama especially hard. I always wrote scenes and listened to my dialogue.

CM: Have you been involved with the day to day of the production?
JB: Yes – I’ve been involved in casting and in rehearsals, which I’ve very much enjoyed. I’m working with some wonderful people.

CM: Do you have plans to write any more plays in the future?
JB: Two other plays are currently being considered for production.

CM: And what’s coming up next for you?
JB: ‘Late Sunlight’, a volume of poems, is in the pipeline, plus ‘Strawberry Fields’, a novel about living through the sixties. Meanwhile, my first novel ‘The Wife’ (1977) will shortly be republished as a modern classic.

‘Anything That Flies’ is on at Jermyn Street Theatre from 18 Oct-11 Nov. See the venue website here for more information and to book.