Monthly Archives: March 2020

Falling Prey

A play I wrote and performed in the 80s came into my mind today. It was called Falling Prey.

falling prey

Joseph living on the streets

In the mid to late 80s i was living in Central London and we were right in the middle of the AIDS pandemic. For a while many people pretended not much was happening. This is a natural response when something you feel is wonderful and helps define you (in this case, a free-and-easy approach to sexual encounters) is under threat. We tried to brush it aside and say things like, “well don’t have sex with Americans” as it had been rumoured to originate there amongst the gay community. Or you might say there were certain things you could and couldn’t do. A whole raft of theories came up ; some correct, some completely unfounded. Many people would cling onto anything, as long as they could just behave as they had always done, for a while at least. 

On the other side, people were all too prepared to exercise their prejudices and hate. People were blamed immediately; the usual suspects; gay men, prostitutes, drug addicts and Africans.  (I was deeply saddened by the Italian ambassador to Britain pleading with the British population not to target Italians as the corona-carriers the other day.)

In the 80’s  the blaming was overt and inflammatory, because the targets were the object of vilification to start with. AIDS was “The wrath of God” against sexual perverts. Even when it was clarified that straight people could get it too, that vilification did not go away.  The Evening Standard newspaper was one of the worst offenders. Gays should be monitored, tagged, and sent to camps. You could catch it from kissing and from swimming pools they said and a whole raft of rumours spread. It was very very scary.

in 1987 I wrote a play set five years into the future (1992) called FALLING PREY,  presented at the Man in the Moon Theatre in King’s Road London predicated on the idea that the police were given powers to round up the homeless and test them, there was mandatory testing for high risk groups and that only those tested from high risk groups with a ‘clear’ status could work in caring professions.  The play was pretty epic in scope and was as much about Thatcher’s divided Britain as it was about AIDS. Thatcherite policies such as , “There is no such thing as society” one of her particular pronouncements encouraged the kind of division and nastiness such as exists even more at the moment. I already am appalled by the way I feel some politicians are using the current emergency as a smokescreen to consolidate their power.

In Falling Prey, there were three interweaving stories: Mel, (Liz Richardson) an unfocussed lonely middle class housewife who became paranoid about AIDs and became gradually politicised by a right wing group; a soft ‘liberal’ trendy gay spokesperson Colberton (Charles Grant) for the oncoming identity card campaign; and a young primary school teacher Joseph (myself), who because he suspects that he might be HIV positive goes underground and ends up homeless, who endures all sorts of deprivation only to discover at the end of the play that he is not, that he has endured that persecution for nothing. At the end of the ordeal he completely goes mad , attacking the policeman who brought him in saying “you’ve got something! You’ve got something!” Joseph’s journey might be hard to understand today but it spoke very much to how people were feeling at the time. You were dealing with a feeling that you might be guilty of something (after all, the media intimated you were) and there was no cure then, in fact even the remedial drugs were very experimental . I knew a few people who killed themselves rather than endure years of suffering and pain. It is sad and shocking to think of it now.

But whilst there is still no adequate vaccine  for AIDS(though it is getting there) , the ‘holding drugs’ have allowed people to engage in full lives and the prejudice that seemed so imminent then did not manifest itself in quite that way thank goodness. In many respects, not least Ireland, there has been excellent progress. Lest we get blasé even about this however , Poland, a member of the EU no less, is still horrifically setting up LGBT free-zones. (The EU should be threatening them with expulsion for this behaviour in my opinion).

thinking about now,

Right now I feel like a minor character in an Old Testament story in the midst of the Deity’s Wrath:  plagues of locusts, War, out of control Fire and Flood. Globalisation, greed, inequality, murder, rape, trafficking and of course the rebelling angry  climate.

In my house, the Anchorhold, where I live with my partner I have always felt like I live on a ship. (On windy days like today it seems especially so).The first year we arrived here was 94/95 which, for those reading this and alive then, was a wild and fractious winter here in Ireland . Our house feels like the Ark, ploughing through the wind and rain – in movement itself, rather than still. It feels as if we are on a voyage in it,

which of course we are.

 

The Whole of Russia is Our Orchard

UnknownAfter working recently with the same translation of this play in a post graduate class I was struck again by the wonder of Anton Chekhov’s plays, as I always am. When I was introduced to the Three Sisters in my very first year of drama school, the teacher’s love and enthusiasm was something I have kept with me ever since. So I went with a group of students to the production of The Cherry Orchard by Druid Theatre. It was very enjoyable and educational as my students and I had a good twenty/thirty minutes afterwards discussing the production of a play we had studied practically on our feet in acting class last semester.

Chekhov’s plays are not realistic, they only appear to be. When played totally realistically the characters appear aimless and merely stupid. But these plays are poems that appear to be plays. In actual fact all the characters are being torn apart and what is so powerful about the plays is that everyone has these polarities within them. if the actors do not play these conflicts fully then the play seems pointless. The Cherry Orchard becomes a long play about selling a house (as my partner remarked on the drive home).

Everyone is pulled in many directions from the beginning. Lopahkin is conflicted because he really wants to help Lyubov. He owes her; she saved him from a difficult childhood. This is in the script, not something I imagined. It is an extremely frustrating position for him; part of him is hungry to buy the orchard and part of him feels he is not worthy. In his big speech this should tear him apart. He is drunk and when you are drunk things come out. His big speech gives ample opportunity to explore this and reveal more of the character. Lyubov, in her turn, is selfish, manipulative and confused but as maddening as she is, she has at her heart the idea that she is a terrible mother and deserves to be punished. (there are other places you can go with this but that’s a good engine). Is not perhaps her constant profligacy to give away money a way of showing how generous and guilt-ridden she is? Yasha is not just a kind of upwardly mobile cruel servant but someone who feels the pull of his peasant background and is rebelling against it. There is a wonderful scene in the play where Yasha is left alone with Lyubov for a moment and he begs her to take him with her back to Paris. This is a very short scene but for Yasha’s character it is crucial and I feel I want to see his desperation. Petya, the student, shows many signs of political dilettante behaviour in the play but his ‘The whole of Russia is our orchard’ speech has to lift us to counteract his immature behaviour later. For that moment I as an audience member really have to feel that the world can change. What I am saying here is that everyone in this play has a lot at stake and without that, nothing can happen and the play is just a lot of silly people struggling.

Additionally all the characters have to have a journey because at first glance, the production will not have a trajectory other than, as I say, the house is sold.  Having said that, there were several excellent performances. I especially liked Varya (Siobhan Cullen), Firs (John Olohan), Carlotta (Helen Norton) , Pischik(Garrett Lombard)  and especially Gayev(Rory Nolan); they impressed me a lot but good acting (as much as actors might believe it) cannot provide this feeling of the Whole (another Michael Chekhov term) by themselves.

All plays need atmosphere but Chekhov’s plays especially. Despite some beautifully atmospheric scene changes I longed for more in the scenes themselves, because the intangible sense of atmosphere as explored by Anton’s genius nephew, the teacher/actor/director Michael Chekhov is one of the most important things that actors (not just designers and lighting designers) have to create and work with. The atmosphere also unites the cast even when the characters do not respond to it in the same way. I remember well in our acting class (and I am not trying to compare a professional production with a class – I am simply giving an example) the atmosphere of the nursery, invading the consciousness of all the characters who entered that room  after their journey and most particularly Anya and Lyubov the two characters to whom it mattered most.

On a more practical note, acoustically there are a lot of problems in the Black Box, where the play was performed. It is a large cavernous space. I know these problems, because with my touring company Theatrecorp I did seven productions in there. Any attempt to speak to the wings or upstage means you need a lot of breath and one or two people were inaudible. It is also important to note that with a very wide stage space even those who sit at the front stage left are almost as far away as those at the back of the auditorium if you are speaking from stage right.