Shelagh Delaney, who grew up poor in the middle of England in the middle of the 20th century, wrote A Taste of Honey when she was 19. The way she tells it, a young man took her to a play at the Opera House in Manchester, “and I came away after the performance having suddenly realised that at last after nineteen years of life I had discovered something that meant more to me than myself.” She borrowed a typewriter and “set to and produced this little epic.” Then she sent it to the great Joan Littlewood.
Littlewood was a director, writer, actor, producer. I’ll go out on a limb and make a bold claim: English theatre owes its ongoing vitality to Littlewood. While waves of Oxbridge men forged the modern orthodoxy of British theatre at the big institutional theatres in London in the second half of the 20th century, Littlewood cultivated a vigorous heterodox tradition outside the capital. While the orthodoxy was authored, literary, often establishmentarian even when it wasn’t, Littlewood’s work was collaborative, communal, unstuffy, demotic, naughty, a little wild. She and her artists looked to music hall and the street, they improvised, mucked up, slept where they worked. She made theatre from life. Ever since, almost any time English theatre has started to bung itself up with its own importance, the alternative tradition that Littlewood championed has sprung to its salvation.
So when Delaney sent her play to Littlewood, she wasn’t mucking around. Littlewood clearly recognised an original voice; even Delaney’s cover letter rang out with self-declared newness* : “…no matter what sort of theatrical atrocity [this play] might be, it isn’t valueless so far as I’m concerned… I know nothing, have nothing – except a willingness to learn – and intelligence.” Littlewood took up the challenge, led Delaney and the play through a pretty thorough rejig, and gave it a resounding first production, with a jazz band on stage, and danced transitions. It transferred to the West End. Dozens of international productions followed. A film. The Beatles and The Smiths wrote songs with lyrics taken from the play. It was a legendary beginning.
What have we talked about as we’ve made this production, the first in Australia for maybe 40 years? We’ve talked about choice. How many other different Jos could Jo have been? How much power does she have over her own life? Where do her choices lie? When does she get to take control? What choice did Helen ever have? Is it too late to start again now? How many goes do you get at life?
We’ve talked about change, history. That it’s not always public, legislated, protested for. Sometimes history is made sitting on the toilet, or in the midst of a messy scrap between a mother and a daughter, in a dank room held together by layers of paint in an overlooked corner of the city. History is difficult sex, personal grief, wishful thinking, instinct, accident, rage, recklessness, awkwardness. The future is made on the low, lonely level in any nook and corner of life. This is especially true of the struggle for liberation and equality – the struggle to be allowed to make something of yourself.
We’ve talked a lot about copying and taking on roles. Copying other people is a deep part of life. We’ve been happy and lucky to have Agnes Page in our rehearsal room. Agnes is nine months old, the daughter of our designers Mel Page and Stef Gregory. Agnes copies. You can see the mirror neurones firing away like an electrical storm. That process never ends. Sometimes you can look at the world around you and see yourself, and know how to live. You watch and copy. But sometimes you look at the world around you and there’s no sign of you. Then what do you do? What if no one else is like you? What if you’re a bit wrong, a bit daft? How do you learn what action to take, what choice to make, if you’re nowhere to be found? People who can’t find other people to copy, roles to inhabit, will die or break apart. Every one of the people in the play needs to find a reflection somewhere, from someone, in drink, in sex, in art, in fooling about, in the daily grind, or they’ll break or die.
I guess the aim of a good society is to make sure that everyone can find themselves in it somewhere; that we all have a role to play; and that that role is not a lie.
If there isn’t a role for you, then there is one other choice than death or disintegration. You can stake a claim to your originality. Being a bit wrong, a bit daft, is a precarious position to be in, but if you play it right you can turn wrong into something new. A new way of life. A new role. Something that other daft people might find their place in. You might be able to break in a new form, and make some history. Littlewood did it. Delaney did with this play. Does Jo?
* You can find the letter online – it’s worth googling.