On a city train at peak hour, Van Badham chats rapidly down the phone.

She’s on the Sutherland line, heading into the CBD ahead of the opening of her latest play, A Fool in Love, at Sydney Theatre Company.

Her excitement is palpable.

The play is an adaptation of the 17th-century farce La dama boba by Spanish playwright Lope de Vega.

The story centres on two sisters from a once-rich family who must marry to avoid financial ruin. One is smart but poor, while the other is rich but daft (she has a better dowry). There’s a squabble over suitors, duping and miscommunication.

All the classic ingredients of a farce, and one ripe for adaptation into a modern class comedy, says 49-year-old Badham.

Badham describes Lope de Vega as her hero. (Pictured: Melissa Kahraman, Aaron Tsindos and Contessa Treffone in A Fool in Love.)(Supplied: STC/Daniel Boud)

“Every Spanish speaker in the world has encountered Lope de Vega because he wrote 400 plays in Spanish, whereas in Australia, people [ask] ‘Who’s that?’, which I find really funny because they’re like, ‘Oh, he’s the Spanish Shakespeare’, and I’m like, ‘No, no, no! Shakespeare is the English Lope de Vega,” she says.

“[Shakespeare] wrote infinitely less, his output was much more conservative and he was formally much thinner. De Vega is funnier. I mean, Twelfth Night can be quite funny but, as someone who has seen 19 different [De Vega] productions, I promise you, you’ll get more laughs out of him.”

Badham doesn’t draw breath. When she talks about theatre, she monologues, about everything from Soviet drama to Aristophanes to Tom Stoppard. She’s brimming with ideas, facts and anecdotes.

But it’s not preachy – it’s nerdy.

Badham describes herself as “a pure creature of theatre” and yet says people are often surprised to learn she’s written plays. More than 40 of them.

Van Badham, the playwright

“It’s very strange for me that a lot of people know me as a columnist, because playwriting is my main gig. I’ve been writing plays for money since I was 15,” she says.

As a media commentator and columnist, Badham’s public persona is relatively defined: She’s a feminist, a staunch unionist, a left-wing Catholic and self-described “state school scrubber”.

But being a playwright is hugely important to her.

Badham has been on a long journey with her creative work.(ABC Arts: Daniel Boud)

A Fool in Love is Badham’s second work for STC, following Banging Denmark in 2019, which was a sell-out success. But it’s taken the better part of 20 years for her work to be recognised on the Australian mainstage.

“I’ve only ever wanted to be a theatre person,” says Badham.

“When I was very young, I wanted to be an actor. I think it’s quite common for young people, who would like to be the star of their own movie, [but] I had always written and I felt a calling to write.

“When I was around 10, I thought, ‘Yep, writing — this is what I do.'”

She says her parents were supportive but weren’t particularly arts-literate.

“They were working-class people. They worked in the TAB and the club industry and the closest they knew to a working artist was a friend who was an adult entertainment dancer — [she] used to lend me some very interesting costumes for the school play, let me tell you — but [my parents] really facilitated that ambition.”

In her early 20s, Badham studied creative arts at the University of Wollongong, which she describes as a “DIY 90s arts school experience”.

She won a scholarship to study her masters on exchange at the University of Sheffield in England, where she would spend the next decade, albeit mostly in London. It was there she decided she wanted to pursue playwriting for a living.

Badham (pictured bottom right) with the cast and director of Dole Diary at the Stables Theatre in Darlinghurst in 2001.(Supplied)

In 2002, at age 27, Badham produced her first show for the Edinburgh Fringe festival, titled Kitchen — a black comedy that uses marriage as a metaphor to roast capitalism. It got rave reviews.

After securing a placement at the Royal Court with mentorship from BBC Radio drama, Badham produced several more works for the Edinburgh Fringe.

She also debuted shows in New York, becoming the first Australian playwright selected for New York’s Summer Play Festival. The glowing reviews continued to roll in.

“I was being hailed as the potential next big thing,” she says.

So why has it taken so long to see her work on Australian stages?

‘State school scrubber’

Amid her early success in the UK, Badham was encouraged by one of the major producing theatres in London to apply for a program with the Australia Council (now Creative Australia), but she was knocked back.

Badham recalls: “I phoned them and they seriously spoke to me as if I’d accidentally stolen a state secret. It was like, ‘And who are you? And how did you hear about this program?’ It was just a really horrendous experience.

“When I got that rejection, I booked a ticket back to the UK that day.”

Badham attributes the rejection to her “banging state school accent”.

It’s something that comes up a lot.

“In my theatre career as much as my media career — although I’d like to stress it has changed and has improved — it’s been a problem because I don’t sound like what people expect a person [who gets] those opportunities to sound like,” she says.

“I think there was some disdain that I was some kind of state school scrubber from a regional university.

“I get treated like a waitress who’s wandered into the wrong room at an arts event because of the way that I talk and my general manner. I don’t fit their expectation of what a working artist [looks like], let alone a playwright who does adaptations of 17th-century farces.”

Badham spent the better part of a decade in London, where she continued to write and produce stage work, supplemented by a string of gigs in the indie theatre scene and her fair share of thankless bar jobs.

She finally returned to Australia in 2011 for an artistic associate role at Malthouse Theatre in Melbourne.

Around the same time, her father was diagnosed with cancer and she found herself in a creative slump.

Then an unexpected lifeline came in the form of an offer to write for Guardian Australia, after an editor saw her appear on stage in a satirical panel show called Cherchez La Femme — a parody of ABC’s Q+A, hosted by an all-female panel of comedians. (Badham later became one of Q+A’s regular and highly tweetable guests.)

“I just wasn’t connecting with any of the work I was doing and I saw it as a bit of an opportunity to sort of do something else for a while,” she says.

“But the column really did an enormous favour to me, because it gave me a place to put political feelings.”

Writing across form

Badham has long been politically active. As an undergraduate, she was heavily involved in student unions. She’s now a vocal advocate for climate action and human rights; a former Chair of the Queen Victoria Women’s Centre Trust; and the 2018 Ambassador for Melbourne’s Human Rights Arts and Film Festival.

And Badham’s column turned out to be a better outlet for her political frustrations than playwriting, she says.

“I read very deeply on issues of ideology and praxis, but that kind of stuff can make a play quite boring, honestly … I wrote some truly terrible plays at university as a young feminist.

“I was taking myself very seriously and the world very seriously. I wrote plays about terrorism and rape as a war crime in the former Yugoslavia and the collapse of the Soviet Union. That kind of stuff.”

Badham wrote a lot of political satire in her early years, but says she strayed from what she now considers one of her major strengths: writing jokes.

“It’s been such a journey for me to learn that I didn’t have to be serious to be taken seriously.”

“I just don’t look like the sort of grey pashmina-wearing funeral attendees that inhabit [art] spaces,” says Badham.(ABC Arts: Daniel Boud)

It’s a point of pride that her column now has a lot of humour too, including sneaking the word “bollocking” into a recent article on the stage-three tax cuts.

“I want to connect with people in a place where they want to be, which is being entertained and having a laugh,” she says.

By 2014, Badham was working primarily as a columnist. Playwriting was on the backburner.

“I didn’t know if I was ever going to come back to the theatre when I started really focusing on the media stuff,” she says.

“But I am fundamentally a theatre person, and so of course I did, because I couldn’t help myself.”

Finding her sense of humour

When Badham wrote her pick-up-artist rom-com Banging Denmark for STC, she was ready to reclaim her inner theatre kid.

It also became something of an outlet for her to purge her experiences of online trolling – notably after comments directed at Badham during an episode of Q+A by shock jock Steve Price led to a barrage of misogyny and death threats in 2016.

Banging Denmark starred Amber McMahon and Michelle Lim Davidson (pictured), alongside Megan Wilding, Patrick Jhanur and TJ Power.(Supplied: STC/Prudence Upton)

“It was an important play for me to write to deal with all the horrendous trolling that I’d been subjected to from when I started writing the Guardian column — getting up in the morning and having a bunch of internet randos telling me I was too ugly to rape,” she says.

“It gave me a place to put [those] bad feelings and write a better vision of the world … I [was] just really ready to embrace being funny and having a good time.”

When STC approached her to write another play for the company, she jumped at the chance to write a comedy.

“I said, ‘Can I just be funny?’, and they [said] ‘Oh my God, please be funny. Come up with the funniest thing you can,'” she says.

Her aspiration to become a mainstage playwright was finally coming to fruition.

A Fool in Love was one of four mainstage commissions Badham was offered after Banging Denmark. (Pictured: Contessa Treffone and Arkia Ashraf in rehearsals.)(Supplied: STC/Prudence Upton)

And then the pandemic hit, shuttering theatres.

The next couple of years were brutal for Badham personally – her husband became seriously ill, she had a complicated and ultimately unsuccessful journey with IVF, and her mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer.

During lockdown, Badham spent long stretches away from her husband and their Ballarat home to care for her mother in Sydney before she died.

“I had to pack up and sell my mother’s house, which has broken my heart into a thousand different pieces,” she says.

“I found that she kept all of my theatre material — every poster, every program, every annotated draft I ever left behind. She even printed out copies of reviews and filed them.

“It really meant everything to me … to learn that this insane path that I took in life was a source of great pride to her.”

One of the posters Badham found while cleaning out her mum’s house.(Supplied: Van Badham)

Despite the challenges, Badham has continued to write.

“I wrote my arse off during the pandemic,” she says.

In addition to A Fool in Love, she’s written a new musical rom-com, titled The Questions, which premieres at State Theatre Company South Australia (STCSA) in July. She’s got another musical up her sleeve and a mainstage project she can’t announce yet. Her theatre career is back on track.

She says the key has been finding humour amid the tragedy.

“My whole attitude to theatre is: if it’s not fun, we’re not doing it.”

Writing A Fool in Love and bringing it to the stage has been a balm for Badham, who is effusive about the power of a good laugh.

After the bleakness of the pandemic, Badham wanted to write something joyous and funny. (Pictured: Contessa Treffone and Megan Wilding in A Fool in Love.)(Supplied: STC/Daniel Boud)

“Everybody’s had a brutal few years, the pandemic was brutal and we’re still recovering from that. The cost of living crisis has been really difficult to manage … We’ve all had a rough time, but what will actually get us through these circumstances is being together and having a laugh.

“You know who understood that? Lope de Vega.”

A Fool in Love is at Wharf 1 Theatre, Sydney Theatre Company until March 17; The Questions runs at Adelaide Festival Centre from July 26 to August 17.

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