The collected interviews of Jim Mulligan

Living Without Love

The inspiration for Stone Moon came from an article in Marie Claire.

Judith Johnson came to drama through a comprehensive school in Ellesmere Port, which she left without going into the sixth form. This was followed by casual work and A levels taken at Chester College. She then took a teacher training course at Goldsmiths College in South London, and a creative and performing arts course at Newcastle Polytechnic. After Newcastle she was on the dole and, to fill her time, started writing plays. She submitted one to a woman's writing competition, and her success here encouraged her to keep writing, meeting people in the theatre, and submitting scripts. It also led to a spell at the Liverpool Everyman, devising and scripting plays for young unemployed people, followed by a period with the Red Ladder Company in Leeds. Stone Moon was commissioned by the Royal National Theatre while Judith Johnson was writer-in-residence at the National’s Studio.

I write for adult and youth theatre. In one way, youth theatre is restrictive because you have to write something that young people can handle and they don't have the budget and resources of the professional theatre. But they have different resources, personal experiences and imaginative energy. I write more realistically and personally for the adult theatre, but with youth theatre I can explore different worlds in different societies.

The inspiration for Stone Moon came from an article in Marie Claire, read at the hairdresser's, about women who work in the granite quarries in South China and the way their physically demanding work gives them a freedom that other women in rural China do not experience. They cling fiercely to this independence and devise all kinds of ways to avoid having children because once that happens, they have to go to live with their husbands.

It seemed amazing to me that there could be societies like that in the world today. I thought it would be interesting for young women to look at the relationships in the play which might be extreme versions of what is going on in their own lives, but far enough removed for them to look at things dispassionately.

The hen party that starts the play was written after the first draft to make clear some of the conventions of the society and also to show the women having a good time and displaying their finery and wealth. It shows their capacity to have fun despite the limits imposed upon them.

That policy is not a million miles away from some other parties I've been to where women get drunk and dance on tables. It's the Chippendale phenomenon: women go out for the night and exclude men so that they can have a good laugh.

The women in Stone Moon are ignorant of sex and the tradition is that they are told at their wedding feast what they must do and the conventions surrounding sex. There is no love in the society and this deprivation is deliberately created because if the women started to understand sexual love their attitude to men might change and all the hidden feelings that they cannot understand and put a name to would surface. There would be more intermingling of the sexes, the economic basis of their society would be threatened and their status as women with wealth and independence would be undermined.

These repressed societies are not that uncommon. When I was doing research for another work I read about women of my mother’s and grandmother’s age. Some of the things they said could have come straight out of Stone Moon. One woman for example said that when she was eighteen a man took her down the back alley and did something to her she didn't understand, and she later found she was pregnant. And that was only 50 years ago in England.

Because of her nature it is important for Kiri to find her fulfilment in her society but, because she is a free spirit, she cannot reconcile herself to the way things are. She thinks she has found a way out by having a clandestine love affair with Shem, but when he cannot bring himself to leave the valley with her, she is lost. It is only when Deena, who has much less courage than Kitty, is forced by domestic violence to leave her husband, that both of them find the strength to make a move.

In my play it comes as a great shock to the women to learn that Dena’s husband has been hitting her, but none of the women know what is really going on. It might be that some women are having sex and really enjoying themselves or, as far as Dena knows, everyone might be getting a crack from their husbands.

Judith Johnson deliberately does not reflect on the role of the men in the Stone Moon society, but it is obvious that their lives must have been as restricted as the women's. Nor does she look at the previous generation, but she gives a hint of what went on before by using the spirit world. To do this she focuses on the grandmother and confines the spirits to the well.

The floodgates open when Kiri and Dena find the strength in their love and friendship to leave the valley. Then all the women from previous generations, who in their time were rebels, stream out and follow them up the hillside. Those were the women who had not the strength to leave when they were alive and who suffered dreadfully for their independence. But their spirits escape. And in the final scene we see that things are changing.

There are negative things in the play. There is bullying by Bess - but that is imposed upon her by a society where you have to be tough and hard and big and strong. And Kiri is horrible to her mother. Kiri understands how much the marriage means to her mother, who is also only acting in accordance with the rules of the society, yet Kiri speaks the things that should have been left unspoken and so destroys her mother.

Overall the play is positive. Kiri does escape, the society is changing, and Bess is somewhat more mellow at the end. I suppose Stone Moon is saying that even in repressed societies it is possible to find some kind of contentment and that a free spirit will find a way out.