Love in a modern climate: is romance just an antidote to loneliness?
David Eldridge investigates matters of the heart in Beginning at The Gate Theatre
David Eldridge: “I’m trying to define what romance might mean." Photograph: Alan Betson
It’s not a question I tend to ask men I have only just met, especially not at 11 in the morning, but I want to know if David Eldridge is romantic. He stops to think. “Yes, yes I probably am,” he muses, before qualifying: “I’m trying to define what it might mean. I believe that progress is possible, and that it’s good to take chances.” It’s not quite my idea of romance, but I am intrigued, because we’re here to talk about Eldridge’s play, Beginning, at the Gate Theatre.
Starring Eileen Walsh and Marty Rea, the play unfolds the tale of Laura and Danny, the last pair left at the end of a party, as they wonder whether they should kiss. In this it might seem a departure from other Eldridge topics, which include drug addiction (The Knot of the Heart), class politics (In Basildon), and child abuse: in his adaptation of Festen, which came to the Gate in 2006. What links all of Eldridge’s plays (and there are a great many of them, 29 new works, plus eight adaptations), is his sense of humanity, and his interest in individuals attempting to confront what holds them back, in as honest a way as possible. And despite some of his subject matter, there’s also that belief in progress, a qualified optimism perhaps.
Given the political situation, causes for optimism might seem in short supply these days. While Beginning premiered at the National Theatre in London in October 2017, it was conceived in 2015. The intervening year had seen the double whammy of the Brexit referendum in June, and the election of Donald Trump as US President in November. Eldridge remembers being in rural Yorkshire, teaching a course with the Arvon Foundation, when the Brexit news broke.
The two characters are motivated by the desire to avoid loneliness, and the need to grab at what, Laura at least, perceives to be waning fertility opportunities
“It was in Ted Hughes’s old house, and the tutors have a separate cottage. I was there with Tanika Gupta, my co-tutor, and before I had gone to sleep a couple of the results had come in. It wasn’t great, but I couldn’t quite believe it would happen. I woke up,” he recalls, “and put the radio on and I was aghast. I felt quite alone, a long way from home. The saving grace was that I heard Tanika moving around, and we both got up. She really wanted to be with her husband and kids, and I really wanted to be with my partner. We just sat there going ‘Fuck, fuck…’”
This anecdote also cuts to the heart of Beginning, where the two characters are motivated by the desire to avoid loneliness, and the need to grab at what, Laura at least, perceives to be waning fertility opportunities. They are also fuelled by copious amounts of alcohol, but that’s a different story. This drive for love, I wonder, is it because part of the human condition is to want to be in close and intimate communion with one significant other; or is it because we are desperately afraid of being alone? “At different times in my life, I would have said both,” says Eldridge. “But right now, it’s the former.”
Brilliant in its skewering of the awkwardness even articulate adults can feel when emotions get in the way, it’s also a gentle investigation of that loneliness, and of regret, hope and honesty. In the play, Laura (38) and Danny (42) are perhaps the epitome of modern urban isolation. They have friends, they work, they go to, and host parties. The class divides that have informed previous Eldridge works are there, Danny is working class, Laura definitely middle and aspirational. These come from Eldridge’s own background: from a working class family in Romford, then attending public school on a scholarship. They have been explored in plays such as his Market Boy, but they’re not the axis on which Beginning turns.
After Danny’s marriage broke up he moved home to live with his mum and doesn’t see his daughter any more. Laura, meanwhile, is successful at work, she goes to the gym, and her new flat (it’s her housewarming party) in Crouch End cost her £500,000. Her own long-term relationship broke up, and it’s Laura who makes the moves. Laura who wants Danny to kiss her, not to leave and, yes, to give her a baby.
Danny is more reticent. He says, to a surprised Laura, that he doesn’t sleep with people he doesn’t want to be with. He suggests they tidy up a bit first. “I’ve got a strange ominous feeling that I’m not going to get laid tonight,” observes Laura, in one of the pair’s acutely observed exchanges.
“The starting point,” says Eldridge, who was Danny’s age when he began working on the play, “was years and years ago, a similar situation happened to a mate of mine. But he was in his mid to late twenties, so there was less at stake.
“Cut to 15 years later, I had split up from my wife, and I hadn’t been single for 15 years. The landscape had really changed.” He describes coming back to dating in the age of Tinder. “It was great. I have a son from my first marriage, and I didn’t want to rush into anything. But when I felt ready, I was happy to get out there. There’s this technology that lets you get over the scary bit. But some of it, that bit when you’re first face to face with someone, that will always be there.”
I genuinely thought that I wanted an opportunity to write two people who had just a tiny bit more wisdom, by virtue of the fact that they’re now knocking forty
When Laura asks Danny about internet dating, he doesn’t necessarily agree with his creator’s positive feelings. “I couldn’t stand my loneliness,” he says. “I couldn’t stand their loneliness. They all wanted kids. Some of them were more up front about it than others. But it was always the same […] The loneliness. The patency of it.”
Laura harbours similar feelings.
Laura: …Sometimes I hate Facebook so much. It’s like death by Facebook.
Danny: I know.
Laura: It’s like, if I see another one of my friends, or randoms from Uni, making more cupcakes, or on a trampoline in their huge garden, with their kids ... I’ll like scream.
Danny: Even pretend happy families look better than my life most of the time.
Now in a relationship again, and with a nine-month-old son, Eldridge is positively brimming with happiness. His blue eyes sparkle as we talk, and you can tell, as the Americans might say, that he’s in a very good place. Some of this, he believes, is due to the hard won knowledge that comes with age. “I genuinely thought, when I wrote Beginning, that I wanted an opportunity to write two people who had just a tiny bit more wisdom, by virtue of the fact that they’re now knocking forty rather than thirty. And one of the things is when they fuck up, they can come back from it.” He pauses and smiles. “Being a dick isn’t necessarily a default option for life,” he says. “Maybe we have to learn to talk again.”
As we talk, we’re in the Green Room at the Gate, sitting at opposite ends of a comfortably old velvet sofa. It’s easy to slide into a sense of intimacy with Eldridge, as he is generous and open, taking ideas, and growing them, laughing and funny, while also being honest and serious by turns. Outside the room’s tall Georgian windows, busses go by, as people on the pavements brave a sudden rain shower. From our conversation, I’m struck by the realisation of them all as individuals. Some of them in love, some happy, some them yearning and lonely, most of them just doing their best.
After Brexit and Trump’s election, Eldridge considered updating the play. In one exchange, Laura is the voice of optimism. “You know this time next year what’s going to happen in America? […] America is going to elect a woman president for the first time in its history. And then the whole world will know things have moved forwards. For women. For everyone.”
This is deliberate.
“Sometimes when you watch a play you feel this could be going on right now, but I wanted the audience to have the sense that this is something that happened in the recent past. I want the audience to wonder what’s become of Laura and Danny since.” Procrastinating, by his own admission, another writing task, Eldridge asked Twitter what Laura and Danny might be doing now, with the offer of a signed copy of the play for the best answer.
“The one I picked was the one that said they had gone out for the first time since having their baby, for lunch. But that they’d had a bit too much to drink, and you know how it gets a bit shitty sometimes with alcohol, but they’d patched it up on the way home.” And that’s his definition of romance, the ability to accept the imperfections, to patch it up and to keep believing. After all, just consider the play’s title. There’s all the hope in the world in that word.