This year’s National Play Festival playwrights answer Five Questions about playwriting craft and careers
Responding to themes in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, SAVAGE by Jane Bodie explores loss, torment and children reared in isolation; a play about the stories we tell to protect ourselves from the truths we fear most. Jane spoke to us about the themes of the piece, the continuing relevance of Shakespeare and all things lupine.
Tell us about MIND’S EYE and how you came to be involved?
As Bell Shakespeare say on their website in regards to Mind’s Eye – Shakespeare provides us with an inexhaustible repository of ideas. More than any writer, Shakespeare has inspired artists to imagine and to create other worlds.
With that in mind, Mind’s Eye is Bell Shakespeare’s creative development arm, harnessing the best of these ideas, and inspired responses, and then asking invited artists to put these ideas to the test. Bell Shakespeare seeks out artists and companies to collaboratively explore and develop work that takes its inspiration from Shakespeare and the classics, and gives them the support, creatives and development time they and the work need. Having heard about some fellow playwrights developing some ideas at Bell with chosen collaborators, I contacted Pete (Evans) at Bell Shakespeare and asked if I could come in and talk about the idea for SAVAGE. I think a lot of Mind’s Eye’s work takes place by invitation, but they also encourage individual artists and companies to contact them and to go in and talk to them about their idea, to see if it’s something they like and connect with. Me and Sarah (Giles) my director, met up quite a few times and chatted through my idea (which she added to, and was already a great collaborator) and then we pitched it. Thankfully they liked it, so I then went and wrote a very loose skeleton draft – as Sarah and I decided that what we wanted to do was play with form, the shape of the play and where each of the scenes might happen to tell the story in the most exciting and dramatic way. I got some time to write, and then a week in a rehearsal room with Sarah and some brilliant actors to flesh and thrash it out. We did a small reading at the end, and invited some industry people to come and see its initial scenes and give feedback – it was a total gift – and the feedback was very positive – mostly because people really wanted to see what was going to happen next in the story.
Why did you choose THE TEMPEST?
I know a lot of people will think me mad for saying this, but to me it’s one of his most memorable and rich plays, the more I read it, the richer it gets – I love its landscape, its darkness and it’s the bigger themes in the play that I particularly respond to – so it’s great to write a play in response to it.
I’ve always been drawn to stories of children reared in isolation: ‘savage’ children, the story of Kasper Hauser etc. I’m fascinated by how when children are withdrawn from human contact, language, interaction develop so very differently and how that feeds into what it is to be human, and which particular elements being withdrawn stop us from being human – and I think Shakespeare was fascinated by this, too. In THE TEMPEST, in order to protect his child from what he sees as a corrupt world, Prospero isolates her, but this in itself becomes a form of abuse and cruelty – some versions of the play see his daughter Miranda, as being a beautiful virginal innocent, but other productions and theatre writers, including Jonathan Miller (and this is how I see her) suggest that she would be hideously malformed, a creature, one that is missing some essential human element. To protect her from the world, he has turned her into something not able to live in it – and I love what this says about love, parenting and civilisation. Also many years ago I heard an incredible radio production of THE TEMPEST and it spoke to me on so many levels – and I had such strong images of the place the play is set and the people in it, both belonging to the island and seeing it for the first time, another world, both new and ancient. The play is so rich and wild and is about most of the things I want to write about: language, the loss of language, love, freedom, being drunk and being human – what more could you want from a play?
I also love the structure of the play – that it’s part romantic comedy, part terrifying wild thriller and that this is strengthened in the play by the use of time and place, worlds and years – the where and when each scene falls in the overall narrative and how that builds the play as a whole. I’ve tried to mirror this structure in SAVAGE.
As a contemporary playwright, why does Shakespeare interest you?
I would sort of answer that by saying, as a writer – how could he not interest you? He obviously knew his stuff and never let that limit him or his ideas. I love his language; I love the epic-ness of his stories; I love that he can make us laugh in one scene, cry the next, that his imagination knows no bounds – so that we as an audience expand our own imaginations by watching and listening, knowing what is possible. But I mostly love that his plays travel across seas and are about boats and princes and ancient racism, sexism, class-ism and love between forbidden families, being poisoned, playing comedy asses, fairies, mistaken identity, death, jealousy and war – and yet they speak to us so loudly and furiously of the here and now in every breath. If I could capture, recreate the tiniest seed of how he makes his stories feels so timeless, I would be a very happy playwright.
Why is the play called SAVAGE?
Because it explores what it means to be savage and in a range of ways – it’s about wild children, often called ‘savage children’ by society, it’s also about the notion of the ‘Noble Savage’ both in THE TEMPEST, and the idea of something wild having its own dignity and sophistication – and it’s also about the savageness of grief – and how that can unravel us as human beings, make creatures of us. Quite a lot of different uses of the word ‘savage’!
Reading the play it was interesting to see how often the motif of the lost child/ wolf boy comes up in literature and myth. How did you bring those cultural references together and why do you think this motif recurs?
As the play is set very much here, I’ve actually written dingoes into the story of the child being captured and then brought up by animals in the play – but as we are so familiar with wolves in this role, I think the dingoes become the equivalent in this case. We are very familiar with this story, because of things like Red Riding Hood, Tarzan, the stories of Angela Carter and the somewhat lighter and less sexual Jungle Book stories of children being taken away and what their alternative life maybe be, in the wild. I think maybe the recurrence of the lost child/wolf connection in literature comes from a range of things: wolves/wild dogs ability to be loyal, to live in groups, and have some human qualities, but then also to be entirely wild and fierce, as well as being something that can be tamed, if they let themselves be. There’s a sexuality to many of these stories, an unleashing of the animal nature in us, that we’ve perhaps lost touch with, and everyone loves a bit of that. I also think these stories were told way back when to warn people of the perils of straying away from home, but also to explain away very real disappearances of children, when the truth of where they had gone was probably more brutal.
In SAVAGE, as I’ve said I was very interested in what it is to be human, and how much of the animal in us is really lost. I was also very interested in looking at the role of stories and myths. Many of Grimm’s fairy stories were written to explain or give a narrative to rites of passage – becoming a woman, moving away from one’s parents etc – looking at the fantasy side of this, but also the darker elements, in order to help us understand and perhaps get through them. In my play I explore the different reasons why we tell and make up these stories, their bigger function in being human. Like Prospero telling his daughter that the world out there is a bad place, so she never leaves him, I wanted to explore the stories we choose to tell to ourselves and each other, to protect ourselves from the world truths we cannot face.
Sunday 15 June, 2.00pm
Commissioned by Bell Shakespeare through its creative development arm, Mind’s Eye
Mind’s Eye is Bell Shakespeare’s creative development arm. It seeks out artists and companies in the small to medium sector to collaboratively explore and develop new work, work that takes its inspiration from Shakespeare and the classics. As well as being a means by which Bell Shakespeare supports and extends its annual repertoire, Mind’s Eye is also an invaluable resource for the wider arts industry. By providing space for writers and artists to research, experiment and test their ideas, Mind’s Eye cultivates a philosophy of artistic exchange, viewing these partnerships as an investment in our collective creative future.