The China Play
Jeremy Green

“Don’t tell me that. Don’t tell me language is slippery. You got a simple mission, when The President speaks, you tell the other guy what he says. What’s slippery about that?”

Anchorage Alaska – equidistant between Washington and Beijing. A conscientious Asian-American interpreter finds herself unexpectedly thrust into an 11th hour summit meeting between two Presidents.  The two men are divided by the weight of history and crucially their language. Pressure mounts on the interpreters as the nuances of language collide with diplomatic tension – and when language is unstable, people can die. 

Born in Dorset, lives in London, Jeremy Green is a playwright whose works include Snakes (Young Vic); The Wolfgang Chase (BBC Radio); Fairy Tale and a version of Chekhov’s The Proposal (Pleasance); and Lizzie Siddal (Arcola) published by Nick Hern Books. His latest play The China Play focuses on an Asian-American interpreter who finds herself unexpectedly thrust into a summit meeting between two Presidents, where nuances of language collide with diplomatic tension.

Introducing playwright Jeremy Green

What inspired you to write this play?

I was thinking about language – how the words we use are seldom neutral, but are often freighted with hidden desires or fears. And how we use language to be understood, but we also use language to lie. And the words we use might have a different effect to the one we intend. The wrong words – or even the wrong interpretation of the right words – can sometimes be as dangerous as a gun. And if language between individuals is a slippery thing, imagine the difficulties and perils encountered between nations trying to talk to each other.

China and America were the obvious nations to look at. The stakes couldn’t be higher. It occurred to me that interpreters from those nations are under unique pressures. They’re the ones who go into the secret rooms, where world-shaping confrontations happen. This is territory for a drama. And so I settled down to months of research – documentaries, articles, interviews, histories, memoirs – Chinese, Taiwanese, Asian American. I hope I’ve done them justice.

Can you tell us a bit about your journey as a playwright?

I used to get up in the early hours, before my day job, to write plays. Some were produced. And now I write full time. And I’m lucky to know two actors really well – Michael Lindall and Emma West – they’re my children and excellent script readers, sympathetic and ruthless. It was Emma who brought me the idea of writing ‘Lizzie Siddal’ – about the Pre-Raphaelite model who struggled to become an artist herself, and is famously immortalised in Millais’ painting of Ophelia.

What or who inspires you as a writer and why do you want to write for the stage?

Too many writers to mention, of many styles: Nottage, Churchill, Kushner, Graham, Prebble, Friel, Stoppard, Miller, Shakespeare…

In the years BC (Before Covid) I’d see thirty plays a year. I enjoy theatre of all kinds, large scale or small. When the audience is hushed, and the play begins, we’re in a liminal place, where all things can be imagined, embodied or debated.

And I won’t pretend every production is a great night, but just sometimes it’s transporting: shows like David Harrower’s ‘Blackbird’, Jez Butterworth’s ‘Jerusalem’, Helen Edmundsen’s ‘The Clearing’. And occasionally there’s a sublime Shakespeare – like Complicite’s version of ‘Measure for Measure’. I love what Simon McBurney, the company leader, said of that production. The single question he kept asking of the show was: ‘Is it alive?’

What do you think about the Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting and, more specifically, the anonymity at the heart of the Prize?

Anonymity is most welcome. It makes the playing field more or less level. Alright, the jury might have its own bias, but that’s OK, because judging a script is never going to be an objective process. But I like the fact there’s no inherent favouritism. No-one says ‘I really think this name has to be on our shortlist’.

But also, I applaud the fairness of the reading process, with its different stages. You’re not at the mercy of one pair of eyes.

How do you feel about being shortlisted?

Grateful to people I’ll never meet. Thank you, Anonymous Readers.