Looking for the Right Questions: The Work of Lucy Kirkwood

Whether delving into the underground world of sex-trafficking, addressing the complex layers of US-China relations, or navigating the individual and communal fallouts of an environmental nuclear catastrophe, Lucy Kirkwood is fearless in tackling situations and dynamics she hasn’t experienced. But rather than landing on a set of well-articulated conclusions, Kirkwood’s passion for precise and comprehensively observed moments yields plays in the midst of irresolvable perspectives or ambiguous impulses. “I don’t want to make something that tells you what I think about something,” she explains. “I want to ask questions. I’m trying to understand people better.”

Growing up in Wanstead in East London as the oldest daughter of a city analyst and a sign-language interpreter, Kirkwood came to writing by way of performing. She wrote her first play, Grady Hot Potato, in 2005 to give herself something to perform at the student-run Bedlam Theatre in Edinburgh. It was selected for the National Student Drama Festival and garnered Kirkwood the PMA Award for Most Promising Playwright. It also caught the attention of esteemed literary agent Mel Kenyon who served on the panel for the award. Two years later, Kirkwood graduated from university with commissions from Bush Theatre and the National Studio Theatre. She considered continuing her training as an actor at RADA and had made it to the final round of auditions before Kenyon called and encouraged her to devote her energies to playwriting full-time.

Taking Kenyon’s advice, Kirkwood turned out plays in her first years out of university that established her as a writer with a strong voice. Her plays Guns or Butter and Psychogeography were included in London’s Terror Festival in 2007 and 2009; the latter earned her the title of “Britain’s brightest young stage writer” from The Independent. Her Bush Theatre commission, the dystopian farce Tinderbox, debuted in 2008, the same year Kirkwood’s twenty-first century adaptation of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler premiered at The Gate in London.

But it was her 2009 play it felt empty when the heart went at first but it is alright now that landed her on the national theatre scene with full force. The play, written in collaboration with Clean Break, a theatre company founded by two female prisoners, is a kind of Alice in Wonderland that follows a young Croatian woman who comes to London in search of a better life but is sold by her cousin to a man who first becomes her lover and then later her pimp. Kirkwood worked on the piece for two years, teaching writing classes for both incarcerated women and ex-convicts, as she researched human trafficking. “There’s this language people use when talking about trafficking onstage,” Kirkwood observed. “And it involves putting a woman on stage in her underwear, covering her with track marks, and being quite voyeuristic. It’s a form of grim tourism. I was more interested in how Dijana was like me, than not like me.” The play was nominated for an Evening Standard Award for Best Newcomer and earned Kirkwood the John Whiting Award in 2010.

In 2012, the Royal Court premiered Kirkwood’s critically acclaimed workplace satire NSFW. The play follows two young magazine employees trying to keep their jobs, if not their dignity, in the world of graphic lad magazines (think Maxim) and the seemingly classier but likewise insidious world of upscale ‘women’s magazines’ as well. The Evening Standard praised Kirkwood’s play as “a savvy and deeply uncomfortable look at the world of modern media.”

In 2013, Kirkwood’s epic Chimerica opened at the Almeida Theatre, transferring to the West End three months later in an acclaimed production that won the 2014 Olivier Award for Best New Play. Kirkwood developed the piece over six years with the Headlong Theatre Company, and the resulting three-hour concerto of nearly forty interwoven scenes chronicles the life of Joe, a photojournalist, as he attempts to track down the subject of his most famous photograph “The Tank Man,” a single man squaring off against a line of tanks in Tiananmen Square. The play covers two decades in the history of two superpowers, exploring political change and personal responsibility in the people who cover history and the people who make it. Chimerica received its US premiere at Studio in 2015.

Her harrowing domestic play The Children (2016) followed, a Royal Court commission that transferred to Broadway in 2017. The play exposes the drab lives and dark pasts of three nuclear physicists who reunite and ruminate on the apocalyptic aftermath of a natural disaster’s strike on a nuclear facility reminiscent of the Fukushima events of 2011. Kirkwood had long been trying to find a way to write about climate change, and with The Children she discovered her way in by making it “driven by emotion rather than intellect,” crafting characters who are grappling with their past amid the chaos of a present where they have lost control.

Mosquitoes (2017), a joint commission from Manhattan Theatre Club and the Sloan Foundation, quickly followed, premiering at the National Theatre. Inspired by the Sloan Foundation’s focus on supporting new plays rooted in science, Kirkwood once again approached larger objective ideas from the vantage point of individual emotional responses. “What does it mean to be frightened of science and what does it mean to have fear whipped up in you about science?” asks Kirkwood. “Mosquitoes is just about how a middle-class, liberal, intellectual class has failed the other class… because we haven’t stopped to explain our ideas clearly enough to them in a way that isn’t alienating."

“By asking the right questions, a play can make you leave with something switched on that was off when you walked in,” Kirkwood says. Her formidable body of work, crafted with precision to probe how we see and interact with our world, attests to the alchemy of indefatigable curiosity.

Nathan Norcross