What is the Guinea Pig Club?
The Guinea Pig Club comprised 649 RAF bomber and spitfire pilots who had been badly burned during World War II and were operated on at East Grinstead Hospital by the plastic surgeon, Archibald McIndoe. The club was a support group for young men, usually aged between 17 and 22, who had suffered first, second and third degree burns all over their body and underwent countless operations, often involving new surgical methods. The surgeons developed long-term relationships with their patients, who had up to 80 operations in order to rebuild their faces, arms, hands, legs and even their whole body. By the 1930s, people were starting to understand how to keep burns victims alive but what they hadn’t worked out was, once you’ve kept them alive, what kind of treatment was appropriate not only in a physical sense but also how to prepare them for a life with severe scarring. In some ways, it was the early recognition of trauma and how to manage it. McIndoe was a maverick, who recognised that if he was going to fix these young men physically, they also needed to be able to earn a living, meet women, become parents and so on, if they were to have anything to live for. Many, in the very early stages of treatment, attempted suicide. MacIndoe’s work was phenomenal in changing attitudes, besides the pioneering work he did on things like correcting cleft palates.
How are rehearsals going?
Fine. There’re ten actors in the cast and there’ll be twelve people on stage, so it’s nice to be working on a new play with such a big company. Building a new performance from text is always interesting. With new plays, there are a lot of mechanics about how the text sits and how the physical action engages with it, so we can create a three-dimensional performance. That’s what’s fun. It just takes time and you’ve have to be very focussed and clear. We started on day one with a very strong text and our job is now to make it stand on its feet, move around the space and tell the story that wants to be told.
As the play is based on real people and events, with the Guinea Pig Club only disbanding recently due to declining numbers, has it involved a lot of research?
There’s a lot of reading and one of the guinea pigs, Sandy, came in to chat with the cast. We’ve been out to the Yorkshire Air Museum at Elvingon on several occasions, our partners on the project, so that was all very supportive and helpful. The world of the 1930s and 40s is a very different one to ours. Everything to do with being at war is far more complex than you see on the television screen. It’s difficult to imagine what the civilian experience of war was like. During the bombing of the south of England and the Battle of Britain, for example, thousands of people around places like Southampton, that were being bombed regularly, slept in the fields at night. This country was very nearly invaded and, in a way, the skies were invaded. War came right onto people’s doorsteps. That’s something that we find hard to understand - the stress, the fear, what that does to how people behave towards each other, how people support each other, how frightened people are. Hundreds of thousands of people experienced bombings and we know the trauma that one bomb can cause and what huge repercussions a single event like the Twin Towers has. In 1940, that kind of violence existed in Britain every night, and people had to find a way to manage that, understand it and find a way through, so I think understanding that world is tough for us nowadays. We’ve done a lot of work and Dr Marie Adams, a psychotherapist who works with traumatised BBC journalists, came in to talk about trauma and how it manifests itself, so all of this information has helped us to build up a picture of what we’re trying to represent on stage.
What have you enjoyed most about directing this play?
I tend to enjoy whatever I do. I don’t ever remember not enjoying my job. I’m phenomenally lucky and privileged. New plays and adaptations are always lovely to do. It’s been nice working with younger actors, and with Graeme Hawley (Coronation Street, The York Mystery Plays) again on a very different kind of project. Graeme and Jack Ashton are the only two actors I’ve worked with before, so it’s refreshing working with a completely new group of people. Period pieces can be quite difficult because you’ve got to strike a balance between being accurate but also the audience feeling comfortable with the rhythms of the language. The use and rhythms of language in the 1930s and 40s were very different to the way we speak now. Class is also much more evident. You want to be able to describe that but you don’t want to do it in a way that people can’t identify with, so there’s a fine line to tread. Because it’s a new play, you’re constantly trying to work out the language and how it all comes together to tell the story, so there’re lots of challenges and you never really know until you do it whether you’ve been successful or not. It’s always a good feeling when you’re working together on something and everyone shares a desire to make it work. As a group of artists working together, whether it’s all of the people who did The York Mystery Plays or a smaller group doing this project, that notion that somehow or other you all have a responsibility to tell a story as honestly as you possibly can in a way that allows people to understand it but also excites them as they watch it, knowing that you’re all trying to achieve the same end, is a really nice world to work in, I think.
How does this play feed into the current debate on cosmetic surgery?
It asks the question “What’s identity?” “What is it that makes you who you are?” “In the absence of the face that you’ve grown up with, what’s your defining feature?” McIndoe could do a huge amount and rebuild people’s noses, lips, eyebrows. He could give them eyelids so they could shut their eyes and sleep. He did all that work but inevitably you end up with a face full of scar tissue. You look different and people react to you. I think that what became evident was, for these men to survive, to fly in life, they had to become very confident about who they really were and what made them tick; the nature of themselves. To be comfortable with that and understand themselves very well, they had to work out who they were before the accident, get to know themselves better. The discussion about what is it that gives us our identity is on-going. What this play says, in a way, is it’s not your face. Your ability to be happy, successful and productive is not predicated by what you look like. While what you look like has an impact on who you are and is an important, lovely part of your nature, it isn’t the key to your identity. You can be successful and happy with whatever you have. You just need to know who you are on the inside. The play is trying to say that, to be happy and confident, you have to know yourself and, until you’ve made that journey, you’re not quite ready for the world, in a way. So the play has lots of relevance about self-identify. It would question whether a society is in a healthy position if it is only prepared to judge a book by its cover, and definitely challenges that notion.
So McIndoe helped his patients psychologically as much as physically?
He went out into the local community of East Grinstead and said, “You have to accept these people for what they are. They could be your sons, your friends. You have to understand that these men are heroes who were prepared to do something, so you cannot stare at them and you cannot look away. You just have to engage with them and that’s hard but that’s your job in this”. I think that whole notion of not letting people slip away from their responsibility is important because, nowadays, I think lots of people try to avoid having to deal with what initially is difficult to deal with and we let them do that. We let children do that, so lots of people grow up incapable of confronting some of the harsher realities of life, which would make them better people if they did. We try to make life too sterile, too easy too simple, too managed, and I think that one of the things that McIndoe did was to go out into the world and say, “Look folks, you all have to look at these young men as if they were your own. You cannot afford to point them out but you cannot ignore them either”, and that’s what was difficult because a lot of these men would go out with trunks when they were drawing skin and people would stare. East Grinstead became known as the town that didn’t stare and they had a very clear understanding of these men and a very healthy community as a result. I think that now, when we’re in a conflict, and we have these young men coming back, we have to not hide them. We have to learn how to look after them properly, make them part of our world and accept our responsibility for doing that. We cannot just walk away from them under any circumstances, so the play has a huge amount of current relevance and it’s been great to work on something like that.
Why do you think audiences will enjoy this play?
The boys as portrayed are quite witty with each other. They’re quite sparky young men and that still comes through, so there’s a real sense of a desire to live inside them. Despite their situation, they all want to be alive and have fun. McIndoe is an amazing character; a man of passion, a visionary. I think that kind of character is always fascinating to watch on stage. He’s not straightforward; he’s complicated. He’s full of contradictions. He can be bullying at times, witty, charming, stubborn, awkward and demanding, but he was a man who got things done and, in many respects, is a bit of an unknown hero in terms of medical history but also in terms of the history of the care of veterans and understanding how that works. It’s a very exciting play and I think there’s a lot in it for people. A lot of people will come because they were children during the war, their parents were involved in it or they’re related to guinea pigs. A huge network of people is involved. I also think that young people will come because it’s about their peers. All the characters are young so, although it’s set many years ago, It’s about young people dealing with stuff. There is a lot for a young audience as well and it’s a lovely crossover point. I think that pieces of theatre that offer the opportunity for older and younger people to mix and meet, for families to go to, from grandparents to children, to engage and get involved in something, are really strong and this play certainly does that.