Nick Darke

Playwright of maverick brio who found inspiration in his native Cornwall

Critical obtuseness and a concomitant patronising attitude to community theatre - for which much of Nick Darke's later work was written - led to a decided undervaluation of a prolific, bravely varied output. Although his plays often had his native Cornish background in common, Darke rarely delivered a play with ingredients similar to the previous one and although there were shining exceptions - Paul Taylor in The Independent and Charles Spencer of The Daily Telegraph included - many critics, ill at ease with a writer quite impossible to categorise (during his career he was variously and misleadingly compared to Brecht, Strindberg, Edward Albee, Tom Stoppard, T.S. Eliot and Tennessee Williams), wrote reviews of his work often woolly at best or, at worst, maliciously savage.

Nicholas Temperley Watson Darke, playwright: born St Eval, Cornwall 29 August 1948; married 1993 Jane Spurway (one son, one stepson); died Truro 10 June 2005.

Critical obtuseness and a concomitant patronising attitude to community theatre - for which much of Nick Darke's later work was written - led to a decided undervaluation of a prolific, bravely varied output. Although his plays often had his native Cornish background in common, Darke rarely delivered a play with ingredients similar to the previous one and although there were shining exceptions - Paul Taylor in The Independent and Charles Spencer of The Daily Telegraph included - many critics, ill at ease with a writer quite impossible to categorise (during his career he was variously and misleadingly compared to Brecht, Strindberg, Edward Albee, Tom Stoppard, T.S. Eliot and Tennessee Williams), wrote reviews of his work often woolly at best or, at worst, maliciously savage.

Undoubtedly Darke's was a maverick talent, just as Kneehigh Theatre, the Cornwall-based community company with which he was latterly closely associated, thrives on risk and continual experiment. Yet the sheer variety of his plays - usually vigorously, muscularly written (an ex-actor, Darke always wrote crackling dialogue), packed with energy and visually often striking imaginative (most theatre critics treat their trade as an extension of literary criticism, another factor in the way Darke could wrong-foot them) - is a key factor in his achievement.

Darke was born in St Eval, near Padstow, in 1948. His mother had been an actress, his father was a native fisherman (Darke would later act for a time and become an accomplished fisherman) and Cornwall would remain a lodestar in his life; he later returned to live in the house in which he was born, its garden sloping down to the beach of Porthcothan Bay, a dramatic setting which fed the imaginative landscape of several plays.

After Newquay Grammar School Darke trained as an actor at Rose Bruford College in Sidcup before making his professional début in repertory at the Lyric, Belfast. His next job, at Stoke-on-Trent's Victoria Theatre, was for Darke - as for many other actors - a life-changing experience. Under the Vic's director Peter Cheeseman (like Stephen Joseph and subsequently Alan Ayckbourn at Scarborough), a dynamic personality always urging and encouraging actors to extend their talents, Drake began to write. His first produced play (which he also directed) was Mother Goose (Stoke-on-Trent, 1977), a traditional pantomime, a buoyant delight artfully tailored for the resident company.

Drawn to theatres with a similar ensemble-based aesthetic Darke found the Theatre Royal, Stratford East, a congenial company, for which he wrote a fine piece, A Tickle on the River's Bank (1979). Set on a Thames barge, this was an absorbing play centred around a family of river lightermen and the irreversible slow decline of their industry over two decades, with a strongly atmospheric sense of place, the Thames becoming as potent a presence as in Dickens's Our Mutual Friend.

Having opted for a career exclusively as a writer (he once said, "I consider my seven years as an actor to have been an apprenticeship for writing plays"), Darke worked with the Devon-based Orchard Theatre Company on Summer Trade (Ilfracombe, 1979). This was set in a pub on the north Devon coast the day after the tradition-minded ex-landlord's final evening as he prepares to hand over to a newcomer with ambitious modernisation plans. Not remotely sentimental, the play still had an affectingly elegiac air in marked contrast to some other work. Certainly the Cornish-set Catch (Royal Court Theatre Upstairs, 1981) was a tough unsettling play dealing with other lives in crisis, this time two local fishermen mired in EEC bureaucracy who take to landing a new alternative catch, of cocaine.

Understandably the Royal Shakespeare Company, on the lookout for new writing talent, became interested in Darke and gave The Body (The Pit, Barbican, 1983) a strong production. By far his most ambitious work yet, it was both wildly, blackly comic (a striking first-act climax involving a near-naked corpse, a strangled cat, three choric farmers and a village copper bent on multiple arrests) and tensely disturbing (the later scenes, set on an American airbase, move towards the possibility of a nuclear explosion). Its reception was also polarised, but with at least some acknowledgment of an impressive theatre voice.

Commercially Darke did well out of his version of Laurie Lee's Cider With Rosie (Manchester, 1983), produced by many companies over the years, and catching beautifully the honeyed tone of this evocation of a Gloucestershire boyhood.

Considerable bewilderment - and some revulsion - greeted the RSC's production of Dead Monkey (The Pit, Barbican, 1986). Again mining comedy from some dark material, the play opens with the image of a monkey lying dead on a table. It transpires that Dolores, married to the faded beach-bum Hank, has been boosting her income by turning sexual tricks with the monkey, which, in a bizarre first-act climax, is cooked and eaten by the dysfunctional couple; a second act of escalating violence ends with Dolores on the table in the same position as the monkey. The nexus of money and its effect on a troubled sexual relationship is a crucial element in a play which still awaits a top-flight production; the RSC's version was oddly tepid while a revised text for a revival starring David Soul as Hank (Whitehall, 1988) was misguidedly and disastrously directed as a soap-opera parody.

Ting Tang Mine (St Austell, 1987) returned to Darke's favourite Cornish background for an often powerful scrutiny of two rival mining communities and, although the parable of Thatcher's Britain was at points underlined over-strenuously, the sense of a changing community gave a strong spine to a play with terrific acting opportunities; Ralph Fiennes was in the cast and the play visited London (National Theatre, 1988).

Commendably loyal to Darke, the RSC at the Almeida produced Kissing the Pope (1989), a large-cast, multi-scene play set against the canvas of a Latin American revolution and a young man's crisis in coming to terms with a violent society. This did not see Darke at his best; possibly written too hastily, the play never satisfactorily fused the personal story to the wider political background.

Some of Darke's finest later work was written for the remarkable Kneehigh Company; formed in 1980 it began in children's theatre before moving into ambitious, often open-air projects with a core company of ensemble actors and collaborators (it has been called "the National Theatre of Cornwall"). His writing for Kneehigh was based on Cornish history (usually with a key twist of wider relevance) but it was very far from parochial. Several of Darke's collaborations with the company were subsequently seen beyond Cornwall.

They include The King of Prussia (Donmar, 1996), which remains one of Darke's best plays, popular theatre at its peak as it moves robustly between late-18th-century France and Cornwall. The eponymous monarch is actually the ringleader of a gang of Cornish smugglers, who leads a densely plotted, boisterous affair of rum-running, secret passages and moonlit clifftop assignations. With something of the zestful air of one of Dion Boucicault's Irish melodrama, Darke's play likewise cunningly weaves in contemporary parallels (here the imperilled Cornish fishing industry).

Equally vital and entertaining was The Riot (National Theatre, 1999) which Darke set in a late-19th-century Newlyn. This also examined a society in flux and the rivalry between two groups - here the devout fisherman whose Methodist beliefs forbids them to fish on Sundays and "incomers" from Lowestoft. The material could have emerged as somewhat arid agitprop but Darke handled his story with such panache and bold, black comedy that the evening became charged with the brio characteristic of his best writing.

In 2001 Darke suffered a major stroke. Initially bereft of speech, a nightmare blow for a dramatist who liked to try out his own dialogue as he wrote it, gradually Drake, helped tirelessly by Jane, his partner of over 20 years, began to reacquire both language and some of his old fishing skill. Together they featured in an arresting BBC Radio 4 audio diary, Dumbstruck (2003), tracing the stroke and its aftermath with insight and humour. They also collaborated - Darke wrote, his wife directed - a documentary film, Aphasia (2004), remarkable testimony to the grit and dedication which had informed his always surprising career.

Alan Strachan



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