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Introducing: Timberlake Wertenbaker

Introducing Timberlake Wertenbaker

By Emma MacLusky


Timberlake Wertenbaker is the UNESCO City of Literature Fellow at UEA. She has been giving masterclasses, lectures and informal seminars to staff and students of Literature, Drama and Creative Writing. Emma MacLusky, a drama student, interviews Timberlake about her long career as a playwright and translator.




Timberlake Wertenbaker, a British playwright, translator and professor, inspired Norwich University of East Anglia’s theatre, creative writing and translation students when she recently shared her approach to writing and experiences in the industry.

Wertenbaker admitted that a love for writing runs in her family, and that her talent was encouraged from the age of ten. She has always had an affinity and awareness of language; brought up in the Basque Country, she understood from an early age that language was political.  Keen to travel and develop her skills in a different culture, she spent a year in Greece at the beginning of her career, teaching languages. There she mingled with actors and directors, and this is where she began writing plays seriously before moving to London. In London lived in a theatrical house, with budding actors and directors, and plenty of creative stimuli. Wertenbaker circulated short plays around London and was snapped up by the new writing and development programme at the then Soho Poly, now the Soho Theatre.

In 1983 Wertenbaker began writing for Shared Experience and the Royal Court from, winning awards throughout her career, such as the Laurence Olivier/BBC Award for Our Country’s Good, Central Television Drama Award for The Love of the Nightingale, Critics Circle Theatre Awards for Best West End Play for Three Birds Alighting on a Field.

Her thematic range as a writer is impressive; from the history of convicts and penal colonies to the transformative potential of art, to immigration and asylum, Wertenbaker’s plays are ambitious in vision. She describes an idea as ‘a bit like a bone, you start chewing it, then you bury it and dig it up again later.’ Her early work examined themes of language, the right to speak and of the powers of silence. She was particularly influenced by her childhood home in Basque France, Saint-Jean-de-Luz, where the regional language was being eradicated. A strong believer in a writer’s identity, and role as the writer, she was inspired by the plays of Eugene O’Neil and their free use American vernacular and characters on the margins of society..

Other important influences come from French theatre. Having grown up with a French education, she became interested in playwrights such as Alfred De Musset, a dramatist, poet and novelist who is best known for his La Confession d’un enfant du siecle, Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre are other important influences.

Wertenbaker was also inspired by London playwrights such as Howard Brenton and Howard Barker, who were writing ‘great, big, epic and wild plays.’Shared Experience’s marriage of physical and text-based theatre gave her a whole new theatrical vocabulary, giving form to the hidden world of the psyche and imagination, exploring relationships between our inner lives and the world we inhabit.

Currently Wertenbaker is mulling over a new play, having finished two new plays in the summer. In a recent talk to Theatre, Creative Writing and Translation students, Wertenbaker urged students to write about what they want to write about, rather than following what seems to be fashionable.

Wertenbaker has a love for the coast and hopes to spend more time in Norwich. ‘All you need to create theatre is a room, imagination, energy and actors. And go to see shows, it’s terribly important.’



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