In Robert Holman’s play Jonah and Otto, Otto says: “I think we learn to love, by loving, by listening to another person. Love is paying attention.” The extraordinary plays that Robert leaves us are full of his wisdom, and full of him. But I think nothing in his plays articulates with more clarity the reason why he was such a wonderful playwright, and a wonderful friend, than Otto’s belief, which Robert certainly shared.
He was sceptical about the notion of a play being driven by ideology or ideas, not because there’s anything necessarily wrong with plays like that. Modestly, he didn’t think he was clever enough to say anything new about history, politics or philosophy. But he felt that “our emotions, our feelings, are always slightly special and different to each of us”.
He preferred to trust himself and write emotionally, to trust his characters, what happened moment by moment, and to let the characters surprise him, surprise themselves and surprise his audiences. He liked to listen to himself and to his characters. They, in turn, listened to each other, sharing their fears, hopes, dreams, fantasies and tentative discoveries.
It takes great courage to write that way and that courage finds its way into the plays and the actions of his characters. My favourite Holman stage direction is “finds the courage”. He said he wanted one day to write a play without thinking at all. That may sound absurd, but he was committed to the notion of empathy in art and life to an astonishing degree, and this is at the heart of why his work is so good. He understood that all great acting comes from listening. It’s where great friendships come from, too. Not that any of this is easy. Listening, really listening, is hard, unselfish and brave.
Robert was a great romantic. He liked to flutter his eyelashes and flirt and occasionally he hinted at the odd great passion in his life. Some of his sensuality went into the plays, but he shared a belief set out by the writer Lisa Appignanesi. While “we long for Himalayan peaks of rapture and find ourselves enmeshed in grand and unruly passions and their accompanying anguish, it may not come amiss if, in the name of common humanity, we also stretch our ways of loving into those foothills where it’s good to walk and talk with friends”.
His close friend, the actor Matthew Tennyson, who appeared in three of Robert’s plays, two of them in roles written for him, says this: “Robert was a radical. It is radical to be that empathetic. Robert taught me this in our work together and in our friendship. His plays are full of characters learning to love and to be loved. To love each other takes so much courage. Robert understood this to his core.” I couldn’t agree more.