By Ken Powell
A shorter version of this interview was published here for Lancashire Life magazine. This is the interview in full.
Charlotte Keatley wrote the play ‘My Mother Said I Never Should’ in 1985 aged just 25. The play has gone on to be the most performed play by a female playwright and translated into 22 languages. It is studied in schools and performed all over the world and comes to Theatre by the Lake (TBTL) from 23 May. The play focuses on four women from one family and how lives and decisions affect generations.
Ironically, given the play’s parenting subject matter, I couldn’t meet Charlotte for our interview as I had to collect my own children from school. A telephone interview was agreed and I called on time but had to wait several minutes while staff retrieved her from rehearsals. That was my first surprise – after 30 years I hadn’t expected this playwright to be so hands-on. Surely, she must be tired of this play now? It soon became clear I couldn’t be more wrong.
When we spoke, I admit immediately that I hadn’t seen the play and was looking forward to the production beginning in May at Theatre by the Lake. Given its popularity, I asked, why does she think it resonates with so many?
“Because it’s about loss,” she answered not dropping a beat, “and very deep healing and things that don’t go away; what you hope to find in your life; when you find someone you love; work and when you have a child or not and what will your life mean. So, any age, any person, I think feels that. It’s really weird because I kept you waiting because we were doing act three and we were all just in the room, you could hardly move, it was so powerful what was coming out.”
I noted the play spans several decades and asked if this was a deliberate intention.
“Well actually, most of the century really because Doris is born near the beginning of the 20th Century, so I wanted to span roughly 100 years. We start when Doris is 18 – the youngest you see her. I was 25 and I was thinking what my life would have been like. I was thinking about my gran who was born in Oldham. The play isn’t in any way autobiographical but that’s my only connection.
I was in Manchester having grown up in London and I was thinking I could do anything, but I don’t know how life’s going to be. I just felt how weird that my gran was in the same city, and not that long before had so few choices. I remember her telling me that on her 18th birthday her mum said you must never go out without hat and gloves – that was just standard even if you were working class or whatever. I thought maybe I could write a play about this, the changes in society over the last 100 years which you see far more dramatically in women’s lives.
And the other thing is that in the 80s there were still so few plays by women – let alone something with all women – telling our history and politics through women’s eyes instead of men’s. Women are the storytellers but in most places until now men have been the storytellers. So, I thought ‘what’s missing?’. At that point there were so few writers that it was thought about the play ‘oh is that just for women?’ but over time, more see it for what it is – a play for all of us. I have to say, men in audiences never thought ‘oh it’s just for women’ but sometimes, theatre critics did!”
That leads me into comparing the play with Alice Munro’s ‘Bold Girls’ produced at TBTL last year. I wondered if there were parallels as both plays are all-female cast and deal with family relationships. I recalled that ‘Bold Girls’ definitely was something of a diatribe against men. Would I be safe as a male member of the audience with her play?
“I think it’s interesting that you still want to ask ‘will I feel safe as a man?’ because there are many, many plays which really blame women for things, belittle them and paint them in a very clichéd stereotypical way – hundreds of years’ worth. So, all these classics, does anyone ask – are they ok for women to watch, will they feel pushed out?”
It’s a fair point, I concede, though much is changing. The superb ‘Heart of Darkness’ which recently came to TBTL was a good example of modern playwrights tackling colonial and sexist prejudices which still persevere. Charlotte agreed but pointed out there’s more to be done.
“There’s playwrights like Pinter and Mamet – lots of plays that are just revered and they’re horrible about women! They’re much more nasty than what’s perceived as attacking men in plays. It’s a cultural thing; plays weren’t written by women for hundreds of years – novels were. I think views are changing with most people, but it could still be seen as an aberration. I think we’re getting past that – and audiences are way past that. I think audiences are more intelligent and up-to-date than theatre critics! Audiences live in the real world, where there’s a whole mixture of women and men, but some of the people working in theatre and making decisions – male directors and so on – are only working with each other. That’s the other thing: there’s still few women directors.”
I moved on to ask her, as she was just 25 when she wrote ‘My Mother Said I Never Should’ and just beginning life as an independent adult, would she write it the same way now?
“No,” she replied bluntly. “You write a play because you’re writing about things you’re trying to understand. It felt like a needed play at the time, so my plays since are different. I wanted to present four very different lives and all these choices and things and not have anyone seem more right or wrong. So, I’m neutral, if you like, and I placed to myself exactly aged between Jackie and Rosie – I didn’t want to identify with any of them too much. What is really strange is throughout my life watching it there’ll be years, decades, later – when I have my daughter and my mum had died and all that – so I’m watching scenes which make me cry; it’s just what I’m going through now, which is extraordinary. I think your job as a playwright is to empathise and imagine so well that you can really express other people’s experiences.”
I can well believe the depth of empathy Charlotte has with the play and that gave me a nice segue into asking about the settings which, I understood, were Oldham, Manchester and London. Were these chosen entirely because she knew these areas personally?
“Well, Manchester is where I live. I never really liked London when I was growing up. I came to university in Manchester and thought ‘this is home!’ and have done ever since. I’m a northern person! And I think people in the north – women and men – are different. Women are much more strong, and bold, and say it how it is. In that period, I was living in really poor housing, in different areas of Manchester, and there were very working-class women who were, in their own way, feminists or revolutionaries and changing things. So, I wanted to write about how brave people are and how we mother each generation and that’s what creates our society. It’s a celebration of that as well.”
Talk of the strength of the north and changing society is just the kind of thing which gets me excited and I asked if the play is as positive and heart-warming as it sounds.
“It is! Oh, incredibly so, yes! It’s about love really and how we want to find love. And also, how we can change our lives, even near the end, to make them what we really want them to be, which is something I see more in the play now. People are often saying they come once and then they come back with their partner or their mum or daughter. It brings people together and gets people to talk about things they couldn’t before. I think my job is to express things that are hard to talk about or deal with. It’s hard doing it in real life but you can in the theatre – sometimes not directly, but you can show things. There’s a huge amount of love released by this play. I’m feeling it just in the rehearsals.”
I’m amazed by her energy and enthusiasm for this new production. Just recently, Maureen Lipman was performing the play and I got the feeling Charlotte would have been hands-on with that too. How do the cast for TBTL compare?
“Oh, the cast are amazing! That’s why I wanted you to wait until they’d done the last scene. They’re really amazing and Katie Posner, the director, unusually so. I don’t get involved in every production – there’d be so many – I’ll be involved if I can be useful. I was with that production in London with Maureen Lipman. They’re all completely different. The production belongs to the time and place it is in, that’s the magic bit about theatre. But this is really exceptional; this is probably going to be one of the most moving productions of the play ever.”
Really? I had to ask her why she thought so.
“Because the director understands the play so well and the actors are so good – they are good at finding the feelings, the love, the frustrations, the anger and guilt and trying to connect. I mean it’s the stuff that’s in everybody’s family life. It’s very funny as well I should say! They’re just really releasing what’s in it. And the tension of the story as well – secrets which are also in families – and the tension of whether people will find the courage to say ‘I love you’; the things that matter.”
This all sounds well and good, but if the play covers around 100 years, won’t it feel more like a period piece, I wondered. Will this still be relevant to today?
“Yeah, it’s almost scary how contemporary it feels. It’s becoming even more popular because I think it addresses so much of what we are dealing with now, and it’s weird because, yes, it’s set specifically in certain eras but, of course, some things do come around again – clothes and things. We re-visit decades, but most of all it’s that these things haven’t changed. It’s not like we’ve solved family life, ambition and love and how to make our lives mean something. Teenagers love this play too, because they study it in schools.”
As an English teacher, I am interested in this last aspect too. Teens are not easy to please. Does she like having her work critically assessed up and down the country in schools?
“Oh, it’s brilliant because they know you can study it for a year and not get bored of it. I go and do work in schools and teenagers love performing it. The youngest character they completely identify with and her journey – that’s what you want, you know! Sometimes plays do just become dated for reasons that aren’t their fault but this one is still so needed, which is a fantastic feeling.”
I choose to end with a contentious question. With my own background and work with British Asian communities, I tend to associate Oldham and Manchester (and, obviously, cosmopolitan London) with these communities. I had wondered if there would be any reference to these in her play but hadn’t found any evidence of it with the cast seemingly all-white. There are a number of Asian women writers dealing with Asian difficulties and often underrated in the artistic world. I wondered if it had been a deliberate choice to avoid this aspect?
Charlotte put me right on a few things, not least that the cast is all white. Secondly, she’s not avoiding anything at all.
“This play follows one family line, so I chose one family line. Asian culture breaks down into lots of smaller cultures and I didn’t know them enough at that point to write them – it would have been patronising. This is very specific to northern life, but it’s been done in Peru and Japan and Iceland and you name it – where it moves people just as much. So, it’s that funny thing that if you’re very specific to a particular place it becomes more universal – it’s a template. I’m sure you could do it informing it with Asian experience but there might be few things missing – I mean some of my Asian friends are people who are third generation in Manchester, so actually their points of reference and views can feel quite the same but some things, like food, might be different. As you said, there’s lots of Asian writers now, women and men, who are going to take that culture and place as their play and they shouldn’t be seen as ‘avoiding’ white culture. They’re doing what I’m doing: they’re making a template about life. That’s the job of the writer and the play itself – you have to be truthful – and then how it’s produced evolves with the times. So, in South Africa you can have the play where all the cast are black South Africans.
Much, much more importantly, we’re pushing out to move beyond the idea of race or colour limiting you to a certain story you can tell – so it doesn’t have to be all black or all white or Asian. We all have shared emotional experiences across cultures and religions. At this time in Britain we need to emphasise that across cuItures, religions, colours we have these deeply common experiences of wanting to love and be loved and make a good family life.”
I couldn’t agree more and that seemed the perfect place to end the interview and allow Charlotte to return to her act three. I was left feeling excited about seeing this play which will be all the more intimate for being put on at TBTL’s wonderful studio theatre. We ended with Charlotte telling me I need to bring the women in my family and that I won’t regret it. I think she’s probably right.
‘My Mother Said I Never Should’ by Charlotte Keatley plays in Theatre by the Lake’s Studio theatre from 23 May until 30 October. For more information and to book tickets visit www.theatrebythelake.com or call the Box Office on 017687 74411.