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Robert Holman, ‘extraordinary and influential’ playwright, dies aged 69

·5 min read
<span>Photograph: Martin Godwin/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Martin Godwin/The Guardian

Robert Holman, the playwright’s playwright who was revered for his finely crafted, hugely insightful and humane dramas, has died at the age of 69. His death, on Friday night, was announced by the agency Casarotto Ramsay & Associates who called him “an extraordinary playwright and an extraordinary human being”.

Among the many theatre-makers to pay tribute on social media was David Greig, who celebrated Holman for his “quiet, finely wrought work” exploring “the human ache for connection”. Greig wrote that Holman was “overlooked in his time” but was “a much-loved influence and mentor. His integrity and poetry set a fine example. He will be missed.” Holman’s publisher, Nick Hern Books, praised his “beautiful, masterful plays, which influenced a whole generation of writers”.

Holman’s theatre career spanned some 50 years and more than 20 plays. Born into a Quaker family in 1952, he grew up in the market town of Guisborough, North Yorkshire. His first plays were staged in the 1970s at venues including the Soho Poly, Cockpit and Royal Court in London, where he moved at the age of 19. He wrote plays in the hours before and after his day job selling newspapers at Paddington station. “All my plays are a mixture of memory and imagination,” he wrote, “and they have mostly used landscapes that I know well. I was born and brought up on a farm on the moors in North Yorkshire. Middlesbrough and the Tees Estuary, with the chemical and steel industry close by, were 20 miles away.”

Henry Everett, Howard Ward and George Evans (front) in German Skerries, directed by Alice Hamilton at the Orange Tree in 2016.
Henry Everett, Howard Ward and George Evans (front) in German Skerries, directed by Alice Hamilton at the Orange Tree in 2016. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

German Skerries, directed by Holman’s frequent collaborator Chris Parr at the Bush theatre in London in 1977, won the George Devine award for most promising playwright. The play, which keenly observes birdwatchers from different generations, had an admired revival at the Orange Tree theatre in Richmond in 2016, shortly after the closure of the Redcar steelworks on Teesside, which provides its backdrop. The Orange Tree’s artistic director, Paul Miller, paid tribute on Saturday, saying that Holman embodied George Eliot’s ideal of a “keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life”. Holman, he added, was “a very English artist: the plays are rooted in real life yet suggest other worlds and realities”. The playwright Caitlin Magnall-Kearns was also among those paying tribute and called Holman “a master of the understated and unsaid”.

After productions at the Traverse in Edinburgh (Rooting) and the Royal Court (Other Worlds and The Overgrown Path), as well as one for the Royal Shakespeare Company (Today), Holman returned in 1986 to the Bush with a trilogy set in the 1940s and 80s about lives changed by war. Its title, Making Noise Quietly, which also inspired the name of a 2003 retrospective at Manchester’s Royal Exchange, could be said to sum up his exquisitely powerful plays, which subtly draw the audience in with their attention to detail and sincere observation – and can truly startle too. “I think the connections the audience make are up to them,” said Holman of the three short dramas. “The plays are just pieces of energy which by a stroke of good luck sometimes add up to more than they are.”

Sarah Cattle, Daniel Abelson and Andrew Sheridan in Holes in the Skin at the Minerva, Chichester, in 2003.
Sarah Cattle, Daniel Abelson and Andrew Sheridan in Holes in the Skin at the Minerva, Chichester, in 2003. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Making Noise Quietly’s revivals included one at the Donmar in London by director Peter Gill in 2012. Seven years later it became a film directed by Dominic Dromgoole, who had staged it in the West End in 1999, and starring Matthew Tennyson, who appeared in the Donmar production. A Breakfast of Eels, presented at the Print Room in London in 2015, was written specifically for Tennyson and another actor, Andrew Sheridan. It won best new play at the Off West End Theatre Awards the following year. Holman and Tennyson returned to the Print Room (now renamed the Coronet) earlier this year with a new play, The Lodger.

Holman also wrote for television and radio and was a resident dramatist at the National Theatre and with the Royal Shakespeare Company. If the plays are often marked by their hope, grace, tenderness and compassion, Holman explained that his dramas “are not driven by a single ideology or an idea, there is no right or wrong in them, or one easy explanation. They are about what you want them to be about, and this changes.”

His other plays included Across Oka (at the RSC, 1988), Holes in the Skin (Chichester’s Minerva theatre, 2003), Jonah and Otto (Royal Exchange, 2008) and A Thousand Stars Explode in the Sky (Lyric Hammersmith, 2010). The last of these, a family drama about the end of the universe, was co-written with David Eldridge and Simon Stephens, who had both become friends and devoted admirers of his plays.

“With brilliant, quiet determination and faith he looks at a world which is contradictory, violent, morally uncertain and unsettled,” wrote Stephens in 2008. “Some have found this boldness and this faith unsettling. Perhaps this is the reason why he is not more celebrated than he is. It certainly makes it difficult to simplify, summarise or even describe his plays. They are too organic or surprising for that. It has thrilled the audiences I have shared his plays with, though. I think it will continue to do so. If you are new to his plays, I envy you. You’re about to embark, in my opinion, on something rather extraordinary.”

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