Sunday, March 31, 2013

'Great Expectations' closing

The only way I know to write is to live through everything.

Live through everything as though it happened to me.

Live through it all as intensely and as passionately and as fully as I can.

So in GREAT EXPECTATIONS I have been Pip, growing up a lost orphan at the edge of the lonely marshes. I have been Joe who loved and took pity on him and I have been Mrs. Joe who abused him too. I was Estella, so pretty and so proud, and Miss Havisham so profoundly rageful and despairing in her hurt. 

Like Magwitch I have cursed those who chained me and despised me and like Jaggers I have tried to do good in an evil world.

I lived through it as I wrote it and thenI lived through it in rehearsal, over and over again, and having imagined myself also being the actors I also lived with them in the fierce and intense struggle to make it work on stage.

And even though it all first happened twenty five years ago each moment is still vivid and as I watch the show I relive each one.

Which makes it so poignant to watch it for the very last time.

It's as if each moment bursts into brief and vivid life before fading into the darkness.

And then, once it was all over, once the cheers had died away, I stood  a moment on the empty stage.

Thank you beautiful set. Thank you being home to my imagination.

And bid it farewell.

I remember in the old Traverse how after the last night  the crew would attack the set with hammers. They would tear it all to pieces and chuck the fragments out the dock door on the first floor and they would come crashing down on the yard below. 

Such beautiful sets. Such sadness. As if each piece smashing on the flagstones was cracking my very bones.

Odd to be in among the Great Expectations audience with this unseen weight of memories.

And it seems absurd for the show to be closing early with the house so full and the audience so appreciative.

It is absurd, obviously: the result of the brutal stupidities of the market and the wasteful, stupid way that in this country we organise our theatre.

I go backstage to say goodbye. Goodbye to good and gifted people whose jobs really should not be coming to an end.

I sign programmes for the half crazed autograph hunters at the stage door.

I walk down the road, a bit sad, turning my back on my name outside a West End theatre. 

A bit sad, but proud also.

Thinking of my next play.

And knowing, somehow, that this story is not yet completely over.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Testimony of a grumpy angel

“You looked so miserable in rehearsal”, I was told yesterday. “They were taking photos to put up on Facebook. They didn’t want to use yours. You looked like you were in hell or something.”

When I was a boy people told me things like that all the time. “Cheer up”, they would tell me. Perfect strangers. “It can’t be that bad”.
It usually was, as it happened. And often a great deal worse.

But not last Sunday. I’d enjoyed rehearsals on Sunday.

They’re for a Passion Play that’s happening on Easter Sunday in various sites in and around Duddingston Village, on the outskirts of Edinburgh. (

It’s a stunningly beautiful setting and we were working outdoors. Charles Nowolskielski, the writer/director, has had the idea that my character, The Angel, should be present in most of the scenes.

So I spent the afternoon making sure I knew where best to put myself. And then imagining how to it felt: to be an Angel watching the trial and sufferings of Jesus.

Bloody awful, obviously. As far as I could tell.

There’s the best human being, probably, that the world has ever produced: gentle, loving, fierce and wise.

And what do human beings do to him?

Condemn him in a show trial and torture him to death.

His followers all desert him; the only one that comes out of it at all well in this version is Judas. And he’s supposed to be to be the villain.

It’s true the women come across quite well but they’re just condemned to stay helpless at the edge of things, grieving.

It’s a wretched sad story and on the whole humans come out very badly in it. 

Speaking angelically, I’m tempted to call down fire and brimstone to put an end to the lot of them. See if we can’t start the whole thing all over again. And do a wee bit better next time.

So as for me, Jo, no wonder I was looking miserable.

But I was also so taken up with it all, and the pleasure of inventing, I never even noticed anyone going round taking photographs. 

It’s fascinating: I’ve known theoretically for many years that drama in Europe had its roots in passion plays. But never experienced the power of it.

And I know it’s true that we humans are so flawed. And even when we love each other can cause ourselves the most intense suffering: without in the least way wishing it.

But is it right to keep rubbing our noses in it? Does it get us any further?

Better not to think about it. Better just to keep focussing on knowing my lines.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

great expectations, and the field and the forest, and a London bus

When the curtain came down at the end of the show the other night there was this deep moment of silence.

As if the whole audience had been tterly drawn into the story, and had completely identified themselves with Pip and Estella and Mr. Jaggers and Abel Magwitch and Miss Havisham’s desperate hungry sadness; as if they had been so powerfully drawn into Dickens’ amazing world they were unwilling to return to the so called “real” life outside the theatre.

And then the cheers began.

They were lovely, of course, but what really mattered far more, as it always does, was the silence.

I don’t really understand what happened then, and I don’t want to make grandiose claims for it, but I sense it really matters.

It was as if, just briefly, we had all become more than the isolated, helpless and dehumanised individuals of the late capitalist world. It would be nice to think it had something to do with Estella’s lines:

Oh, Pip, we have been bent and broken by suffering
All of us bent and broken.
Have we been twisted into a better shape?

And something, in the end, to do with a shared sense of compassion.

The night before I had been to the Ovalhouse to see Chris Goode’s The Field and the Forest.

I was feeling a bit tense when I arrived and I’d sat down at a table in the bar with an angry man with a red nose and a bottle of Guinness talking loudly and resentfully into his mobile phone and I really, really did not want to be there.

But when I got into the theatre space there was something about it that made me feel better at once. It had been made into somewhere very beautiful in a simple kind of way, as if it had been cared for, and it had become somewhere where we could all be safe together.

And then there was the cat. He was very handsome and golden and not a bit put out. Just being himself.

I can’t call what happened a play, really, because it wasn’t one, it reminded me a bit of my Leave To Remain or my Jesus Queen Of Heaven, and that was probably one reason why I warmed to it. It is nice to know you’re not the only one.

The event, then, was about Shakespeare, mostly, and the word “O”.

O for a muse of fire

Almost certainly the first words spoken on the stage of the Globe theatre, that “Wooden O”, and all about longing.


And what do we want?

“Want doesn’t get” was what I was taught and I still so often see parents denying their children what they are so clearly and strongly and reasonably asking for and then, with a self-righteous air, punishing them for wanting it.

And of course our world is very good at making us think we want all kinds of things that on a deep level are no use to us at all...

So to be invited about our true wants is a subversive kind of thing, somehow, and dear Chris had us all thinking about it together in his very gentle, and very tender, and very playful way.

Him and an exceptionally beautiful and gifted young man whose name I wish I could remember because he gave me such pleasure in his performing and his being naked for quite a bit of the time. 

Not to mention becoming Miranda and Cordelia in an utterly unexpected and beautiful way. 

And at the end of it all I didn’t know how much time had passed, I had gone into cat time, perhaps;  but I knew I didn’t want it to end.

It was such a pleasure being in this room, together, thinking about these things. It was a silent moment outside time, just like the silent moment at the end of Great Expectations.

Even though we got to it by a completely different journey.

And then there was the moment on the bus.

In Edinburgh, passengers all queue up to get on the bus, and the buses all queue up to pick up at the stops and you have to let everyone off before you can get on.

And as you get off you walk past the driver and you can say “Thank you”, and most people do, and as you get on you have to catch the driver’s eye to get your ticket and you can say “hello” and it is all very civilised.

But also very slow. There are often bus jams at the busier bust stops and it’s easy to understand how you can’t really do that in a bigger city.

And sure enough in London it’s every person and every bus for themselves and no-one ever waits for anyone else. 

So there I was at a Brixton bus stop 8.15 in the morning, with my suitcase, off to catch my train home. A bus had just gone by so, unusually, there was only one other person waiting. She was a youngish woman with a pleasant open face and really lovely green boots and we’d just clocked each other when the bus came. There was a crowd by this time, and the bus happened to stop just beside me.

As the door opened, I had a grandmother moment: as an older woman at a bus stop with a case who wasn’t going to give her ground. This is not an easy place for me to be and I am just going to take my time thank you very much.

And say hello to the bus driver.

So I did all that, and was vaguely aware of someone pushing past me up the stairs as I took my place in that particular hell of crowded public transport: the place where we are all jammed up close together and yet all alone.

Something very lovely was happening in the seat beside where I was standing: a young girl with her mother was slowly, patiently and proudly practicing her reading ready for school.

We were getting closer to the bus stop when all of a sudden the young woman re-appeared, with her open face and lovely green boots, and she caught my eye and said she was sorry she’d pushed past me, she knew she shouldn’t have done it but she’d just missed her bus and she was worried about it.

And my heart went out to her.

So we started to talk, and a ripple of human energy started to spread through the bus, and you could see the people nearby waking from their evil dream

O for a muse of fire

And suddenly she saw her bus, we had caught it up, and would the driver be able to open the doors in time, and we were all in this moment together.

The doors opened and she rushed off and we were all wishing her well and someone else was kind to me and gave me directions I didn’t need but I still felt so grateful and I was thinking of dreams.

In our dream group, our teacher, Winifred Rushforth, would say that if anyone dreamed about a bus it was about the collective experience.

Bus. Omnibus.

It’s from the latin: it means every one.

Monday, March 04, 2013

"Sex, Chips and the Holy Ghost": a prophetic play

Just over a year ago, I was on stage in Oran Mor, Glasgow, saying these lines:

"Its just cause they can’t have sex, poor loves, they wont let themselves have sex and they suffer from it.  And all they can do is make everyone else suffer for it too."

The play was SEX CHIPS AND THE HOLY GHOST, and my character was a nun expelled from her order for being transsexual, and she was talking about Cardinals. Cardinal O’Brian’s admission yesterday that he had indulged “in inappropriate sexual behaviour” makes the play seem weirdly prescient. 

His admission makes it clear that all the appalling, hurtful and damaging things he said against homosexuals and equal marriage rights came from self hatred.

He’s apologised for his sexual behaviour; but the apology really needs to come for his intellectual crimes: in those statements which caused so much hurt and distress and helped bolster up a system of belief that has nothing to do with Christianity and everything to do with hateful prejudice. 

And this is no time  for him to withdraw from public life; this is precisely the time when he should be most prominently out there with the rest of us, trying to dismantle transphobic and homophobic prejudice, and joining in the fight for a more enlightened and humane world.

After all, it doesn’t take very much compassion and common sense to see that he, too, was a victim of abuse, and that the Catholic places intolerable strain on its gay priests.

It would be nice to think that compassion and good sense would prevail in the Catholic hierarchy and enable them to change their culture. To create a culture that is truly loving: and truly Christian.

But perhaps that is still beyond them.

Later in the play, the other character, a priest expelled for being gay, goes onto say:

"Because all they can do is torture people. With guilt and shame and unhappiness."

David Walshe, the fabulous actor who portrayed knew only too well what he was talking about.

My character replied:

"Yeah. Its got to happen. It’s got to change. It’s like the 16th century when everyone knew the whole thing was corrupt and had to change. And where’s  the Luther to nail his thesis to the cathedral wall. To bring the whole rotten structure down into the dust. "

I expect the play will be prophetic in that also.

Friday, March 01, 2013

The difficulties of watching myself...

This is the video of the pre-show interview I gave with Gregory Nash just before the start of the cinema showing of GREAT EXPECTATIONS.

I got sent the link a few days ago, watched it, noted all the things i disliked about myself in it, and then put it to one side. After a day or so, I sent it to my younger daughter, who had been with me in the theatre and so hadn't seen it, and to the young woman who so beautifully did my make-up.

And then forgot about it again. And it was only yesterday, talking to my dear SEX AND CHIPS colleagues, that I mentioned it, and they asked to see it, and almost immediately afterwards David Walshe posted it on Facebook.

And only after that did I manage to do the same.

And I have spent the day taking refuge in writing my new play, and only this evening, after dithering about it, am I taking the steps to post it here.

If I was still teaching playwrights, I would devote a whole section of the course to self publicity. I would be telling my students how important and necessary it is to be able to promote yourself, and promote your work, and be unashamed about it.

And then I might wonder where are the sources of my intense reluctance to do such a thing.

And wonder, too, how I've managed to create for myself a career at all....

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