What was the inspiration for the play?
I was sat outside the cafe in front of the Union theatre one Wednesday afternoon when Dennis, a local cabbie, pulled up for his afternoon cuppa. Dennis, being of a philosophical bent, or just plain moody, stood by the counter ruefully sipping his tea. He stared out at the road at his cab. 'They'll fucking bury me in that,' he muttered, and left. That phrase, and that image, took root in my mind and became the story around which Irish Blood, English Heart was woven. If a cab was a coffin, and a cab driver had the streets of London packed away neatly in his head, I asked myself, then what secrets would a cabbie take to the grave with him?
Before transferring to Trafalgar Studios IRISH BLOOD, ENGLISH HEART had its first performance at the Union Theatre, Southwark. You say you wrote the play specifically for that space. How did that come about? And how does that relationship to the space change with the transfer?
I’d worked at the Union a few times before, and had seen tons of stuff there, so I was already aware of the potential of the space, and always wanted to write something expressly for it. For those not familiar with the space, it’s a 50 seat theatre under a railway arch in Southwark, with a lovely industrial Victorian/Dickensian feel about it, a real hidden gem. In fact, the streets surrounding the theatre were part of Dickens’ old stomping ground, and it’s an area steeped in literary history (not least Shakespeare), namechecked by Chaucer and the like, Southwark being a stop on the pilgrim’s journey to Canterbury. So in my mind there’s this golden thread that runs down through the centuries, through the various strata of buildings, connecting that wandering storytelling instinct from then to now. It’s a stone’s throw from the south bank and the old docks, so there’s this real sense of stories culled from all over the world being embedded in the pavements and the brickwork of the surrounding streets, just waiting to be unearthed. Or maybe that’s just me, I dunno! And unlike many such spaces in London it has maintained the feel of an old lock up. Because it’s under a railway arch trains can be heard periodically trundling overhead, and I had never seen the uniqueness of the space fully exploited, where the actual location of the space was part of the fabric of the play. And I don’t just mean the production. This wasn’t just a site-sympathetic production, it is a site-sympathetic text, the location of the action of the play is the exact location of the theatre on Union street, but re-imagined as an old lock up. The script references the area specifically. So it’ll be interesting how that transfers to the Trafalgar, a much more traditional space. My feeling is that elsewhere the space then becomes a metaphor within the play and that changes the dynamic between space, performer and audience, which should be interesting. But the play is very much rooted, geographically, and psychically, in Southwark. To the extent that for this play we’ve marshalled the collective expertise of Southwark artists and craftsmen, actors, consultant cabbies, and even a Walworth based bespoke tailor to do the costume!
Caitriona, you're working with actors you've worked with in the past. Was the play written with them in mind?
When we first floated the idea last summer about creating something specifically for the Union, we both knew immediately who we wanted to work with, two Union stalwarts: Ian Groombridge and Howard Teale. Darren knew he wanted to write something specifically for these two actors, as we had worked with them before, but never together, and he knew he wanted to write about two brothers and their estranged father, who we never see. Ian and Howard work brilliantly together, and have this instinctive rapport, but very different energies, so once Darren had made the decision to make them brothers that was the key that unlocked the story for me. One brother was a successful stand up turned author, and the other was a London cabbie who’d lost his license, and each had entirely different experiences of their father. I'd worked with Carolyn Tomkinson before, on vastly different projects, so she was the first person I thought of when I started to think about the Peggy character. Carolyn has such a fantastic range that I knew she was someone I could go up and down the gears with, as it were, whilst remaining absolutely earthed and centred in the truth of her situation. I'd not worked with Oliver before, but I knew immediately, when we were casting, that he had exactly the right combination of swagger and vulnerability. I'm thrilled to be working with all of them.
Ancient Lights was set up to explore London stories. How did that impact on IRISH BLOOD, ENGLISH HEART?
In the writing, the play kind of of mutated into this story of contested narratives and shifting identities and the possibility of redemption, where London itself becomes this kind of violent, psychic playground. I very much wanted London to be an off-stage character in the play. You feel it pressing up against the doors of the lock up as the story unfolds. But London is so large and shapeshifting that I decided I wanted to shrink it down to the size of the physical dimensions of the Union and make it a character with specific, identifiable characteristics. For example: London, to an outsider, offers the possibility of change and reinvention, so that was a characteristic I wanted to explore. The story of the Irish diaspora over here is usually refracted through a lament for the the ‘old country’, a hankering after an Hibernian idyll, a pre-Celtic Tiger golden age of strong community, discipline, and an assured cultural identity. I wanted to upend all that, tell a different story, where the father in the story viewed London as a place where he could forge a new identity, who was escaping a painful past, and the fallout of that on his family. So London wasn’t, as it is in some many Irish plays, emblematic of a colonial power, but was a place where reinvention may not happen, at a cellular level, but does seem at least possible.
Who are Ancient Lights?
The Ancient Lights Theatre Co. is a new collective of London writers, actors, directors and designers, was established in 2010, to unearth the dominion of stories that lie buried within the stones, strata, and surfaces of London streets. The capital is both a city of mongrel influences and an international cultural hub, peopled by disparate citizens and cultures; unique, indomitable and fierce. Ancient Lights is a restless camera that illuminates these forgotten, unlit corners of an ageless, pulsating, raging city. We tell London stories. Irish Blood, English Heart is our inaugural production. I don’t think there has been a company that uses London specifically as its subject before, and because it is such an international city we don’t see a disconnect between the specificity of local stories rubbing up against global stories, because London reinvents itself daily.