Tuesday, September 19, 2017

An open letter to a Bishop, who, like many of his fellow Christians, wants to ban my play

Dear Dom Tomé,

Forgive me for being so presumptuous as to write to you directly when we have not met.

I just wanted to tell you that I listened to your radio broadcast yesterday

The one in which you attacked my play “The Gospel According To Jesus Queen of Heaven” for offending Christian values, and spoke so eloquently of the need for responsibility in the use of our right to free speech.

Dom Tomé, I so absolutely agree with you. I so strongly believe that we have a moral responsibility for what we say; and that in particular we should not speak in public in order to spread prejudice and hatred.

As a Christian like you, I believe very strongly that our public words should try to spread Christian values of forgiveness and love.

You never mention the content of my play because I suspect you have not read it. I imagine the idea of a trans woman, a travesti, portraying Jesus on stage outraged you too much. 

Forgive me for causing you distress.

But you’ll be aware, Dom Tomé, that when the Son of God came down among us He did not take human form among the powerful and great but among the rejected and despised.

As a trans woman myself, I have spent my life among the rejected and despised, and so I am sure you’ll understand how profoundly this moves me.

And so I wanted to find a powerful way of bringing this profound truth onto the stage.

Never for a moment did I intend to attack the Church or Christian values, as you suggest.

So it saddens me to hear you say that any Catholic who sees my play has committed a sin and should go to confession afterwards.

There is an excellent translation of the play, dear Dom Tomé, and it has been performed all round São Paulo for over a year now. Many Christian ministers and lay people have seen the play in your country and in mine and agree that it is absolutely in accord with the truths of the Christian faith.

I would happily send you a copy as a gift. I would so love to be able to talk to you about my re-telling of the parable of the Good Samaritan, the Woman at the Well, the Woman Taken in Adultery, and the Prodigal Son.

I expect we would disagree on some things, and I would imagine you would find my interpretation of Holy Communion very unorthodox.

But I know we would also agree on the profound beauty, love and wisdom of the words of the Gospels and their importance in our troubled world.

Lastly, Dom Tomé, I also wanted to say how sorry I am to hear of your troubles and difficulties.

I gather that in 2015 there were allegations that you had been in  a loving relationship with your chauffeur and that in order to give him presents you took money from Diocesan funds.

And that when you were explaining matters to your fellow priests you wept. You must have been suffering so greatly. I imagine that you are still suffering, Dom Tomé, and I can only offer you my profoundest sympathy.

Of course I wouldn’t dream of judging or condemning you. As my play says, we are all here on this earth to love and to be loved. And:

“We all of us stumble over our Mother Earth. All of us stumbling together. We have no right or business to condemn”.

And as Someone infinitely wiser and more loving than both of us said:

“Let the one who is without sin be the first to cast a stone”.

I quote Him in my play. Of course. Like you, I hold Him in the greatest reverence and respect.

I am glad your fellow priests found it in their hearts to forgive you and that you are still in post.

I hope you can find it in your heart to forgive us too. Like you, we are trying in our imperfect way to spread a Christian message of peace and love.

I hope that one day we can work together.

In the meantime, I wish you well.


Jo Clifford.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

EVE comes to the Glasgow Citizens'. Or: A dream I never had comes true...

I’m sitting in my dressing room in the Glasgow Citizens’ Theatre.

I never thought I’d ever write such a sentence. 

But I just have: and I’ll be on stage soon.

And I’m looking in the mirror and remembering the first Citz show that I ever saw.

It was TAMBURLAINE THE GREAT in the Church of Scotland Assembly Hall in August 1972. Me and Susie had only recently begun to be able to make love together. We’d just come back from a mad journey to Zaragoza. We had such little money and we’d spent it on tickets for this show and the first thing we saw was this beautiful half-naked painted young man standing by the statue of John Knox breathing fire.

I remember him and I remember Bajazet in his cage and the rest of the show is a confused memory of incredible colour and intense beauty and horrible cruelty.

Cruelty that was part of the beauty somehow and most of all this fabulous intensity to everything that I had never experienced in a theatre before.

I fell in love with it though it terrified me too and not long afterwards we would regularly pile into our battered car and drive across to Glasgow to see their productions from our commune in Fife.

And talk about them so intensely on the journey home afterwards. Some of the things I saw at that time made me angrier than anything I’ve seen before or since. And sometimes there’d be something so beautiful…

I remember a moment in MARY STUART when Mary is about to meet Elizabeth and the huge black drapes slowly fell off the theatre walls and I have never seen anything lovelier….

Whatever it was so strongly drew me there was all a bit of a mystery to me at the time, . It wasn’t that I was consciously preparing myself to be a playwright because at that time I never knew I was such a thing.

And performing again was completely impossible. The idea never even crossed my mind. I was still so deeply hurt. I still thought that if anyone apart from Susie knew about me I would die of shame.

And as far as I knew I was still a novelist. And a consistently failing one, too.

Looking back it’s obvious that I kept failing to write novels because I wasn’t a novelist, I never was, and had just completely misunderstood myself.

And then when I stumbled into writing plays I never for a moment considered myself an actor. It wasn’t till the early two thousands that the ridiculous idea even began to occur to me that I could maybe perform.

“Something else I got wrong”, I think, as I look in my dressing room mirror.

It’s the first time I’ve done a show on a nineteenth century proscenium arch stage. I’m intensely curious about it.

The theatre was built in 1878 and designed by a unsung genius called Campbell Douglas. He pulled off that miracle the best of these old theatres can achieve: of being large and public and intimate at the same time. Sit in the stalls and what’s on stage looks so imposing; stand on the stage and you feel you can reach out and touch people.

None of which makes it easy. The rake is not kind on my arthritic knees and ankles and hips: the invisible slope of the stage is so steep I can barely walk.  And I can’t place my voice in the acoustic somehow. I don’t feel any connection anywhere.

But this is a powerful place. That’s for sure. It’s a kind of machine that in one sense I’m just a cog in. And it’ll be pitiless if I let myself be dominated by fear.

And the thought comes that really it’s so very ridiculous to try to transfer a show that’s established itself so firmly in the three sided intimacy of Traverse 2 into the 500 seater bigness of a place like this… and with that thought I stop judging myself and set myself free to explore.

Performing the show in a big public space like the Citz brings out new dimensions of meaning. Political dimensions me and Chris Goode always meant to be there, because this is the space for which we originally wrote it.

I can’t write about them now, because I’m still trying to understand the possibilities this new, amazing, miraculous and beautiful space allows me.

At one stage in the show I tell my younger self: “And all those dreams you had which seemed so impossible have all come true”.

And the strange thing is that I can’t say that performing in the Citz is a dream come true. It was so impossible that I never even dared dream it.

But here it is. And what will happen?

I’ll find out tonight.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

The re-discovery of a lost play: of WAR IN AMERICA

Something happened on Friday night that moved me so profoundly I find it very hard to put into words.

It had something to do with it being the dress run of a play of mine that’s never been seen before: WAR IN AMERICA.

But then I’ve been there so many times. 

It had something to do with the venue being the old Royal High School, an extraordinary and powerful and shamefully neglected venue that for many years was going to be the new Scottish Parliament.

It had something to do with the Attic Collective: who are such a beautiful, such a talented, such a passionately committed young company

But more than any of that it was because this is a play I wrote 22 years ago which had been rejected then and which I had given up on for ever.

I’d conceived the play as a sequel to my LIGHT IN THE VILLAGE (Traverse 1991), after spending time in a Bengali village and visiting California and Bangladesh in 1989.

I’d seen with my own eyes the obscene division between rich and poor in this unbelievably unjust and yet inter-connected world. And understood in my heart that these inequalities are unsustainable.

I’d begun to see it as my job as an artist to chronicle the profound changes our world is undergoing, to expose the grotesque incapacities of capitalism to resolve the situation humanity is facing. And try to imagine a different world.

I couldn’t see one play as being enough for all this; and I imagined a cycle of five. 

Five independent yet inter-related plays that would be ready to be performed by the year 2000.

A five play festival that would usher in the new millennium: and dream into being a new way of ordering the world.

All very utopian. But it’s a vision I’d still stand by. My difficulty was that I couldn’t get any theatre to support it. Or even begin to understand it.

I’d almost given up when I got a commission from Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum. I didn’t tell them WAR IN AMERICA was the second play. I just wrote it.

And they turned it down. It was too offensive, they said, they’d lose their subscription audience.

Then the Traverse turned it down. Because they disliked it.

This was the start of a long bleak time. No theatre would commission anything original from me for fourteen years: until 2009, when Mark Thomson (bless him) commissioned a new play for the Lyceum. And that was my EVERY ONE.

I survived by doing translations, adaptations, libretti for operas (two for children), working for radio, and teaching in university. And that enabled me to self fund GOD’S NEW FROCK and JESUS QUEEN OF HEAVEN.

I’d somehow consoled myself by assuming WAR IN AMERICA  to be a bad play, and so its lack of production to be not that great a loss.

All that was shattered on Friday. I’m not going to make extravagant claims for the piece: but it’s not a bad play.

I’d say it represented an important step forward in my writing: the creation of a new, impassioned, public, polemical and fiercely political theatre.

But then the door was slammed shut in its face; and that development destroyed before it was even fully born.

It’s strange to be dealing with this frustration and grief in this week of all weeks.

This week when I am starting to learn my lines for EVE, which I perform in the Traverse this August, and which deals, among other things, with the emotional abuse that blocked me as a performer.

And this week when I am also struggling, with immense difficulty, to establish a toe hold on my new play for Manchester’s Royal Exchange. Which will be the third play in the series.

And I’ve been wondering on this sometimes bleak Sunday afternoon, just how to deal with it all.

But then it’s easy to know what needs to be done. Keep learning the lines. Keep writing the play. 

And look forward to the first public performance of WAR IN AMERICA.

This Wednesday. It’s time.

WAR IN AMERICA runs for five performances from Wednesday to Saturday, May 24-27, in the old Royal High School of Edinburgh.

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