Q&A with Liv Warden, Writer of Anomaly at the Old Red Lion Theatre: ‘It is so timely, almost uncomfortably so, and that has given me a hugely difficult but rewarding challenge’

Over a year from when the events surrounding #MeToo first broke, Liv Warden’s new play Anomaly traces the impact and furor on the family. Anthony Walker-Cook exchanged questions with Warden to understand more about this new play soon playing at the Old Red Lion Theatre.

AWC People tend to remember what they were doing when 9/11 happened or the death of Michael Jackson – could you relate some of your initial responses when the news about Harvey Weinstein broke? 
LW I remember finding the audio of the NYPD sting on my Twitter feed. After I listened to that one minute and forty-five seconds I felt a burning rage inside me that turned to total fascination. I threw myself into research about this man – countless documentaries, Oscar speeches, industry anecdotes, details about his family, his young wife, his parents and his legacy. The few months following I found that my play finally had its purpose and its antagonist – Phillip Preston. 

It’s a year on since the Weinstein scandal broke, what more needs to be done within the arts industry to ensure it never happens again?
We all need to be held to a higher standard. With every movement like MeToo or Time’s Up, there will be a huge swing back. There is no point dividing ourselves by saying ‘it’s not all men, you know’ or ‘surely these women knew, why didn’t they say anything?’ It’s derivative and harms the cause we are all striving for – a level playing field. Harvey Weinstein is the third – only after Steven Spielberg and God – most thanked person in Oscar speeches. We have a huge responsibility to make sure a person like that never acquires such influence ever again. 

Obviously, the events before Anomaly are clear, but what brought you to write on the topic? 
I didn’t start out writing Anomaly as a comment on anything in particular. All I had in the summer of last year was a play about a women’s problematic relationship with her father, but after the Weinstein story broke everything seemed to click into place. I remember Adam, my director, saying to me that this is a play that needed to be seen NOW. It is so timely, almost uncomfortably so, and that has given me a hugely difficult but rewarding challenge as a playwright. 

Why did you decide to focus Anomaly around the family?
Because it’s a side of the story we never hear. When the media frenzy has long gone, what is left in its wake? Fractured families, broken trust, putting things back together after years have gone by. Children are left with their parent’s inherited pain, which can last generations – all due to the actions of one person. But Anomaly is the direct response to a family trauma – we see the explosion happening and the immediate consequences of that. 

Could you speak more about this play being a ‘war cry for the women who have been left to pick up the pieces’?
With every disgraced man on the front page of the newspaper, there are always a number of women that are affected. Like that famous photo at the Brett Kavanaugh case – his wife, daughters, mother, friends, colleagues, all these faces with gritted teeth behind him at his trial for sexual misconduct that they had no part in. There is something about women dealing with destruction that is so guttural. We all cry at that Emma Thompson scene in Love Actually because she is all of our mothers at once. Pushing it down and moving on. That is at the epicentre of this play. 

To quote from the Anomaly press release, what are the good and bad things about ‘our Kardashian soaked culture of sensationalism’ and do you think it will ever go too far?
It is all too easy to get sucked into the contrived world of reality television and the version of reality they are willing to show us. It is all about the very fine line between reality and entertainment. The Kardashians are masters of PR, and we watch a lot of their interviews in our rehearsals to understand what it truly takes to put on such a front to the general public. I didn’t fully realise what people in the spotlight have to battle against to get some element of privacy – looking down at an uncomfortable question can be read in a million different ways. But when things go wrong, what happens then? It seems like our society has this overwhelming obsession with downfall; we long to pick at the bones of the people we feel owe us something. 

Could you comment on the actors you are working with in the show and what they have brought to your script?
The Preston sisters have very separate stories, so we knew when casting that we needed to find three women that could not only tell their own story but could easily be part of the family unit. Natasha Cowley who plays the eldest, Piper, I believe was born to play that role. She is sharp, hardworking and incredibly intelligent; you instantly believe she could be next in line to be the head of Preston International. From the moment I saw Katherine Samuelson, who is playing the socialite of the family Penny, I knew she was perfect. She manages to bring a warmth and vulnerability to character who on the surface could easily be dismissed as vapid. Alice Handoll, who is playing Polly, the youngest, is a force of nature. It was difficult at first for her to click into who the black sheep of the Preston’s really was, as she has such a complicated story, but now she is magical to watch. It’s shaping up to be an incredible cast. 

Alice Handoll ‘is magical to watch.’ Rehearsal images for Anomaly. Photograph: Toby Lee.

If you had to summarise the play in one word, what would it be?
I think it would have to be ‘Sisterhood’. It is one of the main themes running through the play which questions whether blood is truly thicker than water. With both parents out of the picture these women have to rely on themselves and each other. 

If Anomaly is trying to pose one question, what is it? And what is the answer? 
It would be ‘What happens to the women in the face of destruction?’ We all deal with trauma differently but there is something about the way the Preston sisters navigate their way through this horrendous situation that is wonderfully real. They are not victims, they are flawed, multi-faceted and complicated women. 

What was the best thing you saw in the past year on the stage?
I would have to say Dust by Milly Thomas at Soho Theatre. God, that play put a fire up me that I didn’t know I needed. She is electric. So clever and makes it seem so easy to write a play about such a dark subject like suicide and make it charming, funny and entertaining. She is a huge inspiration to me. Also, Luke Barnes’ All We Ever Wanted Was Everything at the Bush Theatre showed me that writing a play can be anything you want it to be, it took me a few days to process that one. I could feel my chest tightening throughout. 

What advice would you give to writers trying to get their first piece performance on the stage?
I was given a piece of advice by the people at the Soho Theatre during my time at their Writers’ Lab. ‘Write stories in the voice that is only yours’. No matter how lost you may feel, you have a story worth telling that no one else can write the way you are able to. Also, don’t ever close a door that could be an opportunity. I met Adam, my director, through his girlfriend who worked at the same restaurant that I did. Keep your mind open, and things will find you eventually. 

Is there anything you wish you had seen? (The ‘who would you invite from history to a dinner party’ version for theatre). 
Oh, thousands of things! I wish I had seen The Jungle, Network, Rhys Ifans’ A Christmas Carol, Wise Children, Hadestown, Emilia (although I hope to catch the West End run this year), I tried to get tickets for Misty but it was sold out. I also feel like I am the last person on earth who hasn’t seen Hamilton. It’s so hard to see everything due to time and funds but I try to get to things as often as I can. 

What can audiences learn or expect from Anomaly?
All I hope is that people leave the theatre and say to their friends in the bar afterwards: ‘Do you know what? I never thought about it like that’. This play is all about taking a current topic and turning it on its head, which has not been an easy task. This play is not retrospective – it’s raw, visceral, controversial and will no doubt spark strong opinions in people. But if it does then I have done my job as the writer – discussion and debate is what theatre is for.

Many thanks to Liv for taking the time to answer our questions and to Chloe Nelkin PR for organising. Anomaly is at the Old Red Lion Theatre from the 8th January to the 2nd February, 2019.

Anthony Walker-Cook is a PhD candidate at UCL and is the Theatre editor for London Student. His interests include theatre adaptation, early modern drama, classical myths made modern and all things eighteenth century. For more information please contact: anthony.walker-cook.17@ucl.ac.uk @AntWalker_Cook

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