Friends & Family, Family & Friends
‘We can’t decide who our families are, but we can decide who we love.’
So says Jude in The Lodger, the final play by Robert Holman, which was first performed on 10 September 2021 at The Coronet Theatre. Robert died on 3 December the same year, aged 69.
Robert is often described as the Playwright’s Playwright, which I take to mean he wasn’t as well known, respected, or his plays produced as often as they should have been. He was, in his quiet way, immensely successful. Not driven by money or fame, he was utterly and all pervasively the true creative - one driven entirely by the need to write. And by his love of actors and seeing them doing their craft as well as they could. He couldn’t do anything else.
Robert’s memorial took place on 12 May at The Royal Court Theatre in London. I was there. Despite train strikes and living 800 miles away I was there. I’m not a theatre person, I’m not family. Explaining to others why I was there was tricky. My Dad taught him I would say. His Mum was my infant school headteacher. I was in one of his plays at 6th form. These things are all true but they don’t say a thing. They don’t say diddly squat. What I wanted to say was that I loved - I love - Robert. I have known him all my life. He has always been there, he is just Robert. He is family, my family.
But what makes family?
At those important times throughout life, this distinction becomes important, it affects our place and our appropriate response to those life events. None more so than in death. Friends feel they don’t have as much right to be sad, to cry, to grieve. Family takes precedence. ‘Next of kin’ becomes a phrase that is heard far too often and means too much. We are put in boxes and put ourselves in boxes. Even if we don’t want to.
So I tried to put myself in a relevant box at the Memorial, to create a short-hand way of explaining my presence, and this was completely impossible to do in reality. And so I stopped, and just told people I had known Robert all my life, and let the tears flow and the laughter ring out. The how’s and why’s and wherefores were not important. We were all there simply because of Robert.
In the foreword to his play A Breakfast of Eels, Robert writes:
‘My plays are worried over. About every third doodle I get past the scrap-paper stage and move onto a notepad, in ink. It’s hard not to think too much and to write the next line, but that is some of my effort. I don’t decide my plays, my plays decide me. If they have any power at all, it’s the power of learning and of the energy that can come out of a newly found thought.’
Jesus wept how lucky have I been to have this man in my life. Now he is not physically here anymore I realise the huge and unique presence he has been, in the quietest most unassuming way possible. His work ethic, his honesty, his beauty, his courage, his truth, his laugh.
Rik always said to me ‘just make the fucking work’. He was another driven, quiet, courageous man. I don’t ever remember Robert swearing really, but his characters swear fabulously in his plays. The phrase ‘just make the fucking work’ could have come from him or Rik or both of them. Two men who didn’t piss about on the edges, they lived every second of their creativity. And it wasn’t easy for either of them.
When Rik died and I went to register his death I was told his death certificate had to say he was single. Twenty-seven years together meant nothing. So as the person registering his death the only thing I could do in defiance was to sign it as his partner. That was my box. I had no box but I made one for myself. I have never been so fucking angry in my entire life.
Re-reading Robert’s plays over the last few days, I came across this. It lessens that anger a touch, and reminds me that the boxes aren’t important, it’s the relationships that are. Rik and Robert are both family and I love them dearly.
Robert Holman’s plays are in print and I urge you to read them. Most are published by Nick Hern Books - nickhernbooks.co.uk
An award has been set up in Robert’s name, to support writers from the North of England. I urge you to donate to it, or to apply to it if you are a writer that needs support in order to be able to live while writing - robertholmanaward.com
If you want to hear Robert’s wonderful cheeky laugh and understand more about his work, I urge you to listen to the Royal Court Playwright’s Podcast, Series 1 episode 11 where he talks to fellow playwright and collaborator Simon Stephens about his work
Robert and me on Saltburn beach in 1973?
The main stage at the Royal Court Theatre, Sloane Square, London
Dedication to me and Rik in his play Bad Weather, performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company at The Gulbenkian in Newcastle 14-17 October 1998