The collected interviews of Jim Mulligan

A million birds, a million forgotten artists

The play deals with many aspects of sexuality: courtesans, oral sex, faking pleasure, castration - strong stuff for young people, some playing six-year-olds.

When Bryony Lavery was at college playing the part of the left arm of the sofa in a surrealist play best forgotten, she realised she could write better plays herself, but it never occurred to her that she could make a living from it. However, over the years as she had a succession of jobs including teaching and theatre administration, she gradually built up her expertise and became a writer.

I have often written specifically for children and I have learned that you have to free your mind from thinking that, because you are young, you won't understand complex ideas. You certainly have to be entertaining and cut out any flab from your work. Young people are very obvious critics. They will tell you directly what is not working. But, after all, they’re open to ideas, excitement and magic.

More Light is based on a real historical event that Bryony Lavery had read about, a tomb that was opened in the 20th century. That was as much she knew and she invented the rest, but later she found that many of the ideas she had incorporated had been present in the real tomb.

The play is obviously about despotism, but this is taken as a historical fact. The Emperor in More Light has absolute power and learns nothing; the women are totally subjugated, but they're able to learn. Bryony Lavery did not set out to explore this phenomenon, rather she was interested in examining how our society regards art.

When experts talk about art they are usually male experts talking about male art, whereas woman's art is frequently not solid or monumental and therefore it is not considered. When More Light says, ‘Such art!’ she is sometimes being ironic and sometimes commenting on an observable fact. The artefacts in the tomb are wonderful. But the irony is the importance given to that art as opposed to the art of the women, which is realised in the play.

All women in the tomb 'have not borne sons' so that, presumably, those who had were left outside to carry on with life in an unchanged empire. The play deals with many aspects of sexuality: courtesans, oral sex, faking pleasure, castration - strong stuff for young people, some playing six-year-olds.

I don't know how young people are going to cope with it. It depends on how the companies deal with these issues. I made some changes in the second draft, to make the sexuality more covert as I imagine it would have been in that society. But it is, after all, a play about courtesans, and it is their job to pleasure men. In this sense, it is a play about sex without love, but finally there is sex with love. I think More Light and the Prisoner fall in love. Until then they had only experienced loveless sex. What I present is a hideous imbalance of a power relationship between the Emperor and the concubine and between the Emperor and someone he can castrate. They start to communicate in a way that seems to me to be with love and understanding, but More Light is faced with a frightful decision. She chose to support her sisters and to sacrifice the relationship with a man and a possible life outside the tomb. She probably thinks that, once she left the tomb, those men would set up the same constructions. Whether she's right or not - who knows?

The second moral issue in this play is cannibalism. In order to live, the women choose to eat the emperor and then to kill men in order to continue living. In so doing, they acquire a part of the personalities of the people they eat. In some societies that practised cannibalism it was considered a compliment to eat an ancestor. But in our society it is probably the ultimate taboo.

When a person is dead, it doesn't harm them to eat them but for me to do that is the ultimately evil thing. It unhinges you morally and from then on you will be capable of anything. In the play I have explored the fact that they've got over that hurdle in the most extreme of circumstances and it has kept them alive. This act releases them to do other things. I don't think they become immoral. I think they started to operate in a different morality. Remember, there are children there, and they justify it for the children who are having horrible nightmares because they have become part of the people they have eaten. So, when the leader says, ‘That's all right,’ it puts a new construction on what is permitted.

In More Light Bryony Lavery has deliberately made her women very similar. She intended that they would start as a crowd of identical-looking women. Each had only one distinguishing quality which was the one the emperor gave her when he named her. Once they have broken the taboo of eating human flesh, they are able to become themselves. The exception to this is More Light, who, from the start, is clearly different from the other women.

She is a very clever young woman who has been allowed only a very narrow band of excellences. The many qualities she has are only realised when she's put in an extreme situation. In each scene she discovers something new: how to lead, the problems of leading, how to look after her society, the hideous choices you have to make if you are protecting your society. The person who plays More Light will have to pay clear attention to what she says and feels. Why does she keep saying, ‘I have had a most wonderful life’? It could be a very sensible option to count your blessings, if you're going to die. But then she realises she doesn't have to die. The people taking part in this play will have to think. This is hard, but like More Light it gets you along. Play this well and you can learn a lot.

The climax of the play is when the 20th century breaks into the tomb. For the first time a shaft of daylight penetrates the darkness to reveal dust and the shadows of what had been. As the archaeologists exclaim in wonder at what they have found, ‘from the ceiling flutter and drop millions and millions of origami birds.’

In my experience the theatrical moments that people remember have hardly ever been when actors have made beautiful speeches but moments when something surreal has happened. I put the birds in, because it felt right. Perhaps when they see them people will think of the hundreds of millions of artistic endeavours that have been forgotten and the people that have been forgotten. Every bird is a person.