Thursday, August 29, 2013

Re-discovering a lost play

I’ve just found a play I had completely lost.

I wrote it way back in 1988. It was commissioned by the Traverse and the Edinburgh International Festival - something which was completely new in those days - and the plan was for Giles Havergal of the Glasgow Citizens to direct it.

It was to be a huge step forward for me as a writer and I was tremendously excited by it. I was reading a remarkable history book called “August 1914” by Barbara Tuchman at the time and decided to use the absurd events that led to the assassination of the Archduke Fritz Ferdinand in 1914 as a kind of parable for the warmongering follies of the late eighties. 

And which, as we gear ourselves up to bomb Syria, still so sadly and so strongly resonate now.

Unfortunately commissioning new plays was something the Festival knew nothing about at the time and the only space they could offer us was the Church Hill theatre. 

This was not an inspiring or especially intelligent choice; and, unlike me, Giles was not afraid to say no. And said it.

So the play stayed unperformed until 1991, when a small but rather wonderful company called Great Eastern Stage toured it round East Anglia with one London date at the end.

It’s never been seen anywhere else. And I forgot all about it.

Until I was preparing a recent lecture about my association with the Traverse, which I gave at Summerhall, found I remembered it, and decided to mention it.

Afterwards a very wise theatre friend came up to me in a state of great excitement and reminded me that next year there are going to be all kinds of events around the anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War and there might be an opportunity to restage it.

Something which had never for a moment occurred to me.

So I began to reproach myself, as I often do, for my utter incompetence at marketing my own work, and my apparent lack of respect for it. To make things worse, I couldn’t find a copy of the script.

But my clever agent did. And then days passed while I tried to muster up the courage to read it.

But yesterday I did. And, somewhat in spite of myself, was impressed by it.

I originally called the play “The Girl Who Fell To Earth” but Michael Fry, its one and only director, wanted something a bit more catchy, and called it “Shoot the Archduke!”.

I respected what he was about, but didn’t want to abandon the original title either, because it says something important about it. So at the moment it’s called, a bit clumsily but very truthfully, “The Girl Who Fell To Earth, or Shoot The Archduke!”.

It begins with the Norns. These were the three weird sisters of Norse mythology that I think somehow inspired the three witches of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. They sit at the foot of the world tree, or Yggdrassil, and the younger one spins the thread. Each thread represents a human life. The middle one measures it. The elder one cuts the thread. And the person dies.

The younger one decides she wants to understand more of human life and falls to earth to discover it.

She becomes a young woman called Anna, a waif and stray that the Archduchess Sophie rescues from the street and brings into her household. Sophie had married the Archduke Fritz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austrian throne, even though she was not of royal blood herself and this led to great tensions in the pair of them.

Sophie had lost her baby son and was unable to deal with her grief. She dressed a doll up in the dead son’s clothes and employed a nursemaid to bath and feed and take it out in its pram.

This is Anna’s job; and she encounters Princip, a young revolutionary who is trying to make a connection with the royal household in order to find a way to assassinate the archduke.

The Archduke is a bit like the British Prince Charles: a possibly well intentioned but bumbling figure utterly uncertain of his place in the world.

The first act is a bit like an inside out Downton Abbey - a pretty savage exposure of the follies and the cruelty of the ruling class. And the follies of the conspirators too; I was still full of the idiocies of the far left that I had encountered when I tried to join them.

But something happens in the second half; all the characters deepen and grow and somehow achieve a tragic stature. 

The Archduke has a vision of the coming slaughter of the First World War: of Death as an Old Woman washing a massive heap of bloodstained garments. And I think of Marina Abramovic and her astonishing reflection on the Yugoslavian Civil War: scrubbing, scrubbing a huge heap of human bones. I think of the dreadful heaps of clothing preserved in Auschwitz. Images I had then never seen: but come from the same collective memory of trauma.

The Archduke decides to use what authority remains him to try to prevent war: but he and Sophie, through an absurd series of accidents, are assassinated. And the idealism of Princip is wasted on a futile act of destruction and he himself is imprisoned behind thick walls of stone. 

Anna abandons the earth. The Old Woman sharpens her knife.

The play has something. Compassion for human suffering. A sense that we really could accomplish more.

By that time I absolutely understood what could be done on the tiny Traverse stage: but here I am creating powerful images to resonate on a big one.

They were never realised; but I can’t help feeling they deserve to be. Something important is happening here:  something that respects the individual, without being exclusively focused on her. Something that tries to understand and express the collective.

As if I am groping my way to a post capitalist theatre. Dreaming into being the world that is to come.

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Sunday, August 25, 2013

Performing in the Bloody Great Border Ballad Project

About half a million years ago, which is to say at the beginning of this year’s Edinburgh Festival, I chaired a very lovely event called “The Body Politic” at the Traverse.

It was organised by the Playwrights’ Studio ( and featured four extraordinary writers/performers whose work, like my whole life, explores the politics of the human body:

Claire Cunningham
Robert Softley Gale
Claire Dowie
Adura Onashile

I think it important at these events to give the audience the chance to explore the issues with each other. And just before pairing them off to take turns to listen and talk I spoke about how when I was living as a man I was taught to ignore my body, to use it as a tool, to ovverride its signals of distress, overcome its weaknesses and “be a real man”.

And how now, living as a woman, I find myself and my body exposed to a huge multi-national industry that employs all its massive resources and considerable skills to make me feel rubbish about myself.

All of which has been very forcefully brought home to me by watching a video of my performance in Northern Stage’s Bloody Great Border Ballad Project at the very end of the Fringe:

It’s a lovely project, I am so happy to have taken part in it, and I am sure it’s a lovely video too.

I simply cannot bear to watch it.

I hate the way I walk. I hate the way I stand. I hate my shape. Hate my dress, hate my hair. Hate the sight of myself.

So I stopped watching because I am very proud of what I did and don’t want to spoil it.

It is a sad world that puts so much skill and effort into making us dislike ourselves. And which also, to an extent, so often and so brilliantly succeeds.

When I first transitioned I know I didn’t feel this way.

I so enjoyed the fact that when I looked in the mirror I recognised myself. Properly recognised myself for the first time in my life.

And liked myself too.

And I know that when I lived as a man i could never have performed the way I did last night.
I was too divided against myself to be properly present on stage.

The way the project worked was that Aly Macrae wrote the first (very lovely) verse of the ballad, which was added to every night by a new guest balladeer.

I had to turn up last Thursday to see the show, with the ballad up to that point,, and then had the Friday to write my verse and prepare myself to rehearse it at 8 and then perform it at ten.

My bit of the rehearsal felt like the first readthrough of a new play. It’s a tricky moment: you know your fellow professionals are the first audience you have to win over. 

So there was a certain tension in the air. And yet I knew with perfect clarity what I was going to do. And I knew it would work.

And it did.

I felt completely at home; and I felt like I completely belonged.

As I did all those years ago when I was still a boy and went into a rehearsal room for the very first time. 

All those years ago before performing got all tangled up with my understanding that I would be so much happier if I could live as a girl.

Before it all got tangled up with the most hideous fear and the profoundest shame.

For many years, this fear and this shame completely blocked my capacity to perform and left me stranded and struggling with a profound isolation.

One aspect of this isolation was that it left me unable to sing. I hated my voice and could not use it. Not with other people around.

There was a lot of music in the show, and a lot of singing too which we rehearsed. In the past this was always a source of dread. But now I found myself joining it with a total unselfconscious pleasure. Loving it, in fact.

Perhaps even for the very first time.

That’s how I know something very profound has happened to me. 

So I post this to say thank you to Northern Stage, whose open-hearted generosity of spirit and whose artistic vision made it happen. Made something very special happen, not just for me, but for their audiences too.

And I post it also as an act of defiance: against all the acts of self hatred that so often the world makes us complicit in.

As an act of resistance.

As all my work is...

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Sunday, August 18, 2013

A new age

I am clearing out my house. It is like a journey into a chaotic past.

In the chaos at the heart of the chests under my window sill I found this:

It is so beautiful I wanted to share it. 

It’s my eldest daughter Rebecca in costume for the Masque of Rosslynn which was staged in the chapel there every year in the late eighties. 

The photographer had picked her up and sat her on the altar and she is looking so solemn because for her the altar was an incredibly holy place and she didn’t think she should be sitting on it.

The dear love is grown up now, and with a child of her own.

She came round yesterday to help me, and gave her permission for the picture to be shown and...

Looking at it again has stirred up so many memories.

We lived in a cottage just down the road from the chapel for about 6 years. Just at the edge of the Roslin woods.

We used to go there to church most Sundays, because the chapel was so beautiful. 

It was little known in those days. There was something intensely sacred about it. 

The children even went to Sunday school. I was even on the church committee.

In those days I had told no-one about being trans, except my dear partner years before.

The secret gnawed at me. I was afraid that if I disclosed people would hate and despise me; my children would be bullied at school; and that we would all suffer.

I kept silent. My career prospered. But I was not a whole person.

I went to church again this morning. 

Today was special because I said a prayer that I had written and, alongside Fiona Bennett, the minister, I spoke some of the beautiful words that are used to consecrate the bread and the wine.

I could not be more accepted there. 

I cannot put in words how much this means to me. I can only record the journey.

Bear witness to it. Give thanks for it.

My daughter’s young son is almost a year old. In that miraculous transition from baby to toddler.

He looks around him with utter wonder. 

As I still do. At the dark clouds passing across the blue sky.

At this world so full of fear and darkness. 

And yet I know that my journey is not an isolated one. Something has happened in the collective consciousness to enable it to occur.

We don’t know what it is. We don’t understand.

But it is happening. Happening everywhere. Something new is being born.

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Thursday, August 15, 2013

Theatre Alba's Anne Frank and the politics of art

Recently Nicola McCartney, a friend and colleague, wrote very movingly of her fears for the world. Her antennae are sensitive, her perceptions sharp: she sees connections between the outbreak of homophobia in Russia, the growth of vicious strongmen dictators in Eastern Europe, the racist policies of the British coalition government and fears that in response to the profound crisis in our social and economic order we are sliding back into fascism.

I don’t feel able to reach conclusions. I can only respond with grief and horror to the mob murder of a young trans sister in Jamaica. To the thugs torturing a young gay man in Russia, and filming his suffering in order to gloat. To the vile racism of the vans going round London with their disgraceful message calling on us to ‘go home’. 

To the blatant corruption of the British ruling class; to the feebleness of the opposition to it. To the collective feebleness of the world response to the blatant and grotesque immorality of Russia’s anti gay laws.

And I get angry when the likes of Jonathan Mills, the Edinburgh Festival’s outgoing director, talk of the need for artistic creation to be ‘apolitical’ in the face of it all.

Art is always political.

A major difficulty we have is that so much of it is on the wrong side.

On the side of reaction as opposed to positive change. On the side of despair: and the destroyer of hope.

All this thrown into agonising relief by a beautiful and powerful production of “The Diary of Anne Frank”, produced by Theatre Alba, directed by Charles Nowolskielski, performed in the gardens of Duddingston manse.

Nowolskielski is a lone wolf; a fiercely independent maverick who pursues his own concerns and theatrical lives irrespective of fashion and popular demand.

He also happens to be one of the country’s best directors, working every year with a consistent core of committed, passionate and skilled actors. Together they create an ‘Anne Frank’ of astonishing poignancy and power.

The gardens at Duddingston have to be one of the most beautiful outdoor theatres in Edinburgh. The stage is enclosed by barbed wire. The ugliness of human cruelty seems all the stronger surrounded by the astonishing beauty of the world.

The characters are far from being noble martyrs. They suffer petty jealousy, quarrel over trivialities, are cruel and spiteful to each other.

The artists of Theatre Alba who so beautifully tell their story do so with unflinching compassion and courage.

Night falls all around us as we watch them portray the darkness.

Anne talks of her wish that her writing be useful. She says that in spite of everything she retains her belief in human goodness.

And we are left with the image of her book. With the artistry that has told her story; and that in doing so helps us belief she was right.

That art matters. That people may even at heart be fundamentally good.

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Sunday, August 11, 2013

Rediscovering Losing Venice

It was out of the blue I heard there was to be a reading of my “Losing Venice” at the Pleasance this morning.

It was directed, really intelligently and skillfully, by Hannah Eidinow ( with a lovely cast. 

Something about the unexpectedness of it, about the fact it was being directed and performed by strangers, gave the whole play a quality that made it separate from me. Almost as if I was  hearing and understanding it for very the first time. 

There were such problems in its first rehearsals, way back then (in 1985) and it was the first production I’d had of an original play. SoI was very vulnerable to the idea that all the problems were my fault, and were happening because the play was just so very bad.

I could see today with the utmost clarity that it wasn’t because the play was bad. But bcause it was different. 

Because it was poetic in the way Lorca’s plays were poetic, and no-one really knew then how to perform such a play and somehow hardly anyone has known how to read it since.

The play was briefly on the Higer drama syllabus, and a teacher once told me that they never used it. Because it was difficult to frame exam questions on it.

Which I took to be a compliment. But which indicates how foreign it still is, somehow, to our culture.

As if the play was ahead of its time then; just as it is ahead of its time now.

One passage especially struck me:
QUEVEDO The world is mad.  Madness incarnate.  Total chaos.Or so it seems.  But underneath is the web.Pablo, I’ve seen the light.The light of the world.The web, the wondrous web.Everything, Pablo.  Everything is inter-connected.Everything.Even the most disparate of objects,the most hopelessly contrasting events…all connect.  They all connect.

This was before the time of computers, that strange and distant age, and I can remember typing the play with a typewriter; the world wide web didn’t exist, except in someone’s mind, perhaps, and I think it would be fanciful for me to suggest I foresaw the technology then that is enabling you now to read these words.

But something was in the air, that’s for sure:

maybe the possibility of a collective understanding of that truth that this technology is the image of.

Because we do connect, we do live in the web: and the next evolutionary step forward will come when we truly, and deeply understand this.

And devise still more of the institutions and technologies that express it.

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Saturday, August 10, 2013

Beating McEnroe

I was suprised to find myself going to a show called “Beating McEnroe” because trying to beat anyone strikes me as a ridiculous way to waste one’s time.

And sport in general tends to bore me rigid and I simply cannot bear the way our culture promotes it.

I lived in Spain during Franco’s dictatorship. The regime fiercely censored the news, stifled all meaningful political debate, and deliberately employed sport as a distraction from its own criminal activities.

If that sounds familiar, it’s because it is: it is so blindingly obvious here and now that one of the reasons we are not thinking the necessary things about the state of the world we are in is because so many of us choose instead to obsess about the Premier League.

I think it’s an obscenity.

So a play about a tennis match definitely did not appeal.

I went along and got lost in Summerhall because it was work.

And, to my surprise, I am so very glad I did.

Because Jamie Wood’s show is not about tennis at all.

I think it’s about love. But then, because I am clearing out my house and trying to detach myself from the dear debris of a 33 year love relationship that ended with my partner’s death... I seem to think everything is about love.

The love McEnroe felt for his bitter rival, Bjorn Borg; the love Jamie felt for his big brother. 

The love that Jamie, in spite of all the bullying he suffered, still feels for the world.

I found myself down on stage playing Jamie’s big brother, which I didn’t intend, but Jamie has an amazing safe presence, and an intensely engaging one, which made it OK, somehow; and then later, when Jamie was impersonating the tennis ball being batted back and forth in the Borg McEnroe I found myself being one half of the net, alongside someone being Borg, and someone else being McEnroe, and someone else being the referee and the other half of the net, and someone else making tennis ball sounds with a plumber’s plunger.

And weirdly enough it did make a sound like a tennis ball and the whole thing was sublimely silly and utterly utterly joyful.

I had a very brief and very intense relationship with the woman playing the other end of the tennish net because Jamie, having a giant tennis ball covering his head, couldn’t see what he was doing. And we didn’t want him to trip over our net. So we lifted it ip at first, but then we saw that confused him, and so we made a collective decision to hold it at exactly the right height so he knew it was there and could then safely step over it.

That was characteristic, that moment, of this very beautiful show: because we were all working together by the end to do our best to make the whole thing work.

And that’s what theatre is about, I think, this collective enterprise of the playful imagination.

And then, I so want to think, that’s what life is about too. It shouldn’t be about competition or beating anyone: but co-operation and the whole messy, difficult, but ultimately beautiful business of trying to be in all of this together.

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