It’s like the beginning of
a joke. How long does it take to write a play with no words? The answer? A very
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
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
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
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)