Monday, May 06, 2013

playing no.3: me trying to break down the fourth wall

Play no. 3: How Like An Angel. Written 1981, performed 1987 by Fifth Estate Theatre Company. Directed by Allan Sharpe. 5 M.

So: I had discovered I was a playwright.

Time to write a play.

I had no faith in myself back then. I didn’t believe I could make up a story, so thought I’d better use my own experience.

So I based the play on people I’d met when I was a nurse for a couple of months in the admission ward of a psychiatric hospital.

It was a horrifying place: where men were separated from women and where suffering people were locked up together, given tranquillisers and occasionally had electricity passed through their brain to induce fits in the hope this would make them better.

There was one young man in particular who I held down when he was given ECT and I based the play on his story.

He wanted to save the world and I so wished I could help him.

There was another, older man on the ward that I called Fred who in his more quiet way was also a bit of a rebel:

“I can’t tell you all the jobs I’ve taken.Job after job. Time after time.It’s always been the same. After the the first dayI’ve just had to go up to the boss and saygive me my books pleaseand sometimes they haven’t believed meand I’ve had to insist, give me my books pleasegive me my books, I’ve said, I’ve just got no interestI’ve got no interest working here at all.Working. The same thing, day in, day out,I don’t know why folks do it, to be honest,I think they must be crazy.”

He has an amazing speech in which he describes ECT in the days before they used anaesthetic:

“In the old days you could see them jumpingfirst they’d let out that peculiar kind of screamthen they’d jump, every bit of themand they’d jump right out of bed if the nurses didn’t stop themonly it wasn’t them, it wasn’t them jumpingit was the electricitythey used to go a peculiar kind of colour, kind of blue,then they’d breathe in a peculiar way,kind of snorting it was, like horses.They’d come down the rown towards you, like a procession,and you had to lie still in bed and wait your turnand you could see it, see it all happen.”

I wrote in my introduction to the play that "I want it to be a play about maleness; about the violence men do to each other, to their own selves, and the world".

The play is that, I think. It describes the limits of human experience, it makes them understandable, and has a real compassion for patients and staff, all damaged by an inhumane system:

FRED Doctor have you got something for me

DOCTOR Something for you?

FRED Yes doctor something from your magic box


FRED From your magic box, doctor, like you used to say


FRED You remember, doctor, I’d say “hello doctor, what’s it to be today then”, 
                         remember, “what’s it to be today, doctor, what’ve you got”.

DOCTOR (BACKING OFF) No. I’m afraid I don’t.

FRED “here you are Fred”, you’d say “here’s a magic pill.
        A magic pill from the magic box”

DOCTOR It was a long time ago

FRED I know, doctor, it’s been a long time, but there must be something. 
                        You must  have something

DOCTOR No. There’s nothing. Nothing. I’m sorry.


FRED But doctor. Doctor...
Nothing? Nothing?

He’s changed. He has changed.
He’s...he’s not looking too well, is he?
He’s not. Not well at all.
Perhaps he should see someone.
Perhaps...he should. He definitely should.”

From the very beginning I couldn’t keep to the conventions of the naturalistic stage. I wanted to break down the barrier between the audience and the performers. And I had to write in verse.

I was a bit ashamed of all this. 

But now I feel proud of it. Proud of myself trying to break down the fourth wall way back in 1981. All on my own.

I wrote the play for a competition because I didn’t know of anywhere else to send it. And then when it got nowhere I sent it to the Traverse and to the Royal Court.

Neither of those theatres even acknowledged it.

I assumed it was because the play was rubbish. And so it disappeared.

I was trying to check the dates of it on my CV just now, and was horrified to see I'd forgotten about it somehow and left it out.

A few years later I got a letter from the Royal Court saying they appeared to have this play in their possession and if I wanted it back I’d better send them the postage because otherwise it would be shredded.

And after that I discovered there was a cupboard in the Traverse where they put unsolicited scripts because they didn’t have the resources to read them.

Meanwhile I’d heard of an amazing organisation called Edinburgh Playwrights’ Workshop where they undertook to give every play that was sent them a public reading followed by a public discussion. A discussion that was structured so every audience member had the chance to speak in it.

It was run by two admirable idealists, George Byatt and Bob Macaulay, and they were true to their word.

I was terrified. The playwright was supposed to be in charge of the process but I didn’t have a clue what to do.

The man playing the Charge Nurse, Allan Sharpe, helped me and eventually him and his company, Fifth Estate, put on a couple of productions of the play.

He was a fine man, Allan, and I owe him a lot. He was a really interesting writer himself, and a gifted actor and director.

He was braver than me. He was able to see what I was after, but was somehow too frightened to ask for or even fully conceive. So he scattered chairs at random through the performance space: seating that was shared between audience and performers alike. He was particularly good, I remember, as the Charge Nurse persuading the audience to take their medication.

He made of it a moving and funny and compassionately subversive piece of work and helped me hugely.

Since his death, both him and Fifth Estate (which he founded with Sandy Neilson) have been mostly forgotten. He doesn’t deserve to be.

Even now he encourages me. When I think, as I frequently do, that this exercise is a waste of time because no-one’s going to be interested in reading about this stuff, I think of him and I think of our work together.

And I think: this deserves to be remembered. Allan deserves to be remembered.

And then I think: if I don’t record it, who will?

It matters we all find at least that basic pride.

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