Writing a play about child abuse isn't easy. But it helped when the home office asked me to stopby Stephen Brown / April 26, 2009 / Leave a comment
When Richard Bean began writing England People Very Nice, his play that opened at the National Theatre in February, did he worry about racism? It is a boisterous pageant of immigration and assimilation over four centuries in Bethnal Green. There are complex figures and human sympathy, but the play is awash with cartoonish stereotypes: randy French Huguenots, incestuous bog Irish, intolerant Muslim radicals, self-hating Hampstead liberals and thieving cockneys.
Some critics admired the play, others attacked it as crude. More than one complained that it went for big laughs on a subject—race—that demanded sober, probing realism. I, too, understand the jumpiness that surrounds such sensitive issues. In researching Future Me, my play about sex offenders, I rang the home office and asked if I might visit a prison, and learn about the therapy programmes they offered. The press officer rang back: the home office wondered if I might not write the play? It had been decided, at a high level, that this subject was too delicate.
Few responses were more certain to spur me on. Luckily there were others—including a couple of enlightened prison governors—generous enough to open up their world to me. All the same, the subject matter threatened a burden of responsibility that could throttle the life out of the play. That it didn’t do so is mostly thanks to a hapless paedophile called Harry.
At the time of my phone call, I had written only one scene. In it, the protagonist Peter, a successful barrister, discovers that his computer has emailed a piece of child pornography to his entire address book. Peter asks his techie brother to help him by erasing his hard drive. The next scene finds Peter alone, reading, in his prison cell.
But, then, in walks Harry: a garrulous, self-contradicting voice, full of therapy-speak and bonhomie. He plays the guitar heroically badly and is eager for Peter’s friendship. He is oddly appealing and, best of all, funny. He had just walked fully-formed into my head.
Had I thought in advance about Harry, would I have dared? Could I have written him if, at every moment, in the forefront of my mind was the suffering he might have inflicted? Perhaps not. Later I did convey the weight of what Harry had done.
But his birth was reckless.
For me, Harry makes the case for a writer’s necessary irresponsibility. Of course, the work that results is subject to moral judgement. If Bean’s play was racist, or mine condoned child abuse, they should be condemned. But writers do well to keep all pieties and sensitivities as far away as possible from their desks.
The black humour in Future Me echoes and feeds off the jokes people make in painful situations—as you discover when you interview prison officers. And, though it’s perturbing to admit it, there is something absurd about paedophilia: it is pathetic and comic as well as terrible. One of the people who worked on the show, who was herself abused as a child, says that part of what she likes about the play is that it captures this aspect of the abuser. Being too careful would have distorted the picture.
As well as theatres, the current production of Future Me is also being taken into prisons and secure hospitals at the invitation of therapists. In Salford, in early March, the audience included a group booking of 23 probation officers. They especially liked the portrait of the over-worked probation officer with too many reports to write. I asked one of them what she thought of the characterisation of the offenders. Had I got it right? Oh yes, she said. Particularly Harry. We’re all working with a Harry.
“Future Me” is performed at the Only Connect Theatre, London, from 31 March to 26 April, www.onlyconnectuk.org