Sunday, July 05, 2015

Thank you "Great Expectations". Thank you Dundee...

I started to write this on the train to Dundee. On my way to see the production of my “Great Expectations” there.

The production was so beautiful, and stirred so many thoughts and memories, and that’s maybe why it’s taken so long for me to get this entry finished.

Because that train journey was weeks ago.

I wrote the script way back in 1988. We didn't especially want to write a novel. What we wanted to do was seamlessly incorporate dance and spoken text to tell a story. It seemed utterly outlandish then. In some ways it still is.

The only way we could see to get tour bookings was to tie the project to a classic text. 

And “Great Expectations” was not the first choice. The first choice was “Wuthering Heights”; and although eventually I went on to dramatise it I couldn’t really connect with it at the time.

I think it was Ian Brown, the director, who suggested “Great Expectations” and I was a bit reluctant because I’d had a wretched time reading Dickens at school.

But when I read the book… maybe it was Miss Beattie, who was our downstairs neighbour in St Andrews and who always seemed to be nursing a secret sorrow we didn’t understand. 

Until we were invited to help clear her house after she died and found a collection of unwrapped, beautiful, wedding presents in her back room and learnt that she, too, was a Miss Havisham who had been jilted on her wedding day.

Or maybe it was Pip not really knowing who he was… and I, too, as a closet trans*woman doing her best to live as a man, not really knowing, and inwardly gnawed at by the feeling I was somehow a fake.

Or maybe it was the sufferings caused by my family’s obsession with class. My first school was the local primary school, just outside Stoke-on-Trent, and at first I would come home speaking in a North Staffs accent. Until my dad got very angry with me and told me I mustn’t speak like that, I had to speak posh like him or i would never get a job and never get anywhere in the world. And then I was sent away to boarding school and lost touch with my roots and ended up feeling I belonged nowhere.

Whatever the reason, the book spoke directly to my heart and that was the one I decided to work on.

I still didn’t want to adapt it though. The show was supposed to be two hours or under and I knew that was impossible.

So the show was to be called “Havisham” instead, and simply tell her story. 

The whole company had a week’s workshop together and there was a young actor called Alan Cumming in the cast and he was so amazing as Pip that by the end of the week I knew it was Pip’s story that had to be told.

And then I had 5 weeks to write the script.

It started off so beautifully… the characters were so strong, the situations so dramatic… but then I realised I would have to cut so much I loved. The Aged P had to go. And the beautiful friendship between Herbert and Pip. The whole wonderful Pocket family had to disappear… 

One of the many miraculous things about the book is that although Dickens wrote it in instalments, he somehow kept the whole thing in a very tightly knit structure that I could not figure out how to put on stage.

And I had no idea how to kill off Miss Havisham and Magwitch so close together.

And the closer I got to the deadline, the more my script started to fall apart.

And how could I write for dancers? And how would the dancers interact with the actors? It was a small cast and most people were going to have to play at least two parts. And how would that all fit together?

We lived in Roslin Glen, and I would go for long anguished walks in the woods. Until, the day before rehearsal, when everything was hopeless, I broke down and cried under a tree.

And Jaggers’ last speech came into my head. And everything, miraculously, fell into place.

Thank you tree…

And then rehearsals started. We had five weeks rehearsal. Unheard of in those days: but we needed every hour of them.

We kept meeting in different spaces: I remember long journeys to Glasgow and then in the overground. A lot of poring over street maps and assembling in mostly dreary rooms where the most amazing and difficult things were happening.

I was rewriting the script and the Gregory Nash was doing the choreography and the composer was composing the music and the designer creating the set and somehow, miraculously, Ian Brown holding everything together.

It was incredibly intense and i don’t remember it being wonderful, especially, but it must have been because the final production was extraordinary.

Many people who saw it have never forgotten it.

The script became etched into my brain in that first production, and then the next year’s tour to Baghdad and Cairo and Alexandria and Delhi and Bombay and Kandy and Columbo and Madras and Calcutta and Dhaka.

I saw it in Egypt and in Bangladesh and in Cairo I watched as the Berlin Wall came down and my whole writing style changed forever.

And then when it was all over I had no realistic expectation of ever seeing the play again.

There were so many vital and beautiful choreographic moments and I could think of no way to write them down. They couldn’t fit into the script, and i couldn’t see it making sense to anyone without them.

But somehow companies did want to do it. I remember Salisbury Playhouse and the Lyric Belfast and even the education wing of the Royal National theatre. And I would write more words to replace the dance bits. And Northern Stage did it with a section on film.  And I wrote more words for Edi Macarthur and Pitlochry. And less words for the Unicorn. And others I think in all sorts of other places I forget until there was a beautiful touring production that went all round Scotland, and another amazing one that was done in Perth and which became the basis for the West End version which I also wrote more scenes for. 

And then last year it was translated into Japanese and put on in Tokyo and I changed the ending into a happy one because the director had just lost her husband and the line “Oh Pip take my hand before we part for ever” filled her with so much grief she didn’t know how to direct it.

And how amazing to sit in Dundee Rep, in that beautiful space, and be taken way back past all those rewrites to the very first version, because that’s the one the Company chose to do, and be amazed that the script still works somehow.

When I saw it on the first night I was so utterly engrossed in it I didn’t recognise any of the actors. I thought Jemima Levick, the director, has somehow assembled a new company for it.

So i was rather amazed when I met the cast afterwards and saw all their familiar faces… 

I must have looked at them a bit blankly. I hope they understood. Seeing it again I could finally fit all the actors to the roles and realised I knew just about everybody and had in fact worked with them on several occasions…

They moved me so much. This second time their performances had sharpened in their detail and so grown in their emotional depth.

It’s my job to communicate with actors, to put my intent in their words, and I don’t know why it always surprises me to discover I have succeeded.

I’d never consciously intended anyone like John Paul Jones playing the piano at the side of the stage: but what he did was so beautiful, and so utterly in tune with an old dream I’ve had. To write a melodrama. A melodrama in the proper sense.

It all made me so proud and happy and I write this to say thank you.

Thank you Dundee. Thank you tree.

And thank you John, as I was then, for doing such a good job with the script.

The script that in those days I had to write for others because for over forty years I could never, ever, have performed anything myself.

But now I can, in a way that continually strikes me as miraculous. And next month I perform my “Gospel According to Jesus Queen Of Heaven” in the Old Anatomy Lecture Theatre in Summerhall.

And look there it is in the Fringe programme.

How amazing.

I don’t quite know how it’s going to be. But I’m about to find out.

Because rehearsals begin tomorrow….

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