Interview by Michael Whitham
Kieran Hurley is known for his award-winning plays about social and interpersonal politics, including Mouthpiece and Beats. With his latest work, Adults, created for Traverse and premiering at Fringe 2023 in a production by Roxana Silbert, he pivots into uncharted territory with a contemporary take on the bedroom farce. I spoke to Hurley about identity, sexuality and finding connection in a conflicted world.
“Eventually I had to lean into what this play wanted to be – okay, it’s going to be an interesting challenge for me to write a chamber piece that draws on a mix of bedroom comedy and farce. But also, perhaps more in line with my other work, these characters are all people who are really lost, and whose experience of how they’re lost has something to say to us about how the world is. So underneath being a farcical, funny, sex comedy, there’s also a meditation on loneliness and intimacy and our need for each other. And it tries to find some hope in human connection.”
The human connections at work in Adults story are unique. Zara runs a cooperative brothel in Edinburgh where the newest client is her former English teacher. Said teacher is married to a woman, but is there to engage the services of her male colleague Jay. Jay’s fears about ageing beyond his ‘twink’ status are compounded by the fact he has been forced to bring his new baby to work that day. These shenanigans provide plenty of opportunity for farce, but before long the character’s personal struggles begin to surface too.
“The very first thing I was interested in was the dispute between Zara and her former teacher. The anger that she has towards him for certain assumptions that he might have made about how the world was going to be when she stepped into it as an adult, versus the reality of what that world looks like post economic crash. She’s very angry at him for sending her out into the world to believe that she could do whatever she wanted, and that she feels like that was not necessarily an adequate training for the reality of life.”
Is that an argument in which Hurley takes a side? “None of the characters in the play are a mouthpiece for me. I feel empathy for all of them. Zara is giving voice to a lot of common millennial frustrations, and I certainly have empathy for those. But then Ian is a guy who is really disappointed with the world. He has tried very hard to be what he sees as society’s version of a ‘good guy.’ That has led to him committing to a relationship in which he is not happy, in which he is probably closeted. And to him trying to be a good, responsible, inspiring teacher. He has pursued a bunch of values that might be typical to his own generation, but which have not made him happy. So he’s been as done over by a bunch of social constraints as anyone else in the play”.
And is the play focused purely on these social constraints? “The tension between whether or not the conditions of your life that you’re struggling with are social or whether there’s something that you yourself can do something about it is a big feature of the play. I don’t think Ian was entitled to any reward from life that he hasn’t got but I think his tragedy is thinking that he was, and suppressing himself in pursuit of that. Liberation for Ian looks like no longer suppressing himself and instead living his own truth, no matter what that is. Zara I don’t think is necessarily entitled to anything as an individual either, but I think we all – as a society – are entitled to better than what we currently have in terms of distribution of resources and wealth and like living in a functioning country with social security and welfare state. So maybe some of the spirit of that comes through in the play, though it’s not really what the play is about”.
It is increasingly important for writers to think deeply about the ways in which they tell stories which are not taken from their own social experience. Hurley has a profound commitment to that practice. “As a man who has been in a longterm straight relationship, there have been loads of times where I have been full of self doubt about writing about sex workers, or writing about men selling sex to other men. How I have approached that self doubt is to remember what I tell people in playwriting workshops, which is that I do not believe they must only stick to writing entirely around their own experience. I think that’s going to be death to a writer’s pursuit. But rather, if you’re writing about an experience beyond your own, you have to write about it with the respect of rigorous research and with as much empathy as you can possibly manage. And if you’ve got both of those taps turned on full, you just have to trust yourself to try and venture into these areas. And that is a more challenging, exciting and interesting thing to do as an artist than to close yourself off from other perspectives and other experiences.”
In the writing of male characters who have sex with other men (or hope to) Hurley speaks with sensitivity to the subject matter, but also a commitment to noticing his own shared human experiences with his characters. “There are two men in the play – one is a guy who’s extremely straight coded, and his own relationship with the world is really coded through that. And he has now questioned something quite deep. The play doesn’t resolve where that question leads to for him, but in the play he solicits the services of a male sex worker to explore that. He’s extremely nervous about it. This is a guy who’s lived his entire life in an extremely straight coded way and I don’t feel unable to write about him just because of his burgeoning questions about his sexuality, any more than I feel unable to write him because he’s in his sixties. And the other male character, Jay – his own sexuality is ambiguous. And it’s never been important to me to label what his sexuality is and I don’t think it’s necessarily important to him. His identity in terms of what he lives by and presents to the world isn’t named in the script. What we know about them through the action of the play is that he sells sex for money and that he’s a dad. So there’s a lot of stuff about his experience as a young father that is taken from my own life.”
The complex debates around this topic are well known to Hurley. “Of course, there’s a power dynamic when writing across different types of experiences, that you have to be aware of. But my sincere view is that if you’re engaging with that process with the respect of research and empathy, and not just making bold assumptions – if you’re engaging with the process rigorously, and you are engaging empathetically, and you’re pouring yourself into your work the same way as you would with anything – then there is something good about the human act of trying to go beyond your own experience.”
“The main thread through all of my work that I noticed a few years ago is that – in very different ways, and often in very different forms – I’ve always been writing plays that are about people who are atomised from each other, in a world that deliberately keeps us atomised from each other. The plays are about our need for each other, and our needs to transcend the things that keep us apart in order to find connection, in spite of a world that was set up for us not to do that”.
Adults is on at Traverse at various times until August 27th.
Follow @kieran_hurley on Twitter for news about future productions.