Author Archives: jenbitespeople

About jenbitespeople

Edinburgh-based writer, dramaturg and director. Here you'll find posts about my work, mental health, arts politics and whatever else happens to catch my attention.

The Roughly Chronological Re-Read – a slight delay

Yes, this ought to be a post about Titus Andronicus, and it should have been up a couple of days ago. Alas, freelance life is doing its thing and I have a draft script that needs to be finished within the next few days, so the post is still in note form and likely to remain that way for the rest of the week. Expect it Sunday/Monday!


The Roughly Chronological Re-Read Week 4: Henry VI, Part 3

Date:  1591-ish.

 

First read: 2005-ish.

 

Productions seen: No full productions, just scenes at drama school.

 

Productions worked on: As above.

 

Edition I’m using: Signet Classics. Same book, different week.

Cheating by having one book for all three plays. Don't tell anyone.

 

Observations:

 

  • I will not get over-excited and make this all about Richard III. I will not get over-excited and make this all about Richard III. I will not get over-excited and make this all about Richard III.
  • Earlier on today I was replying to comments on the last post and something that Bee Dice said prompted me to start thinking about where this play comes not only in the chronology of Shakespeare’s plays, but also of Elizabeth I’s reign. By the time this play was written Elizabeth was well into her 50s and it would have been very clear that she wasn’t going to produce an heir. She also hadn’t named one, nor would she. The sense of trepidation must have been considerable, given the turbulence that had preceded Elizabeth’s rule. I wonder how that coloured the play for the original audiences?
  • I like that things start to get a bit more personal in this play. It’s not all about power for power’s sake, the grievances aren’t just professional, there are some serious personal wrongs to be avenged! Margaret in particular takes Henry’s capitulation very badly because it disinherits and disempowers her son, something that might be a bit of a sensitive issue for the daughter of Rene of Anjou.  I absolutely love her speech to York in 1.4. Such a terrible idea, such bad politics… such a beautiful theatrical moment. I’d also say it’s the most neatly-written of the speeches so far. She talks a little too much, but it’s in Margaret’s nature to shoot her mouth off and it’s just enough to make Edward IV’s revenge against her inevitable.
  • Speaking of Edward IV, fuck that guy. I am really not Team York. I don’t think I’m on Team Lancaster either, to be honest, but I find myself with a certain amount of sympathy for Henry VI at least. He’s a terrible king, it’s true, but this is the trouble with monarchy – you get whoever you get, whether they want to be there or not. It’s why it’s such a deeply unethical system. But at least if Henry had been allowed to go off and join a monastery he’d have made a good monk. Edward IV, wherever you put him, would still be a gadgie. (NB: I am not talking about the historical Edward IV here, only the Shakespearean one. I believe that historically he was a competent king who liked books, but Shakespeare’s Edward deserved to have most of the other characters in the play line up and slap him. If this play is anti-Yorkist propaganda, it seems fairly effective.)
  • Structurally, this piece seemed a bit better balanced than its predecessor. It’s still on the crazy side, with a disproportionate quantity of alarums and excursions, but there are more subtle shifts in tone, more moments of (admittedly pitch black) humour mixed into the death, devastation and dethronings. It’s perhaps a bit heavy on the action in the first act, but I suppose that makes sense since it’s a sequel and we do start in media res. Then again, the first act of Part 2 was also insane, so it’s quite possible that it’s just an early career writer not having found his groove yet.
  • Once again, Mark had the Arden and I had the Signet, and we noticed quite a few differences between the two. My copy was missing lines in the first act (I’ll check exactly where later), and the Arden had Clifford making his final speech with an arrow through his neck while mine just indicated that he was wounded. It is quite a lot of talking for someone with an arrow through his neck. Just saying.
  • Richard. RICHARD. This is where I start getting excited. There are theories about the possible existence of an earlier version of Hamlet and you could argue that there are shades of the Prince of Denmark in the hesitant Henry, and there are lots of moments in this and Part 2 that seem to reappear in more developed form in Macbeth, but in Richard we have a definite example of a character who must have stuck around in Shakespeare’s imagination for a while. And what a character! The first of the great villains and we actually get to see him take shape. His acerbic wit is chiefly responsible for correcting the drama/humour balance in this play (in as much as it is corrected), and it’s fascinating to see Shakespeare take what looks like his first crack at the opening monologue from Richard III in Act 3 Scene 2.
  • I’m going to stop myself there. I don’t want to go off on one about Richard when his own play is coming up in a few weeks, and I need to keep this brief because there are applications to be done, money to be earned and forms to fill in. So this post ends here, perhaps to be lengthened when I don’t have a million pressing deadlines.

 

NEXT WEEK: Titus Andronicus


The Roughly Chronological Re-Read Week 3: Henry VI (Part 2)

Date: Probably 1591.

 

First read: 2005-ish.

 

Productions seen: No full productions, just scenes at drama school.

 

Productions worked on: As above.

 

Edition I’m using: Signet Classics. I don’t think I’ve ever had a Signet before.

 

Cheating by having one book for all three plays. Don't tell anyone.

 

Observations:

 

  • There are people who believe that this is Shakespeare’s very first play. While it’s clearly an early work, I find it hard to believe that it could be the first. The language and characterisation are much better developed than Comedy of Errors or Two Gents.
  • It was suggested to me when I started this project that the Henry VIs should be read in story order, but in light of the argument mentioned above I preferred to go 2-3-1. I’ve tried to put Part 1 out of my mind for the purposes of the Re-read.
  • Back when I first started reading Shakespeare I assumed that as I grew more familiar with his work I would be able to keep track of which geographically-titled nobleman was which without any problems. Twelve years later and much more familiar with his works, I still get mixed up and have to go back and remind myself which Poles and post-Plantagenets are which.  I am seriously considering pressing all my ornaments into service for Part 3.
  • Bloody hell Shakespeare, we’re not hanging about, are we? By the end of Act 1, Scene 1 we’ve got the meeting of the royal spouses, Suffolk going from marquess to duke, strops thrown about the king’s marriage and the loss of Anjou and Maine, the Cardinal throwing shade at Gloucester, Somerset throwing shade at the Cardinal, Buckingham and Somerset plotting for one of them to be Protector, Warwick plotting to get Maine back, and York soliloquising at great length about how he’s going to be king. That’s one scene.
  • This pattern of characters bitching about each other and plotting everyone else’s downfall continues for the rest of the play (with an odd diversion in Act 4, of which more in a moment). Some absolutely beautiful smack is talked, which was a breath of fresh air after Comedy of Errors. But it’s somewhat hard going, with very little breathing space between events and length speeches. Shakespeare still isn’t on top of his pacing at this point.
  • Speaking of which, can we talk about Act 4? Imagine if Game of Thrones had decided to show nothing but the Faith Militant causing trouble in King’s Landing for a season, with only a couple of brief appearances from the characters in whom you’ve already become interested. It’s not without merit, it’s still entertaining stuff and piqued my interest in historical terms, it’s just… couldn’t we have built up to this? Structurally, I feel the lack of an introductory scene for Cade. We’re told in Act 3, Scene 1 that York has Cade on his side, and I find myself wishing that this had been shown.
  • Characterisation is starting to get interesting. Not universally so, but to a greater extent than in the last two plays. I found myself quite attached to Gloucester, and the scene where he parts with his wife was surprisingly touching, especially in view of their proto-Macbeth first scene together. I also thought that the writing of Henry struck a delicate balance between capturing his weakness as a monarch and his strength as a man of faith. I’m fond of characters who may be hopeless cases within their worlds but who clearly could have thrived in a different environment.
  • I tried hard to forget having read Part 1 before. I’m convinced that if I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have picked up on the relationship between Margaret and Suffolk until quite late on. Their affair has always appealed to the teen-goth-in-search-of-heartache in me, and I think I’d mentally filled in more romantic/lustful intrigue than they actually have. Nevertheless, the scene where they part gave me a little pang of sadness, even though they’re both pretty terrible people. (I don’t care how terrible she is. I will love Queen Margaret in all her incarnations until I die. But I will save my remarks on her until we’re done with the Henry VIs and I’m free to comment on her entire arc.)
  • While I knew that there was witchcraft/necromancy in this play, I’d never really taken note of the date before – if it was first performed in 1591, that puts it smack in the middle of the North Berwick witch trials. I don’t know how aware a London audience would have been of the trials, but since Newes from Scotland, the contemporary account of the “witches”, was printed in London it doesn’t seem terribly unlikely that they were. I wonder whether it might have added a certain immediacy, more than a century after the real Margery Jourdemayne’s death.
  • Lots of differences between the editions on this one – I had the Signet, Mark had the Arden, and we found quite a few inverted lines, different attributions and a couple of characters with slightly altered names.
  • To sum up, this is far from a perfect play but I’m certainly happy to have moved on to the sometimes unnecessarily loquacious and unambiguously stabby. Since next week is Part 3 and we’ve got Titus Andronicus coming up after that, I should be kept happy for a little while.

The Roughly Chronological Re-read Week 2: The Comedy of Errors

Date: Around 1594.

 

First read: In 2007. I don’t think I ever re-read it.

 

Productions seen: One at the Edinburgh Fringe, some time around 2003/4 (I think). I’m fairly sure it was a student production.

 

Productions worked on: None.

 

Edition I’m using: An elderly Arden.

comedy-of-errors

 

 

Observations:

 

Couplets. COUPLETS. Good god, Shakespeare, what are you doing to me? Why must everything rhyme? (All right, not everything. Not quite. Just most of the first three acts.) Why do you hate me, Shakespeare?

 

I’m not inherently anti-couplet. Used sparingly and judiciously they can be effective. Great at the end of sonnets, for instance. Useful for comic purposes, in their right place. But there’s such a thing as excess, and I think we hit that point about three pages into The Comedy of Errors.

 

I remember not being mad keen on this play when I first saw it back in 200…3, perhaps? When I read it a couple of years later I struggled to finish it. Back then, with less developed critical faculties and a lot less confidence in myself, I assumed the failing was mine. Shakespeare is Shakespeare, right? Every word is golden, each play’s structure exquisite, right? Right?

 

Realising that it was permissible to critique Shakespeare (and that I had developed the necessary skills to do so) was an important part of my development both as a reader and as a writer. So let me apply my learning and state my considered opinion – The Comedy of Errors is not a very good play.

 

I can imagine that a really well-done production could be really funny. Given a handful of highly-skilled physical comedians with exquisite timing, the weaknesses of the script could be obscured. Perhaps with a handful of careful cuts, the opening scene could be made to feel like less of an info-dump. As it stands, it’s not exactly elegant.

 

The heavy reliance on dramatic irony irked me, too. As with the couplets, it’s a device I enjoy in moderation but found overwhelming here. I found myself longing for something more than just yet another mistaken identity – give me some depth in the characters, or even some wordplay on a par with what was on offer in Two Gents!

 

Actually, I found myself missing Two Gentlemen while I was reading this one. While I wasn’t exactly bowled over, at least there were some hints at the complexity of characterisation that’s to come in Proteus’ soliloquies, and although the structure was messy and the narrative rushed it was less repetitive than this. Again, I wonder whether that repetition could be made to look like cumulative effect by particularly adept performers, but as a director and dramaturg I still find my fingers itching to cut, restructure and ask for greater depth.

 

As with Two Gents, it’s interesting to see the clear Commedia influences on Shakespeare’s work and I’m glad to have revisited it, but I doubt this play will ever be particularly dear to my heart. I’d close with some favourite lines, but three days after reading the script I’m struggling to call any to mind, so… not this week. Onward to the Henriad. In the meantime, please do share your thoughts and I’ll get on with answering comments from the last week.


Roughly Chronological Re-read Week 1: The Two Gentlemen of Verona

Date: Between 1589 and 1592.

 

First read: In 200…5, I think? At some point in my early 20s I read my Arden Complete Works cover to cover. Then I re-read it in 2011 when I worked on a couple of scenes from it at Mountview.

 

Productions seen: None – just that couple of scenes at drama school.

 

Productions worked on: As above.

 

Edition I’m using: Good old Dover Thrift.

She's just not that into you, Pro

 

Observations:

 

  • I read the play aloud with Mark and Flavia. We noticed that the locations weren’t consistent across the editions – sometimes one of us had Milano and another Verona, sometimes one had Mantua and another Padua. I wish we’d actually noted the differences, but we didn’t… What I can tell you is that I was using the Dover Thrift pictured above, Mark had the Arden Complete Works and Flavia was using the text from shakespeare.mit.edu. Who knows where we were? All we know is that you’re unlikely to miss the tide in any of them. In your face, Oxfordians.
  • While this may or may not be Shakespeare’s first play, it definitely feels early. Not just because of the structural oddities and somewhat underdone characterisation, but because it’s packed with ideas and lines that turn up again in fuller form elsewhere in the canon – the business with the rings, the girl disguised as a boy, the fleeing lovers pursued into the forest, rope ladders a-go-go, even some shady friar with a familiar name doing penance for unspecified sins wandering the woods.
  • Between this and Romeo & Juliet, I get the impression that Elizabethan Mantua was quite the hive of scum and villainy.
  • Holy excessive wordplay, Batman! I’d forgotten how crazy the first few scenes are. It’s a much funnier play than I remembered, but the comedy sits oddly alongside the darkness of Proteus’ journey – to my mind, at least. I know that time changes the way we receive things and that humour changes over the years (the treatment of Malvolio in Twelfth Night, for example, strikes my 21st century sensibilities as ridiculously harsh). However, I struggle to believe that Proteus and Valentine’s reconciliation after the attempted (or at least considered) rape of Silvia is anything other than a rushed ending. It’s an extremely swift wrap-up, and a bit frustrating – Proteus comes across as a budding villain, and a very interesting one at that, yet the moment he’s challenged he does a swift volt-face, apologises and is forgiven. There’s the quality of mercy not only is not strained, it seems to gush from both Valentine and Julia in an unstoppable, ill-advised torrent. Then again, I suppose the same swiftness turns up in things like Measure for Measure, so perhaps it’s more a question of my expectations concerning ambiguous endings.
  • Having recently worked on Coriolanus, I found my attention caught by Proteus’ line in Act II Scene IV, “Even as one heat another heat expels/Or as one nail by strength drives out another/So the remembrance of my former love/Is by a newer object quite forgotten”. Check out one of my favourite lines of Aufidius’ from Act IV Scene VII – “One fire drives out one fire: one nail, one nail/Rights by rights falter: strengths by strengths do fail./Come, let’s away. When, Caius, Rome is thine/Thou art the poor’st of all: then shortly art thou mine.”

 

I’m trying not to get too wrapped up in comparing the plays at this stage, since the point is to see what observations are prompted by reading them in this order, so this isn’t a particularly long post. Expect them to increase in length and depth as we continue, and also as I get a sense of what kind of conversations might come up here.

 

Did you read along? Is there anything you’d like to say about this play? Any point I’ve made that you disagree with? Comments are open (they’re moderated, which is sadly necessary for personal reasons, but I’ve no plans to do anything other than approve all contributions to the discussion).


The Roughly Chronological Reread: The Chronology

As I launch into my first big personal project for 2017, the Roughly Chronological Re-read, I’d like to acknowledge the amount of guesswork that’s going into this. There is no clear chronology for Shakespeare’s plays. I don’t claim to have discovered one. What I have done is read a lot of other people’s suggestions and drawn up a reading order. I don’t claim that my decisions are anything other than arbitrary. You’re welcome to argue the toss with me. I’ll probably argue it with myself as I go.

So here’s the order I’m planning to use:

Week 1: Two Gentlemen of Verona

Week 2: The Comedy of Errors

Week 3: Henry VI Part II

Week 4: Henry VI Part III

Week 5: Titus Andronicus

Week 6: Richard III

Week 7: The Taming of the Shrew

Week 8: Henry VI Part 1

Week 9: Love’s Labours Lost

Week 10: Romeo & Juliet

Week 11: Richard II

Week 12: A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Week 13: King John

Week 14: The Merchant of Venice

Week 15: The Merry Wives of Windsor

Week 16: Henry IV Part 1

Week 17: Henry IV Part 2

Week 18: Much Ado About Nothing

Week 19: As You Like It

Week 20: Henry V

Week: 21: Julius Caesar

Week 22: Hamlet

Week 23: Twelfth Night

Week 24: Troilus & Cressida

Week 25: All’s Well That Ends Well

Week 26: Othello

Week 27: Measure for Measure

Week 28: King Lear

Week 29: Timon of Athens

Week 30: Macbeth

Week 31: Anthony & Cleopatra

Week 32: Pericles

Week 33: Coriolanus

Week 34: Cymbeline

Week 35: A Winter’s Tale

Week 36: The Tempest

Week 37: Henry VIII

Week 38: The Two Noble Kinsmen


A Project for 2017

Hello again, internet. 2016 wasn’t one of my more talkative years online, and much of my blogging was devoted to the mental health side of things. While I plan to continue that, I want to get back into writing a bit more about the arts.

Ermagherd Sherksper

Gotta catch ’em all!

One of my projects for 2017 will be a complete chronological re-read of all of Shakespeare’s plays. While I’ve read them all at some point or other, there are several that I haven’t revisited for over ten years and the order of reading was quite haphazard. I’m interested to see whether there are any insights to be gained from a chronological read. So here’s the plan:

  • I’ll be using a rough chronology based on the RSC’s timeline. Want to talk about disputed chronology? Be my guest!
  • Each week I’ll read one play and post whatever thoughts I have about it.
  • By “each week” I mean “roughly every seven consecutive days but perhaps more like ten or sometimes fourteen because #freelancelife and also being quite distractible”.
  • I’m not sticking to any particular edition. I assembled my collection of individual plays from charity shops, so I have whatever edition I happened to find.
  • If you want to read along and share your thoughts, that would be delightful. I’ll post a link to the full text for each play for anyone who doesn’t have a Complete Works to hand.
  • If you want to dispute authorship that’s fine, but only if you can both spell and formulate an argument. If you include a link to your book about how Shakespeare’s mum or his third cousin or some completely unrelated person who died a hundred years earlier wrote the plays, I probably won’t approve your comment.

I’ll be starting off with thoughts on Two Gentlemen of Verona in about a week’s time. Join me?


Selbstmordversuch

 Going to be talking about suicide in this one, folks.  Don’t read it if that bothers you. 

 

I’ve always been very private and secretive about my suicidal impulses. I didn’t talk about suicide when I was planning it because I didn’t want anyone to hinder my attempts. I didn’t talk about it when I was better because it horrified me, and it took me years to be able to name what I had tried to do. I talk about it now because after a lot of therapy, I finally can. And I feel I should talk about it, because I want people to know that a suicidal person doesn’t always look and act the way one might expect.

 

My priority when planning to kill myself was to inconvenience people as little as possible. The aim was to die quickly, preferably not painfully, and in a manner that would not involve anyone else or cause unnecessary suffering for those left behind.

 

My attempts happened at times when I believed, rightly or wrongly, that nobody would care much if I died – but even if nobody cared for me, I still didn’t want to hurt them. I reasoned that an accidental death would inflict less anguish than an obvious suicide, so my demise would have to be carefully staged.

 

These criteria meant no slashed wrists (I never cut – working as a life model during both breakdowns meant there was no way to conceal self-harm), no hanging, no downing dozens of pills. There could be no throwing myself in front of vehicles (though if driverless trains had been in operation on my regular routes in 2010, I might not be writing this now). I would also need to set things up so that an inquest wouldn’t find any evidence of my intentions, which meant scrubbing my notebooks and journals of anything that might give the game away.

 

If this sounds more like planning a murder than a suicide, that’s pretty much how it felt (or so I’d imagine – my experience of planning murders is admittedly limited to the world of fiction). But do you know how difficult it is to plan a wholly convincing “accidental death” when the intended victim is the one doing the planning? It’s hard. The body fights for survival even when the spirit is utterly sick of it. Dying accidentally yet deliberately requires an act of will – don’t try to catch yourself when you fall, don’t let yourself surface, don’t take that breath. The body reacts instinctively, it demands continued life, and there is little so disappointing as the feeling of gasping to fill the lungs you were trying to shut down. The body would win, and all I could do was refine my plans and cling to the impotent hope that I’d kill it successfully next time.

 

When I stopped eating, I thought I was onto something. I had grown to hate eating, because what was the point in continuing to fuel a body I wanted to destroy? I was living away from home, I wasn’t regularly eating in company, so it was easy enough just to stop. I didn’t intend to starve to death, since that would have been too obvious – I was relying on my tendency to get dizzy and black out when I don’t eat, hoping that it would happen during one of my night-time rock climbing adventures down on the beach. Scrambling about on the rocks in the small hours was a known habit of mine, so no-one would question my being there. With any luck I would faint and fall from the rocks into the sea, and that would be it. My bright and promising young life snuffed out in a Tragic Accident. Perfect.

 

It didn’t work, of course. A few weeks into my plan, my parents came to visit. At this point I was just drinking milk to curb the hunger pangs and downing packets of sugar to heighten the dizzy spells. I was losing my ability to look like a functioning human being. My face was gaunt, I was piling on makeup to conceal the shadows under my eyes and the hollows of my cheeks. My clothes were starting to hang off me. My hair was constantly pinned up to hide the fact that I lacked the energy to wash it. I could pass among strangers, sort of, but my parents could see me for the haggard, distant mess that I was.

 

They took me home. I didn’t resist. I didn’t have the energy. But once I was home, eating nothing ceased to be the path of least resistance. They would give me food and insist I ate some. I didn’t have it in me to refuse. I started to think about other options for suicide, but it was too late. Within days I was so far into catatonia that I didn’t have the wherewithal to think anything any more. For months I said nothing, did nothing… I survived catatonia because my parents were on hand to make sure I ate. They got me into therapy, so by the time I was able to think again I had some medical support, so I was able to manage the suicidal ideation that occurred during my recovery and not act on it.

 

If that catatonic episode had happened just a couple of years later, after my parents had died, while I was living alone, I wouldn’t have survived it. There would have been no need for my convoluted staged accident, I would simply have had no-one to make me eat and no energy to correct the situation myself. Eventually I would have starved, and sooner or later the unpaid bills would have stacked up or someone would have noticed the smell of decomposition and I’d have been a sad, quickly-forgotten story in the Evening News and that would have been it.

 

This is extremely uncomfortable to write about. It’s probably an uncomfortable read. Sorry about that. There’s more I feel I should include – I should talk about what it’s like to deal with the strange dichotomy between living a life that I’m happy with and want to continue with, and the constant low-level ideation, that little voice in my head that never quite stops saying “die, die, die, die, die”. I will, another time. A thousand words seems to be about my limit for one sitting, where this subject matter is concerned.

 

I’d love to sign off with some positive message about how it all gets better and brighter and everyone should just hang on in there, but since I’ve already mentioned that this is something I still deal with, that would be false. So I’ll end this post with the same phrase I’ve been using to answer the question “How are you?” for the past few years.

 

I’m still alive.

 

How are you?


Of triggers, traumas and taking control

There’s been a lot of talk on the interwebs of late about trigger warnings. What are they, who needs them, should we have them everywhere or nowhere, what good do they do? I’m not mad keen on them, myself – I can see a purpose in the basic sex/violence warnings you get on DVD boxes, since those are things that bother many people for many reasons, but I don’t see how they can usefully extend beyond these broad categories.

 

The thing about being triggered is that it’s completely different to being made to feel a bit uncomfortable. Triggers are part of living with PTSD. People who are triggered experience extreme, excessive reactions to stimuli – things like flashbacks, uncontrollable shaking, spontaneous nausea/vomiting, the fight/flight/freeze response. It can change your mood for days, give you nightmares, kill your appetite, prevent you from sleeping, cause dissociative episodes… Of course, not everybody experiences all of these things, but the point is that there’s a lot more to it than just not liking to see or hear something (and the people who co-opt the term “triggering” as a means of censoring and controlling those around them do none of us any favours).

 

Having dealt with PTSD for several years now, I’m no stranger to triggering and know very well the difference between something that triggers me and something that just upsets me. If I’m reading a book or watching a film or play and someone loses their loved ones through death or abandonment, it will upset me (if it’s done believably, otherwise it’ll just piss me off). I will probably cry. It probably won’t make me want to stop watching or reading, unless it’s really close to home. Breaking Bad came close once or twice, because Walter White strongly reminds me of my dad in terms of looks, temperament and physicality, and watching the character going through cancer treatment in the first season was tough. It made me very sad, and I thought about my dad a lot while I was watching it and missed him badly. It pained me that I’ll never get to show him Breaking Bad and tease him about the resemblance. But it didn’t trigger me. It caused me to have a perfectly normal response to being reminded of someone I still miss.

 

So what does trigger me? Well, the one I encounter most often is car crash noises. Some shows and films use very realistic crash sounds, and I find those hard to handle. I can usually rely on structure and lead-up to see it coming, in which case I’ll get ready and make sure I’ve covered my ears and am not looking at the screen when it happens. The trouble is that sometimes it comes out of nowhere, so there’s no action I can take. Last year I was at a book launch and part of the way through the reading, CRASH, sound effect out of nowhere! There hadn’t been any other sound effects, nothing to make me think that this might happen, so I was completely unprepared. I nearly leapt out of my seat, then sat there for a while twitching and shaking, trying not to scream or cry. I had nightmares that night. But at least it wasn’t as bad as seeing The Avengers: Age of Ultron. I remember almost nothing about that film except that there was a sequence that was just one crash after another, and by the time it was done I was curled up in a ball on the floor with tears streaming down my face.

 

Now, car crashes are pretty common so I suppose one could argue that anything involving a representation of a crash should bear a warning. Personally, I don’t agree. They are common occurrences, and most people are fine a short while afterward. They process the shock and fright, they recover, they don’t shake and cry whenever they hear the noise. I recovered just fine from the first crash I was in, when I was a child. I appeared to be fine after the pile-up in 2005. It wasn’t until the black ice incident in 2008 that I started experiencing flashbacks and other trauma symptoms. For a while I found it very difficult to be in a car at all, but EMDR helped me to get things under control to the point where I can drive and be a passenger. It’s just the noises that still trouble me, but that’s my damage and I don’t think it should be necessary to undermine a dramatic device to accommodate it.

 

Also, not all triggers are as obvious as that. The other one that affects me is the smell of lavender. While car crashes are commonly considered traumatic events with negative associations, most people’s associations with lavender are very positive. It’s a very popular fragrance for bath products or anything laundry-related, and it’s one of the most common oils used in massage or any kind of relaxation treatment. It’s remarkably difficult to avoid, but for me it’s tied in with memories of things that happened while my mum was dying, things people did that I still can’t talk about, even in therapy, because to process those things is too close to forgiving them and there will be no forgiveness here.

 

I control my environment where I can. I’ve got used to checking laundry products and toiletries to make sure I don’t inadvertently pick up something lavender-scented. If I book a massage I request that no lavender be used in my treatment and offer to bring my own geranium oil instead. But there’s nothing I can do to control the outside world, where lots of people like the scent and I can smell it on them. Nor would I want to restrict their right to enjoy the fragrance if they like.

 

A few years ago my husband and I went to see Puppet State Theatre’s wonderful show The Man Who Planted Trees. At one point there is a description of lavender fields, and by means of a beautifully simple effect they waft the scent out over the audience. I saw it coming, only just, and scrambled for the bottle of Olbas Oil I usually keep in my handbag to drown out any other smells. It broke my heart a bit that I couldn’t enjoy that part of the show the way it was intended (though I certainly appreciated it objectively and could see that it was lovely for everyone else).

 

The experience I had at that show always pops up in my mind when discussing trigger warnings. I don’t think it would be reasonable for me to expect Puppet State to have anticipated my reaction. How could they? It would be equally possible that someone might have PTSD responses linked to a particular quality of light, or the type of shirt one of the actors was wearing, or to an uncommon phrase that might have cropped up in the script. If triggers are very specific and personal, any aspect of a show (or film, or book, or everyday experience) might be someone’s trigger – so in order to provide total protection, it would be necessary to list every single component of the production and every word in the script, and at that point haven’t you just experienced the thing anyway?

 

My preferred option is to take responsibility for my own traumas and deal with them myself. I try to anticipate the car crashes in TV and film, and I carry my Olbas Oil to overpower unexpected lavender. And, increasingly, I try to get the better of the triggers. I’m on the waiting list for further EMDR to deal with the car crash stuff, and while I’m getting support from my current therapist I am training myself to be able to tolerate lavender without having a visceral response to it.

 

It’s been a long process, beginning with using CBT to control myself when I encounter the fragrance. Every time I would try to push myself a little bit longer before I blocked the smell out. I’d control my breathing, remind myself that the nausea was without cause, dissect the intrusive thoughts, try not to let myself shake. Later I acquired a bottle of lavender oil and started training myself to handle the scent at its strongest. Most recently I scented my bath with it so that the smell of lavender went wherever I went, and noted how it affected me. I’m almost entirely in control of it now. I’ve overcome the shaking, the nausea, the hyperventilation. I’m aware that I still experience heightened alertness and am quite jumpy when I can smell it. But it’s so much better than it was, and I’m still working on it. Whether I’ll make my peace with lavender to the point where I can have it used in massage I don’t know, but at least I’ve made it to this stage. I’m getting there.

 

Of course, overcoming triggers through exposure isn’t the right move for everyone, so I’m not suggesting that anyone who manages PTSD and may be reading this ought to do the same. It’s taken me a long time and a lot of mis-steps along the way. But I’m glad I’m doing it. I may not have dealt with the trauma that underpins the trigger, but I’ve managed to detach the scent from the experience and will, in time, reclaim it. Whether that’s healthy or not is up for debate, but I don’t know if I ever can have a healthy relationship with those experiences or how long and arduous the journey to get to that point would be. The important thing, as far as I’m concerned, is to deactivate the triggers so that I can deal with the trauma or not, in my own good time.

 

Do I have a conclusion? Not really, sorry. I can’t tell you whether trigger warnings should exist, I can only tell you that I can’t imagine they’d be helpful in my particular case because I’d need to know the thing I’m watching/reading thoroughly in order to know whether it would be triggering. But hopefully this post explains a bit about what it feels like when it happens, what I’ve been able to do to reclaim control and why it’s complex.

 

Enough for now. Whenever I write mental health posts I reach the point where I can’t keep writing long before I reach any proper conclusion. The urge to delete the whole thing kicks in. So I’m going to post and go and work on something else before that urge wins.


Writing Vox

Two months since my last blog post? Really? Busy times – busy and really exciting!

In April I was over in Milan for the opening of #SonsOfGod: Vox, the adaptation of Coriolanus that I wrote for Charioteer Theatre. I’ve been acquainted with Charioteer since I assisted on a show of theirs about eight years ago, and I was thrilled to be approached about the possibility of writing for them this time last year – even more so considering that Coriolanus is one of my favourite Shakespeare plays.

The process of creating Vox was longer and more complex than any show I’ve worked on before. The brief was quite specific, requiring me to include elements like rap music and social media and to find a treatment that would appeal to both young and fully-fledged adults, mostly non-native English speakers. I knew we would be working with the School of Cinema in Milan, so video would be integral to the piece. There was a lot to consider.

Fortunately I was allowed to be present at the auditions, so I had met the actors and got a sense of their qualities. I much prefer writing for specific actors to writing first and casting later – it means I can write for the actors’ less obvious qualities and hopefully offer them roles that will challenge and intrigue them. Sometimes I’ll see something in an actor that unlocks the character or completely changes my intention. Once I knew who would be in the production everything began to take shape – and you can see the results below.

What followed was a very generous development period, a ton of hard work from everyone involved, and a nerve-wracking flight to Italy – I’m a slightly nervous flyer at the best of times, and it turns out that flight nerves coupled with show nerves aren’t fun. But once I got there, remembered how beautiful Milan is, saw the incredible space that is the Studio Melato and watched the first performance… I won’t say I relaxed, because that’s definitely not the right word. I had a wonderful feeling of certainty that it was a good, strong show. The audience’s reaction was fantastic, so was the response from the Piccolo, and I felt truly happy with what we had made and my part in it.

I’m planning to write more about the process of writing for specific actors, about the comedown from Vox after my return to Scotland and about Unfinished Demon Play, the piece I’ve written during mentoring through  Playwrights’ Studio Scotland. I’ll get to those things, but in the meantime have some pictures from Vox (by kind permission of Trish Hamilton Photography):

Aufidius - Michael Cooke

Coriolanus - Daniel Hird

Apology