Rona Munro came to prominence with her first play Fugue in 1983 and has since gone on to become one of Scotland’s most prolific female writers. Covering an abundance of topics, settings and time frames, her work continues to challenge traditional theatre forms and roles to discuss subjects which range from the camaraderie of a trio of mountaineers in Long Time Dead (2006) to the romantic comedy/thriller Pandas (2011). Here, she discusses her 2002 play, Iron (2002), which will be at the Traverse Theatre, Wed 14 – Sat 17 Nov. We caught up with her to talk about what it means to be a female Scottish writer today and how far Scottish writing has come over the last 30 years.
Given that your plays have been staged many times, how hard do you find it to let go of your work like that?
It’s good to see a play go out there and have a life, and it really is a question of seeing what someone else has done with it. There are very few times when I get that experience, normally because you’re sitting there and it’s the first production; most plays don’t get a second one so all your hopes and fears are tied up in that first night. When you go and see something that has had quite a few productions, it is very relaxing. It’s a lovely experience. So I will be looking forward to seeing what they have done with it. And I think Blythe Duff is going to be a fantastic Fay.
As Iron is a Scottish play, how do you feel it has been received, both at home and abroad, and what do you think makes people celebrate it?
I think people like stories and if you get it right, if you tell a story well, it will always find an audience. I think out of all the plays I have done it’s probably been translated into more languages than any others, and had productions all over the place. Sometimes you just get a story right and create something universal enough that it can work for many people. I wish I knew what I did. I would do it again!
Plays which are about women and involve female casts can sometimes be labelled a ‘women’s play’. Has this ever happened to your work and how damaging do you think it can be to categorise theatre in this way?
It’s something that is happening less and less as I get older, and I think that is to do with the fact that there is a heck of a lot more women playwrights out there than when I started. It does still happen but it seems to me, this is just an impression, that it tends to be something said by commentators. So that would be the media or maybe academics who tend to put it in that pigeonhole. Whereas an audience, I don’t think, would make the same assumptions anymore. There isn’t the same pigeonholing of women’s writing as being exclusively about and for women that there was when I started off and that has got to be a good thing. I don’t think this idea that there is one type of story for one type of person occurs to an audience member.
what fascinates me is what redeems the characters
When Fugue appeared on stage in 1983, it was surrounded by other Scottish female writers. Do you think Scotland still supports female writers? Do you think theatre is a more open environment?
Definitely. But that is down to the fact that there is just so much more money available for writing and developing new talent than there was when I started out. If you make funding more easily available you are going to attract a broader cross-section of the community. When I started out, if you didn’t have money you had to be prepared to live like a student for all your days or you couldn’t contemplate being a writer. The lack of money excluded large sections of society but that is a model that appears to have changed. It could still be a little better but it’s a hell of a lot better than it was in the 80s. So I think that’s what led to a greater diversity of voices in Scottish theatre.
You create a lot of differing female roles but it’s your mother figures that are extremely fascinating. Do you have a particular process in writing the characters or do you see where your writing takes you?
Yes, I definitely see where my writing takes me. I suppose having been a single mother I probably obsess quite a lot about the possible pitfalls of being a sole parent. I think about a lot of characters who might have got it wrong; so Fay is possibly one example and an idea of the damage people can do. But I suppose what fascinates me is what redeems those characters and also I think just allowing female characters to be more complicated. Before, it seemed the range of female characters that were available were quite narrow; it’s the more flawed figures that interest me because it’s about being human instead of just being the cipher.
Finally, as a Scottish writer living in England, have you had to change your writing style? How different is it to writing for Scottish stages?
The reason I moved ended up being the reason I became a single parent, so it wasn’t anything to do with my writing. There’s no doubt that while things aren’t great in Scotland it’s a hell of a lot tougher for writers in London and I’m very lucky to have had the opportunity to go on working in Scotland. I think there are an awful lot of things that have been happening in the last few years that have seen Scottish people become more aware of their culture. Theatre has become part of that idea of people actually looking at what it means to be Scottish and coming together to celebrate that. It’s something that makes for a very healthy community and in a lot of ways I wish I was back home as it feels like you are actually getting to an audience and having an active response to your work. Theatre is much more of a living thing in Scotland.