The collected interviews of Jim Mulligan

A cycle of baroque violence

If this play is about anything it is about the perversion of justice.

Ali Smith’s play Just starts and ends in silence. At the start a young woman, Victoria, stands at the bus stop and gradually becomes aware of a body lying near her. There is an old-fashioned umbrella with a curved handle sticking out of the corpse’s back. By the end of the play Victoria is herself the corpse, stabbed in the back because she is an outsider, she doesn't belong. Another young woman stands at the bus stop and as the lights dim we know that the terrifying cycle of injustice is starting again.

My play probably fits in with the theatre of the absurd. It seems to make sense alongside things by Brecht, Ionesco, Dario Fo or Kafka. We live in a very Kafkaesque age. The play is clearly political, even though I do not want to make the issues explicit. It's clearly a play about England and the UK. It is absolutely about things like Guantánamo Bay which are happening right now. There are direct references to all sorts of things that are happening now.

If this play is about anything it is about the perversion of justice. In all the standard depictions, justice, always a woman, is blindfolded to show that she is impartial and unprejudiced. Here, Mrs. Wright maintains she is blindfolded to prevent her from being biased and then goes on to make the absurd assertion that she heard Victoria's hand raised in a ghastly way and she heard Albert watching in a gleeful accomplice-like way. She is forever peering out from under her blindfold. The Jury are members of her family, Albert the policeman is completely under the sway, the public are her sycophants.

I had no specific person in line for Mrs. Wright. In fact the character started off as a man then she became female and you can read her as anything you like. Justice is blind but hers is a different kind of blindness. It is a chosen kind of blindness. She almost always decides which direction to look.

Just is also about words, their limitations and distortions. According to the townspeople, Victoria uses disgusting language when she's provoked by the incomprehensible injustice she is experiencing. Mrs. Wright's response to the rational use of words is: objection, irrelevance, obfuscating information. When Victoria explains how she's been ruined by the supermarkets and has had to grub up her medieval orchard, Mrs. Wright seizes on the names of the apples and invents Northern Spies, Ida the Red and Jonathan McIntosh.

How simple is an apple? How simple is the word 'just'? The apple is in the first story of innocence and knowledge. The play is about words and how we use words and how the words change their meaning, slip away from us. That's why the play is called Just. That's all it is. 'Just' means everything and 'just' is nothing. It's about the ripples of meaning that go between the things we think we understand and the things we don't. It's about the strength of language. People are appalled at a few swear words and they ignore things on their doorstep that are utterly appalling. It's like a displacement of dishonour, of blame, or responsibility.

Just is a very dark comedy and the comic chorus of Townspeople is the black heart of the play. They are banal and utterly sinister. They are just people waiting for the bus. They talk about their lovely pot plant, their lovely bench, their lovely bus stop. Everything is just perfect, just about right, just understood, just wonderful. They live in a country you can trust, a country with a history. But they are the people who stood by as the Third Reich sent millions to their deaths. They are the people who shrugged their shoulders at detention without trial. Albert is a uniformed factotum. His tragedy is that he cannot disconnect himself from the position that he has accepted. He knows, more clearly than anybody else, despite his difficulties with language, that he is seeing a grotesque injustice being committed on the woman he has grown fond of, but he cannot get himself out of the abyss.

It will be very difficult for Victoria and Albert. She has to come across as passionate and direct and he as trapped. They must express themselves to the audience as fully human and at the same time as delineated models with great black lines around them. They are the human centre of the play and my belief is that the sparser you make something the better it will be, and the more cut-out it seems the further it will take you into the heart of something. The sparser the action is, the more clearly we can see the truth behind it.

In a Brechtian move, Ali Smith breaks the dramatic reality she has created and has the characters confiding that they know they are in a play. The Townspeople say, 'Don't you love the way it happens every night?' They refer to 'our play, our unending poem, our theatre of here'. Victoria says she has worked out they are in a bad play like a bad dream and she can just walk out of it. But she delays too long to give us some advice about eating apples and the Jurors kill her with the umbrella. And that, Ali Smith seems to be saying, is how it is with our society. Any individual can walk out of the nightmare that is going on around us but most of us do not realise we have a choice.

Ultimately of course everyone has a choice. Some will choose to remain part of society. The few existential heroes who try to rebel will be terminated in one way or another. But I do not want to close the cycle completely. Let's leave the hope there. Despite that vision, I see things going irrecoverably wrong. There’s a spread of some kind of Bbaroque violence which is new to us. We are experiencing it for the first time in this historic cycle. What we read in the papers is absurd but it's real. It's unthinkable but it's happening. Art helps us understand where we are.