Debbie Tucker Green: 'If you hate the show, at least you have passion'

Debbie Tucker Green's already been hailed 'the new Sarah Kane'. But is it just hype, asks Aleks Sierz

Sunday 27 April 2003 00:00 BST

Why are young British playwrights attracted to agony? Over the past decade, for every quiet play about family life, there have been 10 stories of anguish, humiliation and violence on "sarf" London council estates. You'd think most Brits live on the edge of some metropolitan abyss. And, as the films of Mike Leigh and Ken Loach prove, dirty realism is still hip.

As if to prove the point, Debbie Tucker Green's powerful debut, Dirty Butterfly – which was staged at Soho Theatre in February – ended with a harrowing image of domestic violence. And her second play, Born Bad, which opens at Hampstead Theatre this week, promises to be a similarly unflinching account of abuse.

Tucker Green is wary of interviews. She won't say how old she is, or where she lives. "I've got Jamaican blood in me but I don't talk about my family." It's the work, and only the work, that matters. She despises journalistic clichés, although her tough-talking attitude may just hide the vulnerability of a newcomer.

"Born Bad came out already walking, talking," she says. Unlike her first, which she "spat out and then had to kick into life." In her own opinion, she's still "a baby at the game" of playwriting and hasn't "found a proper way of doing it yet". Not everyone would share that view – Dirty Butterfly made quite an impact. One reviewer of Tucker Green's debut called her distinctive voice an "angrily plaintive polyphony", although another critic attacked her "pseudo urban verbals" and "Ali G-style patois". So how would she describe her work? "It's a whole heap of things. I don't want to define myself." But Tucker Green laughs in recognition when I call her dialogue obsessive.

"That's how people speak," she says. "Listen to a group of kids – just repeat and repeat and repeat." She demonstrates with a little improvised exchange: "It's hot outside ... it's really hot, innit? I bet it's really hot." Suddenly, "you've got half a page of dialogue".

Tucker Green clearly loves playing with language, and – while working as a stage manager for 10 years – wrote poems before she tried plays. Her influences range from black writers such as Ntozake Shange and Louise Bennett to Bob Marley and Beverley Knight. What about Sarah Kane (to whom she has already been compared), another playwright who had the same visceral, no-holds-barred approach? "I know her work but the language is completely different," she says. Like Kane, Tucker Green had to watch walk-outs from her debut. "If you hate the show, at least you have passion," she shrugs. "Touch wood, you ain't indifferent." She says that one person even had a seizure in Dirty Butterfly.

What draws her to extremes? "To start with, both plays are quite mundane. Then they just get darker. I'm interested in normal situations that become dark. I find it intriguing; it's all out there. Somebody who beats on his wife might be the nicest workmate you can have. In Born Bad, I was interested in betrayal, in women betraying women, which is the point of the play." But the question at its heart is: what did mother know? "You sometimes hear in trials of abusers that the mother said she didn't know. And you ask yourself: 'How come?'" In the text, there are also suggestions of the victim's complicity. "There's a whole heap of psychology going on and I'm not in a position to even go there. The play is about subjective truth. Each character has a version of the truth that is real to them."

Born Bad is marketed as "a high-voltage drama in which two generations of one family confront the truth about their past." Yes, it's about abuse. But what distinguishes it from other plays about domestic misery is its structure. Instead of being a realistic drama set in a squalid flat, it's a series of fragmentary, free-floating poetic dialogues. The characters, who are onstage all the time, might just as easily be in purgatory as in a counselling session.

It's directed by Kathy Burke, who chose Born Bad out of a pile of new scripts sent to her by Hampstead Theatre. "[It was] the most original," she states. "Debbie's unique. She uses her own voice, and once I got into its rhythm, I just flew with it. It really gripped me and a lot of it made me laugh out loud. I liked the cruelty – people venting what they really feel." For Burke, the play is less about abuse than about "truth, denial and unconditional love".And for Jenny Topper, Hampstead's artistic director, Tucker Green is quite a find: "She has the three essential elements of a new voice: she is concerned with ideas, she is concerned with form, and she has the courage to stay true to her intuition and let her own linguistic invention come through."

Love it or loathe it, Tucker Green's work is already making its mark.

'Born Bad': Hampstead, London NW3 (020 7722 9301), previewing, opens Friday, to 17 May

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