Cloud Nine’s artistic director PETER MORTIMER muses on finishing the Rainbird play.
As one writer once said about ‘completed’ work, it is ‘never finished, only abandoned.’
How true that is! Writing the play about the tragic North Shields painter Victor Noble Rainbird has consumed me over a two year period.
Its completion you might think would be a cause for dancing in the streets, releasing generous quantities of coloured balloons and wearing a large silly hat.
Instead of which I find myself silently asking, who are the twenty-five characters on these pages? Will anyone be remotely interested in them? Will the actors be performing to rows of empty seats? Or, just as bad, to ensuing loud raspberries from the critics (should any critics bother to turn up)?
Against this, there is the silent sense of satisfaction to print off the script, hold that wadge of pages in my hand and know that not single soul in the entire universe has created anything the same as this. Which is not to say it is good or bad, just unique. Contrary to common belief, the word ‘unique’ implies no other value judgement than it is not the same as anything else. Every writer that has ever lived (with a few outrageously plagiaristic exceptions) can claim to be unique.
Rainbird cannot claim too much ‘uniqueness.’ The play is based on a real person, whereas most of my two dozen odd plays have been based on fictional characters. It is fair to say I am generally more interested in people who have never lived than those who have, a fact which could explain several social shortcomings and a partial dislocation from reality.
Being tethered to a once-living person and one from hereabouts come to that, brings certain restrictions for a writer. For a start turning Rainbird into an alien in act two, or having him fall in love with a tadpole (the kind of anarchic invention that can bring great job satisfaction) would be considered bad form. The time-line to Rainbird’s life, kindly provided for me by David Young, the great Rainbird aficionado, (without whose support this play could simply not have been written), gave me a rough structure.
But within that structure, a writer can travel boldly. Thus the play also has a modern-day thread (Rainbird lived 1887-1936), based on an unpublished short story of mine about a newly discovered self-portrait from a forgotten painter. A few characters have historical legitimacy, many others are invented. Many scenes will never really have happened. My few excursions into historical drama have shown me that here is no absolute ‘factual truth’ in theatre, only whether or not a finished play can claim to speak with a true voice. Writers have to learn that while history is to be respected, it must never enslave us. Hilary Mantel has written copiously about this.
Now all those characters who have been merely words on a page will begin to take a real shape as the play is cast. Someone will dream up a design for the set. Director Neil Armstrong will bring his own vision to the work. Lighting and sound will be worked out, costume, props. What was for two years the amalgam of just me, a laptop and a small silent room, will now writhe restlessly to be properly born.
It is a transformation which, as ever, both thrills and terrifies me. In theory few experiences in life should be as satisfying as a writer witnessing the opening night of his or her new play.
In reality, few experiences can compare with such damp palmed anxiety, such racing heart stress or the squeaky bottom obsession that it will all go horribly wrong.
And let’s face it – sometimes it does.
Rainbird – The Tragedy of an Artist opens at The Exchange Theatre, North
Shields on Monday April 23rd.