Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Peter Hamilton: Danelaw

By | Published on Friday 20 September 2019

Currently running over at the Old Red Lion Theatre is an updated revival of ‘Danelaw’, a 2005 play that tells the story of the creation of a white-supremacist far right group who intend to create their own homeland in the east of England.

As soon as I heard the production was imminent, I was interested in finding out more about it, not least because the themes of the play seem really relevant to our current political climate. I put some questions to the creative force behind it, acclaimed playwright Peter Hamilton.

CM: Can you start by telling us about the narrative of ‘Danelaw’? What story does it tell?
PH: It tells the story of a plot by MI5 to set up a bogus far right party that intends to establish a white supremacist homeland called the Danelaw in East Anglia with Chelmsford as the capital. The party will from a small private army and start attacking Muslims. At the last moment the authorities will swoop and arrest everyone. This plan goes awry when the new recruits summon some Dutch neo-Nazi friends who want to start a race war immediately.

CM: What themes does the play explore?
PH: The play explores the underbelly of life where rather nasty violent feelings lurk and also the idea that “the best laid plans of mice and men/ often go awry” – adapted from Robert Burns. Also, obviously racial tensions in a racially-mixed society and the smouldering resentments of a disenfranchised white working-class

CM: The play was first staged back in 2005 and from what I understand has been updated for this run: how much has it changed?
PH: There were no Dutch neo-Nazis in the original. They make it more dramatic and symmetrical: our actions trigger unexpected and unforeseen reactions.

CM: What inspired you to write a play about this back then?
PH: I was always taken with Ionesco’s play ‘Rhinoceros’ as a more humble way of writing about people becoming fascist – or not, in the case of the character Berenger, because he is involved with a waitress. Also I had come across the true story of Combat 18 and their attempts to set up just such a whites-only homeland in East Anglia from reading the anti-Fascist magazine ‘Searchlight.’

CM: Do you think it may be actually more relevant now than it was then?
PH: It certainly is. There has been an epidemic of white racist attacks in the the last year or so – including in Norway and New Zealand – and a rise in anti-semitism. It is almost becoming mainstream now, together with a rise in mob violence.

CM: Do you think it’s possible to make a difference to political discourse through theatre, and other forms of art and culture?
PH: Definitely. Anyone who has read the novels of Dickens, Zola, HG Wells, George Orwell, Albert Camus, Jack London, DH Lawrence, the Brontes, John Steinbeck, Saul Bellow for example – and countless more – cannot fail to have their wider human sympathies awakened, which is bound to lead one eventually to consider the role of politics in bettering this world.

I myself was very influenced by George Orwell and Camus as a young man. ‘Keep The Aspidistra Flying’ was my Bible and ‘The Outsider’ was a very exciting discovery: it confirmed that feelings of alienation were valid and real and shared. Literature doesn’t always have to directly influence political identity; it can seep down into the unconscious for years before re-appearing in the character of a person, like rainwater percolating down through mountain ranges for millennia before its resurgence as a natural spring.

And of course there are works that are a clarion call to Socialism, for instance like the plays of Brecht or ‘The Ragged-trousered Philanthropists’ .

CM: How would you describe the play in terms of its style? Is absurdist the right word?
PH: Grisly absurd black comedy.

CM: How involved are you with the production? Can you tell us a bit about the creative team working on it?
PH: I tend to stand back from production. When I was an actor I found the presence of the writer intimidating and constrictive. With Ken McClymont as director – this is my fourth production with him – I have someone in charge I can absolutely trust to get on with it. And in this company especially we have an absolutely brilliant cast who all really jell very well. I do the production – getting programmes printed, organising rehearsal space etc but it’s a bit of a nightmare.

We have a great central character with Dan Maclane playing Cliff, Will Henry as his slightly-nerdy but almost visionary half-brother Jason, Richard Fish playing the sentimental poet Graham … Evelyn Craven as a crazy girl; Tara … it goes on and on.

CM: Can we talk a bit about you, now? How did you come to be writing plays? Did you always want to be a writer?
PH: I always wanted to be a writer, even as a boy, but I got lost along the way and made a lot of mistakes in life. Still, here I am.

CM: What have been the highlights of your career? Do you have any unfulfilled ambitions?
PH: My first play was called ‘Switchboard’ and it was a great critical success on the Fringe, although it didn’t lead to anything. Unfulfilled ambitions? One day I would like to write something really, really good. So that “every man will shout.” And I would like to inspire every young person in the country to start writing poetry. It builds up something inside you.

CM: Do you have any new work in progress…?
PH: I am writing poetry more these days and tentatively starting out as a performance poet.

CM: What’s coming up next for you, after this?
PH: Well, I’m seventy six in a few weeks so…? I am also a fairly devout Roman Catholic though not a very good one – thanks to Wrath, Lust, Greed Pride etc – all the usual sinful suspects – but I would like to consolidate my faith. I would – if God wills – like to express it more in writing.

‘Danelaw’ is on at the Old Red Lion Theatre until 5 Oct, see the venue website here for all the details and to book.