Photography: Tim Morozzo
When I was twelve years old, my mother came to see me in the boarding school in which I had been put. Such visits were unusual, partly because she lived so very far away, and partly too because there was a sense that it was somehow “good for boys” to be separated from our parents. Especially our mothers.
She took me out one Sunday that November, and then - joy of joys - I saw her again on the Wednesday. We were all to watch a rugby match; and she came along too. She brought along my little dog, Sally. She was a Jack Russell terrier and I loved carrying her inside my jumper so she could stick her neck out at the collar.
We were due to meet again the next day, the Thursday, when she was due to be at my Confirmation Service in the school chapel. This was a rite of passage service where we re-affirmed our baptismal vows and were then allowed to take communion.
Part of the service consisted of each of us going up the Bishop and kneeling before him. He was to lay his hands on our head and say a blessing. My mum wrote me a letter, that I received that morning, to say that I wasn’t to worry if I didn’t feel anything when this happened. When she was confirmed she had been eagerly anticipating some profound experience at this moment and was very disappointed when apparently nothing happened.
Whatever I felt at the moment, she wanted to reassure me, it would all be fine.
I was unexpectedly called away by the assistant head teacher, and off I went, with the letter still in my pocket, to be told by my grieving father that my mother had died very suddenly in the night.
It was a brain hemorrhage. It came out of nowhere. It devastated my young life.
Death is like that. I did not know it when I wrote this play, but I understand that this experience was the seed that first generated it.
Consciously, however, this play came from the death of my wife, Susie, in February 2005.
The process began in May or June 2004, when she suffered from something that was diagnosed as a stroke. Out of nowhere, she said she felt some evil creature fixing itself to her shoulder and battening on her. For a while she could not move; then she was taken to hospital.
I was away at the time, and could not help her.
She seemed to be on the road to recovery; but in August that year she started to lose her peripheral vision, become disorientated, and suffered from the most agonising headache. Again she fell unconscious; again she was taken to hospital; but this time they found a brain tumour. They drilled a hole in the back of her head; located the tumour; analyzed it; and discovered it was extremely malignant, and too close to the brain stem to be surgically removed.
They told me she might last for a week or so, but most likely she would die within days.
As it turned out, she lived another six months.
I cannot yet write about that time.
In the operation, my heart had to be stopped for the surgeon to repair it.
In that sense, I too have died.
Certainly I had to face the possibility of my own death: both before the operation and after it, when miscommunication resulted in my being seriously overdosed with warfarin and being close to bleeding to death.
Even now, each time I become aware of my own heart beating I also become aware that one day, and perhaps now, it will stop.
This sense is intensified by the fact that I have just reached the age of 60. This feels to me like a good time to contemplate the inevitable fact of my coming death.
Recently my mother-in-law’s health has deteriorated. I ring her up every morning; each time I hear her phone ring I know one morning she may have left us in the night and so not be there to answer it.
I have a dear friend, too, who suffers from incurable kidney disease. There is a possibility she may die suddenly at night. She lives alone, and was tormented by her thought of her dead body lying for days before someone discovered it. So we agreed she would text me every morning just to let us both know she is still alive.
This closeness to death does not depress or frighten me. On the contrary, it seems to heighten my appreciation of life.
This, too, I wish to communicate.
The play calls for 6 actors:
a middle aged man, a middle aged woman, a young man, a young woman, an old woman, and someone to play Death.
It opened in the Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh, on 19th March 2010.
It provoked extraordinary reactions.
This from the Guardian:
In the past five years, the author of Every One has lost a wife to a brain tumour, undergone a heart bypass operation, embraced Christianity and become a woman: John Clifford is now Jo Clifford. This upheaval has found expression in her writing, from a translation of Faust to the bereavement-based Leave to Remain. But it is in Every One, an astonishing response to the medieval Everyman, that she processes the trauma of death most profoundly.
This is a high-risk strategy. Every One is an open wound of a play: tender, private and vulnerable. It is protected by a self-deprecating humour and a rhetorical elegance – not to mention a superb production by Mark Thomson – but it is essentially raw and exposed. Clifford is either brave or foolhardy. You'd call her egotistical if there weren't tears rolling down your cheeks.
Like her own story, the play is both extraordinary and everyday. Mary is a mother of two whose sudden death leaves her husband and children struggling to find the order they had previously sought in Latin verbs, video games and fashion design. Journeying with Death towards heaven, Mary reflects on her life in a discussion that ranges from the futility of ironing to the Holocaust and the greed underpinning global warming.
As with many plays about death, it does not know how to end, and concludes in a frustrating stasis. But it has two absolving qualities: it is about a presence rather than an absence (Kathryn Howden, stunning as Mary, is scarcely off the stage); and it engages with the outside world, relating the bereavement on stage to every death of the last century. It is a work of cathartic brilliance.
The Scotsman said:
THE shock of bereavement – particularly when it involves the loss of someone in the prime of life – is a common human experience; thousands must live through it every day. Yet it's also an experience that our secular and youth-obsessed culture finds extraordinarily difficult to process; and although theatre groups in Scotland have been making some bold attempts to tackle it in recent years, the shows often struggle to move beyond a sense of bewilderment, outrage and shock.
All of that changes, though, with the emergence at the Lyceum of Jo Clifford's latest play Every One, a beautiful, strange and thought-provoking meditation on the sudden death, at the age of 50 or so, of its heroine Mary, a 21st-century Everywoman who works as a tax inspector, loves her husband and teenage kids and her old Mum, and is just getting on with the ironing when death comes to claim her. "Everyman, I will go with thee and be thy guide, in thy most need to go by thy side," goes the most famous quotation from the mediaeval morality play, Everyman, that inspired Clifford's work; and it's not long before a guide emerges from among the Lyceum crowd, to lead Mary through her hard and frightening journey from this world to the next.
It's no secret that Clifford's new work is based on her own experience. In a traumatic six years since 2004, the former John Clifford, now Jo, has lost her partner, the journalist Sue Innes, experienced a life-threatening illness herself, and made the profound death-and-rebirth decision to begin to live as a woman; and there are times when the experience she tackles in Every One still seems almost too raw to handle. The style of the play is boldly choric and reflective, rather than dramatic; the characters speak mainly in a series of linked monologues, which often work brilliantly, but sometimes seem just a shade overladen with stored-up emotion and psychological detail. And in the second act, there's an effort to use dance to express the moment when the spirit finally shakes itself free, which somehow doesn't quite catch light.
Despite the odd difficult moment, though – and a production that director Mark Thomson just needs to lift a little in terms of dynamic, song-like vocal delivery – this emerges as a stirringly powerful show, that not only goes straight to the heart of the ordinary human experience of the audience, but boldly links our thoughts about death, and the ultimate meaning of our lives, to the mighty global dramas, from holocaust to climate change, that sweep around our private worlds. The texture of Clifford's writing is extraordinary throughout, open-hearted, erotic, the unique voice of a middle-aged person absolutely in love with the pulse and richness of life, but wise enough to know that it has to be surrendered, one day. And it draws a magnificent central performance from the beautiful Kathryn Howden as Mary; with fine support from Jonathan Hackett as her bewildered husband, Jenny Hulse and Kyle McPhail as the kids, Tina Gray as Mother, and Liam Brennan as The Man, the one who comes to make it clear to this latterday Mary that no matter how much she loves her world, the time has come when she must move on.
More important to me than the reviews were the comments I received:
“I work at Samuel French's Theatre Bookshop and I read your play Every One today. I was just contacting you really to say thank you very much for writing such a great and moving play. I read the new plays when they come in because I like to know what we have in the shop but yours is the only one I have read that has provoked any kind of reaction in me or moved me so much.
I have only read the play so have not had the fortune of seeing it performed so can only imagine the staging and impact it must have.
After reading it I just felt I had to contact you, it had that much of an effect on me.
So once again, thank you”
Went to the matinee today. I wish I could just send you a broad, guileless, stupid grin because I'm not sure I'll be able to say in words the effect your work had on me, though I'm stupidly going to try. I was devastated and overjoyed at the same time. Overjoyed to be in the Lyceum auditorium enraptured once again by a theatre piece. It's been a long time. I'm not sure quite how you did it - well I know perfectly well how ... but not how ... what I mean is it was so simple yet complex; so deceptively powerful its impact crept up on me. I'm doubly glad now I stuck to my guns and didn't read a review or the programme beforehand - I didn't want anything or anyone else to colour my reception of the piece. I didn't know what was going to happen or to whom so the shock and surprise was all the more real. What a cast too. I still haven't read a review but am glad to see from comments here on Facebook that they are shaping up well. I just had to write and thank you for ... for ... och ... I can't use the word 'enjoy' because it was harrowingly beautiful, raw and effortlessly, painstakingly ... just plain brilliant, if brilliance can be plain. How did you know letting the characters speak so simply for so long for so much of the first half of the play would work so devastatingly well? Honest to god I am in awe at the form and structure of the piece. This play surely will transfer all over the world. Well done, Jo. And thank-you for restoring my faith in the medium.”
“Dear Jo, all I wanted to do when I saw you was hug you and everything you are. And I was at a loss for anything to say because I was slightly overawed and it was like I'd been waiting for that moment for so long and anything I could or should have said would have been futile. And now I've seen your play there's so much to think about and dwell on. I loved "Dr Death" being pressurised by God because of the underlying hint that God has a few hang-ups and paranoia about not being listened to and believed. I ADORED the Granny. I was so excited by the idea that she's a dribbling, helpless old woman, BUT she's actually already going on and has accepted this transitional journey her daughter's coming to terms with. I totally agree with Granny regarding ironing, there's no housework as satisfying that stays clean and doesn't feel as if it's a waste of time. I loved how the dreams of the characters were like small foresights. And at the end, I liked the idea of everyone going home. That we make our homes on earth, with things, but maybe we only find our real home and our real selves in death. And finally, and this is the thing which blows my mind most at the moment. It captures something I struggle with when I'm down. That the only person who can ever be there and knows how I feel in my utmost need is myself. In the end, the daughter went to herself as a child in a moment of loneliness and need, when the child's mother rejected her. That nearly broke my heart. I don't know why that person wrote saying it was depressing. It wasn't morbid at all. It was enlightening and funny and thoughtful. You got the balance just right. Can't wait for the next one!!”
"Thank you again Jo for Every One.
Can't sleep. Still reeling from it .
I haven't been so moved and rattled in such a good and positive way by a play.
It was so eloquent, heartfelt and beautiful.
I will never forget this evening."