On a journey to Lan's end

David Lan 'finds' stories and retells them in his plays. He spoke to W Stephen Gilbert about the route he took to stage his latest work, The Ends of the Earth
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The Independent Culture
David Lan's plays have ranged inter alia over Zimbabwe, Vancouver Island off British Columbia, Mozambique, Papua New Guinea, Namibia, the Dionysus legend and the Peninsular War. He was born and brought up in South Africa but has been based in London for the past 25 years since he was 20. He took a doctorate in social anthropology at the LSE after passing two years in field study on the various effects of the guerrilla penetration of the Zambesi valley that was the crucible of the overthrow of white rule in former Rhodesia.

So his is a broad canvas. His new play, The Ends of the Earth, is set partly in Camden Town, partly "somewhere in the Balkans". "I've always found that when writing plays they've started with a story that almost always is a found one rather than an invented one," says Lan. "They're stories that I've read somewhere or someone's told me and they've stuck around, often for years. It's an odd process whereby the story won't allow itself to be told simply, as I found it, but needs to be retold in some mysterious way."

The story upon which The Ends of the Earth builds is laid out in the introduction to the published text: "A man has a child who is very ill. He goes to visit a holy man. The holy man is not a doctor, what can he do? In the course of their meeting, the man, a heavy smoker, coughs a lot. As they part, the holy man observes in passing that perhaps the man should give up smoking. Months go by. The child dies. The bereaved father returns to visit the holy man. (Why? No specific reason was given.) All the time he is there he smokes. He leaves. The holy man observes: 'And you see? All he was asked to do was to give up smoking.' "

The unveiling of a new Lan play is a sufficiently infrequent event to prompt me to ask about his methods. "I'm always writing a play," he says. "Usually more than one because there are plays that get abandoned or put aside. The plays seem to have cycles of their own and I often find I get started and think, 'This is an easy one, I've absolutely got it', and then find I'm completely stuck. Months or sometimes years later I can see something and take it a bit further. And sometimes I'm lucky enough to finish it.

"This one was an odd one because it wasn't a play I set out to write. When I finished it three years ago, I remember feeling very much that it had been given to me. I didn't really go back to it until we spent a bit of time on it with some actors in the National Theatre studio. And then I was very scared of it. It was full of surprises. Because of that period and some work I did on it after that, by the time we got to proper rehearsals I knew it again."

A degree of diversification has also characterised Lan's recent work. For the past year he has been writer-in-residence at the Royal Court.

"I've always been engaged with other people's plays almost as if they were objects. I'm very sceptical about the idea of how much you can teach people about writing. The great teachers are the great playwrights and the best thing you can do is to get people to look at them. You can learn a lot from Ibsen because the craft is so brilliant and self-conscious, and I'm amazed in reading his plays by how bold he was, which encourages you to be bold yourself.

"I find Broadway comedy writers very helpful - Neil Simon and Terence McNally - because they're brilliant at creating machines that have a particular effect on the audience."

Lan has also been working in television. "I was asked out of the blue to direct a documentary for Omnibus which went out last October. It was called Artist Unknown and it was made to go with the exhibition of African art at the Royal Academy, though it had nothing directly to do with that. There were drama-doc elements; it was another little story, really, set in Nigeria. I had a very, very good time and it went well so I'm in the middle of doing another. I've also been writing films for television, working closely with a drama director."

I observed that he seemed to have attained a new serenity. "Well, you've caught me at a point when I think I've regained a little bit of control over my life," he offers. "If we'd done this interview a couple of years ago, I don't think the word 'serene' would have been on the agenda."

Like Lan's 1990 play at the Almeida, Desire, The Ends of the Earth is being directed by the Romanian Andrei Serban. "My work is quite unlike the kind he usually does," says Lan, "so there is a strong, rather electric meeting point. His work is not realistic or naturalistic and mine in many ways is. We have a good time trying to make it work. There is, I think, I hope, something a bit more... poetic moving through the play. And Andrei's ability to find ways of expressing the heart of the play beautifully, lyrically, on the stage is something that was very successful in the work we did together before.

"What you're always after is not the play that you can see but the other play that you can't write or get at. The play that works has at its centre this other play which somehow has to get on to the stage. If that secret play is not revealed then you sit there and think, 'Oh well, this is interesting, this isn't interesting', but you won't be engaged. It's not so much bringing up the lyricism of the play as freeing it so that it appears to happen inevitably and naturally. That takes a lot of skill and experience in a director. Or just instinct."

n 'The Ends of the Earth' is in rep at the Cottesloe, RNT, London SE1, to the end of May. Booking: 0171-928 2252