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



News
peopleFrankie Boyle responds to referendum result in characteristically offensive style
Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvHe is only remaining member of original cast
Arts and Entertainment
tvHighs and lows of the cast's careers since 2004
Sport
Harry Redknapp. Mark Hughes and Ryan Shawcross
footballNews and updates as Queens Park Rangers host the Potters
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
New Articles
i100... with this review
Voices
Holly's review of Peterborough's Pizza Express quickly went viral on social media
New Articles
i100
Arts and Entertainment
musicHow female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Arts and Entertainment
musicBiographer Hunter Davies has collected nearly a hundred original manuscripts
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Cover Supervisor

£75 - £90 per day + negotiable: Randstad Education Group: Are you a cover supe...

Marketing Manager - Leicestershire - £35,000

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (CIM, B2B, MS Offi...

Marketing Executive (B2B and B2C) - Rugby, Warwickshire

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly successful organisation wit...

SEN Coordinator + Teacher (SENCO)

£1 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Job Purpose To work closely with the he...

Day In a Page

Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam