Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh
MUSICIAN Duncan Bell
QUEVEDO Bernard Doherty
PABLO Simon Donald
MARIA Carol Ann Crawford
DUKE Simon Dormandy
DUCHESS Kate Duchene
SECRETARY Duncan Bell
KING Ralph Riach
PIRATE Duncan Bell
PRIEST Kate Duchene
SISTER Irene Macdougall
MR DOGE Ralph Riach
MRS DOGE Carol Ann Crawford
ONE Duncan Bell
TWO Ralph Riach
THREE Carol Ann Crawford
FOUR Irene Macdougall
WOMAN WITH BABY Irene Macdougall
Directed by Jenny Killick
Designed by Dermot Hayes
Lighting and Sound by George Tarbuck
Review of American production of Losing Venice, from Drama-Logue, April 1992
This article first appeared on the Traverse Theatre web site, March 2001
In a way, Losing Venice happened a bit by accident. My partner just happened to meet a young woman on the London train. Her name was Jenny Killick and she was coming up to work as assistant director at the Traverse. And when we first met, sometime in 1984, the idea was for me to translate a play by Lorca.
But somehow that got turned into the idea of my writing a new play.
At this time, I had been trying to get something put on at the Traverse for about three years. My scripts hadn't even been acknowledged; the whole place made me feel angry and nervous. I had a pint before meeting Jenny to see if it would make me feel better.
It didn't. We met in the old theatre in the Grassmarket, in the space downstairs that eventually became the bar but which at that stage was Traverse 2. It was horrible: cold, damp, dark and dingy. Also an unbelievably awkward shape.
I really hadn't a clue what to say. The space did not inspire me. I was desperate for a pee. I promised to send in an idea and rushed off as soon as I could.
I had my pee in an old public convenience in the Grassmarket, situated just underneath the War Memorial. As I looked around the urinals, the space reminded me irresistibly of the appalling theatre space I was supposed to be writing a play for.
So I rushed off and scribbled down an idea for a play set in a run-down gentlemen's convenience that was threatened with closure. It took me about 3 pages, and I was very proud of it, and scribbled down as a PS: I've another idea set in 17th century Venice.
This was all about the Spanish poet Quevedo (1580-1645) who I'd studied at university and whom I'd found both fascinating and utterly repellent (I was to use him again, much later, for my only broadcast televisionplay). He had been involved in a plot to destabilise Venice in 1618 and turn it into a Spanish colony. One of the reasons I had always been fascinated by Spanish history at this time was because I kept seeing connections between Spain then (an antiquated colonial power desperately in need of re-discovering a new identity for itself) and Britain now.
I had briefly been television critic for The Scotsman the year before (which had been complicated, in that we didn't have a television at the time, and I'd had to borrow one) and had had to watch the news coverage of Mrs. Thatcher's grotesque Falklands adventure.
This had preoccupied me profoundly, and I'd had a vague idea of writing about it. But the Venice/Quevedo story was so unlike anything I had ever seen on the Scottish stage, and so unlike anything I imagined anyone would ever want to produce, I didn't take it at all seriously, and so when Jenny suggested we meet to discuss my play idea I hadn't given it a single thought.
I was expecting to talk about the public convenience idea, which by this stage had turned into some kind of black farce with symbolical undertones; but she never mentioned it. Instead she asked: "Tell me about this Venice idea".
And so I did, as best I could. Then she asked: "Is this going to be an epic?", and I had a strong sense that this was the Key Question. That if I got the answer right, then the commission was mine.
The only problem was that I didn't really understand it. I was also too shy and insecure to ask her what she meant. An epic for me was an obscure and rather difficult Spanish mediaeval poem with a manly hero I found it impossible to relate to. So I was about to say "no" when some vague memory of Brecht made me say "Yes."
"Yes, Jenny" I found myself saying, "It's going to be an epic".
Writing the Play
And that's how I got to be commissioned to write LOSING VENICE. I was amazed.
The Traverse had felt to me to be like a locked door that for years I had been hammering on with my fists; and now here it was, almost by accident, wide open to me.
And this time when I went to see Jenny about writing it, I was shown into Traverse 1.
The more I came to write for that space, the more I loved it. The upstairs theatre space of the Grassmarket Traverse had once been a sail loft; and it was still an amazing space to begin a journey. It was somehow both open and intimate; it had astonishing atmosphere, and when crammed full could generate an emotional power unequalled by no other theatre I have since worked in or known.
But the first time I saw it, it looked a mess. It was a cold day, it had no heating, it looked dirty and neglected.
In those days, myself and my partner very strictly divided up our weeks into childcare time and work time. The day I went to the upstairs theatre to look at it, was also my day to look after our daughter Rebecca, who was four. She also helped me deal with my shyness. For although I still had no idea what to say, we could at least climb up to the top row of seats and slide and bump our way down to the bottom. Jenny joined in, and we left laughing.
But I had really no idea what I was going to write. Or how I was going to write it.
I was 34 years old, with one child, another on the way, scratching a meagre living out of signing on for benefit and writing occasional dance and theatre reviews. Before that, I'd been a yoga teacher, a co-counselling, a bus-conductor, and a student nurse. And I'd written a PhD thesis on the 17th century Spanish playwright Don Pedro Calder—n.
To write the thesis, I'd spent years in a tiny room in the basement of St. Andrews Spanish department, utterly immersed in 17th century Spanish theatre. It was far more real to me than contemporary British theatre, and when soon after Rebecca's birth I had discovered myself to be a playwright, I felt utterly ignorant of what was going on.
So I became a theatre critic. I had learnt how to see plays without having to pay for my ticket; I'd learnt something of what makes a play work, and what makes it not; and I had learnt something of how to explain this in very few words. And I had learnt how to meet very tight deadlines.
I had also translated two Calder—ns, written two radio plays and adapted ROMEO AND JULIET for TAG.
But none of this felt as if it had prepared me for writing LOSING VENICE at all.
So when I handed Rebecca over to Susie, my partner, later that afternoon (they were going home together; I was going to Glasgow to write about some ballet) I felt very afraid of the prospect.
We met in a basement pub on the Southside, we were both worn out by what felt like an unending struggle against poverty, and we would have all got seriously gloomy; only Rebecca suddenly insisted we play a game. The pub tables became islands, the pub chairs became boats, and the pub floor a shark infested ocean. And you had to move from table to table and chair to chair without your feet touching the ground.
And that's what we did. It felt better than feeling depressed about poverty (Luckily there was no-one in the bar). And when the time came to go, we had a big problem: there were no chairs and tables between us and the door. We decided if we ran for it we might get out before the sharks ate us. And so we did: we ran for our lives. What made it all especially difficult, Rebecca told us, was that these were sharks that could climb up stairs.
Later, in the train to Glasgow, I understood what Rebecca had showed me. She'd been playing the kind of make-believe game that almost everyone plays as a child and that as we grow up we are encouraged to think we have grown out of.
But we never really do. We continue to need to engage in games of make-believe; and that's why drama is such an ancient art form, and that's why it continues to matter. As I looked around the crowded commuter train, full of serious people coming home from work, I understood that almost every single one of them would have seen a play of some kind in the past few days, whether on TV, in a cinema, on radio or in a theatre. Theatre, as I understood it then, was a shared set of implicit rules played by a group of people in a room that helped them play a game of make-believe. It didn't matter that some of the people in the room were actors, and some were audience: all were engaged in the same game. And such a game, was, is, and will always remain essential for the well-being of everyone involved.
And that was the spirit with which I wrote LOSING VENICE.
Rebecca had a full time nursery place in the new year. I would leave her at nursery at nine and go off to the spare room of a friend's house to write the play until it was time to pick her up at three.
I imagined a bare stage that the characters could fill with all the scenery or furniture or whatever it was they needed simply by describing it; and that would be enough to make it exist in the minds of the audience.
I imagined myself being all the characters; I became them in my body, my emotions, and my mind. I opened myself up to them; I listened to what they had to say, and I wrote it all down.
Some days they told me nothing; others I wrote page after page. And gradually, over the next three months, the play took shape.
Without being aware of it at the time, I drew upon all kinds of memories. Memories of the huge tumble-down mansion we lived in when I was a child; of my father's pride in the British Empire; memories of Venice, of the Escorial and Philip the second rotting away in his chambers. Of a suite of rooms in the palace that had been built for dwarves. Memories of the orphan girls Vivaldi wrote music for in the ospedale di Pieta; of conceptismo and other obscure aesthetic theories; memories of war and of my mother. Susie was pregnant again, and so the play ended with a baby; and it was all shot through with our continuing struggle to survive as artists and thinkers.
I had stopped signing on.
I didn't really understand what any of it meant, and I didn't really care; I knew a line was right when it felt right, and at the time that was enough for me.
If it didn't feel right, I would change it, re-imagine the scene, relive it all in my imagination, try to hear it better. And keep on until it all felt right.
That was how the play got finished.
Rehearsing the Play
Rehearsals started soon after our second child was born. Labour had been difficult, and lasted thirty six hours; rehearsals turned out to be difficult as well.
The Traverse had been through some lean years; there was a sense that 1985 was the season that would make or break the theatre.
There had been, as it happened, a string of hits that year - I remember especially Chris Hannan's ELIZABETH GORDON QUINN and Peter Arnott's WHITE ROSE - and there was a lot of pressure on LOSING VENICE to be a hit as well. Especially as it was opening during the Festival.
There were tensions between the General Manager and the Artistic Director; tensions all over the building, in fact. A sense of clumps of hostile people muttering in corners.
And desperate, desperate tension within rehearsals.
At the end of the first week, Jenny had decided to change the cast. The highly experienced, highly professional actor who was originally to play Quevedo and the inexperienced actor playing the Pirate (who happened to be a friend of Jenny's from Cambridge) were asked to exchange roles.
I was too inexperienced to appreciate the bad feeling this would cause, or really understand the undercurrents of tension that were sweeping through the building. I assumed it was all the fault of the play: this difficult, strange play I had written. In effect, I assumed it was all my fault.
I didn't really help the situation either. I had written the whole play following an instinct I couldn't even begin to understand; and so I found it very hard to answer the actors' questions. I couldn't explain why such and such a line was the way it was; as far as I concerned, that was just what it was. And the thought of changing anything panicked me entirely.
I would spend a lot of time with my head in my hands, reflecting gloomily on how terrible my lines were, and how painful it was to be in all this tension and not have a clue what to do about it.
This was not a helpful attitude: actors and director all assumed it was because I hated what they were doing. In fact, it was because in those days I still tended to hate myself.
Eventually, about 10 days before we were due to open, there was a run of act two. The conclusion the next day was that the actors felt it was unplayable. Or at least, that was what I apologetically assumed; and I stayed up all night rewriting the act to try to take into account what I thought were their anxieties.
That as on the Wednesday. I brought the rewrites in on the Thursday, and we tried them out that day and the Friday, and they didn't work, of course, because they were driven by fear. By the end of Friday, I think we had decided to reinstate most of the things I had cut, and drop most of the things I had rewritten, and when on the Saturday morning act one seemed to be falling apart as well, Jenny decided she simply could not direct the play at all. And told the actors so.
They went down to the Green Room, all except Simon Dormandy (the Duke) and Kate Duchene (the Duchess) and Jenny, and the Company Stage Manager, and me. Somehow, we persuaded Jenny not to abandon the production; somehow, it was decided to run the play the next day in front of the Traverse staff, and take it from there.
And that is how it happened.
Meanwhile, I went home, ready to die. By 1985, I had spent twenty years trying to make it as a writer; if I lost this chance, I was convinced I would never get another. And I was convinced I had lost it. I picked up Katie, our new born child; she was awake, and lay quietly in my arms looking up at me. She still had that strange old wisdom very very young babies seem to have: and more than anything, perhaps, it was that which saved me.
As for the play, I still cannot remember exactly how we all got through the next week. The actors pulled together amazingly well, I remember that; I remember some quiet but strong support from Peter Lichtenfels, the artistic director; I remember some really positive feedback from other Traverse staff. I remember Jenny's white shocked face and silent presence in the technical rehearsals; I remember that we opened, somehow, and that when the reviews came out we found we had somehow created a huge hit. It was the play to see in 1985: the queue for returns used to stretch right the way down the box office stairs.
And I remember, too, that it really was a very beautiful production. It was everything I had wanted it to be - funny, fast-moving, lovely to look at, lovely to see, thought-provoking, entertaining, moving.
Quite how it happened, I could not tell. I imagine it must have had something to do with the writing: but I find that still a little hard to believe.
The play eventually went to Perth, Australia, to London, Sweden, and Hong Kong. It was broadcast on Radio 3, published by Nick Hern Books, and produced (twice) in Los Angeles.
But immediately after the end of its first three week run I was out of money and had to go back to signing on.
I look back on it all now with a kind of wonder. It laid the foundation for my career as a playwright: for the next six years, the Traverse was my artistic home. I wrote LUCY'S PLAY, PLAYING WITH FIRE, THE ARCHDUKE, INES DE CASTRO and LIGHT IN THE VILLAGE between then and 1991. It's a record I'm proud of, and those are plays I am proud of too, just as I'm proud of the 50 others I've written up to this day.
And for all the disagreements I had, and continued sometimes to have, with Jenny Killick, she trusted me, she gave me an opening: and for that I shall always be grateful.
I can't judge its quality. But I think I can safely claim that it is one of those rare plays that speaks with a totally new voice in the theatre. It is unlike any play that came before it. That is why its creation was such a difficult and dangerous process.
And in the end, I think, the play succeeeded because it was a mad act of collective courage. The courage to trust; the courage to run gigantic risks; the courage, if necessary, to fail. Without this kind of courage, I'm not sure it is possible to really create anything new and worthwhile. What concerns me, perhaps more than anything else, is that now the whole business of creating theatre has become structured in such a negative way that such acts of courage are almost impossible.
Which does not mean it has become impossible to create theatre. It does mean, I think,we have to work harder to challenge the conditions under which we are forced to work: and have to courage to imagine, and create, something better.