Theatre: Tales of the unexpected

The trouble with Robert Holman's plays is that they can't be pigeonholed. It's also their strength. And now, with a new play at the RSC and a West End revival, his work should find a wide audience at last. By Paul Taylor

He was a very quiet and honourable man, my dad, really," submits playwright Robert Holman of his father, who spent the Second World War labouring on the land as a conscientious objector. The Holman family has a long tradition of pacifism. His great-grandfather was sent to Strangeways for his beliefs during the Great War, but ironically at the time of the Second, was engaged in government-sponsored work, organising the reception in Manchester of the Jews fleeing from Poland. Around 1,000 people turned up for his funeral.

His father was also man enough to admit to his adult son that if the Nazi death camps had come to public attention earlier, he would have laid aside his principles and fought. Holman cannot now remember whether this confession came before, or as a result of Making Noise Quietly, his beautiful elliptical triptych of plays about lives touched by war and violence.

First presented to great acclaim at the Bush in 1986, it is now revived in a poetic, heart-twistingly lovely touring production by Deborah Bruce for Oxford Stage Company, and it is due to head into the West End for a six-week season at the Whitehall Theatre in April. The coincidence of this major revival and the current RSC transfer at The Pit, of his disgracefully underrated latest play, Bad Weather, invites a reappraisal of a finely imaginative, toughly delicate body of work. It also prompts the observation that, like his father, Holman is a quiet and honourable man.

This has not helped his media profile. Journalists find it easier to cope with schools and waves than with individuals who resist categorisation. That said, it is ironic that one's first thought on meeting this hard- to-pigeonhole playwright, is how peculiarly reminiscent he is of Alan Bennett. True, you feel you'd have to resort to chloroform to get him into a tie, cords and tweed jacket, and he is not a University wit, having chucked the charms of further education and subsidised a fledgling writing career by working for three years in the bookstall on platform one at Paddington.

The resemblance is there, though, in the shy, wry humour. A tickled-sounding laugh bobs like a grace note over his conversation, the strong Yorkshire vowels seeming to date back to a generation earlier than his own. It is also present in the sense you get that, for all his superficially fey, boyish diffidence, he would, if irked on a point of principle, constitute a formidable one-man awkward squad.

An entry in Bennett's Diaries leapt to mind while we were talking. Disgusted by the Falklands War, Bennett wrote, broodingly, "Not English. I feel now, this is just where I happen to have been put down. No country. No party. No Church. No voice. And now they are singing "Britannia Rules the Waves" outside Downing Street. It's the Last Night of the Proms erected into a policy." In the middle play in Making Noise Quietly, set during the Falklands War, a young naval Lieutenant visits a woman to tell her that the son she has not heard from for five years has been killed on the Glamorgan. The piece is a subtle study of how instinctive revulsion for a pointless war can be side-tracked by circumstances, and denied. The woman takes refuge from the deep pain of this death in snobbish gratification that the ghastly son had secretly married into the messenger's posh naval clan and, to spare her husband's feelings, she ends up deciding, half- wilfully, half-unconsciously, to take an official Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori stand.

Given all this, and the mid-1980s date of the original production, you might have thought it reasonable to assume that the Falklands had fomented this trilogy. But that would be to misunderstand the very ad-hoc routes inspiration takes with so instinctive a writer. That conflict was, in fact, the last piece to be fitted into the jigsaw. Paradoxically, what unlocked the project for him wasn't any of the many books about war he'd been avidly reading, but the discovery of The Journals of Denton Welch, which cover the period 1942-84 and which, in 400 pages, only mention the War twice. Something of the bruised lyricism and homo-erotic sub-currents of that volume inform Being Friends, the first panel in Holman's triptych.

As an artist, he seems to be me to be the antithesis of his exact contemporary Stephen Poliakoff, (born 1952), who was a Writer-in-Residence at the National Theatre at the same time as Holman, and who also happens to have a play on in the current RSC London season. Set in the BBC in the 1930s, Poliakoff's Talk of the City asks whether the mass radio audience of the time was misled by a conspiracy of silence about the plight of the Jews in Germany. It is tremendously easy to convey what this play is about and to generate publicity for it because its ideas and its implied modern parallels are all that it amounts to.

But it would be a brave person who would attempt to give you an in-a- nutshell summary of Bad Weather, with its strange combination of repeated shocks and slow eventlessness, and his characteristic density of subtext which actors adore. Critics are busy people with deadlines, but plays like Holman's need to live with you and grow less nebulous in the imagination. Hence the better immediate reception for Poliakoff's inferior play.

Bad Weather was triggered by a personal experience of being the one dissenting voice on a jury at the trial of some young men charged with grievous bodily harm - Holman's private letter to the judge wound up being handed round in court and used by the defence barristers in mitigation. This may have been what prompted it, but the play soon branches out from its social-realist Teesside starting point. The characters are sent away for an idyllic, soul-searching, yet only jaggedly redeeming respite in rural France, rather as Holman's excellent 1991 play, Rafts and Dreams, dispatched a group of survivors from a global flood over the waters in a sawn-away living room and asked whether, even with this radical opportunity to cut adrift from the tangles of the past, people would be able to make the requisite psychological leap.

There are certain recurring preoccupations in Holman's work. The psychology of taking the rap for someone else's crime, for example, is explored both in Bad Weather and in his splendid 1992 novel, The Amish Landscape, where a boy has to cover for his father's murder of his brother.

Offering unusual opportunities for child actors, the plays are correspondingly taxed by the question of what it means to be an adult, and by the way the truth presents a different face as one grows older. Being an instinctive writer, he does not thank you for pointing out the pattern of emotional displacement in his work.

He tells me, though, that as with Making Noise Quietly, Bad Weather has expanded into a trilogy, broadly dealing with the theme of crime and punishment. When we met, Holman was unrepiningly pessimistic about the chances of the RSC staging this long work, after the non-tumultuous box office for Bad Weather. He seems to be that rare bird, a genuinely modest writer. The RSC should remember, though, that there is nothing modest about his achievement.

`Making Noise Quietly' is at the Traverse, Edinburgh (0131-228 1404); `Bad Weather' is in rep at the Pit, London EC2 (0171-638 8891) to 13 March

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