What's it like to write a play with your other half?
Dramatic, naturally as life partners and co-authors of WITCH Jane Hardy and Michael Conaghan conjure Ireland's dark arts past at the Black Box on March 13
There should be an etiquette for writing a play with one’s partner – i.e. the person you share a bed and one bank account with. But there isn’t. While Michael Conaghan – and my home name is indeed Mrs Jane Conaghan, very Derry – and I have been writing about Alice Kyteler, the first woman to be charged with the heresy of witchcraft in 14th century Ireland, we have pushed the old envelope.
It works (or doesn’t!) something like this. He writes something, let’s say a scene cleverly updating the well documented Kyteler story, I nip into the dining room and alter it. Then I add something about the woman’s psychology, her power and possible darkness (psychological not magic) and guess what, Michael alters it. I have been known, but please don't tell him, to ruin something he has written that I thought did not work. OK, yes, we are a modern, much less well known, version of Dashiell Hammett and Lillian Hellman throwing their 20th century typewriters out of the window.
How did this begin? We met, funnily enough, when I tutored a WEA creative writing course in Whitstable, Kent, and Michael, seven years younger, was one of my students. We didn’t get together until a Christmas party after he had left the class. He was, of course, a model student, clearly talented and particularly in terms of dialogue, the building bricks of drama.
'Fun with Mick and Jane'
Fast forward a couple of decades or so and we’re married, living in Belfast, and I am a journalist. He is a bookseller who moonlights as a very good music reviewer and poet. A good while ago in Kent, we met a creative, charismatic individual, Robert McCrea, actor, entrepreneur and latterly a refugee charity leader who worked with one Theresa May on the anti-slavery bill. He asked us to write a vehicle for him about Thomas Becket, Canterbury’s premier saint and the man who prompted one of the best known and most often wrongly quoted sayings, 'Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?' In fact, Henry II, Becket’s former closest friend and patron, said: 'Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?' But we went with the well known tag for our play, This Turbulent Priest, now being performed as a superb semi-permanent show in Canterbury, as what my actor brother-in-law, Ruairi, calls heritage drama.
The heritage quotient of WITCH, our new venture, is interesting and rather colonial. Archbishop Ledrede, a London monk who had become Bishop of Ossory a few years before, was determined to put Alice Kyteler through her paces. He wanted a show of Papal power to defeat the darkness she represented. The 1324 court case is well documented and we have quoted freely from it in our play. That’s something Michael and I agreed on. We were more or less commissioned to write this short drama by a brilliant composer, Robin Harvey, now living with his family near Kilkenny. He was part of our This Turbulent Priest team and has written an original score part of which we hope to run alongside our staged reading of WITCH, with very talented actors Mark Claney and Victoria Gleason in the key roles, on March 13 at the Black Box in Belfast.
So how has this gone in terms of co-writing? OK, I think. Michael’s dark humour – and the modern take in our re-telling is cleverly down to him. I admit it – comes through well. I have a normally fairly well hidden aggressive streak and have written most of the scary bits, where our modern heroine, an American searching her roots, is possessed by the spirit of Alice. This needs a little work – and maybe some re-writing – but as usual Michael doesn’t entirely agree with my analysis. So we’ll write a bit more, saying is the possession scary enough, do we believe in Alice, do we sympathize with her or should we remain ambivalent as she left her sidekick Petronella to burn? No doubt we'll argue a lot, re-write quite a bit, put our cases again over wine or coffee and put our PCs through their paces. But not throw them out of our south Belfast dining room’s window, I hope.
Incidentally, one area where Michael and I have reached total agreement is sponsorship and we are fortunate enough to have gained financial support from: The Hallows Gallery, Michel’s Greengrocers, Boden Park Café, The First Floor Bistro, all in the Ormeau Road.
Having retrieved my PC from the front garden via a laptop shaped hole in the dining room window, I do what I always do in this situation, and read what my wife has written. This is generally a sobering experience, as I realise that she regularly grasps the issues with much greater clarity than her husband. A prime example of this is in the characterisation of Alice Kyteler in our play WITCH. Alice's opening monologue, written largely by Jane, nails an issue I had been struggling with; how to make her sound both scary and sexy, and yet very much a woman of her time and status. ‘I am Alice Kyteler and I am a wronged woman. Which is not to say I have not in my time done wrong’, it begins. Exactly.
Similarly with our ‘heritage’ plays on both Thomas Becket (Jane has just corrected my spelling of Becket by the way, another of her useful collaborative functions, and not irritating at all) and The Battle of Hastings. I am a sucker for corny Hollywood dialogue, and can fill pages with the stuff, Jane knows exactly when it’s time to get down to business and pull out the battle axes, generally as near to the beginning as possible.
Having your work scrutinised by another writer is always something of an ordeal. Someone who has written poetry for as long as I have must get used to rejection (point of information here, Poetry Ireland turns you down in both English and Gaelic), but can always take comfort in the usual fantasies about being a misunderstood genius. Discussing proposed cuts and changes face to face with someone, even when that someone is your wife, requires qualities not always present in a writer, such as tact and diplomacy. Take our latest venture. Without giving too much away – if you’re squeamish about plot reveals, look away now - the play is set in two time zones with Alice, our alleged witch, as the link between the 14th century and the modern couple who research her.
My wife initially thought that there was enough drama in the original story and no need to go messing around with hoary old framing devices but due to a mixture of quiet persuasion on my part but mainly hearing our excellent actors, Mark Claney and Victoria Gleason, speak the words, she has come round to my way of thinking. She has even been heard to say ‘I was wrong’ – music to a husband's ears.
And the modern re-telling highlights one theme of WITCH. This is that witchcraft, the dark arts, are actually manifestations of human psychology. In other words, it is the darkness or emotional truth within that we’re dealing with, channelling great examples from Hamlet’s ghost (who only tells the prince what he already suspects) to the fairy world in Midsummer Night’s Dream. Shakespeare uses this device quite a bit. Puck, Oberon, Titania and the otherworldly posse he wrote into being merely reflect the human obssession with romantic love. ‘Oh what fools these mortals be’ can be interpreted as a comment on the universal inability to work out what’s going on in our hobgoblin hearts and minds.
Can you tell that that last paragraph was written not by me but by my wife? The ideal outcome with co-writing is that the text flows seamlessly, so that when one of your key lines is praised you can both claim it, or if you’re feeling generous, modestly allow the other person to take credit. Of course, if one of your lines is criticized, you have the option of doing the reverse. But psychology (there’s that word again) being what it is, you tend to remember if you wrote it or not. For instance, I was recently asked to remove my finely wrought Monty Python parody from another play we’re working on, about the newly topical Battle of Hastings. The pain of rejection was slightly leavened by the fact I was told by the other company we're involved with, Bad Husky Productions in Kent, that ‘Having read it a second time, it didn’t seem so bad.’
So perhaps there is hope for the early scenes yet. And there’s the key factor. In life it is usually better to defer to one’s wife, it generally saves time because sooner or later, you’ll be deferring to her anyway. In art, especially drama, everything is negotiable, because eventually you will have to bow down to those guardians of the fourth wall itself, the audience.
Jane Hardy and Michael Conaghan are 4th Wall Productions, whose play ‘WITCH’ will be performed by actors Mark Claney and Victoria Gleason as a rehearsed reading in the Green Room at the Black Box on Tuesday March 13 at 1pm. Tickets £5, available on the day, from www.blackboxbelfast.com or by phoning 028 9024 4400.