International Women's Week - Liz Mytton on Writing Roles for Women
To celebrate International Women’s Week, the Belgrade is producing a series of blogs focusing on inspirational women. In this Interview, we meet Liz Mytton, the writer of new play, Red Snapper which is currently running on the B2 stage at the Belgrade and has 5 roles for a black all-female cast.
Liz began her writing career as part of the Critical Mass programme, a scheme initiated at the Royal Court Theatre in 2004 and adopted by the Belgrade Theatre to develop the talent of writers from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic backgrounds. Since its initial first draft, Red Snapper has come a long way to become the first professionally produced play to come out of Critical Mass. In this interview, Liz talks about the challenges of bringing this story to the stage and what inspired her to write from a female perspective during this turbulent time in Jamaica’s history.
What is it about this particular time and place (Jamaica, 1962) that interested you?
I was aware that 1962 was a pivotal time for Jamaica, at least in terms of the political climate. The road to independence was both celebrated and contentious, and people from all parts of Jamaican society were touched by the subsequent changes to governance, economy and culture.
Do you have any family or historical connections to Jamaica?
Both my parents are Jamaican and though they both came to England in the 1960s, I have several family members still living in Jamaica.
There are often not a lot of parts written for black women on the stage. However, Red Snapper incorporates a black all-female cast. Was this a conscious decision on your part?
I wanted to tell this particular story, set in Jamaica fifty-plus years ago, so it needed a black cast. I didn’t set out with a black agenda, just a desire to share something close to my own heart, based on characters I recognise from my own history. However, I really wanted people to hear about the female experience – that was key for me.
What made you decide to multi-role your characters, and have the women playing their husbands?
I was fascinated by the opportunity afforded by an all-female cast to represent the story of several marriages and relationships. So often, wives are presented, in real life and on stage and screen, as subordinate to their husbands, as add-ons. I decided to have the men played by women to emphasize the voice of women, kind of like placing a female lens on the whole thing. Hopefully this ensures that the audience never loses sight of whose story is paramount and also plays with the contrast between the married characters. The only departure from this is seen in the pairing of Pearline and Lammie – but this has a purpose. Pearline’s husband is silent and absent from the action and Pearline’s journey starts with an attempt to fill his shoes. Through his absence, Pearline starts to find her own voice. Lammie, however, is loud, laid-back, entertaining and unmarried, unfettered it seems by the concerns of the average Jamaican man. Placed together, they represent two periods of the Jamaica struggle – the stand against oppression and imperialism, and the journey towards recognition, self-governance, economic freedom and creativity.
This is your first play to be produced professionally. What was the most difficult thing about writing this story?
Listening to the feedback of others! It was quite a thing to hear it being read and have Ola (the Dramaturg) and Justine (the Director) make comments and suggestions. However, I now appreciate the process I went through, and feel the final play is so much stronger for their creative input, particularly following the rehearsed reading in 2014. The characters always felt alive to me and their stories were very clear in my head, but the actual construction of the overall play was a much more complex affair. Taking part in Critical Mass was crucial to my development as a writer and I so value the opportunity that it gave me to focus and take myself seriously.
There are many Caribbean communities across the UK and there are young people now who are third or even fourth generation immigrants, who may never have visited the place that their grandparents or great-grandparents came to the UK from. How important is it, do you think, that they connect with their history
Marcus Garvey, a Jamaican national hero, once said, ‘A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.’ So many young people hear about Jamaica and the first that comes to mind is reggae, or even cannabis! Much of our history has been ignored, particularly in the education system and it’s only with the most deliberate enquiry that people find out about the lives of their ancestors and the positive contributions Jamaicans have made over time. It’s extremely important for young people to know there personal and wider histories – it’s essential to building an accurate view of British social and political history and also for developing a sense of self.
Who are some of the writers (playwrights/novelists/poets/etc) who inspire you?
Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, Jorge Luis Borges, Salman Rushdie, Toni Morrison. Loads of people across different genres, but I’m usually drawn to themes of post-colonialism, social justice, race, exclusion and culture.
What do you think we, as a modern audience, can take away from this play?
Ultimately, the play speaks of transition, of navigating personal change. In feminist terms, it’s about how the personal is political but conversely how political movements and upheaval can change circumstances for individual people, both male and female. This is still relevant today, as are the themes of unity, class conflict and social mobility. Maybe the audience will be inspired to learn more about the history of the Caribbean, from those who had or still have roots there.