“He wanted someone who had written about women and trauma,” says McCartney, “and I've done a lot about both.”
Yet the Belfast born writer of plays such as Heritage and Lifeboat hadn't penned a full length work for a decade after she stopped writing several years following a breakdown. McCartney had felt she had nothing left to say, and moved into full-time foster parenting before gradually moving back into theatre by way of dramaturgy and teaching playwriting at the University of Edinburgh.
Now she was being offered the chance to dramatise the life of a nineteenth century artist who was principal dancer at the Moulin Rouge in Paris, where she allegedly invented the high-kick for the Can Can. Feted by the great and the good, Avril became friend, muse and real life poster girl of Toulouse Lautrec, whose response to his disability was in stark contrast to Avril's own illness. For while Avril had been abused as a child before running away from home and spending time in an asylum where she was treated for St Vitus Dance, a physical-based disorder now believed to be Sydenham's Chorea, she learnt to embrace and flaunted her imperfections in a way that made her a star on her own terms.
Out of this has come Crazy Jane, an impressionistic melange of text, dance and music that looks at Avril's life, work and relationship with Lautrec.
“There are so many elements to Crazy Jane,” says McCartney, sitting in her University of Edinburgh office where she's currently in the thick of marking end of term submissions for the MA playwriting course she runs there. “Our initial conversation was about women and psychiatry, and he wanted me to write something about how women are treated in that world of psychiatry. I was interested in doing it because these themes are all very personal to me, I guess, and very much within my field of interest.”
Crazy Jane was born after Robson visited an exhibition of Toulouse Lautrec paintings, and discovered that Avril had been a patient at the Salpetriere Hospital in Paris in the early 1880s when she was a teenager. Avril had been a patient of Jean Martin Charcot, one of the founding fathers of neuroscience who had coined the term hysteria, and who would exhibit his patients at weekly lectures before the great and the good of Paris as if they were a grotesque form of theatre.
“They would go to watch him parade the crazies,” McCartney says, “and demonstrate different types of mental illness. There's very little written about Jane Avril, and when I eventually did a bit of digging I realised that there's a lot in her story that as a foster parent I recognise and have lived with. In the four years from 2008 to 2011 I lived with many young women who had quite severe mental health problems as a result of trauma. Avril's early life was deeply tragic, and the Chorea was a response to that. I eventually said to Garry that I thought Jane Avril was a deeply heroic person. There's a lot in my work about survival, and she fitted in with that as well. She overcame really severe physical and emotional trauma to become an artist.”
Crazy Jane is the first full-length new play by McCartney to appear on a Scottish stage since 2004, when Standing Wave, her impressionistic look at electronic music pioneer and stalwart of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, Delia Derbyshire, appeared at the Tron Theatre in Glasgow. Like that play, Crazy Jane will feature two actresses portraying its protagonist. Like Standing Wave too, Crazy Jane mixes up forms to paint a rich picture of a complex character.
Despite her absence, regular theatre audiences could be forgiven for not noticing that McCartney had ducked out of view. Her name seems to frequently pop up, whether as a dramaturg for Vanishing Point, running The Visitors, a series of readings of neglected contemporary Scottish plays, or organising a conference that looked at the last fifty years of playwriting in Scotland and the James Tait Black Award for new playwriting. McCartney has also spent time in Russia developing a version of the Traverse Theatre's Class Act initiative to nurture plays penned by high school pupils, and has just curated a season of new plays by Russian and Ukranian writers seen in translation at Oran Mor.
“It was a deliberate exit strategy I took before,” McCartney says of her extended sabbatical. “I don't think I'd ever really recovered from my breakdown, and I think it had knocked my confidence, and I just wanted out. Then as a full time foster parent I didn't have time to write. But working with the social work system and seeing some of the things that go on there, I got my anger back. It reignited my politics, and I had something to say again.”
As well as the play featuring cameos from Drs Freud, Jung, Alzheimer and Tourette, Robson's production features choreography by Janice Parker, with a musical score by Edinburgh hip hop duo, Hector Bizerk.
“There are a huge amounts of elements I'm working with,” McCartney says, “but really it's about Jane's relationship with herself, and how she accepts what happens to her, and accepts that she's crazy, but also puts limits on what people call her. All the Moulin Rouge dancers had lots of handles, but she always wanted to just be Jane Avril, which was a name she invented for herself. She refused all the other epithets that branded her and exoticised her mental illness, and she goes on this journey of accepting that actually being a bit mad is part of who she is.
“That's very specific in how it's to do with disability, and how you can view disability as something other and exotic, like in the way we can stare at people with disabilities. That relates to all the politics that's going on at the moment with our horrendous government who are cutting access to work payments and are basically criminalising both the poor and the disabled in a way that's about ostracisation, not integration. Yet Jane Avril was a person with really serious mental health issues who managed to become one of the leading artists of her time, and survived, and embraced her disability to the extent that she saw that as what fuelled her art.”
Crazy Jane, Tron Theatre, Glasgow, May 28-30 then touring.www.birdsofparadisetheatre.co.uk
The Herald, May 26th 2015