PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER with Ronald Harwood

Brief Encounter   PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER with Ronald Harwood Ronald Harwood may currently be the most successful playwright-screenwriter in the English speaking world.
Ronald Harwood
Ronald Harwood Photo by Charley Gallay

Currently, the South Africa-born Englishman has two of his plays, Collaboration and Taking Sides, both about artists contending with the reality of Nazi Germany, running in repertory on the West End. Critical and popular response have made the double bill a career highlight for the longtime author, who best known work may be The Dresser. Meanwhile, the Oscar he won for the screenplay of "The Pianist" has set off a spurt of manic activity, seeing Harwood pen the scripts to "Being Julia," "Oliver Twist," "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly," "Love in the Time of Cholera," "Australia," and five upcoming films. Seldom has a writer done so well in two mediums simultaneously. A very happy-sounding Harwood spoke to Playbill.com from London.

Playbill.com: You often write plays and screenplays that are either set during World War II or concern World War II. Why do you keep returning to that era?
Ronald Harwood: I was born in 1934, so the war dominated my childhood, and the Holocaust — I'm Jewish — dominated my adolescence. So, it's followed me all my life. I'm trying to find out what happened, how it happened and how someone would behave in similar circumstances.

Playbill.com: When you were writing Collaboration, did you think of it as a companion piece to Taking Sides?
RH: Oh, yes, I did. But I never thought they'd be performed together.

Playbill.com: That was not your intention.
RH: No. The first person who suggested it was my late friend Harold Pinter, who directed the first production of Taking Sides. When he read Collaboration, he said, "You should do the two together." I said, "Listen, Harold, it will be difficult enough getting this one on." Then when we presented it to the Chicester, the artistic director there, Jonathan Church, said, "You know what we should do? We should do the two plays together." That's how it came about.

Playbill.com: When you wrote Collaboration, did you feel that there were some things or themes that you had not said in Taking Sides that you wanted to explore?
RH: No. I don't think so. Because, although the period is very similar, the dilemmas are very different. I think I explored the ambivalence of the artist in a totalitarian society in Taking Sides. I didn't feel that Richard Strauss, who is the central character in Collaboration, had that much ambivalence. He was in a terrible trap. He had a Jewish daughter-in-law, and his grandchildren were therefore half-Jewish, and considered Jewish by the Nazis, and they put the pressure on him. Playbill.com: They're now playing in repertory on the West End. That situation must be very rewarding.
RH: In all my long years as a playwright, I've never had such a response to work in the West End. It's been very gratifying.

Playbill.com: I heard there was talk the plays may come to New York.
RH: I hadn't heard that. I've very pleased you've heard that. I don't think both of them will come, but I'd love Collaboration to come.

Playbill.com: In the past decade, your screenwriting career has really exploded. A new movie written by you seems to come out every year.
RH: Certainly, winning the Oscar for "The Pianist" was a huge injection, but I've been writing movies all my working life. But the Oscar just brought attention to me.

Playbill.com: It's not every writer who succeeds so well in both theatre and film.
RH: No. Isn't that lovely?

Playbill.com: It should happen to more writers
RH: No, it shouldn't! (Laughs)

Playbill.com: Are you writing something new for the stage?
RH: I've just written a new one, Public Service.

Playbill.com: Can you tell me a little something about it?
RH: I can. It's again set in the 1930s, and it's about the man called Ralph Wigram. He was the civil servant in a foreign office here who leaked secret material to Winston Churchill about German rearmament. And it's not so much about that as it is about a question of conscience.

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