When Jo Clifford's play, War in America, opens at the former Royal High School in Edinburgh in just over a week's time, the scenario it depicts might seem worryingly familiar. Clifford, after all, has imagined a world whereby America is in turmoil, while the unelected female leader of a European power is taking her country to the brink of disaster. Meanwhile, in the real world, the post Trump, post Brexit landscape becomes increasingly dramatic by the day.
Given such a back-drop, one could be forgiven for presuming that Clifford had knocked out such a contemporary-sounding state of the nations saga in response to recent events. In fact, Clifford wrote War in America in 1996 as one of a mooted five play series that fused the personal and the political. In hindsight, the play could either be considered out of step with the time it was written in, or elsew a prophecy of things to come.
“You couldn't make it up,” says Clifford, on the morning of the latest eruption from the White House, which has just seen President Trump sack the head of the FBI. Except, of course, Clifford did make it up, penning a play about “the complete corruption and collapse of the democratic system. It was so uncanny reading the previews of the American election, people openly talking about the possibility of civil war, and I saw that coming.”
Clifford isn't being boastful when she says this. Given that it has taken twenty-one years for War in America to reach the stage, it sounds more like vindication. Originally commissioned by the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, the play's first draft was subsequently rejected because the theatre's then management found some of its content offensive.
The play was also turned down by the Traverse Theatre, souring a relationship with the new writing based theatre that had scored an international hit with Clifford's early play, Losing Venice. Up until she presented them with War in America, the Traverse had produced a succession of Clifford works that served up more poetic visions than the then prevailing wave of gritty realist drama allowed for. It was her follow up to Losing Venice, Lucy's Play, where the roots of War in America stem from after it was produced by an American theatre company in California.
“They flew me out to Long Beach for the opening,” Clifford remembers, “and I was in the richest part of the world. A couple of months after that I was in Bangladesh with my adaptation of Great Expectations, so I was in the poorest part of the world. Inbetween the two, I was in Cairo, and I turned on the television news, which was showing images of people knocking down the Berlin Wall. I understood then that everything that I knew about the world, from my whole childhood, which had been dominated by the conflict between east and west, and the possibility of nuclear war at any time, everything had been transformed.
“It seemed to me that being in these two cities – Dhaka and L.A. – it was obvious that we are living in the one world, that the poverty of one place was dependent on the wealth of the other, and the other way round. All the divisions between nationalities were out of date, and we were moving towards a global economy and a global state, and the conflicts in this global state was going to come from the divisions between rich and poor, and in this situation, all our political and social institutions and all our economic arrangements were no longer adequate.
“It was clear that we could no longer live in the same way. A new world was coming into being. It seemed to me we were living through a time that was very much like the renaissance, when the middle ages were falling apart and capitalism was ushering in a new way of being, except that now it's capitalism that's falling apart. Part of the artist's job is to reflect those changes, and to dream a new world into being.”
Clifford visited Bengal, and wrote her play, Light in the Village. Realising one play wasn't enough to tackle these themes, she decreed to write five plays that would be ready by the millennium. With no-one taking her ideas seriously, Clifford took advantage of a commission from the Lyceum to write War in America, which was where the trouble started. The Lyceum declared the play's content to be offensive.
“It marked the beginning of a very bleak time for me artistically,” says Clifford, who moved into teaching and translating. “I couldn't get anyone to commission me in Scotland for a long time, and it was the start of a very long silence.”
Clifford also moved into producing and performing her own work, and brought in director Susan Worsfold to direct her in The Gospel According to Jesus, Queen of Heaven, which presented the messiah as being transgender. Worsfold read War in America, and is now directing it as the second production by The Attic Collective, the theatre company set-up by Worsfold and producer Cat Sheridan with support from the Festival City Theatres Trust, and designed to stage large scale work with emerging actors. It follows on from the company's debut show, a version of Aristophenes' ancient Greek sex comedy, Lysistrata.
As well as its subject matter, the choice of venue for War in America is also timely. While the Thomas Hamilton designed school once mooted to become the home of the Scottish Parliament has lain empty since 1968, it is currently in the midst of a civic tussle between developers who want to turn it into a luxury hotel on the one hand, and those who wish to see it become the new home of St Mary's Music School on the other.
In terms of the slow-burning cultural revolution going on among a new generation of theatre makers, the play's belated arrival points to how the world appears to have caught up with Clifford. Where gender issues were once taboo, they are firmly back on both the political and theatrical agendas. The new wave has returned as well to looser forms of direct address that stem from old-school alternative theatre, and which have little truck with naturalism. It is telling too that Clifford chose not to rewrite or rework War in America, but that it remains perfectly in tune with the state we're in right now.
“Some people,” says Clifford, “like Trump and May, peddle illusions and falsehoods, and an artist's job is to resist those falsehoods, and to say, look, this is what is happening, but at the same time try to offer hope, and not fall into despair. I think that despair is a horribly reactionary and dangerous state of mind to fall into, and as an artist it's my job to resist it as best I can. And I think there is a glimmer of hope at the end of War in America. There is a sense that, no, things can be different. It's very much a glimmer, but I think it's still there, I hope it's a play that offers some kind of comfort in very bleak times.”
War in America, Former Royal High School, Edinburgh, May 24-27.
The Herald, May 16th 2017