LesbosEffie Samara 7pm on 2nd June at TramwayThe piece is inspired by the situation the refugee crisis has created on the Greek island of Lesbos, and is currently being worked on under the direction of Stasi Schaeffer, with dramaturgical support from Philip Howard.
The story revolves around a fictitious contagion on the island, initially affecting only the refugee population; on the intense relationship between a nurse born and working on the island and a newly-arrived Syrian engineer, both female; and simultaneously turns on ideas of state control, manipulation, and the effect of the denial of basic freedoms and democracy.
What was the inspiration for this performance?
That’s an interesting question. Inspiration for me will not be events or visual stimuli. I have a firm belief that a play, any play you’re destined to write, is in the blood. And then you wait. Until it passes behind the eyes.
Lesbos made that journey when I met Rema Sherifi of the Maryhill Integration Network. Rema has a unique quality of which she is blissfully unaware. She restores in you faith in humanity. We talked, briefly.
For half an hour or so. And I walked away from that conversation knowing that a play about the Aegean was overdue. This was going to be about war and womanhood. Not habitually a convenient mix but I’m known for my slightly anarchic spirit.
Is performance still a good space for the public discussion of ideas?
It can be. However, If I’m permitted I will express mild pessimism that it actually does fulfill that function, although here in Scotland the spirit of public engagement is actively encouraged. The problem is that performance spaces have- historically at least -been associated with bourgeois entertainment.
There is a conscious effort to revisit that tradition but if you look at the demographics for theatre membership, for example, at the RNT, are shockingly conformant with this reality. The producer Ailie Crerar, GRAMNet and myself have consciously worked towards breaking that mould.
There will be people in the audience from literally the four corners of the globe. The less theatrically inclined, the better. We actively invite irregularity, it feeds both the theme and the form of the play.
How did you become interested in making performance?
Geography and force. I’m Athenian born. I found myself in England for my early education and was never destined to experience Greece as an adult. But the inscriptions of childhood, the frenzy of dithyrambic hymns, Clytemnestra’s gorilla tactics in the Agamemnon, they’re in the blood.
When I was 8 or 9, Epidaurus was a Friday night out for my dad and I. He’d sneak me into that almighty space to watch things like the Oresteia, he’d be asleep about fifteen minutes in. But to me, this was a revelation. The human body is resized in Epidaurus. The drumming of the chorus reverberates through to the stratosphere. The furies don’t go to sleep at midnight.
These early awakenings were revisited for Lesbos with great passion and a heavy sense of duty and precision. Philip Howard who is an extraordinary classicist, gave me licence to redraw the Philoctetes, the Eumenides, which would scare most directors and dramaturgs.
As a writer, if you do have them in your subconscious, you suppress them if you happen to be working with people who either don’t subscribe to that form or have not the first clue about it, usually the latter.
I owe Philip a great debt of gratitude to legitimising the writer’s desire. For me, performance is life. We understand ourselves by narrating ourselves. And whatever draws one closer to that heartbeat, to that narrating, that is the actioning of their truth. That is the moment a private world assumes the legitimacy of a public event.
Is there any particular approach to the making of the show?
Strategically, the approach was guided by Creative Scotland. They place great emphasis on public engagement and public participation. As a writer, you are already conscious of what you write and whom you are writing about, however, this time the effort was heavily coordinated by GRAMNet and the vast wealth of their research behind many aspects of the text.
In practical terms Rema Sherifi and Maryhill Integration were always there, ensuring safe landings and delicate approaches to very sensitive discussions. Lesbos does not contain any verbatim text. There are some historically accurate facts and others deliberately imagined to serve their dramatic purpose.
Textually, we go from a very basic reality, a plague spreading across the island of Lesbos, to the surreality of what will happen if we let ourselves believe in our own racial purity and infallibility. We see this through no less than five pairs of eyes: Maria from Lesbos, Sarah from Damascus, the Minister and two members of the chorus. The multi-perspectival was cathartic for me as a writer. One would think it disconcerting but not at all in this case. It creates a stretchy temporality that keeps surprising you at every turn.
Does the show fit with your usual productions?
Yes. I will quote, I believe it was Hare who said, you spend the first 20 years writing the same play and perhaps you might then move onto something else. I write anti-heroes. I have no interest at all in the übermensch who is inevitably expected to conquer Troy. I am attracted to the unwieldy, injured, angry one, the ugly soul that will strike when you least expect it.
The innovation with Lesbos is that Communism and lesbianism are both there, still stubborn, still asking us the same persistent questions. Working with Philip Howard on the dramaturgy and Stasi Shaeffer directing is obviously a huge challenge for me as is the space.
Tramway is iconic. I had previously worked in less demanding spaces so I anticipate great surprises in that respect. But thematically, I can’t see myself abandoning the great question of where has the Left gone, and if it proves so swayable going whichever way the wind blows, where is the next stop for ideology?
What do you hope that the audience will experience?
Alison Phipps sent me a note this morning from Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus. “No,” it reads “the masses were not deceived, they desired fascism and that is what has to be explained”. It’s a shocking indictment from two of the world’s greatest philosophers. I want the audience to experience that insecurity.
With a full dose of Aristotelian theatre: I’ll let them laugh and be all scunnered and a bit upset and angry with Maria and then a little delicately and a little mercilessly I’ll pose the question of fascism. We’ll see what we’re going to get.
For me, Lesbos is my very intimately Scottish play. It was conceived, imagined and written between the glens and the angry dry dock in Inverclyde. It was in the blood, for sure. But West Scotland is where it passed behind the eyes. I hope to share some of that expanse, some of that joy and of course a lot of laughter and hope with my audience.