When novelist J.G. Ballard spoke during a radio interview about the times in life when the everyday clock stops ticking and you become aware of a different rhythm he defined as a longer time, the example he used was deeply personal. He spoke about how, as a child growing up in Shanghai, where his family had relocated from Manchester, he returned home after cycling to find that his parents and all their neighbours had been interned in concentration camps.
It was 1943, Pearl Harbour had recently been bombed by the American allied forces, and the Shangai International Settlement where foreigners lived an American lifestyle had just been occupied by the Japanese. For the remainder of World War Two, Ballard was detained with his family and other Allied civilians in the Lunghua Civilian Assembly Centre. The experience affected Ballard profoundly.
Walking beside the Water of Leith with playwright Linda McLean on one of the sunniest days of the year so far, it feels about as far away from such a scenario as you can get. The lunchtime peace is continually broken by a world in motion. Skateboarders clatter under bridges, sun-worshipping workies take a tea-break and laughing infants dodge their unruly way about the path. McLean has come up for air from the Traverse Theatre’s Leith-based rehearsal room nearby, and is slowly but surely attempting to explain some of the web of ideas behind Any Given Day, her latest work which opens at The Traverse this weekend.
“I wanted to write a play that had both of those times Ballard spoke about,” is how McLean describes the play’s genesis, “and to find the right language that would be different for each of them. Most of us crash through the days, and it’s only in times of great loss or terrible atrocities that you have this sense that the world’s going on over there, and that it doesn’t include you, because you’ve had to step back from all that busy-ness.
“So when something happens, the one thing that becomes really clear to you is that you spend a lot of time in your life doing things that aren’t of crucial importance. You end up with lots of tasks and mundane things to do. It’s easy to stop questioning what’s the quality of my life, and am I caring for people in the right way or am I caring for myself in the right way. When Ballard spoke to what happened to him, he said that formed a great deal of his thinking, because normality was gone.”
There may be an image of a high-rise on the play’s poster, but rather than some dystopian urban nightmare a la Ballard, Any Given Day finds two couples occupying two very different landscapes on a very special day in a deceptively domestic setting.
“I’m a great believer that the macrocosm exists in the microcosm”, McLean points out, peering through her sunglasses, “and I’m not afraid of showing that in the domestic, because if you choose the right story it’s clear to say that it’s not an artifact.”
McLean pulled off something similar back in 2004 with Shimmer, also written for the Traverse, and which mid-way through lurched into something that was less tangibly naturalistic. In Any Given Day, her first piece for the Traverse since 2007’s Strangers, Babies, McLean is attempting to take things further. She talks about writing dialogue with no sub-text, something that goes completely against the grain of mainstream dramatic language. McLean describes parts of the dialogue in Any Given Day as “pared back, hugely without metaphor, and with no archness whatsoever. That’s not only difficult to write, but it’s also hard for the actors to learn.”
Such experiments in form and time maybe aren’t that surprising for McLean, who in 2008 penned a stage adaptation of Laura Esquivel’s magical-realist novel, Like Water For Chocolate. As with Ballard’s observations of how time lurches into another realm during a moment or period of crisis, however, McLean’s play has a very personal root. While she’s reluctant to point to anything specific, McLean also stresses that no characters or situations in Any Given Day are based on any real life experiences of her own.
“It’s actually quite nice to be freed from the personal”, she says, “and to be able to craft it into something bigger, that’s not directly related to oneself. There’s also a sense that, completely outwith my control, it’s become of the times. It’s things that we happen to be picking up the papers every day now, reading about and being quite shocked by. But in fact when I wrote the play the things it’s dealing with were still a very hidden, unknown part of society.”
Again, McLean is reluctant to go into detail about what she’s hinting at lest the plot of Any Given Day is given away before anyone has even seen it. This isn’t unusual for a writer to protect their work in advance of production, but in this instance McLean is being as careful in conversation as she is in her writing.
“I think I’m probably trying to say that happiness - and love, if that’s the right word - is very fragile,” McLean sums up, “and that it can be gone in an instant that’s completely outwith your control. There’s something else there too that’s about responsibility. I suppose one of the key things I’d like to say is that caring for another human being is a profound experience, and that, within the context of obligation and duty, forgiveness of both yourself and other people is absolutely necessary for happiness.”
Beyond Any Given Day, McLean has just seen her 1999 play, Riddance, play for three months in a new production in Athens, and is about to visit Paris for a French production of Strangers, Babies as part of the Playwrights in Partnership international exchange scheme. With three more plays in the pipeline for Paines Plough, Magnetic North and the National Theatre of Scotland, McLean is also about to become a Creative Fellow at Edinburgh University’s Institute of Advanced Humanities, and has been invited to develop a new piece as part of the New York based Orchard Project. All of which adds up to a full working itinery that helps McLean push herself as a writer.
“I accept work that scares me a little bit”, she says, “then put myself through the process of seeing how my mind deals with it. Every play takes its toll, but as long as you have faith in yourself, once you’ve finished something it means you’re no longer scared of it.”
For Any Given Day, it seems, it isn’t just McLean who is taking a trip into the unknown.
“It’s a risk,” admits McLean as our walk draws to a close and the noise of the day invades our idyll. “I’ve felt much surer about other plays in the past, but I just can’t anticipate what the response will be. I had moments of extreme discomfort when I was writing this play, and I’m always conscious of how I feel when I’m writing it. But I think there’ll be moments when the audience will feel a little bit uncomfortable.”
Any Given Day, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, Previews May 29-30, then June 1-19
The herald, May 25th 2010