Leeds writer Anthony Clavane has cornered the market in telling stories about sport told from a very specific angle. They are approached from a side street, as opposed to the avenue leading to the gates of the ground.
In Promised Land he talked about the Leeds United faithful in a book that explored how you can be a Jewish football supporter while around you there are fans using anti-Semitic language. He talked about the city’s football team from the perspective of a young man watching the changing fortunes of the city.
In the stage version of the book, audiences watched actors play spectators watching a football match. Clavane’s goal isn’t to show us the action, but to show us the effect the action on a pitch – be it football or in his latest play, rugby – has on the watcher. “I like to tell the stories of communities that tend to be overlooked. With my books and the plays these have been stories about communities in Leeds and the north and the Anglo-Jewish community,” he says.
The latest overlooked community to have the spotlight trained on it is the rugby community. Playing the Joker looks specifically at the rugby league community and again Clavane trains his eye on the action off the pitch, on the impact it has on an individual with a dangerous obsession with the voice of rugby league’s Eddie Waring.
Clavane says: “This particular story is a dark comedy about the rugby league community which, in my view, has been overlooked nationally in favour of rugby union. There is an interesting reason why, and it is what motivates one of the characters in the play: in 1895 there was a northern working-class rebellion against the ‘gentlemen amateurs’ from the south who refused to pay workers who missed their shift on a Saturday, thus leading to a split between the Northern Union, which became rugby league, and union. In my view there remains a class and geographical split to this day which defines – for a lot of fans – their northern identity.”
The play had a first run out last year at the West Yorkshire Playhouse’s A Play, A Pie and a Pint season, where the theatre showcases short plays in an informal setting.
Returning to play the part of the unhinged Eddie Marlowe is Leeds actor Paul Fox and Dicken Ashworth as Eddie Waring. Again, Clavane mines the sport to find deeper meaning. “It is also a story of a perceived betrayal. Eddie Waring, the loveable face of rugby league who put the sport on the map, was accused by Yorkshire purists of selling out the game. There was a petition signed by 12,000 fans to sack him for his “crime” of making the sport a laughing stock. He was a pioneer and champion of the sport, but hated by a minority who wanted him out. I am interested in what motivated both Eddie and his critics – and the drama, humour and poignancy of his fall from grace,” says Clavane.
The answer to why he has this obsession with the action away from the pitch lies in Clavane’s day job.
“I write about sport for the Sunday Mirror and the most interesting things that go on are often off the pitch, away from the action. Promised Land was really about the moving diversity of Leeds as a city, but it used the football team as a way in to this story. The people who watch sport, and why they watch sport, are often more interesting than the people who play it.”
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