(The Vox Motus Studios. Glasgow. Afternoon.)
CANDICE Can we have the top narration more personal, more particular?
JAMIE And can it fit into 11 seconds?
I’m in a note session with Candice and Jamie, Artistic Directors of Vox Motus, going over our latest show, Flight. Flight is an adaptation of Caroline Brothers’ excellent novel Hinterland. It’s March. With every character note or dialogue change or scene cut, there is always the question of timing. Everything has to be perfectly timed or the whole thing falls apart.
The problem – or challenge – is that Flight is not a play in a traditional sense. It’s a narrative diorama – a huge revolve with over 200 light boxes each filled with 3D models and landscapes – that turns at around 1.5mph. The audience sits in booths with headphones, the boxes moving at their eye-line. Every word of dialogue or narration, every sound effect and music cue, has to exactly fit into the timing of the revolve or the whole effect is ruined.
And that’s why I only have 11 seconds for the opening narration.
I suppose I could find this frustrating or restrictive but actually I loved writing Flight. I had to read every scene aloud with my Casio digital watch in my hand, marking out the seconds.
I was in nerd heaven.
Most often the process of writing a play is that I write a script then the design and everything else follows that.
Script > design.
With Flight this process has been customised.
Firstly, I started off with a ‘provocation document’. This had scenes with characters but also pictures and poems and maps. It’s certainly not a traditional first draft. Jamie and Candice are incredibly visual, they think in pictures far more than in dialogue, so I wanted to hand in something that would speak to them. From this Jamie (as designer) made a storyboard of the scenes he was most interested in. With new ideas and notes from Candice and Jamie, I then went away and wrote an audio-only script that would synch up with the storyboard.
I was letting the visuals lead at this point, holding words back as much as possible, taking my cue from the design.
Script > design > script. (Repeat).
The nearest thing I can compare it to is composing the music for a film. The film exists. It was my job to write dialogue and narration that would bring the maximum effect without distracting or undermining the visuals.
As a playwright, it’s been incredible to be part of a team where each artist involved is as vital as the other. Without Jamie and Rebecca’s amazing design, the brilliance of the sound and composition by Mark, the amazing lighting design by Simon, the huge number of model makers and technicians who put it all together, the wonderful performances of our actors, the ace front of house team, we would have no show. Flight has been an unique experience for me, as I hope it will be for its audience.
Flight is at the Edinburgh International Festival 4-27 August 2017 at Church Hill Theatre Studio. Click here for more info and tickets.
I knew I didn’t want to write about the Home Front as it’s been traditionally imagined. You know the propaganda posters: THESE WOMEN ARE DOING THEIR BIT. WOMEN OF BRITAIN SAY GO. As a playwright, I’m hugely suspicious of single narratives, the notion that things were this way and no other way. I always want to say ‘yes but what’s really going on…?’
Britain by 1917 was a predominantly female society. Of the 11,000 industrial workers in Glasgow 7,000 were women. The men that were around were either old or wounded or politicians. Of course, men still had all the power, made all the laws, forbidding the vote to their wives, daughters and mothers. But how was life different? What were the rules in the absence of men policing the behaviour of their women? How did it feel to be able to work and provide for your family?
I was also interested in how women spoke out. 1917 was an incredibly volatile year, right across the world, and women were finding new ways to resist. The opposite of silence is song and women sang and marched and protested as never before. Despite the terrible slaughter across the Channel, it must have been an extraordinary time full of possibility and hope.
When I started writing this play in August 2016, it felt like a history play, like a play about how people lived before rather than how they lived now. But by early 2017 (and I don’t want to draw the parallel too sharply) with the inauguration of President Donald Trump, millions of women took to the streets to proclaim and, yes, sing their resistance. As much as anything, this play is inspired by the notion that speaking out rather than staying silent is the way things change.
I’d like to pay special tribute to Janet Booth and the family of Gertrude and Harry Farr for generously sharing their story with me and allowing me to tell it.
The 306: Day tours Scotland until 3rd June 2017 in a production by the National Theatre of Scotland, Stellar Quines, Perth Theatre in association with the Red Note Ensemble and 14:18NOW. For more information and other articles and videos click here.
[This article was written for the free programme produced by the National Theatre of Scotland]
For me, there is never one way to research something I'm writing. Sometimes I will read lots of books, other times I'll visit a place or speak with an expert. My favourite is the latter. I love talking to people who know everything about a subject.
Very occasionally I will rely on the internet.
Don't get me wrong. The internet is brilliant if you need to know something quickly, a fact or a date. I'm completely addicted to Wikipedia. But if you want to know something deeply or fathom the layers of nuance, give me a library or an expert every day of the week.
When I decided to write a short story from the point of view of a tree, I knew that I wanted the tree to be a real tree. That is, I wanted it to exist in the real world. I also wanted the tree to be in America. For some reason I can't quite remember I ended up typing into Google: trees washington square park new york new york.
Up came what was, for me, a brilliant and rare website that gave me everything I needed.
[This is the link: http://ny.curbed.com/2015/4/26/9967008/this-map-lists-every-tree-in-washington-square-park]
Created by 'community and urban forester' Georgia Silvera Seamans and the people at Washington Square Park blog, it's a map of all the trees in Washington Square Park. It tells the species, diameter and other historical information of every tree. I spent a wonderful afternoon clicking on each of the trees before selecting the Flowering Dogwood on the north corner of the park. (I liked its name).
I'm sure that for most listeners of the short story the fact that the tree is a real tree is unimportant but as a writer it really enabled me to think myself inside the 'mind' of the tree and picture its world. Sounds mad? I guess. But I'm grateful to the makers of this marvellous website and for their expertise and time.
TRANSFORMATIONS is broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Sunday 29th January at 7.45 pm read by Shauna MacDonald and produced by Kirsty Williams.
Appropriately enough, I was on holiday in Paris when I get a call from Dan Rebellato, one of the lead writers on Emile Zola: Blood, Sex & Money (Series 3).
Dan was phoning with a problem. He said that we had run out of books.
This seemed like a bad joke. The series is, I believe, the largest adaptation that BBC Radio 4 has ever done – 26 episodes over 3 series totalling over 24 hours of broadcast. There are 20 novels in the Rougon-Macquart series and none of them could be described as short. We had had to be ruthless in our adaptations thus far.
The fact remained that in our final series, between adaptations of The Earth and The Debacle, we had a single episode gap and no book to fill it.
Our solution was that I would write a ‘new’ Zola, an original story that would fill the space and take us towards the final weekend of episodes that concluded the series with the great disaster of the Franco-Prussian war of 1870.
But where to start?
How do you write a play inspired by a novel that doesn’t exist?
There were a few things in my favour. The first was that by this time I had read a lot of Zola. I had also written five episodes for series 1 and series 2. He was in my head. I would never claim to understand how Zola thought but I had started to get a grip on how his stories worked. The second thing was that Zola often used real historical events as moments in his own work, for example the Orsini assassination attempt that plays a major role in His Excellency (and my adaptation, Politics).
Dan suggested I take a look at the story of the Ems telegram as a starting point and see what I could come up with.
The result is Fate, a fictionalisation of the diplomatic scandal that lead up to the Franco-Prussian war in which Eugene Rougon – the most power hungry of the family – inadvertently leads his country towards catastrophe.
This new play is also an opportunity for me to conclude the story of Eugene, a character previously seen in Politics (Series 1), Power and Family (Series 2), and brilliantly played by Robert Jack. Despite his obvious awfulness, I’ve loved writing Eugene as well as developing his hate-hate relationship with his grandmother and our narrator, Dide. In the novels, we never find out what happens to Eugene but I thought the opportunity to finish his story too good to miss.
It was an odd experience to adapt a book that was never written. While I was writing, I often found myself reaching for the original book to check over what I’d written only to remember that there was no book to check.
I held to several guiding principles. Firstly, Zola’s characters are rarely aware of their own failings but rather their actions often act as catalyst for disaster. When given two choices, a Zola character will almost always choose the one that will do her or himself the most damage in the long term. For me, Zola is a master of tragedy, albeit a naturalistic tragedy. Secondly, what happens in a small, private space can have repercussions in the wider world. Especially in his role as a diplomat, every word that Eugene expresses can have immediate and devastating consequences. Lastly – and something that we’ve pursued relentlessly throughout the whole series – at the root of everything is family. Family is a word I think I’ve written and considered more than any other.
Since finishing the script I’ve often wondered what Zola would make of this new story. I believe I’ve stayed true to the spirit of his work and characters but I’ve also certainly taken great liberties. We set out to create new and dynamic plays from the river of words that Zola left us. Although he never wrote the book called Fate, I hope he would enjoy the continued life of his characters and vision.
A quick round of thanks.
It’s been an enormous privilege to work on all three series of Emile Zola: Blood, Sex & Money and to have collaborated so closely with my fellow writers: Dan Rebellato, Martin Jameson and Lavinia Murray. I want to thank them for their brilliance and support throughout the two years we’ve been writing these plays. Thanks too to the other producers at SparkLab and in Salford. Thank you to the fabulous studio staff at Salford, London and Glasgow. We’ve been blessed with amazing actors throughout the series, too many to name here, but special mention must go to Glenda Jackson who created a whole universe with her performance as Dide.
Lastly, I want to thank my producer and friend extraordinaire, Kirsty Williams.
There are very few things we know about the executed soldiers. Here are the facts.
Harry Farr was born in Paddington in 1891. He was one of seven brothers. He married Gertrude at Kensington Registry Office in September 1913 and their daughter, also named Gertrude, was born in December that year. Harry had already been in the Territorials for three years and was a reservist before being called up in August 1914. He saw her once again in November 1914 then never came back.
Joseph William Stones was born in 1890 in Crook and was a miner before joining up in 1915. The details of his trial are publically available and are excellently laid out in Blindfold and Alone by Cathryn Corns and John Hughes-Wilson – a book I found invaluable, not only for its examination of the individual cases of the accused men but also for the context in which these executions took place. Willie (as he was to those close to him) had made a deal with a miner friend of his that if anything should happen they would look after each other’s family. His friend kept his promise. Deprived of a pension after Willie’s execution, his wife Isabel married Arthur Jones in December 1917.
About Joseph Byers we know even less than the others. He was born in Scotland but not the date or the place. We know that he volunteered on 20th November 1914 in one of the first great patriotic waves in the early months of the war. He arrived in France on 3rd December 1914. On 8th January, Joseph went off to fetch coal and never returned. He was caught, tried for desertion and executed on 6th February 1915. He had been a soldier for less than three months.
Joseph’s records were destroyed by bombing in the Second World War and despite the work of many historians, journalists and a genealogist employed by the National Theatre of Scotland, no family member had ever been located.
The only document that we have is Joseph’s will. It’s in the National Archive of Scotland and I’ve a photocopy of it. It reads simply: ‘In the event of my Death I give the whole of my stuff to my Sister Nellie Murray’.
With so little documentary evidence how is it possible to write about these men?
I started by reading a lot of books about the First World War. History books, poetry, novels letters. There was almost a hundred per cent literacy in 1914, everyone could write and they did so profusely.
There’s very little testimony by the condemned men themselves. Many were too ashamed to write a letter home. Others had to ask a priest or their guard because they did not feel capable of writing that farewell missive themselves. Some were drunk on their last night. All of them were given less than twenty-four hours notice of their execution. The remaining letters were hastily written goodbyes, full of sorrow and shame and apologies for what they had done.
The first-hand accounts I had at my disposal, I owe to the diligent work of my excellent researcher Sam Tranter. Sam was able to find a few eyewitness accounts of executions as well as testimonies by members of firing squads. These acts affected everyone who took part in them. They rarely spoke of it but never forgot it.
What I have done in writing this play is to imagine the gaps, the spaces between the facts, and create a version of what could have been. It is not the absolute truth of what happened, nothing ever could be. But I have tried to be as honest as I know how and have based the opinions of the characters on evidence from the time. Laurie Sansom, the director, said early on in the process that I shouldn’t be afraid to use the real names and stories of these people. I’ve often felt overawed by the responsibility to Harry, Willie and Joe but never doubted the vital importance of remembering their story.
(This was first published as a programme note to the National Theatre of Scotland's production in May-June 2016)
"Invitation goes up on the sixth form noticeboard. 'You and a partner are cordially invited to the greatest night of your life...' Four friends are reunited to remember when they were seventeen and beautiful. The end of school Prom. As memories are recalled and secrets laid bare, a terrible truth is brought to light."
Yes! After a long wait PROM finally opens at A Play, A Pie, and A Pint at Oran Mor (Glasgow) this week before heading to the Traverse (Edinburgh) and the Lemon Tree (Aberdeen). I wrote PROM awhile back so I'm delighted that it will at last be put in front of an audience. The cast are amazing - Helen McKay, Nicola Roy, Martin McBride and Ryan Fletcher - so if you get a chance to see it then please do come along.
There are a few folk I need to thank for getting PROM to where it is today.
Firstly thank you to Susie Armitage and everyone at A Play, A Pie and A Pint in Oran Mor. Thank you to everyone at the Traverse and the Lemon Tree.
Thank you to all the young people who spoke to me about their experiences of their own prom, at the Tron Young Company, the students at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and my students at University of St Andrews. I wish I could put everything in the play that you told me but people wouldn't believe the half of it.
Thank you to Alice McGrath, Lu Kemp and Victoria Beesley for advice in the writing.
Thank you to Imaginate who gave us some money to play with the idea, and to the brilliant actors who developed it with us, Finn Den Hertog, Hannah Donaldson, Gemma McElhinney and Robbie Jack.
Thank you to the makers of Scream and Mean Girls, you provided us with some much valued perspective. Also a personal thank you to John Hughes who explained my childhood to me.
Finally thank you to Gaz Nicholls whose play this is as much as mine. You're a beautiful fellow.
The Lost Things, the play for ages 8+ I made last year with the puppet wizards Tortoise in a Nutshell is off on a UK Tour in a couple of weeks. About losing things, finding things you didn't know you wanted, it's a wild, crazy fairytale with monsters, robots and making friends.
The capacity is tiny so make sure you book in advance. We'd love to see you.
Here are the dates:
Thur 4 Feb: The Beacon Arts Centre, Greenock 11am & 1.30pm
Fri 5 Feb: The Beacon Arts Centre, Greenock 9.30am & 11am
Sat 6 Feb: The Lowry, Salford 11am & 1.30pm
Wed 10 Feb: Arlington Arts, Newbury 7pm & 8.30pm
Saturday 13 Feb: Greenwich Theatre 11am, 1pm & 3pm
Sunday 14 Feb: Greenwich Theatre 11am & 1pm
Monday 15 Feb: Lichfield Garrick 11.30am & 2.30pm
Tuesday 16 Feb: Lichfield Garrick 11.30am & 2.30pm
Thurs 18 Feb: Mac, Birmingham 11.30am & 2.30pm
Fri 19 Feb: Mac Birmingham 11.30am & 2.30pm
Sat 20 Feb: Mac Birmingham 11.30am & 2.30pm
Wed 24 Feb: The Brunton, Musselburgh 11am & 1.30pm
Fri 26 Feb: Lochgelly Centre 11am & 1.30pm
Sat 27 Feb: Lochgelly Centre 11am & 1.30pm
Tues 1 Mar: Paisley Arts Centre 11am & 1.30pm
Thurs 3 Mar: Horsecross, Perth 11am & 1.30pm
Fri 4 Mar: Lemon Tree, Aberdeen 11am & 1.30pm
Sat 5 Mar: Lemon Tree, Aberdeen 11.30am & 2.30pm
Sun 6 Mar: Eden Court, Inverness 1.30pm & 4pm
Mon 7 Mar: Eden Court, Inverness 11am & 1.30pm
Composer Gareth Williams and I will be at the Meet The Artists event to talk about our new play The 306, as well as all the other theatre makers with work in the new National Theatre of Scotland season, at the Royal Lyceum in Edinburgh on Sunday 24th January at 4pm.
Be nice to see some friendly faces so do please come along. One of the pieces from the play will be performed so you'll get a sneak peak...
Click here for details and tickets, etc.
It’s like the beginning of a joke. How long does it take to write a play with no words? The answer? A very long time.
I remember when Jamie Harrison and Candice Edmunds of Vox Motus approached me to write Dragon in January 2010. They said they wanted a play about a young boy, grief, set in Glasgow with a dragon. Oh and there should be no words. Some words, I said with a smile, there have to be some words. Both of them gave me that look that directors give playwrights when they want to be kind but firm. No words, came the reply.
I never know where my plays will end up when I start them. I put the characters in a place, under as much pressure as I possibly can, and see what happens next. Tommy’s story was easy to begin as it chimed with my own life. I moved to Scotland in 2006 after the death of my mum. I wasn’t a kid but I’d felt the pain and isolation and anger of grief. The unexpected death of a parent, or anyone you love, fractures the world. Reality shifts. The things you took for certain – like gravity, even – come unstuck.
There’s sometimes a fear, especially from adults, that presenting children with terrible things like death is bad for them. Don’t take them to funerals. Stop the film before Bambi’s mum is killed. They don’t need to see that. But as the great novelist Neil Gaiman said in an interview about his horrifying version of Hansel and Gretl, ‘if you’re protected from the dark things, you’ll be left with no protection when they show up’.
I felt I wanted to show everything that happened when a family’s centre breaks. The insomnia, the awkwardness with pals, the forgotten washing up, and the silence. As a child, you are feeling all these things for the first time with no sense that it will get better. You don’t have the words to explain what is happening and others are afraid to talk to you.
Why are there no words in Dragon? It was a question I kept coming back to, as I was writing. There are obviously very valid production reasons. It’s easy to tour abroad, for one thing. It’s accessible. But why? Why? Why? For me, it’s never enough to do something for the sake of it, I need to know why.
It was while we were workshopping the ‘day-in-the-life’ sequence a year or so later that it finally clicked. The way Jamie and Candice work is to stand up and try things out. Tommy was getting up, brushing his teeth, going to school. Things were being thrown around. Bits of bike, a basketball, a backpack. What I noticed while we practiced this was that everything was centred around Tommy. He was the focus. The story was from his point of view and because he couldn’t talk neither did the world.
I met a woman recently who stopped talking for a year after she witnessed the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York on September 11th 2001. Her offices were close by and as the towers fell, she discovered that no words would come. She tried everything. All kinds of medicine and therapy. There was nothing she could do. She was silent.
I didn’t know this story when I wrote Dragon but I’d heard about selective mutism in children who had suffered trauma. At school, I’d studied the effects of shellshock in the First World War, the soldiers that had nothing physically wrong with them but who could not speak of what they had suffered. For my play, the cause and consequence was very simple. Tommy is a normal boy with a normal family then his mum dies and he discovers he cannot speak…
The play is actually quite a normal play when you read it. There’s only one stage direction on the front page: The play is written to be performed without words. That is, the characters in the world are able to speak to one another but the actors on stage do not. Neither do they mime. Each spoken line should be replaced by a physical gesture that stands in the place of verbal expression.
Everything else, the characters and dialogue and action, is the same as any other play. It’s the silence that makes it unusual and also, I hope, gives it its poetry. The world that Jamie and Candice have created is extraordinary, dark and surprising. Without spoken text, we are free to interrupt a moment how we wish. We are allowed to imagine. I love words (I hate writers who say that. Words aren’t something you love. They’re just words. Some of them are awful. Like ‘crisps’) or rather I love dialogue but without it, you can fly freely.
And the dragon? Lots of people have come up to me after the show to either ask or tell me what the dragon means. I don’t have any one answer. Or rather I do but people think I’m crazy. The dragon is a dragon. It’s neither male nor female, neither good nor bad. It’s what it is. A mythical beast that arrives one stormy night in Tommy’s life and changes everything.
(Originally published as part of the programme for the Edinburgh International Festival 2015 programme for Dragon)
(Originally published as part of the programme for the Edinburgh International Festival 2015 programme for Dragon)
Why adapt Zola? What’s he got to say to us today? If the novels are so good why not leave them as they are – as novels – and forget it?
These are the questions I started with when asked if I’d be interested in adapting not one, not two, not three but twenty novels by Emile Zola, the Rougon-Macquart cycle. I didn’t know Zola well. Like most people, I’d read his first book Therese Raquin and I’d studied J’Accuse at school. And being a playwright, I knew that he was the granddaddy of naturalism. When I thought of Zola I thought of rigorous truth-telling, a darkness beneath the surface, violence, Paris and love-triangles. Of course, I said yes.
Since then Zola has occupied a huge amount of my waking life. The team of writers – Dan Rebellato, Michael Jameson and myself – decided early on that we weren’t interested in doing ‘straight adaptation’. Dan calls it ‘the river’, a river of stories, with different narrative strands pulled from different books and brought together in dramatic form. That means we take a little bit from The Belly of Paris, another part of His Excellency and a chunk from L’Assommoir. We are making new plays from Zola’s world rather than simply trying to cut them down to dramatic size. It’s a wonderful, irreverent, daring way to adapt but it means we have dive deep into every novel and that has taken a lot of reading and discussion and dreaming.
When you’re adapting a book, you read it very differently. I’m not just reading Zola. I’m trying to get inside his characters, locate his images and themes, explore his ideas. It’s fully immersive and a bit like wearing someone else’s clothes. Sometimes it’s comfortable and sometimes you wish you’d never borrowed these clothes in the first place.
But then there are the moments when you find it, the way of telling that is surprising and new and exciting yet faithful to the original. I’ll give an example. My radio producer, Kirsty Williams, and I were trying to figure out a way to do Zola’s breakthrough novel L’Assommoir, a story of working class hardship, alcohol addiction and suffering. It’s the novel that made Zola rich and the one that defines the whole cycle. The central character, Gervaise Macquart is brilliantly drawn – both tragic and tough.
The challenge for us was two-fold: firstly there had been a recent radio version; secondly we didn’t have very much money for actors. Limitations can often sound like complaints but creatively they can be very useful. If you can’t do it that way, you are forced to imagine something new. I remembered that Zola’s original title for the novel (which roughly translates as The Drinking Den) was The Sad Life of Gervaise Macquart and at once the answer seemed obvious. It would be a biography of Gervaise but, more than that, it would be an autobiography. None of Zola’s books are written in the first person but this would allow me to tell the story from a new point of view whilst drawing everything from the original. Gervaise would tell her own story in her own words.
There’s something intimate about radio. The story is close to the listener, it’s in their ear, their kitchen or car. This helped me when I was thinking about how Gervaise might speak. She was talking to a friend, an old friend, and she was remembering her life, telling secrets and speaking of moments of transformation. Zola doesn’t write as much dialogue as, let’s say, Dickens but there were plenty of clues to the roundabout way she thinks and speaks. I’d read the novel many times and so I knew the story by heart. I put it to one side and just let Gervaise talk to me.
What has Zola got to say to us? I come back to this every time I start a new script (and I’m on numbers four and five at the moment!) and it’s not an idle question. To adapt a book, personally I have to believe there’s something worth saying and it has to be urgent. What has Zola got to say to us on this day? There are lots of answers, I believe.
Ultimately Zola’s novels are books about a family. Why do we look back at our own families and tell their stories? Because we want to find out who we are and how we got here. It’s not always easy to hear the answer. In this case, the 104 year old Dide (as played by the amazing Glenda Jackson) finds there’s a lot more to her family than she bargained for.
(first published on the Oxford University Press blog on November 23rd 2015)
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