When the artistic director of Shakespeare's Globe, Dominic Dromgoole, asked me to write a new play for his wonderful theatre, I spent a couple of years finding polite ways to say no.
It seemed too odd to put contemporary characters in contemporary clothes on to an authentic reproduction of an Elizabethan stage. Wouldn't it just look like some ropey time-travel story?
Ché Walker's The Frontline was the beginning of my change of heart. On to the Globe stage he poured all the raging pain of a Camden night, peopled with homeless nutters and hopeless actors and a hamburger stallholder in a Celtic shirt. Clearly, this was a space that called for big characters and big emotions. I began to sketch out the idea for The God of Soho, setting the story in a celebrity world where my celebrity couple fought each other in the front pages of the tabloids, hoovered up cocaine in celebrity nightspots and rocked up to the funerals of celebrity friends, wearing dark sunglasses.
Where the Elizabethans had put kings and courtiers on stage, I thought I would put their contemporary equivalents – stars and their publicists. The inherent theatricality of the celebrity world – the constant performing in public – had an irresistible attraction.
We have been lucky in casting our celebrity couple. For our reality TV star we managed to get Emma Pierson, from Hotel Babylon and Al Murray's sitcom, Time Gentlemen Please; for her rock musician lover we cast Ed Hogg, who is often described as the finest actor of his generation. Both have seen celebrity life close up, which has given a definite edge to their performances – it is often a very comic edge.
The core of the play is our celebrity couple's rather extreme love story. They enjoy a violent relationship and we sense their addiction to one another and their knowledge that they have to change. Is it based on any particular celebrities? Not really. We have all watched Big Brother – and Celebrity Big Brother, which starts again tonight – and we have seen the emergence of reality TV stars like Chantelle Houghton and Jade Goody, and we have all witnessed the car-crash relationships of couples like Cheryl and Ashley Cole or Jordan and Peter Andre.
It would be madness to write a play based directly on any of these real-life situations. What could be gained from it? What could I add to the store of public knowledge? Nor was I interested in sneering at celebrities or looking down on them. I want to look at what they tell us about ourselves.
We tend to dismiss celebrity culture as something trivial. It is far from that. The definition of a celebrity is a name that sells – whether that is papers or magazines or shows or products. A photograph of Angelina Jolie and her twins sold for $14m but the circulation of the magazine that published the picture went up by 45 per cent as a result. It was worth the money that was paid.
Celebrities are the gods and goddesses of our magazines and the staple of our news and gossip. They are a massive driver of the brands we buy and that would not be the case unless they answered some core need in us. I wrote The God of Soho to explore what that is.
The Globe is a great stage for a story about celebrity. In some ways it is a bear pit, like the tabloid press. It is also a space where the audience engages with the characters on stage. It happened when I went to see The Mysteries. They were telling the story of the Crucifixion – the episode where Judas repents of his betrayal and returns the blood money to Pontius Pilate.
In the Globe production, the 30 pieces of silver is 30p and the actor playing Pontius Pilate – Matthew Pidgeon – joked amenably with the audience that he didn't need 30p and would be happy to give it to a groundling. But when he placed the coins under the nose of a woman leaning on the front of the stage she recoiled, wanting nothing to do with the money or the betrayal.
The actor almost rocked back in amazement and for me – looking on – the two of them created a moment that was deeply touching. I felt the emotional power of the story and understood that it mattered.
This is what makes the Globe a contemporary space, one of the most exciting there is. Stories unfold on that stage like a shared experience; there is an intimacy between actors and audience which the size and scale of the stage seems only to deepen. We share the same light, the same sense of darkness coming down. Whether the actors are wearing doublets or Jimmy Choo, we are with them in the moment.
Perhaps this is one reason why a Globe audience is always willing to laugh. Dominic Dromgoole once described the Globe to me as a carnival space. It embraces the physical, the comic, liveliness of all kinds. From the outset, I had imagined that The God of Soho would spill out at moments into song. Luckily we have a seven-piece ska-influenced grime band and actors with the bravura and scale of Phil Daniels and Miranda Foster.
Phil is no stranger to celebrity, having appeared in EastEnders and in the video for the Blur track "Parklife". He plays the god of the title; a god whose mental world is collapsing at the very moment he has to go to earth to find and save his daughter.
The play is about more than celebrity. It is about a world in crisis.
"There's a lack of loveliness in the world," Phil's character says. "It's like a giant rubbling around the cities of the earth crushing shops and cathedrals and stadiums beneath its feet as it searches for something lovely, having not the least idea what loveliness is."
Last year I wrote those lines.
Chris Hannan's new play, 'The God of Soho', opens at Shakespeare's Globe, London SE1 on 27 August ( www.shakespearesglobe.com)Reuse content