Alice Birch was born in Malvern, Worcestershire in 1986. She is a successful playwright and screenwriter, known for her work in both film and TV. Her first screenplay was for the 2016 movie Lady Macbeth, which featured Florence Pugh. She then went on to work on the HBO show Succession and co-wrote the 2020 TV adaptation of Normal People with Sally Rooney. She also co-created the 2023 Amazon series Dead Ringers, which stars Rachel Weisz. Her play based on Federico García Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba, which explores the theme of a controlling matriarch and her daughters, will open at the National Theatre next month. Additionally, her latest film The End We Start From, directed by Mahalia Belo, will be released in January. She currently resides in Hackney, London with her partner, theatre director Sam Pritchard, and their two children.
When was your initial encounter with Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba?
During my time studying for A-level drama, my class consisted of mostly girls and few boys. As we were discussing potential plays to perform, our teacher recommended one that deeply touched me. In my opinion, plays that evoke such emotions are the most impactful.
Did anything from the previous teenage production carry over to this one?
The feeling of watching that many women on stage is still so exciting, so thrilling, and still notable. The staging is slightly different! It’s in a cross-section of the house, with conversations in the bedroom, out of windows, happening simultaneously. Also, the ending of each act is still an absolute banger.
Did you and Harriet Walter, who portrayed a controlling mother figure in Succession, know each other prior to working together?
I have never met them before. Writing for television was a new experience for me with Succession being my first show. I was fortunate enough to work on season two and was able to contribute for three weeks on season four, thanks to Jesse Armstrong’s kindness. I had just finished another job and he brought me in to work on the show. Harriet was a fantastic actor to write for and in person, she is truly remarkable and a force to be reckoned with. Being in the same room with her during rewrites and witnessing her performance as a mother who yells or hits her daughters, really made me understand her character and why she behaves the way she does. It was such a pleasure to work with her.
Were you influenced by your upbringing in a commune during the first five years of your life?
For a while, my sister and I were the only kids present. While the grown-ups ate together, we would sit at the table or hide under it, straining to hear their conversations. Though we shared similar political beliefs, there was still plenty of discussion, disagreement, and excitement. To this day, I enjoy crafting scenes of dinner parties in my writing. And I would always find myself tucked away in a corner, engrossed in a book.
Which books did you enjoy the most?
For my vacation, I would pack my suitcase with books and place my swimsuit on the top. That was all I needed – I would finish reading everything. While I went through the typical phases of reading Roald Dahl and Jacqueline Wilson, I also delved into more mature works like Wuthering Heights, Sylvia Plath, and Thomas Hardy at a young age. I have always been drawn to emotionally impactful stories, and that has not changed.
Normal People is a great contemporary example of one of those. How did it feel when that became huge during the first Covid lockdown?
Daisy [Edgar-Jones] and Paul [Mescal], the main actors in the show, may have been overwhelmed, but I personally felt disconnected from it. Taking care of a newborn and homeschooling our son kept me occupied. I make a conscious effort not to focus on the audience’s opinions, as it can be distracting and influence my writing. Instead, I prefer to have a personal and intimate conversation with my writing. I am good at keeping my thoughts to myself.
How does the combination of writing and parenting function for you?
I have a “go big or go home” mentality when it comes to spending time with my children. I make a conscious effort to block out any distractions and focus solely on them. When I’m in writing mode, mundane tasks of motherhood like dealing with head lice or organizing their music lessons fade away. I typically write when the kids are asleep. While I have always been more productive at night, I used to glamorize the idea of suffering for my art. It’s important to be mindful of that.
What is it about extreme situations that attracts you? Your interpretation of Dead Ringers, starring Rachel Weisz, included intense birth scenes, while your upcoming movie, The End We Start From, follows a new mother (Jodie Comer) as she navigates a world in crisis.
When watching Dead Ringers, I realized that death can be portrayed in various ways on screen – humorous, heart-wrenching, courageous or sorrowful. However, birth is rarely depicted. I find it intriguing that we rarely discuss the practicalities of pregnancy and giving birth. In The End We Start From, I found it fitting to incorporate the experience of motherhood and childbirth with the theme of climate disaster – the destructive floods, the constant fear, and the striking poetic and cinematic elements.
In 2023, how receptive will theatre be to fresh and diverse perspectives?
I recently gave a presentation alongside talented young writers from the Royal Court who were filled with enthusiasm and optimism for the future. However, there is a risk that programs, support groups, and funding may give the appearance of inclusivity without truly being so. The world of theatre has always been difficult to break into. When I first started, I had to juggle three jobs – as a nanny, waitress, and pub worker. I would often write during my breaks or while the toddler I cared for was napping. While brief moments of time can be productive, it is not a sustainable practice.
There were speculations during the summer that you were collaborating with Taylor Swift on a meta-feminist television series. Can you confirm if this is accurate?
I find Taylor to be amazing.
What type of project do you want to create with her?
She is the most captivating figure in popular culture. She has surpassed all expectations, and I thoroughly enjoyed her documentary. However, I am unsure of what I would like to create myself.
Do you have any tactics for avoiding writing?
No [laughs]. I like going swimming to work out ideas, and my head does go a bit blank sometimes when I’m doing that, but that’s only about once a month. I’m one of those people for whom every conversation is a potential story. Every person I meet could be a new character.
What tips would you offer to an inexperienced, self-doubting author?
Allow yourself the freedom to write. Write for your own benefit. Engage in a lot of reading. And, since this field can be challenging, also show yourself compassion.
The National Theatre in London will be hosting The House of Bernarda Alba from November 16th to January 6th.