Scottish playwright RONA MUNRO has established herself with theatre hits including Bold Girls and Your Turn to Clean the Stair and is now extending her repertoire to TV and film. Mark Fisher talks to her about stretching the scope of TV drama and getting controversial with Ken Loach.

verything I’ve written is about sex and gender, with a few lasagne recipes thrown in,’ proclaimed Rona Munro to an audience of theatre buffs a couple of years ago. The playwright was delivering a lecture entitled Sex and Food at the Traverse Theatre in flippant tribute to the two principal elements that drive her work. ‘You can’t get past sex and food,’ she said. ‘because we wouldn’t exist without one and we can’t go on existing without the other.’

It would be wrong, however, to assume that Munro is some kind of cross between Margi Clarke and Jo Brand. Her writing has never lacked humour, but it has always been characterised by a serious pursuit of the things that create the gulf between men and women. From her professional debut at the Traverse in 1982 with Fugue, a play about a woman’s retreat into herself, to the forthcoming Ken Loach movie Ladybird, Ladybird, a real-life drama about a woman whose children are removed by the social services, Munro has been concerned with the way society influences the behavior. attitudes and freedom primarily of women, but also of men.

Her new Screen Two play is a case in point. Men of the Month is set in the offices of a women’s erotic magazine, but its interest extends through the windows and out to the workmen on the scaffolding that clings to the building’s exterior. When women come into the .picture they are invariably engaged in uniquely female experiences pregnacy, abortion, nascent lesbian romance . Don’t worry. Munro’s feminsim has not gone soft. But the play’s primary concern is with men; not to blame them, chastise them or absolve them for the woes of women, but to understand

out. the playwright spent a productive week with four male actors devising characters. ‘When you define yourself as a feminist writer,’ she says, ‘you’re sometimes aware that you have your own agenda in your head. I was quite keen to work with four actors and just respond to what they were doing and not make

Rona Munro the

produced Men of the Month. It’s not quite Mike Leigh the plot. scenario and script are all Munro’s but the characters come from the actors and consequently have a rounded. self- absorbed quality that is unusual on television. lndeed. it’s something ofa demanding 70-minutes all round. Munro, working closely with director Jean Stewart. has made an attempt to stretch the acceptable limits of TV realism. giving the production a claustrophobic. studio-bound air and slipping occasionally into allegorical images of snow-bound mountain- climbing. ‘We are very used to one form of drama on television.’ she says. ‘lt’s very dangerous to try anything different because as an audience our expectation is so solid and as writers we don’t have a lot to play it against. It was deliberately intended to be non-naturalistic. everything down to the design and the feel of it is real but not quite real.’ Munro cites Dennis Potter as the acceptable face of TV non-natural- ism. but points out that his is only one style and. beyond that. we haven’t begun to push the form. Partly because of this, Munro has only recently woken up to the possibilies of television. In the past, she has written for both Casualty and Dr Who but. while they presented an opportu- nity to hone her script-writing skills, they were only ever seen as a way of paying the hills so she could get on with the real business of writing for stage. ‘l‘m not knocking Casually. but I thought that was what television was going to be. But I think if you can have some sort of collaborative relationship with the director. as I had with Jean and as I had with Ken Loach, then it’s a whole different ball game. It opened up the idea that I do want to do this after all.’ Munro’s output in future, then, is

them for the fumbling, emotionally- inarticulate, well-meaning social victims they can be.

This approach came about in reaction to Munro’s own 1990 play

‘You can’t get past sex and food because we wouldn’t exist without one and we can’t go on

existing without the other.’

likely to be spread evenly across the different forms. She has finished the first draft of The Maiden Stone, 21 play written in broad Doric about ‘life. death and babies’, for

Bold Girls, the award-winning tale of four Belfast women whose menfolk have either been killed or imprisoned, leaving them to battle through their tough working-class existence alone. At the time of 7284’s produc- tion and the subsequent performances at London’s Hampstead Theatre, people commented on how, even in their absence, the men seemed to exert a strong pull on the women’s lives. Munro wanted to see if the same would be true in reverse: if men were put centre stage, would women appear important? To find

any assumptions before I started. It made it easier to get a handle on the subtleties of the situation. Hopefully the men are sympathetic characters. though not all of what they’re doing is necessarily sympathetic. but the motivation is very human. Being able to work with the guys really helped on that side of things.’

The first spin-off of this improvisatory process, common in theatre. rare in other media. was a radio play produced by Stewart Conn at Radio Scotland. Further development has

Hampstead Theatre. and she contin- ues to write for (but no longer perform with) the MsFits. the ever-popular Scottish feminist revue starring Fiona Knowles. There’s also talk of a film about Glasgow loansharks and a BBC spin-off from Men ofth Month that will use the same devising process. But the event that is really expected to put the 35-year-old Aberdonian in the news is the relase later this year of Ladybird, Ladybird which, even before it had a British distributor, was raking in the awards at the prestigious Berlin Film Festival.

8 The List 20 May—2 June 1994