For our next First Draft cabaret event, the theme is going to be One Night Only!, and, in the lead up to this, I wanted to Do A Blog Thing. As I was thinking this, I noticed that a couple of rather lovely things have been floating around in the world of literary blogs and Twitter accounts.
The first was the #ThisBook hashtag started by the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction, which has been asking: Which book, written by a woman, has impacted, shaped or changed your life? (My choice, for anyone who’s interested, would be The Passion by the (admittedly rabbit-murdering) Jeanette Winterson.)
The second – which is similar, although (I think) unrelated – was This One Book: a ‘do one and pass it on’ blog from a very talented and sexy writer friend of mine, Daniel Carpenter, who, having got the ball rolling with his own most influential book The Wasp Factory, started to ask other talented and sexy writers to blog about their own. I’ll let him tell you a bit more about this, as I’ve asked him to be the first to pick up where I leave off after this blog post, but he’s done a lovely round up of the contributions to this so far here.
SO – onto the point of the thing. Dan has been kind enough to allow me to borrow his concept, wiggle it about a little bit, and bring it back again reshaped as #ThisOneNight. I’m going to run it from now until our One Night Only! event on 18 August, and between now and then I’m hoping to invite a number of past performers from all disciplines to write guest blogs for us about a live performance that has been significant to them. I also want to invite all our lovely friends, supporters and audiences to jump on the hashtag and tell us about theirs on Twitter.
Sound good? Well, I hope so, cos it’s a bit late for me to back out now…
To start us off (because a wonderful drama teacher once told me, during my first ever project as a director, that you should never ask anyone to do something that you’re not willing to do yourself) – I want to talk about my own most significant memory of a live performance. For anyone who has known me longer than five minutes, I doubt it will come as any surprise to hear that I’m going to talk about Shakespeare. I’m also, indulgently (but hey, what else are these things for?) going to talk about my dad.
When I was in my last year of primary school, my dad took me aside to tell me that he was going to be away on a work trip for my 11th birthday. Hyper-sensitive child and daddy’s girl that I was*, this was a Tragedy. I had a little tantrum. I made him feel really bloody guilty, in fact, with the result that he shortly afterwards presented me with an Extra Special Birthday Present: he was taking me, just the two of us, to see my first Shakespeare play at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon.
I can tell you more about my experience of that production than I can about shows – even good shows – I’ve seen in the last couple of years. I can tell you that the production design was contemporary and military, and that the witches wore combat boots. When they summoned up their three spirits, ghostly faces pushed through what appeared to be a solid wall at the back of the stage, like something out of Alien. The show was in the beautiful Swan Theatre – still my favourite theatre space in all the world – and if I took you there, I could show you exactly where we were sitting. I can tell you that after the show was over, and the stage was littered with debris from when the forest itself is brought up the hill against Macbeth, my dad reached out to ‘touch the stick’ closest to us. The image of his hand reaching out towards the prop is burnt into my memory. What else does a child need, to absorb the message that a stage is a sacred thing?
I can also tell you what an immediate effect that one evening had on me. Returning to my English lessons at school, I found that my teacher (probably deliberately, I now realise) had chosen the story of Macbeth to do with the class, and I proudly made myself the school expert. No one had told me that I would find the language difficult or dull, and so I didn’t. I sought out the story, and then many other Shakespeare stories, in many different forms. I marvelled at the process of studying the text itself, having seen its magic in the flesh, and developed a long-standing love for the way a seemingly obscure text can reveal itself, layer by wonderful layer, as you learn to interpret it.
One of my findings at the time: Macbeth – from the BBC’s Shakespeare: The Animated Tales series. Its terrifying animated witches remain one of my favourite introductions to Shakespeare for children.
The ways in which the experience of that one night has shaped my life are so numerous I don’t think I could list them all, even if I wanted to. It has bled into myriad areas of my consciousness, and I still find it spilling itself out in strange and unexpected places.** Some things are, of course, too huge to credit to one night in the theatre when I was 11 years old: the work I do now with First Draft and my theatre company, Faro Productions, the thrill I still get when the lights go down and the stage is still charged with unsatisfied expectation. I occasionally even dare now to call myself a ‘playwright’ or, more wankily, a ‘theatre-maker’. I read Shakespeare and his contemporaries greedily, for pleasure, and know that I am lucky to do so. For my undergraduate dissertation, I worked on a theatre project called Lord, Life & Keeper, which reimagined the stories of three Shakespeare plays including Macbeth, but this came after years of sustained interest and investigation, many other great teachers and friends and colleagues who inspired me afresh, and, yes, almost uncountable evenings spent in a dark theatre, in front of different stagings of that play. But I do believe it was the spark that began it all. The very first hit of something that now runs in my veins.
Three years ago, I got married in Stratford, at the very beautiful Shakespeare Hotel. It’s been a special place for both my wife and I; first separately, through our parents, and then together. My coming out had not been easy, and my relationship with my parents had been under huge strain. I wondered if my dad still loved me as much as he did when I was 11 years old.
In his speech, he told this story: of taking his eldest daughter to her first Macbeth. He talked about the things I hadn’t seen then; how his guilt about missing my birthday meant he forked out a fortune for front row seats, how we’d driven the looooong journey there and back in the middle of a working week for him, how it had been as special to him as it was to me. I wept.
* read ‘am‘ – who am I kidding?
** I’ll be reading a short story inspired by Macbeth this Wednesday (25 June) at Bad Language – just a blip amidst an incredibly exciting line up. Do come on down for a listen.