Mike Bradwell’s book The Reluctant Escapologist has just arrived through the post. I was delighted to see it was the (surprise? obvious?) winner of the Theatre Book Prize 2011, given by STR, Society of Theatre Research.
Filthy and uproarious, it is a vivid journey through the history of the fringe by a marvelling, enthusiastic and subversive protagonist. Whether setting up Hull Truck, relishing the group onstage orgasms of The Living Theatre, fire-eating with Bob Hoskins, or running The Bush Theatre, this sometimes mocking, but passionate account is a call to arms for alternative theatre.
I worked with Mike with my first London production, YARD, back in 1998, when he was still artistic director. Many bottles of red wine were consumed in the pub below the theatre and it was probably during one of those evenings the idea for the show’s poster design materialised through the billowy clouds of silk cut.
I started to write YARD when my friend Christina Katic and I volunteered for Suncokret Humanitarian Relief Agency during the war in former Yugoslavia, a relationship and commitment which lasted for many years. At that time, in the mid-90’s, I wanted to write a play about the impact of civil war, but without setting it in the Balkans, against that particular backdrop, as I felt this could – and does – happen everywhere. The play is bloody and brutal, reflecting the horror I had seen within the shattered communities of frontline towns and what Michael Ignatieff called ‘fault line’ families, yet I didn’t want to make it biographical, or put it at a distance and therefore safe, with nothing to do with us.
I eventually set YARD in the butcher shop and slaughterhouse of a warring Irish family living in Birmingham. My father was a slaughter-man; I knew the jargon of the cutting room and the etiquette of the front of shop. Blood and the matter of life and death was not, then, something outside my daily experience and so it seemed an obvious and informed space in which to set the play.
Memory is a fickle thing, but I like to think that when we were discussing an image for the production over many glasses and even more fags, it was Mike who said ‘the heart’s been torn out. We need to have a heart.’
And so I found myself In Spittalfields, obtaining an ox heart like some dubious alchemist, then making my way to a studio to cup the mighty organ in my hands, moulding it to appear even more ‘heart like’ than it did in actuality as a vegan photographer nervously took portraits of my hands. As a butcher’s daughter, there isn’t a squeamish bone in my body and it is now with pride I look at my nail bitten hands nestling that heart.