The world has changed a bit since Jenni Fagan wrote The Panopticon, her searing debut novel set among Scotland’s care system, which first appeared in 2012. People use the word ‘panopticon’ more for one thing, in a way they never did before. Fagan fought hard to keep the title of her book, which sees street-smart fifteen-year-old Anais utilises her fearless intellect, deadly wit and and an imagination that yearns for somewhere better than the umpteen foster homes, children’s homes and prison cells she’s been dragged through to survive.
“She’s only ever violent when she’s standing up for someone,” says Fagan of Anais. “She hates it, but she lives in a very violent world, and young women in her situation have to be able to stand up for themselves.”
The title of The Panopticon refers to an institutional building designed by eighteenth century philosopher and social theorist Jeremy Bentham. The aim of Bentham’s design was to allow all prisoners/inmates/residents in the complex to be observed without being aware they were being watched, but always being conscious that they might be.
“The American publishers were quite wary of it,” says Fagan, on the eve of her stage version of The Panopticon, which opens next month in a production by the National Theatre of Scotland. “Some of the bookshops were quite nervous of it as well. There were various negotiations, where I had to dig my heels in and say no. There’s a reason why that title’s so important to the work. It’s not just about a few people growing up in the care system. It’s about the much bigger idea of society as a panopticon. We’re all institutionalised, but some of us are far more institutionalised than others.”
Returning to the story and translating it into drama has been emotional, both for Fagan and the young cast of Debbie Hannan’s production.
“It’s not something anyone works on lightly,’ says Fagan, sat in an Edinburgh coffee shop beneath a flat she lived in a few years ago. “People become really personally involved. I’ve had to give the cast a sense of the world, which has meant me talking a lot about my own life history, which I don’t normally do, but most people don’t know anything about the care system, and this play doesn’t represent the nice side of that, but neither do I want it to be represented in a black and white one-dimensional way, which we’re so terrible for.”
Like Anais, Fagan grew up in a system that shunted her around thirty-seven foster homes, foster families and children’s homes. She started writing poetry aged seven, and, inbetween childhood ambitions to be a witch and a coal miner, has written pretty much every day since. It’s other details that have made for such an intense rehearsal room.
“Every day, people have been asking me about really hardcore stuff,” Fagan says. “For them, it was a big journey, because they had absolutely no idea, and they have to get to a position where they can take ownership of that world. That was part of my thing. They had to understand why I feel more morally obligated to this material than anything else I’ve ever written.
“What it’s meant is everybody’s fully committed to the world. They’re passionate about it, and they care about it. They’re a common unit. They did a full run of it the other day and they were crying. Debbie said she’s never seen that kind of reaction before, but it’s because, the more vulnerable I allow myself to be, the more those people are prepared to go on their own personal journey. That’s how I work as a writer.”
As with the novel, Fagan’s play of The Panopticon is shot through with as much light as shade.
“There’s brilliant moments watching certain scenes,” she says. “It’s really funny and joyous, and has that light. That was one of the things I really wanted to bring out, because there’s a lot of really dark stuff in this material, but there’s a lot of joy as well. I explained to the actors that I wrote the novel as a grunge song, so it would have light, light, light, and then it hits you.”
Prior to The Panopticon, Fagan published a poetry collection, Urchin Belle, after spending years playing in punk and grunge bands and putting on live spoken-word events. Another collection, The Dead Queen of Bohemia: New & Collected Poems, was published in 2016, the same year her second novel, The Sunlight Pilgrims, appeared. Two more poetry books, There’s a Witch in the Word Machine, and Truth, followed.
Beyond the play, Fagan has written a screenplay of The Panopticon, set to be directed by Jim Loach, with filming starting early next year. In the meantime, she’s in the thick of her structuralism based Ph.D. – “I’ll be Dr Fagan this time next year,” - and a big historical novel, The Luckenbooth. “The biggest thing I’ve done by a long way.”
As for The Panopticon, Fagan is happy to see her creation go out in the world.
“You have to let it have its own life,’ she says. “It doesn’t belong to me anymore, and I know how personally people take the material, both good and bad, so I’m happy with just putting it out there. But it changes people. The people who are working on the play, they’re not quite the same as they were before. I was the same when I was writing it. After every novel I write I’m never the same. That’s how it’s meant to be.”
The Panopticon, Platform, Glasgow, October 4; Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, October 10-19
The Herald, September 28th 2019.