Last night was one of the edgiest times I’ve ever had in a theatre. I am still processing it but feel the need to write about it even as I am as yet unsure how to approach it with words.
It was the final London performance of a play I’m in called The Bombing of the Grand Hotel. It is the story of the relationship that developed between Pat Magee and Jo Berry. Pat is the IRA operative who planted the bomb and Jo is the daughter of a Tory MP who was killed in the blast. It is set against a back ground of Thatcherism, the Irish/British conflict and traverses the late 70’s through to the present day. ultimately it is about two people finding a path towards reconciliation against incredible odds. Both protagonists are still living and the events are current enough to stir up very fresh feelings in the audience.
It is a play that elicits strong emotions – it is triggery material – and I think does an admirable job of digging into the moral complexity and nuance of the subject – the human cost and causes of politically motivated violence and the path towards healing – with out lapsing into sentiment, polemic, easy answers or didacticism. It has been written by Josie Melia and Julie Everton and knocked into shape by the tireless Paul Hodson and Emma Roberts and the dedicated cast. Pat is exquisitely rendered by Ruairi Conaghan and the rest of the cast are utterly – just utterly – incredible. Aoife McMahon, Paul Mundell, Glenn Speers and Beth Fitzgerald. There is a lot of care in the room and a LOT of commitment to the intentions of the piece.
I play Jo.
Last night there was someone in the audience for whom my character very tangibly represented the enemy. I felt it immediately, as soon as I walked onstage, before anything was said or i saw who it was or how many there were. i just felt it as a hostile force to my right. And whilst the animal in me felt threatened, the watching part began rifling through possible worst case scenarios and exit strategies. The hostility was so tangible I wondered if he might try getting up to hit me. Even if he might have a gun or some other kind of weapon. I had no way of gauging if these were over reactions because i couldn’t look at him. The threat was clear and present.
He was pissed up, looking for a fight, goaded on by the women he was with, stupid, violent and pointing it all towards me – or what I appeared to represent to him. I felt extremely vulnerable and initially was very thrown by it.
There is a certain amount of entrapment as an actor. For the next hour and a half I am tied to this particularly awful railway track – A Tory daughter utterly dismembered by grief, being verbally abused by someone who hates me – And there is no getting out of it. I am trapped by the fucking forth wall, the story arc and the character trajectory – I am held to ransom by my own character.
He said some truly horrible things. In a sequence about Jo’s pregnancies he was muttering – ‘breeding like a horse’. ‘Tory whore’ and other things. It was hard core. When Pat Magee is shown a body of a decapitated woman and turns his eyes away, he shouted ‘good man Pat’ and again when the word ‘conflict’ was mentioned, punching the air and shouting ‘yeah’ when the bomb went off. It was fucking intense. I felt extremely unsafe.
I might normally have been better at protecting myself – in my thoughts – but I’d had a tough week. I’d been rehearsing another show each day and performing this one every night. Putting in 12 – 14 hour days and not getting time to eat properly or sleep enough. By the time the 2 shows on Saturday hit I was a bit shaky anyway and broken by exhaustion. So my defences were low. I hate aggression. I hate it. the emotional kind, the physical kind, all kinds. to me or to someone else. It hurts me. It hurts my heart. It is like an allergy. It hurts me to see it done to another, hurts me to experience myself exacting it on someone. We are all capable of it somewhere. It literally hurts. if it happens to another, especially if i am emotionally close to them, it rips through my body as if it was happening to me. I am so weirdly physically empathic it has caused me all sorts of problems in life. I can feel how people are wired on the inside sometimes. It isn’t voluntary. it just happens to me. It is a physical experience. Thankfully science has caught up with it now and there are all sorts of synesthesias that can help describe it. I am no longer simply ‘over sensitive’ I have a thing i can point at with charts and everything. It helps. Great for acting. Shit for having a quiet life. I have to go and have time alone just to tune out of all the kinaesthetic emotional racket!!!
Needless to say, we, the cast, were all taken off guard and in the interval we had a discussion with the stage manager about whether we should boot him out or not. we decided that no, he should be allowed to stay because if he decided to come back for the second half at all, the point of the play – some of the more hard hitting material around empathy and listening – might begin to kick in for him (or not as it turned out!) But either way, it might be an opportunity to test the metal of the content. we all agreed that the fact that this guy had found his way into a theatre at all was kind of miraculous and that we weren’t just speaking to the Guardian readership liberal theatre middle classes. (my god, how often are we preaching to the converted?!!!) The fact that he had come at all was testament to the impact of the material. And we attacked the second half with a stronger sense of commitment and support of each other in the face of this aggressive edge. I felt tremendous rallying and encouragement and LOVE from the creative team & suddenly a way through felt possible again.
In the second half he was just as, if not more, obnoxious and he’d had more beer. but aspects of the play leapt to life inside us – as if it’s purpose or intent had been ignited in some bespoke way. Swathes of it felt like it was pointing directly at him. For him. His presence was this acute amplification device…
Jo: I didn’t want to be a casualty of my anger. If I was still angry, the only person I would be hurting would be myself you know and I would be stuck. I would be closed down. My heart would be shut. I could feel that. And I would have lost out.
For me it became a clear choice – do I blame an enemy? And live with that. And the consequences of that. Which would have meant that/
Pat: yes that. exactly that.
Jo: / my heart would have closed down and I would have suffered more…
Or do look at letting go of blame, looking at the causes with in myself, my group, my tribe, where I come from and try to, try to heal that?
At the same time there was someone in the audience, a different person, who was very emotionally and vocally responsive to Jo’s pain, clearly a victim of violence of some kind. so there was this whole other bespoke amplification going on.
Jo: We need to provide a safe environment for pain like that to be heard. It doesn’t get any easier, but it is essential that we keep trying.
The play chimed in a whole new way.
Afterwards there were many intense hugs between the cast members for having gotten through it. It felt like we’d survived something dangerous. In the bar I drank a glass of wine in a way which was definitely medicating – a practice I normally have a strict rule with myself about- and I had to find a way to have proper conversations with people even though my identity was leaking out of the hole in the back of my head and my skin was in a crumpled heap on the floor.
And everyone was talking about how electric it had been. People wanted to come up and share their stories. A few asked if that guy had been a plant. I still didn’t have any skin on.
He was still there in the foyer. With his back to me, but with all his etheric attention piercing through his back towards me. Eventually he singled me out to speak to me. I didn’t feel resistant or scared by him at this point and was surprised to find I had energy for it. Like Jo does with Pat in the play, i wanted to meet the human being behind the ideologue. There was also a kind of anthropological fascination with how he arrived at this person he was being and a wonder at what had shifted in him. Because his energy had definitely shifted. Perhaps by the play. Perhaps by the other audience member’s response. I don’t know, but I could feel his violence had ebbed away. He seemed smaller. A bit confused. I found I could be present with him. I felt there was something in this encounter of a kind of living experience of the subject matter. He was trying to be sensitive.
Aoife McMahon came up – feisty, protective, clear hearted and brave and said to him
‘do you realise that you hurt this woman?
Him: No I didn’t. She’s alright, aren’t you?
Me: I found it very hard actually. Some of the things you said did hurt, yes
Him: I didn’t… I didn’t really though…did I?
(more confusion and unfinished sentences).
he kept stumbling on. he wanted me to know he’d been in the IRA – (98% bollocks) that i had no idea what he had been through (98% likely). He was looking for leverage. I could see him calibrating in some remote part of himself that I am Australian. That i was being kind and listening. That 4 of the cast are Irish, three of them from the North. That they all have history. That we all, each of us have history. Each of us have some semblance of blood on our hands. every single one of us. NOW, how do we get on with the business of loving?
Some part of me didn’t have the energy to leave. If i’d more skin on, i would have done.
A sandwich short of a picnic maybe, but I feel sure he took something tangible away from the experience of last night. some seed sprouted deep with in his walls of belligerent resistance.
He definitely took something away…
I’m just trying to work out if part of what he took away was some invisible bit of me.
Eventually Aoife pulled me away to be with the others. I felt grateful.
The over riding thing i came away with is to do with listening and love and how listening with openness and making space in yourself for another’s story can change the anatomy of things. Also how being too open at the wrong moment can make you very vulnerable to the poisoned darts of wounded idiots.
Can there ever be enough of it?
Kindness and tenderness.
Gentleness and kindness.
Kindness in the heart.
Courage to find kindness in the heart
And if you can’t be kind, be tolerant.
And if you can’t be tolerant, just walk away.
And if you are under attack..? then what?
I don’t know but just not violence.
Please not that.
And theatre. That it can still be so LIVE – ALIVE – ESSENTIAL like this. And Meryl Streep being interviewed about her part in August Osage County and saying she has grown very weary of being asked to dip into the well of pain again and again. And how as actors we are these antenna – kind of portals – amplifiers of the human experience, human pain. Acrobats of the heart. And how that requires a certain access and vulnerability that most people take for granted. Even those that are hiring them, or loving them. That kind of access becomes a currency. That the idea of being a window pane and getting self out of the way is a wonderful practice, and how sometimes you also need a very defined self on board or it is dangerous.
And yet I wonder what the point of doing it at all is if we are not stirring something essential and urgent in us up. If there isn’t some element of species recognition that happens as a result of the live transference, if not, then what are we doing really? If there isn’t some movement. Real movement. Internal movement. Then what’s the point? In this sense in a very real way, last night was indeed electric. but I do wonder at the cost. For me there were some uncomfortable lines crossed and i guess I’ll just get better at dealing with that in the future. It will be a muscle i develop more strength in through use. Still, kindness.
So more questions than answers.
And i might be too tired to be making much sense.
Before i have too much time to think
Tomorrow. Back at it.
For more on Jo Berry and Pat Magee’s extraordinary work on peace and reconciliation, go to Building Bridges for Peace
To see the play – there are 3 shows left in Brighton next week. The 6th, the 7th & the 9th of May at the Warren. Tickets nearly gone apparently.