Sunday, February 14, 2010

Rehearsals start for "Everyone" tomorrow. The play opens at the Royal Lyceum on March 20th.
I always intend to keep a rehearsal journal.
And fail.
I wonder if I will do better this time...
Meanwhile I want to publish part of the Introduction to the play.
Part Two will follow tomorrow.
It will have to: the deadline is Thursday.

Where the play comes from.

At the end of the first performance of my Anna Karenina, one of my lovely daughters said to me: “Dad! That was about us! You put us up there!”.

She was right, even though I hadn’t intended that, and obviously also the characters she had just seen were originally nominally Tolstoy’s. It’s as if everything that happens to me form part of a kind of storehouse from which, sometimes consciously and sometime not, I draw my characters.

This play is unusual for me because it comes very directly from a recent memory. Which i will describe soon.

It’s only really in the last few weeks, as I have been reflecting of what I need to tell the actors before rehearsals (which, as I write this, begin tomorrow). that another memory has come back into consciousness. One I know has given this play its first impetus and final shape.

When i was twelve years old, my mother came to see me in the boarding school in which I had been put. Such visits were unusual, partly because she lived so very far away, and partly too because there was a sense that it was somehow “good for boys” to be separated from our parents. Especially our mothers.

She took me out one Sunday that November, and then - joy of joys - I saw her again on the Wednesday. We were all to watch a rugby match; and she came along too. She brought along my little dog, Sally. She was a Jack Russell terrier and I loved carrying her inside her jumper so she could stick her neck out at the collar.

We were due to meet again the next day, the Thursday, when she was due to be at my Confirmation Service in the school chapel. This was a rite of passage service where we re-affirmed our baptismal vows and were then allowed to take communion.

Part of the service consisted of each of us going up the Bishop and kneeling before him. He was to lay his hands on our head and say a blessing. She wrote me a letter to say that I wasn’t to worry if I didn’t feel anything when this happened. When she was confirmed she had been eagerly anticipating some profound experience at this moment and was very disappointed when apparently nothing happened.

Whatever I felt at the moment, she wanted to reassure me, it would all be fine.

I was unexpectedly called away by the assistant head teacher, and off I went, with the letter still in my pocket, to be told by my grieving father that my mother had died very suddenly in the night.

It was a brain hemorrhage. It came out of nowhere. It devastated my young life.

Death is like that. I did not know it when I wrote this play, but I understand that this experience was the seed that first generated it.

Consciously, however, this play came from the death of my wife, Susie, in February 2005.
The process began in May or June 2004, when she suffered from something that was diagnosed as a stroke. Out of nowhere, she said she felt some evil creature fixing itself to her shoulder and battening on her. For a while she could not move; then she was taken to hospital.

I was away at the time, and could not help her.

She seemed to be on the road to recovery; but in August that year she started to lose her peripheral vision, become disorientated, and suffered from the most agonising headache. Again she fell unconscious; again she was taken to hospital; but this time they found a brain tumour. They drilled a hole in the back of her head; located the tumour; analyzed it; and discovered it was extremely malignant, and too close to the brain stem to be surgically removed.

They told me she might last for a week or so, but most likely she would die within days.

As it turned out, she lived another six months.

I cannot yet write bout that time.

Afterwards, I became aware of how incompetent our culture is when it comes to the universal fact of death. It was almost impossible for me to talk about my experience; and there was a conspicuous lack of public events, either in the church, or the theatre, or anywhere, that helped me understand what had happened or which could help me continue to live with it.

A dear old friend of mine, the actor Suzanne Dance, had at about the same time suffered the death of her mother, and she was having a similar experince. we decided to try to pool our talents to see what could be done. The result was Leave to Remain, a ritualistic theatre event with words and music played live on the cello, which we have performed about 2 or 3 times a year ever since.

Leave to Remain is designed to be mostly performed in non-theatre spaces; Every One is an attempt to use the wonderful, amazing communication resources offered by a beautiful theatre like Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum.

Both pieces are an attempt to break the taboo surrounding death and ofer a way forward in the face of it.

I became very ill in the year following Susie’s death. The mitral valve in my heart was no longer functioning properly and had to be repaired. My heart was literally broken and bleeding.

In the operation, my heart had to be stopped for the surgeon to repair it.

In that sense, I too have died.

Certainly I had to face the possibility of my own death: both before the operation and after it, when miscommunication resulted in my being seriously overdosed with warfarin and being close to bleeding to death.

Even now, each time I become aware of my own heart beating I also become aware that one day, and perhaps now, it will stop.

Since then my mother-in-law’s health has deteriorated. I ring her up every morning; each time I hear her phone ring I know one morning she may have left us in the night and so not be there to answer it.

I have a dear friend, too, who suffers from incurable kidney disease. there is a possibility she may die suddenly at night. She lives alone, and was tormented by her thought of her dead body lying for days before someone discovered it. So we agreed she would text me every morning just to let us both know she is still alive.

This closeness to death does not depress or frighten me. On the contrary, it seems to heighten my appreciation of life.

This, too, I wish to communicate.


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