Lucy Prebble’s Messy Women

The playwright’s best characters always seem to be going through a breakdown.

Photo: Marc Brenner/ Courtesy Lucy Prebble
Photo: Marc Brenner/ Courtesy Lucy Prebble

Lucy Prebble’s voice is unmistakable. Like most Americans, I first encountered her as a writer for Succession; she was responsible for giving the show’s powerful and awful female characters their distinctive voices. Even characters who could have been throwaways, like beleaguered Royco flack Karolina and come-from-behind superstar Gerri, flourished thanks to Prebble’s knack for conveying what might have been reams of dialogue via short, perfect epithets. She also never allows a character to escape judgment or be put on a pedestal simply because she’s a woman; she insists on female characters’ agency and their ability to use it badly.

But the show that made me a true Prebble fan is her 2020 limited series, I Hate Suzie, which articulates such a complex sexual politics that I was unsure at first that I was actually watching television. There’s absolutely no mandate for co-creator Billie Piper’s character, Suzie, a child pop star turned flailing mid-career actress, to be likable. In fact, as the title suggests, she is widely hated to the point where dropping her kid off at school while wearing pajamas wins her icy stares from the other mothers. The reason she’s a villain is because the tabloids have gotten access to private photos on her cell phone that show her fellating a man who’s obviously not her husband (they’re different races). The shit hits the fan just as Suzie is being considered for a role in a Disney movie, tanking her chances at financial stability and princessdom. Trying to clean up the mess, Suzie’s best friend and publicist, Naomi, takes over but can’t fully control Suzie’s spectacular downward spiral and ends up being harmed by it. Suzie isn’t all bad, or even bad at all, though; we see her being a compassionate mother to her deaf son and being treated horribly by her overbearing spouse, and we also see how hard it is for her to reconcile her fame with her non-rich, very drunken family. In the show, Prebble gets to the heart of how women are excoriated for being sexual, complicated, and alive but doesn’t cede any ground to Suzie, who really does behave badly and self-destructively most of the time. The genius in the writing is how clearly we see that the world has set her up to fail.

Before TV, Prebble was creating indelible characters for the theater. In her play The Effect, which she wrote 12 years ago and recently substantially revised for its U.S. debut, a working-class Londoner and a Canadian student fall in love during a clinical trial for a powerful new antidepressant and try to determine whether their love is just a side effect of the drug. The female characters are classic Prebble: culpable but excusable, fully realized and in charge of their destinies, even when they don’t think they are. Ahead of the play’s premiere at the Shed, where it’s playing from March 3 to 31, I got Prebble on the phone to discuss her characters’ possible mental-health diagnoses, Succession fan theories, and whether there will ever be an I Hate Suzie season three.

You’ve said that aspects of The Effect had been reupholstered since its first production, which I thought was a great way of putting it. What exactly were those aspects that were updated to reflect new thinking?
I don’t know if you’ve read any writing that you wrote a long time ago, but there’s always such an odd experience of both a feeling of delight, occasionally, but mostly shame.

So there was some work to do on scenes or story to file away at the shame a bit. Bits that I felt were not written as well as they could be or where narrative turns were a little obvious. But when you do that as well, there’s always the fear that if you start tinkering with it and trying to write the play as you are now, you start writing a totally different play. So it’s a really tricky thing, but I do love to do it.

And then the original production was written mostly for the actors who played it. I knew quite a few of them beforehand. So what I do is I go through and I try and fit the part to the voice of the actor a bit more, both in terms of where they’re from and who they are. But also how they speak a little bit. I really like actors to use their own voices. I’m not a big fan of hats and accents.

What kind of precise tailoring happened?
Taylor Russell is from Canada. I wanted her to have a character who was also from Canada. The play is still sort of set in an unnamed British city. What are the reasons of someone at that age from Canada being there? And her being an international student came to mind, which I thought was very interesting because the character sort of has to be a bit of a student-y type. She’s somewhat academic. And then what you’re thinking is, But she also has to be somewhat suburban. Her character, when she meets Tristan and they fall in love, Connie, is really the more, let’s say, cautious one from probably what you think of as a more safe but dull background. So then you’re thinking, Well, where in Canada would feel like that? So then I talked to Taylor about that because it may not be something I know very well. So there’s that kind of thing, which is quite simple.

I will listen to interviews with the actors to hear them just talking. I’m not that interested in watching them play other parts. With Paapa Essiedu, who plays Tristan, the part was originally written for an Irish actor called Jonjo O’Neill. And the cadence of the lines was very suited. I would describe it as a bit more musical and florid in his Irishness. And Paapa could do that — Paapa can do anything — but I didn’t really want him saying other actors’ lines. It feels a little bit like serving up leftovers, do you know what I mean? So his lines are much shorter, more staccato.

That makes sense. I was also wondering about your evolving knowledge base or opinions about mental illness in general when revising the play.
When I first wrote the play, it felt a little bit prescient, maybe. Now, some of its positions feel much more ingrained in our society. So when it was first done, I think the idea of treating mental illness medically was, in Britain particularly, very common but not accepted and celebrated in the way that it is now, where the culture quite rightly has done a lot of work to try and remove stigma from some mental illnesses.

And it’s important to say some because I don’t think that applies to public episodes of schizophrenia and things like that. I think we decide quite carefully what mental illness we choose to celebrate or remove stigma from. So I felt that there were some slightly dated aspects to the play — it was explaining things that it no longer has to explain. It’s quite unusual now what Dr. James claims at points, which is that some stuff that is just part of life or feeling is branded as mental illness. There’s something ultimately conservative about that now, politically, that I didn’t recognize at the time.

To me, Dr. James seems like a deeply depressed person when she says that.
Yes. And I think that’s really — not just a valid reading but probably true. And I think the tragedy of depression often is part of its symptom — the real belief in the truth of it — and that the desolation of depression is very real and that people who don’t share that feeling are deluded. All of that is very persuasive as well when you’re depressed. It’s very difficult to fight against that.

But something I do believe is that we have delegated a lot of the work — a lot of the attention that we should be paying to social and political problems that contribute to the quality of people’s lives, a lot of that has been off-loaded onto the medical profession. I’m speaking quite specifically about Britain, but I know the same applies to America: Whether you’re talking about opioid addiction in certain parts of America or you’re talking about rates of mental illness in people of particular backgrounds or races, when there’s statistics and evidence that you can’t avoid, that means that there’s certain people for whom life is a much less easy experience.

There’s this idea that mental illness is purely medicalized rather than a government or a society taking responsibility for the ways in which it chooses not to help people, or even the ways that we choose to live that are unhelpful for that. And I don’t think that should be, or is, a contentious thing to say. So I think one of Dr. James’s arguments is quite powerful now, which is we are now entering a stage where if one is depressed — or let’s say deeply desolate about the state of the planet and global warming — I’m not sure that should be classed as an element of a mental illness. That level of confusion, fear, and desolation is probably quite a logical response to a situation in which you see people behaving really selfishly and deceptively and unhelpfully.

I get the impression that you’re not totally unfamiliar with feeling depressed or anxious yourself.
Oh, sure. I’m familiar with both. I wouldn’t call myself someone who’s suffered from major depression. I’ve seen that very close up, though. It’s really devastating and specific. I definitely have experienced that with people very close to me in my life, for whom there has been much, much help found in treatment. I don’t have any sort of judgment in either direction about the use of medicine for that sort of thing. In fact, I think it should be, obviously, encouraged when necessary. I do think I’ve touched on those things, but I’ve also touched on the confusion between whether what one’s feeling is appropriate. I’m thinking particularly of loss and grief and how that can mix with feeling depressed. Where just the size of it feels really difficult to cope with and yet that feels like an appropriate response to what’s happened. And in those areas, I do think there is confusion about what the best option is with things like treatment, I guess.

From following your work for a long time, I get the sense that there’s something that you really like about writing characters who are in the midst of some sort of breakdown. Does that seem accurate to you?
I hadn’t thought of it, actually, but maybe, yeah. I’m not sure there’s a particularly glorifying reason behind that. I think it might be a writer’s attempt to go to where’s interesting. It’s innately dramatic, isn’t it? When everything falls apart.

And it also has a sort of built-in narrative structure because most breakdowns have a built-in narrative structure. There’s only so far that you can break down.
It’s not something I saw a lot of. I would describe myself as having had probably one thing that I would think of as a bit of a breakdown in my life. But I’ve been surrounded by quite a lot of repressed carrying-on. I do wonder if the writer in me is trying to point out the breakdown that should be happening because so much stuff is unspoken or repressed. I think there’s something cathartic about someone actually having a breakdown. Because at least we’re acknowledging what’s happening. And I think maybe the breakdown is in that area, because you’re sort of not the same after. That’s what makes it a breakdown, isn’t it? I think there’s something about that that appeals to me: the possibility of it.

I’m thinking, of course, of the first season of I Hate Suzie, but also of parts of Succession, especially Kendall’s various highs and collapses. It makes me wonder whether you ever think about characters as having a particular diagnosis?
No, actually, I don’t really. And, in fact, particularly with I Hate Suzie, I think there’s a sort of comic skepticism toward some diagnoses. Not because I don’t believe in them as a useful tool. I do. But I also think, when you look at mental health and mental illness over centuries rather than decades, you can also really see the political use that diagnoses are put to, whether that’s hysteria or even borderline personality disorder or things like that.

In I Hate Suzie too, there’s a sort of repeated joke that everybody calls everybody else a clinical narcissist all the time, because I think that’s the most recent idea. It’s a defense mechanism, narcissism. Probably many of us in our lives can remember moments where we might have used it, of protecting ourselves within self-esteem. It doesn’t even have to be self-esteem. You can be sort of narcissistic and very self-attacking. In fact, that’s sometimes a really good way of being narcissistic: to just constantly masochistically talk about how much you hate yourself, because you’re still talking about yourself. I find that a quite interesting modern malaise — this idea that you can diagnose anybody who has behaved in ways you find deeply unacceptable to be narcissistic or a narcissist rather than unhealthily using a defense mechanism of narcissism, which is different.

That’s a good way of putting it, and I totally accept everything that you’ve said. But I still think that Kendall is bipolar.
You’d have to ask him, but I think Jeremy Strong’s performance would also support that. Bipolar disorder is actually a disorder that I feel really, really helps people to be diagnosed; it makes sense of so many things that up to that point in life can be deeply distressing to live with. So I agree. I think he probably is, and I really enjoyed the move between season two and season three for that.

In the season-two writers’ room, we just had written up on the wall Beaten Dog under Kendall’s name. And then, for season three, we had Goes Beyond as his subtitle. And I can just see Jeremy’s face in those two states in my head right now, just so clearly embodying them. And I’m sure Shiv and Roman have had certain diagnoses, probably, but I think it’s up to debate what they might be.

Yeah, I don’t have any guesses for them. Very, very complex, terrible, sympathetic people. 

I wanted to talk a little bit more about I Hate Suzie. I love that show so much. I watched it with my best friend with whom, I’m sad to say, I have at times had a little bit of a Naomi and Suzie dynamic with — the way they are dependent on each other, perhaps unhealthily so. I wondered how you collaborate with Billie Piper, who plays Suzie. I know that you work on the show together, but how exactly do the mechanics of that collaboration work? Do you sit in a room together and write, or do you toss ideas or scripts back and forth to each other via email or WhatsApp or something?
First, thank you for your kind words about the show. It means so much to me because it’s not a show that many people have seen.

Oh my God, I’m obsessed, and I wish that you would do another season. Will you do another one?
It’s quite a grueling experience, not to be too much of a wanker about it.

I believe you.
Partly because of the subject matter, and also just our schedules and budgets here are so small in comparison to the States that it’s actually just quite difficult to make anyway. It’s not like Succession. We don’t co-write it; what we do is create it together. So in the first series, what we did was rent an office in London and then we’d meet up there for a few hours each day for a few weeks.

And it was a lot of chatting and a lot of trying to make each other laugh, trying to make each other cry. One of the things that we really loved about doing that show was also challenging each other with “What would you really like to see represented or done that you’re scared to do?” And I think that’s a really lovely thing about working with someone else as a co-creator.

Like when Suzie has stress diarrhea in the gown before the photo shoot.
Billie was very keen that IBS be represented in some way. There’s an episode in season one called “Shame,” which is where we were talking about what we actually feel ashamed of. And I don’t know, if I’d sat there on my complete own, if I’d have come up with the stuff. But if you’re with somebody who you really trust and know very well, you are forced to dig a little bit deeper because the version of yourself you might like to present, your friend can challenge you on. With that episode, for example, I remember we were talking about moments where you’ve been either assaulted or been around a man doing something that you didn’t want them to be doing and the cliché of the shame around that.

But what I sort of reached for, and this comes up in Naomi’s story when she’s on the train [and is masturbated at] in that episode, is the things I really feel ashamed about are the times where stuff like that’s happened and I haven’t bothered to report it. That’s what I really feel ashamed about: because I couldn’t be bothered. Or I didn’t particularly want to go through being in an environment and recounting that and knowing that that [person who assaulted you] might potentially have done that to other people. And I thought, I’ve never quite seen that represented. “Stuff that you just hadn’t quite heard someone express before” was a good starting point for us.

You’ve said in other interviews that you like being alone with your work, but you also sometimes find writing by yourself sort of lonely and depressing. I also saw you were very, very happy in the Succession writers’ room. I was shocked when I read that, because I guess I had imagined the Succession writers’ room to be a very stressful place, maybe just because the show is sometimes so stressful to watch.
Couldn’t be further from the truth. So much so that I’m convinced there’s a link between the opposite of it, if you see what I mean. I’ve never known nicer guys in my life, and these are my best friends now: Jesse Armstrong, Tony Roche, Jon Brown, who writes such terrible, terrible bastards. And I think it’s so pronounced that it must be linked, that it must be a sort of expression of something, because they’re so not like that in real life.

Their deepest, darkest, most repressed thoughts only get to be expressed in the format of these characters?
Or it might be that they can do that because they know they’re not like that. I think you’d be very struck by the difference between them as people and what they write. I also think culturally in America, there’s more of a tradition of a competitive or fiery or even occasionally toxic writers’ room. And I just don’t know about that. I’m sure that exists — I just haven’t experienced it.

I also started off my career in a very solitary art form as a writer, which is theater. Obviously, it isn’t ultimately solitary. It increases as the cast comes in and then the audience. But it’s very unusual to have a play written by more than one person, for example. Many writers go the other way round or start in TV. So by the time I got into the Succession writers’ room, I was really ready to be part of the community.

Something I’m thinking about a lot, being pregnant, is the way in which I feel very comfortable being on my own and always have since being a child. But also there’s something a bit unhealthy about it. There’s something so safe about it if you’re on your own — no one else can hurt you — that I wonder if you’re ultimately fooling yourself or hurting yourself with it. I’ve been thinking a lot about children and who cares for them and how the fewer people you have in your life, the fewer people you have to rely on to help you with stuff like that. And aloneness, with all of its beauty, that crystallized perfection, just won’t help you then. It doesn’t do anything then. So I’ve been thinking about that a lot as a writer and person and mother.

Well, yes. I mean get ready to never be alone again.
Exactly. And that’s terrifying to me.

Don’t worry. It’s only for about two years and then you can go away for long stretches of time again. It’ll be great. What’s your plan for when you get back from maternity leave?
Oh God. I don’t have a complete plan at the moment. I have a few ideas. Maybe doing some short stories that are all bound together with a theme as a sort of, I don’t know, novella/novel thing, which I think I’d find manageable. I have a couple of TV-show ideas, but that as an industry is so all consuming when you do it. I don’t quite see how I could do that for a little while. And then maybe a horror movie that I have an idea about. But none of them have files saved, if you see what I mean.

I know exactly what you mean. But I love the idea of you doing a genre thing. Can you tell me anything more about it?
In really basic terms, I’m thinking a lot, for reasons you would understand, about transformation. And I’m thinking I’ve also spent quite a lot of time in New York over the last few years, and I was interested in doing a sort of modern An American Werewolf in London, but it’s a British woman in New York.

I also had a terrible experience a couple of years ago with having my wisdom teeth out, where it got infected after they’d removed them — to such an extent that the infection spread throughout my body. I had huge swellings of infection through my shoulders and chest and throat and ended up having to go to hospital with sepsis. It was terrifying and awful, and one of the things that made it particularly awful was the dentist who originally did it kept denying that there was an infection, saying it was just bruising from the operation. Yet I knew because I could taste in my mouth literally the sort of bile — the stuff that’s produced from an infection within your body. And it was really a horrific experience in the genre way. There was something about that that really stayed with me. It began a case of dry socket, which is a sort of terrifying thing that leads to infection. And I began thinking about that with bodily transformation, which I’ve been through a lot over the last year in an obvious way — what that feels like and what that experience is.

Oh my God, that sounds so great. I really hope that happens.
It was awful. But let’s make some money out of it.

Yes. I’m sorry about the part where you had sepsis and were in the hospital. That part does not sound good at all.
There’s money there in them hills.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Lucy Prebble’s Messy Women