Inés de Castro

Written: 1989

Traverse Theatre

Inés is a play that almost never happened.

I had got involved for very cynical reasons: I had heard that a foundation to promote Portuguese culture in English wanted to commission a british playwright to dramatise the story: and I thought, well, at least I'll get a holiday in Portugal.

So I went. I saw the tombs: the tombs designed by Pedro to face each other across the nave of the monastery church in Alcobaca, so that when they rose from the dead the first thing the two lovers would see would be each other. I saw the place where InŽs is supposed to have been murdered: the Quinta das Lagrimas, which means the garden of tears. I saw an extraordinary fishing village called NazarŽ where they launched the fishing boats out from the beach through the pounding surf of the ocean. I saw the fearsome old women in black who wait on street corners: and I spent a long time staring out at the pitiless sea.

And the more I thought about the story (which every child in Portugal is taught at school) the more deeply it impressed me, and the more strongly I felt it had to be written as a tragedy.

Some years before I'd read a book by George Steiner called The Death of Tragedy, in which he argued that it is impossible to write tragedy in this age of ours. I always felt he had to be wrong: that in this age we need tragedy more than ever. For tragedy is not simply a dwelling on pain or misery: it is about asserting, too. Asserting the meaning and the value of human life.

So I wanted to write something classical, that obeyed the classic rules: where everything happened in a very short space of time, where there was a chorus, and tragic irony, and where everything that happened offstage.

I felt I needed nine actors to accomplish this; negotiations with the traverse in Edinburgh, the producing theatre, almost broke down when they told me they could only afford six. So all the actors, except for InŽs herself, had to double as protagonists and chorus. And although that aggravated me at the time, in retrospect I'm grateful for it, because it gave the play the tightness of structure it needed.

But then I was given another commission, by the National theatre in London, and I could see no way of finishing INES in time. But the first director, who was a close friend, persuaded me to try. I had three weeks.

It was winter. We lived in a cottage on the outskirts of Edinburgh, in a place called Rosslynn, in a wild wood beside a magical chapel. I walked the winter woods, I prayed in the chapel: and somehow all kinds of memories came to my aid. Memories of deaths, mostly: my mothers, my father's, and my father-in-law's. Memories of love; memories of fear. Of the fear we had, my wife and I, for the future of our children in so dangerous an age.

I don't plan when I write. I just try to become the characters and in my imagination live out their lives. Think what they think, feel what they feel, write out what they say. Be present in the moment, whether it be funny or sad, horrifying or fearful.

Sometimes people ask me how to perform my plays, and I can never tell them. I can't say, well you do this bit loud and this bit soft, or this bit slow or this bit fast. Stand here when you say this, or put a pause in here. It's not for me to say. It's for the actor to do. To do what I tried to do, out there in the winter woods: be in the moment with every scrap of intelligence and skill I might possess. Give myself utterly to the moment: and then move onto the next.

And when it was finished I was afraid. Afraid because I had never seen or read anything like it before: and I had no idea how it could be done. Also it seemed very short. So I persuaded my new computer to put it all into double-spacing. And then I printed it, and handed it in. And the actors gave a reading of it in the theatre's dusty office, and the amazing Portuguese artist Paula Rego happened to be there, and afterwards did the most astonishing picture. And soon afterwards we rehearsed it, and the script changed, as it always does in rehearsal, but not a great deal. I remember inserting the prayer, the one Pedro prays before going off to war, quite causally, just to bridge a link between scenes. And now it seems most intensely important.

Beyond that, I wanted the play to please. Please because it gave pleasure to the senses, being beautiful to look at, pleasure to the ears, pleasure to the mind (because it gives rise to thinking) pleasure to the emotions (because it awakens deep feeling), and pleasure perhaps even in a deeper sense because it speaks to the spirit.

I can't tell how much I succeeded; but I'm proud that since it opened, the play opened, the play has been seen in Edinburgh, London, Liverpool, Dublin, Sydney, Australia, both the Carolinas and who knows where else. That it's been translated into Portuguese and Spanish and Croatian, and was heard on Croatian radio early this year. As I write this, late into the night, the sounds of the music James McMillan composed when he made it an opera are still ringing in my ears, and in my heart.