She first came to attention writing for ‘Skins’ on TV in the noughties but attracted serious interest with two works for the theatre that established her style: meticulously researched, dialogue-driven, snappily cut, big-issue plays. ‘It Felt Empty When the Heart Went at First but It Is Alright Now’, at the Arcola in 2009, was a devastating report from the hidden world of Eastern European women trafficked to London to work in the sex industry. ‘NSFW’ at the Royal Court last year was a satire on the body-obsessed magazines industry. At the same time, Kirkwood swapped the East End for life in rural Norfolk (‘Conservative with a small “c” and a large “C”,’ she says). On her return to town to prepare for the play’s West End transfer, Time Out met up with the playwright in Whitechapel and found her as combative and passionate as her work suggests.
Does coming from east London, with its tradition of immigration, make you more open as a writer to international influences?
‘I seem to be drawn to writing English plays coming out of foreign mouths, and that’s quite dangerous. In east London you’re really conscious of it. There are always these flashpoints. I’d go swimming and all the young women would be wearing full [indicates Islamic dress with her hands] in the water, and I’d be wearing modest, low-legged Speedos and get these looks from people. I just found it interesting. My instinct is to look beyond England, though I always think of myself as kind of English.’ Why did you give up east London for East Anglia?
‘I felt quite insulated in Shoreditch. I mixed with people like me, went to work with people like me, lived with people like me. If you walk down Brick Lane, it’s full of cunts like me. Everyone’s an artist. It’s all very ephemeral. You’re living in this world based on nonsense. Everyone’s got loads of money, everyone’s living a lovely life and is not quite aware of the fact that they are living a lovely life. In Norfolk there are lots of people that don’t give a toss about the arts. I really like that.’
You seem remarkably young to have achieved so much – did you stay at home for most of your twenties?
‘I worked quite a lot. I sound like such a boring twat but my Shoreditch was different to a lot of other people’s Shoreditch. I did a lot of walking and things like that. I wasn’t going out every night; I was sitting at home with a laptop. But I love writing, just love it.’
So you weren’t locked away like a nun?
‘No, I’m not actually a nun. I drink, though I’m not, fortunately, reliant on those props. I’d rather sit down with a bottle of red wine and my laptop than pour the red wine with loads of people in a bar. I did go out in Shoreditch and I lived with one of my best friends. You do have to maintain a contact with the world, otherwise what the bloody hell are you going to write about?’
What made you choose to write about China for ‘Chimerica’?
‘Over the years I was writing the play, what kept rearing its head slightly was this liberal carefulness around China, when people thought, “It’s not that bad, is it?” And I felt it was.’
Is that why there’s a torture scene in the play?
‘Yeah, I was unapologetic about saying: “This happens there.” And I wanted to ask, “How does it make the audience feel?” So there was a double thing I wanted to address – one part was political, one part was artistic.’
A lot of your work is about exploitative relationships. Isn’t a Western playwright using the suffering of the Chinese just another form of exploitation?
‘It could be read like that. I’m not going to spend the rest of my career writing plays about China, but I do worry a lot about the things I write. About it being misunderstood, in the way you say: that I’m picking something up and playing with it for a while and putting it down again. That’s worrying because it’s so opposite to my approach. When writing a play you have to have a seriousness of purpose about it, to have something that is hooking your head and guts. But it’s much more a play about the West than it is about China.’ Sex also features prominently in your work: Dijana in ‘It Felt Empty When the Heart Went at First but It Is Alright Now’, and British lads-mag prurience in ‘NSFW’.
‘The plays are not about the sex, but versions of sex, which are often the ones we find ourselves dealing with. Things that to me are nothing to do with sex. But I think both those plays have really strong senses of people who do enjoy sex.’
Even the sex workers?
‘Dijana talks about how much she likes having sex with her boyfriend, and she doesn’t realise at that point that she’s sort of indentured to him. That to me was one of the really sad things about meeting women like that. They were incredibly alive and sexual and hungry women who had had every bit of ambition knocked on the head and they were punished for it.’
And is sex, in general, a theme?
‘I’m so very pro-sex. I’m interested in looking at the forces that shape our attitudes to it and whether those are, I’m not going to say healthy, but what lead to the greatest happiness. Basically, I want to solve everything. And end the gender war.’
One criticism of ‘Chimerica’ is that Tess, the main female character, falls for such a textbook hero – Joe, the romantic man with a conscience. Would you have fallen for him?
‘Totally! Completely! He’s an idealist. There’s something very attractive about someone who is engaged in something more important. You couldn’t understand why someone like Tess would want to be with a guy like that?’
I was interested in what you feel attracts women to men. It seems key to a lot of your work…
‘It operates on a subconscious level. I think we are in a time when many women are working out what they are, or who they are, post-feminism. I’m really interested how human beings interact with each other on lots of levels. But I suppose, men and women… I’m really drawn to that.’
So is ‘Chimerica’ your big moment? Do you feel on the brink of massive success?
‘I’m really excited about it, but I think you need to have a measure of success as well. Life lasts a really long time, hopefully, and there are things I’ve done that 25 people have seen that I consider to be the things I am most proud of. And it’s not just the work; it’s the stuff that comes from the work, or the stuff that leads up to the work. I think that if you pin your ideas on being successful or not successful, if you are in the West End or not, you are going to spend most of your life being unhappy.’