Robert Holman: The quiet man worth shouting about

As Robert Holman's touching triptych of war plays is revived at the Donmar, Paul Taylor salutes an undervalued but endlessly powerful playwright.

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The Independent Culture

Michael Grandage was universally recognised to be a tough act to follow as head honcho of the Donmar Warehouse. His successor, Josie Rourke, had, of course, been a smash hit at the Bush, where she proved that she possessed a sharp eye for smart, up-and-coming writing talent (Nick Payne, Tom Wells, Penelope Skinner et al). But how would she fare at the Donmar, where, with the whole of the world theatre repertoire to choose from, the taste of the artistic director is even more exposed and on the line? Rourke's selection for her first season was consequently subjected to keen scrutiny.

I can't be the only person to have experienced a warm glow of reassurance to discover that, in the second slot, she has programmed Making Noise Quietly, Robert Holman's superb 1986 triptych about lives touched by war. It signals a welcome acknowledgement that often the drama that is most worth hearing does not need to shout to make a profound impact. Peter Gill's revival, the first in London for over a decade, begins previews on tonight.

Although he's now pushing 60, an aura of incorruptible boyishness lingers around Holman, a softly spoken Yorkshireman from a Quaker/pacifist background whose accent and wry, self-deprecating manner remind one a little of a more retiring Alan Bennett. You sense an uncompromising steely strength, too, and (as his peers note) a stoicism that he has needed to cultivate in order to pursue his instinctive style of playwriting in the face of a certain reputation for unfashionability. His was a rapid and precocious rise to success. By the time he was 25 (having skipped university and supported himself by working on a book stall in Paddington Station), he had had several plays on at the Royal Court, the Bush and the Traverse in Edinburgh (Mud, Outside the Whale, German Skerries).

But his work has always stood apart from the mainstream. It certainly encompasses a wide variety of imaginative terrains. Set in the 18th century, his 1983 Royal Court play, Other Worlds, recounts the tale of how a fishing community came to hang a monkey, believing it to be a French spy sent by Napoleon to size up the landscape of north-east England for a potential invasion. Across Oka, a piece originally performed by the RSC in 1988, moves from North Yorkshire to a forest in deepest Siberia as a 16-year-old boy endeavours to fulfil his grandfather's dream of returning the eggs of an endangered species of crane to their natural habitat.

But Holman's plays are resolutely neither driven by "issues" nor "in yer face". Rather, they are led by a scrupulous attention to the emotional truth of characters who possess too much independent, wayward life to consent to being pulled towards a predestined ideological conclusion. Movingly more than the sum of its three parts, Making Noise Quietly adds up to a powerful exposé of the damage inflicted by war. It is, though, characteristic of the author's methods that – in the trio of pieces located in the Second World War, the Falklands conflict and 1986 – the nearest we get to battle is in the sound of the Doodlebugs blasting down on Kentish fields in the first of the plays, Being Friends. Set during the hot summer of 1944, its focus is on Oliver, a young conscientious objector working on the land who is now struggling with his pacifist beliefs – as he awkwardly reveals to Eric, a gangly, openly gay, and well-connected artist who has not been called up because of a spinal injury sustained in a road accident.

What has destabilised Oliver's certainties was the spectacle, in a hospital where he worked, of a German prisoner who appeared to have been brutally tortured. Holman conveys all of this, however, through a chance, incongruously idyllic pastoral encounter that is full of wry homoerotic subcurrents and ends with both men sunbathing naked. The fluctuations of feeling, the rhythm of the slight pauses as Eric's forwardness nudges Oliver into confession and self-discovery are masterfully handled in a mood piece that makes you think that "political theatre" is a term that should apply not just to plays in which power-brokers debate policy, but to drama that works so deeply on your emotions, as it engages at an oblique angle with the public world, that it alters your whole approach to life.

Ask around and you find that Making Noise Quietly is dear to the heart of many playwrights in their twenties and thirties and that Holman is renowned for being an inspiration to these younger fellow-practitioners. They range from writers who are now fully established such as David (The Knot of the Heart, In Basildon) Eldridge and Simon (Motortown, Harper Regan) Stephens to talented, on-the-rise dramatists like David Watson, author of the well-received Pieces of Vincent, and Ben Musgrave, who won the prestigious Bruntwood Prize for Pretend You Have Big Buildings.

Nor does Holman limit himself to giving supportive, sound advice over a cup of tea. It was at his suggestion that Eldridge and Stephens joined him on the four-year adventure of composing the collaborative play A Thousand Stars Explode in the Sky, which was eventually produced at the Lyric, Hammersmith in 2010. The actor Andrew Sheridan, who seems to be something of a muse-figure in Holman's life (the younger of the two roles in Holman's latest, excellent play, Jonah and Otto, was penned especially for him, and they have worked together on several occasions), wrote his award-winning debut play, Winterlong, as the result of a direct challenge issued between a matinee and evening performance of Jonah and Otto at the Royal Exchange in Manchester.

What the younger dramatists value in Holman is his principled opposition to the theatrical culture of the re-write, where dramaturgs descend on a fledgling text which is then "developed" in an atmosphere where everyone feels entitled to an opinion. "I write very much on the moment – emotional pieces that are a reflection of me," he revealed when I met him for a chat recently. "The plays are the product of a kind of year-long moment." But his works seem to be both intensely personal and yet somehow separate from him. In Jonah and Otto, a self-loathing man of the cloth who has lost his faith tells the insecure, deceptively wastrel Jonah that, "I think we learn to love by listening to another person. Love is paying attention". He could be describing Holman's own artistic process.

Sheridan says that "there is no room for ego" in Holman's plays; the characters "come from the pit of his stomach, maybe deeper, maybe bollocks deep. He trusts [them] to emerge from the shadowy corners and speak only when and how they want."

Lucian Freud was once asked how he knew when a painting was completed and his response was that "the painting is done when I have the sensation that I am painting somebody else's picture." Holman has a different answer. "I am the sort of writer who writes and then needs to get it out of his system." The sign that this has happened often takes the form of his suddenly bursting into tears during a run-through. After such an overwhelming sense that something has been consummated, it follows that he thinks, "You go back to a play at your peril", laughing that he has altered only one line during rehearsals for this revival of Making Noise Quietly.

Eldridge, who says that Holman "does not have a dishonest bone in his body", reveals that the collaboration on A Thousand Stars (in which a tangled, dysfunctional family tries to come to terms with itself during the apocalyptic last days of the planet) "started off as a bit of dare – using the fact that there were three of us to write stuff that we would never, at that point, have risked on our own." He astutely points out that the need to take courage is an abiding preoccupation in the work. Stephens says that, in writing his own plays, "I'm a real planner; the last thing that I do is write the dialogue." He emerged from the collaborative exercise with a huge respect for the older writer's ability to dispense with a scaffold and let his instincts surprise him beat by beat. Musgrave says that "while I have certainly had some good experiences with dramaturgy", to have a cup of tea with Holman is a salutary, fortifying reminder that in a culture where dramatists "can get entangled in endless stages of development, we need to start depending on ourselves and trusting ourselves again."

Failures of courage and the difficult, brave surmounting of the kind of stubborn, low self-esteem that can become a form of playing-it-safe egotism are a preoccupation of the wonderful later plays Holes in the Skin (seen at Chichester in 2003) and Jonah and Otto (premiered in Manchester in 2008). It is outrageous that neither of these works has yet been in London. Let us hope that this very welcome revival of Making Noise Quietly reminds other artistic directors that, while Robert Holman may be the quintessential "playwrights' playwright", his drama also offers rich rewards to audiences.

'Making Noise Quietly', Donmar Warehouse, London WC2 (0844 871 7624) to 26 May