The Director from Hell

Last week, in Glasgow's Oran Mor, I met one of Scotland's most distinguished actors, who greeted me with tremendous enthusiasm, and the words 'Oh God, that awful play....' He was talking about an early stage play of mine, called Heroes and Others, written for the then Scottish Theatre Company, a play in which he was unfortunate enough to be cast. I could see my lovely young director blench at the words, but both of us hastened to reassure her that neither of us (because I had been nodding in vigorous agreement) meant the actual script. Nor did we mean the performances, because the production in question had involved a number of equally talented actors. No, we meant that the play had been comprehensively mauled, as had writer, and actors, by the Director from Hell. The man is dead now. I can't help but be rather glad about that, I'm ashamed to say! He was an actor of some talent. But he was a really crap director. I was young and inexperienced and he rewrote my script.
Day after day, I would try to reinstate my dialogue, and he would compromise a bit, and then go away and rewrite my script again. It was the single most hideous theatrical experience of my life. Added to that, we were rehearsing in a derelict theatre, ice cold and dusty, and what with the dust and the stress, I had the worst asthma attack of my life. Looking back on it, I realise, queasily, that I could have died. Killed by my own play.
I was simply too young, and too inexperienced to fight him, and the person who should have been on my side - the artistic director of the company - was far too chicken to back me up. I remember bursting into tears on a number of occasions. I also remember encountering other weeping cast members in the loo. They too had been humiliated by the director. Now, whenever I meet anyone who was remotely involved with Heroes and Others, they say 'Dear God, that play!' It has become the benchmark for horror, for all of them.
It put me off writing for theatre for years. In fact it wasn't till I got the chance to work with Philip Howard, at the Traverse, that I tried again. I couldn't bear to look at the reviews of Heroes and Others, and indeed, filed them away. A few years ago, I read them properly, and realised that they weren't half bad. Well, not as far as I was concerned. What they were all saying was 'This is a good play, struggling to get out of a terrible production.' And they were right.
It wasn't until earlier this week, though, meeting that splendid actor, that I realised the full extent of the damage done to me by the Director from Hell. Somewhere inside me, all these years, had been the sneaking suspicion that the play was not a very good play. Or not good enough. It was about Solidarity in its early days, and was a subject that was very close to my heart. So it was doubly hard to see it so utterly changed. But I still had the sneaking suspicion that he might have been right and I might have been wrong.
'We all knew' said the actor 'that this was a wonderful, warm, thoughtful, family drama. What he turned it into was crass political polemic. He ruined it.'
I've been thinking about it ever since. And I'm sure the actor is right. It has - I suppose -given me what they call 'closure'! One thing I do remember, about the whole experience, is that I was under immense pressure from the company NOT TO TALK TO THE PRESS. I still don't know why I didn't talk to the press. I was, I seem to remember, interviewed very kindly by Joyce MacMillan. I'm sure she knew that it was not a happy production. Word gets about and she couldn't help but see the stress on my face. But I didn't break ranks, didn't tell her the full story. And I should have done. I was young, and inexperienced, and I didn't know any better. So I kept quiet.
Of course, when you are involved with a production, your first loyalty is always to your fellow performers, your director, actors, the people with whom you are working, and about whom you care. But this was different. Nobody was happy on that production. Not me, not the actors, not anybody who was struggling to cope behind the scenes. What was going on amounted, I now realise, to serious bullying. It should have been outed. I should have taken my script and walked. But I didn't. And it has taken me all these years to realise that - back then - I had written what might have been a perfectly good first professional play. If I had been brave enough to speak out. Which perhaps explains why I now tend to stick my head above the parapet rather too often for my own good.

Rehearsals and other complicated things

Have realised, over the past week - as I realise every time I'm involved with a new play - just how poorly understood is the process of developing and rehearsing a play, especially a new play.
This was brought home to me a few years ago, when I happened to be talking to a young performance student who clearly couldn't understand why she was being asked to analyse texts, when all she wanted to do was - well - perform. It was obvious that, having come from an amateur dramatic background, she seemed to think that professional performance involved being told where to stand and where to go, while learning the lines and making them sound natural. Similarly, somebody just asked me if rehearsals involved me 'making sure that the actor said the lines the way you want them said.'
Well, there is, of course, a sense in which all these things are true. Playwright David Mamet, famously, only asks of his actors that they read the lines the way they are written. But he IS David Mamet! There is also a sense in which all these things are only the tip of a much more difficult, but much more interesting iceberg. It is impossible to underestimate just how much rehearsal time (and pre-rehearsal time, with whoever is directing the play) is spent in analysing the script, discussing what it means, who these characters are, why they speak and behave the way they do - and what are the complex emotions underlying the words on the page. If director and actors bring a fine emotional intelligence to the project, the whole experience can be truly rewarding. But however rewarding, the process is never simple or easy, for any of those involved.

The Secret Commonwealth

Play rehearsals well under way now for The Secret Commonwealth, which will be opening the new Oran Mor 'A Play, A Pie and a Pint' lunchtime theatre season. Spent Monday and Tuesday in Glasgow - then came home and left them to get on with it for a bit. This is a single hander, so 'them' consists of the director, Jennifer Hainey (young and brilliant) and the actor Liam Brennan (a bit older, and also brilliant.) I've worked with Liam before both for stage and radio, and it is always a pleasure - he's such an intelligent, thoughtful and compelling actor with a huge breadth of experience, including a spell at the Globe, in London. There is also going to be music in the play, provided by young Gaelic singer and musician Deirdre Graham. Rehearsals are both stimulating and scary, in that all those involved ask difficult questions, and you had better be able to answer them! I always find myself stressing this to beginning writers when I'm doing workshops or courses in writing drama. Actors and directors will inevitably want to know all kinds of things about the text - and the person who has to have the answers is you. The buck stops fairly and squarely in your lap. No question, it's difficult, because quite often we do write instinctively, and find out why and how we've structured things afterwards. So sometimes, in answering these questions, you find yourself having to think on your feet - but mostly, you actually find out things about the play that were there all the time - just that you hadn't fully articulated them yet, even to yourself. If cuts are to be made, they are frequently to be found in sections that don't quite fit in. And it's during rehearsals that these sections will probably become self evident. All in all, an interesting and rewarding process - but always collaborative. If you don't like collaboration, the answer is simple. Don't write plays!

Wuthering Heights - again

Got up very early to watch the 1939 version of Wuthering Heights on TCM, with Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon. I have a long and loving relationship, not just with the novel, which I adore, but with this particular movie - although I'd be the first to admit that the film and the novel are very different. On the other hand, there has been such a procession of horrible dramatisations of this book, that the Olivier version always seems like the benchmark against which all others fail miserably. At least this version looks good and - praise the Lord - actually uses some of the dialogue from the novel. Most of the versions I've seen (and I've seen a lot) seem to involve the relentless imposition of somebody else's vision on a book that people clearly obsess about! Me too, me too...
The reason I'm so fond of the Olivier film is that it was my dear late mum's favourite movie. I grew up knowing about it, and was actually named for Catherine. I was trundled over the Howarth moors in my pushchair as far as Top Withins, the ruin that was supposed to be the site, if not the model, for Wuthering Heights itself. But, beyond all that, my mum's Yorkshire family were great readers, so I was also introduced to the novel itself at quite a young age.
Olivier looks right as Heathcliff, and, although the film relentlessly excludes the satisfying second half of the novel, in which the younger generation in some sense manage to resolve the intractable problems of the older set of characters, it still does less violence to the original than any of the others. On the other hand, Oberon is just petulant and irritating. It's actually very hard to find a Cathy who isn't irritating, and yet I only ever find the character in the novel fascinating, a brilliant portrait of selfish self destruction which seems absolutely true. Let's face it, this is a novel which is hugely resistant to dramatisation, and yet people seem to want to carry on trying.
The problem everyone encounters is the sheer, relentlessly violent sadism of Heathcliff. However you look at it, the novel is an exploration of cruelty as well as love, of nature red in tooth and claw. Olivier's portrayal spawned many thousands of romantic novels, with an equal number of tall, dark, handsomely brooding heroes. Olivier can brood romantically for England. But as far as I am aware, nobody - not even Olivier - has ever managed to capture the demonic nature of Heathcliff on screen. I don't think it's possible.
My latest novel, The Summer Visitor is, in a way, a homage to Wuthering Heights. The original is lodged so firmly in that part of my brain from which my creative inspiration comes that from time to time, I find myself returning to it. So The Summer Visitor is a story of a damaged soul, and an obsessive love in a rural setting. But I had to tread very carefully. Inspiration is fine. But imitations tend to be pale and invariably fall short of the incomparable original.

Resolutions 2010

Made fewer resolutions this year, but ones I might stand a chance of keeping. Mostly to do with writing. Focus. Stop prevaricating. Have a bit more confidence in myself - after all these years, all these plays, all these publications, and quite a lot of awards, I need to have the courage of my own experience. Is this a problem for women, I wonder? It shouldn't be, but maybe it is. Especially in Scotland where male writing is - with one or two notable exceptions - still taken more seriously than female writing. But I have a new agent for the new year and a good many interesting ideas, so - with a little invocation to the publishing angel (after all, it works for parking, so why not publishing?!) - here's hoping for better things in 2010 for all of us. I'm beginning with rehearsals for my new play, The Secret Commonwealth, starting on 18th January.