Philip Ralph on the Controversy Around Deep CutDate: 9 November 2009
Philip Ralph is the writer of Deep Cut, a play that recreates the journey of Private Cheryl James’ parents, after her unexplained death at Deepcut Barracks in 1995. The production, commissioned by Welsh company Sherman Cymru, is now touring after great critical acclaim at its Edinburgh debut in 2008, and he is currently working on a screenplay version of it.
His first play Mr Nobody premiered at Soho in 2003, and in his second play, one-man show Hitting Funny, he was nominated Best Actor by the Stage Awards in Edinburgh 2005. He is also a regular writer on daytime television drama Doctors.
As well as writing, he has worked as an actor in theatre and television for over 16 years.
When I speak to him, Philip Ralph is charming over the phone, incredibly obliging and eloquent on the subject of his play Deep Cut. Particularly as our first conversation is cut off by phone difficulties, he is exceptionally good-humoured, joking, “It was quite funny from my end, although I’m sure it was annoying for you!” We get onto the subject of his current pursuits, and he reveals, “I’m working on a screenplay of Deep Cut.” I ask if this is because he really engaged with the play? “Well, yes absolutely, but you start working on something like this, and you can’t know where it’s gonna go, and it got a lot interest, and immediately got a lot of people saying, ‘This story should be told on screen.’ So I’m just following every opportunity I can to tell the story as widely as possible.”
The play received an incredible amount of interest, generating numerous news stories after its opening at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2008, and effectively reigniting the campaign for a public inquiry into the deaths of four soldiers from gunshot wounds at Deepcut Barracks between 1995 and 2002. I ask Philip why he thinks this is the case, and he is clear:
“You know, things like the expenses scandal, and the non-existent WMDs in Iraq, make people feel as if the powers that be don’t tell us everything they should do. I think that the story of Deep Cut is a really classic example of this, that while people knew what had happened, they didn’t really know what a complex and difficult story it is about the state that we live in. And I think that’s what people picked up on when they saw the play.”
Crafting a play like Deep Cut, with so many important issues at stake, appears like a mammoth task for a writer, and it was a long process for Philip of at least two years in the making. When he began he had no idea the project would end up as it has:
The thing is, you don’t start off knowing where you’re going. If I’d started off knowing what I would eventually be doing and how long it would take, I don’t think you’d ever start something like this. When I first started, it was a really simple brief, just ‘Do you want to write a play about the army?’ This was in 2005 when I was first approached. I didn’t know I was going to write a play about Deepcut, and I didn’t know I was going to write a verbatim play.”
Philip feels he still has a long way to go with Deep Cut though, and compares the process with scaling a mountain:
“You just sort of follow your nose really, and I felt like the story took me along, according to who I needed to speak to, or what document I needed to read. It didn’t feel like I was climbing Mount Everest, but you see I’m not even at the top yet, I’ve got write the screenplay, so it’s kind of like standing at base camp, or in one of the foothills going, ‘Oh I’ve come a long way...’!”
How did he try to make it real for the audience, I ask?
“What I tried to do was to give the audience a potted version of the experience that I had over three years really. The form of theatre, which is a hybrid of several various forms of theatre, verbatim and documentary theatre, the important thing was that the actors playing Des and Doreen James spoke directly to the audience. So anybody watching it would feel – and obviously there’s a level of artifice, it’s clearly not Des and James speaking for themselves – there’s a strong sense of the truth of what’s being said.”
One point in favour of the play is its even presentation of the different opinions circulating the Deepcut issue:
“The other thing I did was to make sure that for all the play is on the side of the parents, it certainly makes the case for the other side as well, the Establishment: that these four deaths were tragic suicides, and everything’s been done to rectify it. Now I don’t personally agree with it, but that argument is in the play. It’s for the audience to make their own minds up.”
Philip is forthright about the various legal considerations he needed to take into account when I ask about the dangers of writing such a piece:
“Absolutely, when it became apparent the subject matter of what I was doing, the first thing I did was have a meeting with some lawyers, because you don’t want to defame anybody, you don’t want to libel anybody. But also, from I’ve seen myself and what I believe, in a polemical play, if you only come down on one side of the argument, you lose people. It’s much more important to overestimate the intelligence of your audience than to underestimate it. So what was important with Deep Cut was not to over simplify or gloss over the details...”
It is clearly a sensitive topic, further complicated, Philip says, by an excessive preoccupation with the nature of the soldiers’ deaths:
“One of the difficulties with the story is that everyone wants to know how they died: was it suicide, was it not suicide? And as Des James himself says in the play, he doesn’t care, the real thing behind the play is bigger than that, it’s the question, ‘Why don’t we know how they died’? That’s when things become very scary an interesting: which is that the state – so it appeared - did everything in its power to stop those questions being answered. That emerged for me organically, from reading things... wondering, why didn’t the government just have an inquiry?”
There must have been huge volumes of information that Philip was processing during his two-year stint on the project, including 18 hours worth of interviews with Des and Doreen James which he says is the “backbone” of the play, and I ask him how he kept a grip on all of it. He replies quasi-confidently, “Well...” Then there is a pause, an amused laugh, and he continues:
“You know those huge plastic storage containers that they sell in Homebase, well I’ve got two of those, full of Deep Cut. I don’t know to be honest, when I was writing the original draft which would have run about six hours onstage whereas the finished play runs about an hour and quarter, when I was working on that original draft in my office, you couldn’t walk into it! There was paper everywhere, with piles everywhere... But also, I did try and do it chronologically... because otherwise it just gets too complicated.”
One of the key elements of Deep Cut as a verbatim play is this use of direct testimony, and I wonder, is it easier or harder to work from such interviews, as opposed to creating fictional work?
“It’s much, much harder, and I would never do it again. Which isn’t to say that I’m not enormously proud of it, and that it hasn’t been the most extraordinary experience of my professional life; but I would never do it again. And the reason for that is that you’re walking into an ethical minefield if you do things like this. Every writer I’ve spoken to who has done a piece like this has said something similar; has got their own way of dealing with it, their own ethical guidelines. I set myself very stringent ethical guidelines - anybody I knew whose words were going to be included, I gave them absolute carte blanche to say ‘No’ to anything. Many dramatists threw their hands up at that in horror... but for me, there was no other way. The people involved in the story have been absolutely rolled over by the state, and by pretty much everybody, and I didn’t want to be another person on that list.”
Deep Cut is clearly an immensely powerful production, and that is no doubt down to its skilful construction, and the nature of its subject matter. For Philip though, “the most powerful element of the play is Des and Doreen James themselves. In saying that, I take nothing away from the other families I’ve met, and who I know quite well now. They’ve all been through a broadly similar experience, been profoundly changed by it and are all extraordinary people, but I met Des and Doreen first, and became very closely involved with their personal journey, and it’s an incredible one: these people went from being private people, parents, to standing up and saying that the state is corrupt... Throughout all of it, they’ve never lost their humour of their dignity or their humility, and I think that’s what people respond to.”
Their central role in the play, Philip says, was hugely important:
“Putting Des and Doreen at the heart of the play was a conscious decision: these are people that you can, and should, emotionally identify with, and that’s what makes it work, because audiences do. Within an hour and quarter you’ve been on this emotional rollercoaster ride that’s taken them fourteen years, and people leave feeling the things that I want them to feel: emotionally wrung out and absolutely furious that we live in this society and have the temerity to call it a democracy.”
- Philip Ralph was speaking to Vicky Ellis
Deep Cut is at West Yorkshire Playhouse from tonight until 21 November
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