THEATRE / New stages in writing the wrongs: Hush - don't tell anyone, but April De Angelis no longer sees women as the big issue. Sarah Hemming reports

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The Independent Culture
A year ago, had you told April De Angelis that her next play would be produced on the main stage of the Royal Court, she would probably have laughed. But next week Hush makes its debut in Sloane Square's large auditorium. The play was commissioned by the Court for the smaller Theatre Upstairs, and the more usual path would have been to try it out there, then transfer it if successful - but Max Stafford-Clark, artistic director of the Royal Court, liked it so much he decided to plunge in and put it straight on to the big stage.

'It's a very brave decision,' says De Angelis. 'It gives you more confidence and it means you're being taken seriously, which is good. There is a nerve-racking side to it as well - the space is bigger, the focus is bigger, people may be more critical of it. If it was upstairs, I'm sure the critical response would be 'An interesting new writer' - but downstairs it might be 'What a cheek]' '

De Angelis has attracted attention with her work for reputable fringe companies: she was writer-in-residence for Paines Plough in 1990 and wrote The Life and Times of Fanny Hill - a bullish adaptation of John Cleland's erotic novel - for Red Shift last year and Ironmistress - an unsettling play about a rigid Victorian widow who inherits her husband's ironworks - for ReSisters in 1988. But in Hush she had a broader remit.

'It was an open commission, which means: write about anything you want to write about. Often, if I am commissioned, I'm told the theme or directed in some way - I've been asked to write about 'women and the law' or 'women and work' - and sometimes you might look somewhere you've never looked before. Doing Fanny Hill, I learnt a lot about erotica, pornography and 18th-century literature. It's quite exciting being given a problem and having to solve it, although I prefer being left to do what I want. I think in the end it's more satisfying.'

De Angelis used her open commission to change direction and expand her range. Hush is a wry, elusive play set 12 months after one character, Jo, vanishes and is about the effects that the disappearance is having on those she left behind, one year later. For De Angelis, the play's subject reflects a change of emphasis, which she perceives as part of a larger development.

'When I first started writing, it was for a women's theatre group called ReSisters and the question of what to write about never really entered your head. You wanted to put women on the stage and to talk about women's issues, and you wanted to do it as well as you could. For years that's how we wrote. Ironmistress was written like that, you know - there was no question. One could write plays supported by a movement and a consensus, there were rules and regulations and sound and unsound things to do. Now those sorts of play aren't very satisfying; they tend to be the kind that come to a good strong conclusion. Everything is now more confusing. Also I don't want - as a person or a writer - to keep repeating that formula. It's quite old-fashioned and the audience is rather bored of it - 'Oh, another play about women being oppressed'. The world is much more complex than that anyway. So you are thinking, 'What do I write about?' You have to take on your society in a broader way.'

On one level, Hush is a personal play, wringing merciless humour out of the clumsy efforts at communication between the group of people who are commemorating Jo's disappearance. Rosa, Jo's tough 15-year-old daughter, is putting on a show of indifference and sleeping on the beach with a bizarrely disturbed, homeless youth; Louise, Jo's middle-aged, pragmatic sister, is bickering with her mediocre novelist boyfriend; and the home-help is consoling herself with New Age philosophies and daydreams of going to Tibet.

But once you learn that Jo held strong beliefs, was at Greenham Common, wouldn't drink unsound coffee and was on countless committees, her disappearance takes on an allegorical dimension. You realise that the play is in part taking stock of the loss of direction and certainty in the Left, and that, through the character of Jo, De Angelis is assessing what society offers to a 15-year-old.

'The difficulty is that at the moment there is not an accepted way of looking at the world if you are a left-wing writer,' says De Angelis. 'I suppose the role is to question and to look at the behaviour of people. And rather than say, 'Isn't all that's going on in our society awful - the homeless, unemployment and all the rest of it', I wanted to focus on what it is about people that lets us shut those things out. That seemed to me more interesting. I wanted to address really simple things - like passing a homeless person on the street and being able to turn away. In the play, all the characters have methods, intricate or obvious, for avoiding things. Tony, for instance, escapes into his novel- writing, though he claims he is doing it to change things. I don't think the characters are monsters, because they're not. I suppose they are inadequate, it's an inadequate response to the world and the events that are happening around them. The worse it gets, the more you retreat. And that's what I do too. I'm a playwright - I'm like my character Tony.'

A quick-minded, but self-deprecating woman, De Angelis is swift to counter the grander statements that slip out. Her writing, like her conversation, is sometimes elliptical, and for this she values the rigorous rehearsal process that Stafford-Clark employs.

'He demands that a writer is in rehearsals all the time, which is really good, because you have to justify everything that is in the script. If a character comes into a room, he'll ask where they have been for the last half hour. Sometimes, as a playwright, you haven't bothered with that and you are really shown up. I've been shown up a few times] Also there are always dead passages in a script that are simply padding, and you hit them really quickly through this method. It's good for a writer. Anyway, I don't mind cutting things. I've sat through too many of my plays watching people yawning] I like cutting things out now. When I was a bit more inexperienced, my attitude was more 'You can't take that out - it took me two hours to write that]' Now I tend to think 'Oh good, a boring bit has gone'.'

'Hush' previews at the Royal Court, London SW1, from 6 Aug and opens on 10 Aug (071-730 1745). April De Angelis takes part in an 'Independent'/Traverse Theatre conference with other young women writers at the Edinburgh Festival on 25 Aug at 11am.

(Photograph omitted)