The young woman played by actress Jenny Hulse who is flitting between her divorced mother and father onstage clearly isn't playing happy families. Coming into the rehearsal room with only a rough idea of what to expect, what exactly Kate Bane, Hulse, and indeed Hickson and Grid Iron director Ben Harrison are playing at isn't immediately clear. Bane is a playwright, writing a play about a family who may or may not resemble her own, or indeed how she remembers them from her childhood.The characters Bane is inventing, however, are damaged, with Bane's invented version of herself the classic messed-up product of a broken home, blaming her parents for everything. For a moment, it looked like things are about to lurch into the world of repressed memory syndrome, at one time a very voguish theme for young dramatists to pursue. While it skirts away from that subject, the scene nevertheless resembles a dry run for a me-generation psycho-drama. The fact that it is Hickson, a real life playwright, imagining all this, adds yet another layer to a Russian doll style drama exploring the very nature of our personal histories.
“I’d started working with a neuro-scientist,” Hickson explains of the roots of her new play, “and I discovered that we construct our memories far more than we actually remember things. That made me want to write something about that, and I knew that the family was the route into all this, but I also knew that the subject wasn’t very dramatic by itself. So I wrote this character who was at a tipping point in her life. The fact that she’s a playwright meant that there were lots of holding of heads during research and development of the show, trying to figure out what was going on, but maybe theatre is how we construct ourselves.”Hickson first came to prominence with Eight, an octet of monologues which presented a series of portraits of people living in twenty-first century Britain. Eight was produced at the Bedlam Theatre, the home of Edinburgh University Theatre Company, which Hickson was a member of until leaving academia in 2008. More than a decade earlier, both Harrison and Grid Iron co-artistic director Judith Doherty also cut their theatrical teeth at the Bedlam.
Hickson followed Eight with her first full-length piece, Precious Little Talent, about a young woman who flees to New York to be with her estranged father, but finds love instead. Hickson’s 2010 follow-up, Hot Mess, looked at a pair of twenty-something twins, the female half of whom is constantly disappointed by love. A second production of the play at the Arcola Theatre in London featured Hulse in the cast. More recently, Hickson wrote Boys for Soho Theatre, and is currently under commission to Headlong and the Royal Shakespeare Company to write Wendy, a tellingly titled take on Peter Pan.“I struggled for about six months about feelings of inauthenticity,” Hickson, still in her twenties, says of doing her artistic growing up in public following the success of Eight. “I mean inauthenticity both in my own work and in other work I was going to see as well. Out of this came a pursuit of honesty and humanity, and I found that formal experimentation seemed to be some kind of solution. I wrote the play within a play first, and the nature of the framework around the writing of the play within a play came very much out of conversations with Ben, and was very much an act of collaboration.”
Seasoned Grid Iron watchers will note that The Authorised Kate Bane opens, not in an airport, a customised bar or some unearthed labyrinth beneath the city where the company has carved out its reputation, but in a regular studio theatre space. In fact, the Traverse’s second, smaller space is where Grid Iron performed their first ever show, Anita Sullivan’s play, Clearance, back in 1996. With the rest of the theatrical world having caught up on the site-specific boom which Grid Iron both pre-dated and pioneered, to come full circle in this way says much about the company’s faith in a play that leaves itself exposed beyond any distractions of where it is being performed.“I suppose how I wrote Kate Bane is a return to Eight in a way,” Hickson notes. “In-between I suppose I learnt how to use this dramatic toolbox, and did a lot of conscious work on form and structure in-between the two plays, while writing plays has become a job. Now with Kate Bane I’ve just shot from the hip again to see what happens.”
Despite such an instinctive approach, Hickson nevertheless remains conscious of the fact that, for all her experiments with form, the big ideas behind Kate Bane’s story need to be rooted in the everyday.“I hope we’ve managed to neutralise the science,” she says. Because what we’re doing is tearing a few holes in some fundamental ideas of history. This idea that everything in your childhood is fake is pretty scary, but if you can get that over with a few jokes and some back lighting, then why not?”Hickson talks of “the lie of empiricism” in seemingly objective tones. “It’s not a straight line that ends when you’re no longer a child. As a human impulse. I can understand the appeal of saying how, because you failed your maths exam when you were seven, and because a man flashed at you when you were nine, that’s what makes you who you are, but I also think it’s very dangerous to think that.”
When she talks in this way, Hickson sounds not unlike her lead character in The Authorised Kate Bane. This begs the unavoidable question of who is the authorised Ella Hickson, and how close is Kate Bane to Hickson’s own experiences of family life?“Not very,” she insists. “Bits and pieces. To access the play’s themes, you have to have some emotional through-line, but as far as the content goes, I’ve no ambition to do a biography of my own family. The distance between families is kind of the point of the play in a way, in that we write our entire past, and we do have the capacity to completely alter ourselves. I wish I did believe in an empirical straight line, but I don’t have enough trauma in my life. That’s something to think about as well. If you don’t have enough trauma in your life, are you entitled to tell stories?”
Perhaps this is something to think about next time Hickson and co break open the Family Circle.
The Authorised Kate Bane, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, October 16th-26th; Tron Theatre, Glasgow, October 30th-November 3rd
The Herald, October 9th 2012