The collected interviews of Jim Mulligan

A Zigzag path towards some idea of who you are

When Tom finally tries to have sex with Amy he is interrupted, first of all by Melissa asking for her camcorder and then by Mr. Le Clerc, who appears through a wall. This is, after all, theatre, so we can take this bit of magic in our stride.

Citizenship is Mark Ravenhill’s second Shell Connections play. He did not want to repeat the successful format of Totally Over You so decided to write something that would be enjoyable and at the same time challenging. The critic Aleks Sietz has suggested that Mark Ravenhill is 'more of a work-shopper than a garret writer’1 but for this play Ravenhill wrote a first draft in his garret, as it were, and then took it for a reading to a group of young people at the National Theatre.

I wasn’t quite sure what they would make of it because sometimes young people can be quite conservative and prudish and I was worried they might reject it, but actually they were really animated by it and talked about it for hours. They were really fired up by it so I realised I was on to a good thing.

One of the features of Citizenship is the stark realism and acceptance by the young characters of things that adults either disapprove of or pretend do not happen. They take drugs as a matter of course. Amy says in a matter-of-fact way to Tom, ‘Melissa says I need a shag.’ And Melissa says to Tom, ‘Do us all a favour and give her one.’ Gary wants Tom to tell him about his jiggy jiggy with his woman because ‘That was gonna be my wank tonight.’ He then shows him his website with what some adults would call pornographic images. And Chantal says to Amy without any tone of disapproval, ‘We heard you cut yourself again. You alright?’ This is the world of some young people today and Mark Ravenhill presents it in a non-judgemental way. In a sense he is inviting adults to be as sympathetic as the characters are.

In my experience, kids are very understanding of each other on the whole. They are a mixture. They can be very supportive, very liberal, very friendly. And then it can turn and a herd mentality can set in and bullying and psychological torture can start. It can oscillate very quickly.

What schools may find most difficult to handle is the openness of Tom’s search to find his sexual identity.

In some ways Tom’s in a privileged position because he can decide who he is and there haven’t been that many periods in history when kids could decide that.’ The search is bewildering and difficult. He looks to his teacher Mr. De Clerk to give him some kind of definition of who he is, he thinks he can find out from Gay Gary, he tries a tarot reader and he thinks if he has sex with Amy he will know who he is but that does not work. Then there is this rather empty relationship with a 22-year-old so Tom is gradually moving forward on a slightly zigzag path towards some idea of who he is but he hasn’t cracked and in the end he is still a bit lost.

When Tom finally tries to have sex with Amy he is interrupted, first of all by Melissa asking for her camcorder and then by Mr. Le Clerc who appears through a wall. This is, after all, theatre, so we can take this bit of magic in our stride. The idea is that young people sometimes imbue teachers with an all-seeing, all-knowing power but in fact the rather cynical, world-weary Le Clerk is no help. He says, ‘When I was growing up everyone told you what to be. They told you what to do. What was right and what was wrong.’ And Tom replies with the classic existential dilemma, ‘I’m unhappy — too many choices. You were unhappy — no choices. Everyone’s unhappy. Life’s shit isn’t it.’

And then Tom and Amy make their choice and have unprotected, fumbling, loveless sex although Amy is convinced, we are told through the baby that, ‘She’s sure there were a few moments that night when he did really, really love her.’

In the end, Amy seems to be the one who is most in control. She certainly seems the most content in her world, which is narrowed by the needs of her baby (those life-skills classes were not such a waste of time after all), the availability of babysitters, and the distant prospect of college. She firmly rejects Tom’s offer to babysit and his discontented wish to have it both ways. ‘Well – you can’t have it.’ Gary is content to give up the weed and take on the responsibility of bringing up a child but all Martin can offer Tom is sex. ‘The point is sex. We have sex. And I have money. And we have fun. That’s the point. And that’s as good as it gets.’

I think Citizenship will be challenging for many schools. If the play is put on in isolation then that might be difficult but if there is a culture where students can discuss things and discuss the issues around the play it might help the school. There’s no right or wrong in this play. I don’t think the play has a conclusive message but it seems to me the kids in the play are in a shapeless, formless world where they’re not being taught any kind of values at home or school and they are lost. It is a search.

Once the decision has been made to put Citizenship on then the challenges will be the same as for any play: finding who the characters are, getting the balance right so that the humour breathes and the sadness is realised. This is not a campaigning play in the sense that there is one message we are invited to take away. It does not recommend a particular course of action. But it encourages teachers and students to talk about things that are not fully acknowledged, to make things a little more public, to deal with things that teachers and students know about but rarely talk about. In this sense, Citizenship really does break new ground.

1Sierz, Aleks, Profile of Mark Ravenhill, www.inyerface-theatre.com/archive8.html