Max Wilkinson explores the secret life of cities.
The playwright on his interest in urban identity, his "flaneur structure" and new show Rainer at the Arcola Theatre.
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Delivering, catering, crewing, building, decorating, tutoring – during his twenties, Max Wilkinson had myriad jobs while he pursued his passion for playwriting.
“I worked in a cinema,” he remembers. “I worked in a Superdrug. I was even a tree surgeon for a little while. I started doing jobs when I was about 10 or 11, and I have had so many over the years. I was always a bit crap at them, but I always needed the work to survive.”
Doing so many different things for money was dispiriting and disorienting at times, continues Wilkinson, but it also provided him with inspiration. When you work odd jobs at odd hours with odd people, you start to see life differently, he explains. You become invisible to many, and that invisibility allows you to watch, to observe, and to examine – essential activities for any writer.
Wilkinson’s latest play is inspired by his memories of doing just that. Rainer, which returns to the Arcola Theatre’s outside space in June, is a one-woman show directed by Nico Rao Pimparé, produced by Alistair Wilkinson and WoLab, and starring Sorcha Kennedy. It follows a delivery rider, cycling food across London, as she spins stories inside her head and slowly loses her grip on reality.
“Rainer loves riding around the city, seeing the different areas, meeting different people, interacting with them in a transient way, and almost spying on them,” Wilkinson explains. “She’s also an aspiring writer, and when she’s not roaming on a bike, she’s either drinking or writing. How much of it is me? Oh, tonnes. Looking at it now, I can kind of see that it is just me in my twenties.”
Rainer also utilises a dramatic device in which Wilkinson is increasingly interested: a central character somehow separate from the prevailing culture with whom the audience can empathise. He cites other examples from the novels of Jane Austen (think Emma) and Thomas Hardy (think Jude The Obscure), to the films of the Safdie brothers (think Robert Pattinson’s character in Good Time, or Adam Sandler’s in Uncut Gems).
“I call it the flaneur structure,” Wilkinson explains. “It’s that thing where the central character is slightly out of the loop of society. They are very clever but they are kind of a loner. They are quite fierce but also quite fragile. They don’t give a shit but really they do. I think that character is so attractive, especially now in the age of Instagram and social media.”
“For me, it will always be about cities, the way they evolve, the people that live in them, and all the random moments of beauty and ugliness that make up their madness…”
Born in 1991, Wilkinson grew up in London, where he still lives. His parents were artists and that was what he pursued at first, too, studying fine art at Central St Martins. It was there that he started to discover theatre – “I read loads of scripts in the library, lots of Beckett, lots of Pinter, lots of Churchill,” he remembers – and started to write, direct, and perform in “weird little plays” himself.
“People seemed to really like that,” he says. “I think it was because it was a bit unusual for someone at art school to be writing plays, and people at art school love anything that is a bit unusual. I decided I wanted to start taking it seriously after I graduated, though, and that was when I realised I was starting from zero. I had to learn how to write plays properly, and how to get them produced.”
Wilkinson slowly set about doing so. He spent three months interning with the Wooster Group and the Bushwick Starr in New York, then moved to Berlin, where he worked in bars, wrote in his spare time, and made his one and only professional appearance as an actor, playing Franz Kafka in a production by English Theatre Berlin. “It sounds cool,” he laughs, “but it was terrible.”
Back in London, he started to stage his plays, directing them himself on a “shoestring budget”, and “pulling in a million favours.” Wannsee was on at The Bridewell Theatre and The Courtyard Theatre in 2015, Hong Kong City at The King’s Head Theatre in 2017, 100 Ways The Fire Starts (a finalist for the Nick Darke Award and the Papatango Prize) at Theatre503 in 2018, and Ghost Fruit (written during a residency in Prague, and currently being adapted into a film by Penway Productions) at the Camden People’s Theatre in 2019. Rainer first ran at the Arcola Theatre last October.
Over time, two tropes have risen to the surface of Wilkinson’s work: the use of characters that swim outside the mainstream – that “flaneur structure” – and the exploration of the identity of cities. Be it Berlin (in Wannsee), Prague (in Ghost Fruit) or London (in Rainer), cities in Wilkinson’s work are almost separate characters. Their rules and rhythms form the backdrop to his stories.
“Marina Carr always says that, as a playwright, you are always writing the same play, always returning to the same interests and the same themes in different ways,” Wilkinson says. “I think that is true. For me, it will always be about cities, the way they evolve, the people that live in them, and all the random moments of beauty and ugliness that make up their madness.”
What do you want to do?
There are so many venues I admire – the Arcola Theatre, the Gate Theatre, the Young Vic, the Southwark Playhouse, the Donmar Warehouse. I think these are the venues that are always pushing new work and keeping theatre relevant. Working with those venues and having my plays on those stages is what I am working towards. I’m starting to do a bit of screenwriting, too, and I’d love to explore film more.
What support do you need to get there?
It’s always about money, unfortunately. Everyone is always one step away from bankruptcy. I’d love producers and production companies with cash to come and chat about my ideas for both theatre and film.
How can people find out more about you?
People can come and see Rainer at the Arcola Theatre in June. The text will be published by Methuen and Bloomsbury, too. We are running workshops alongside the show, as well. Any budding writers can come along to those.
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