The collected interviews of Jim Mulligan

A Nanosecond of Terror in Venice

They might be eating pizza for eternity but it is no substitute for what has been denied them.

In a tranquil square in Venice five teenagers eat pizzas and talk. The weather is perfect, the food delicious and the talk engaging. But Lunch in Venice is a play where the realisation of what has already happened to the characters gradually creeps up on the audience and, from the point where the penny drops, they will receive an emotional jolt. Their perception will be dramatically reshaped in much the same way as the characters’ perceptions have been reshaped by the dreadful moment that Nick Dear has subjected them to.

I wanted to write a story about a group of young people on a trip to Venice. I drop a lot of clues but you would probably glide over them and only get them completely on a second reading. There is a moment midway through when you actually register that something weird is going on, that it is not a normal situation at all - and from then on the audience will be puzzling to work out what exactly is happening. Some will get it earlier than others, and one of the big decisions for the director will be how much you want to point up the clues.

The characters in the play are intelligent and articulate, unlike the stereotype of teenagers that is prevalent today. Harley is an intellectual snob in an endearing way, because his snobbishness comes from his excitement about art. Ben is the most politically aware of the five, keen on literature and involved in student politics. Bianca's main ambition in life is to be a homemaker. She is a romantic. She believes in being in love and the poignant thing is she finds herself frozen in time with someone she has just started to love. Emmy's great passion is food. She is also a romantic and, although she is a little more restrained than Bianca, she makes a tentative move towards Ben. Conrad is a loner, a fierce cynic, but he is the one who gently explains to Vivi how she will never get to the hotel Baur and Nick Dear gives Conrad the final elegiac words of the play.

The young people I know talk expressively and very articulately about the things they are interested in so I thought I would give each of the five people in the play a particular area of interest about which they would be fluent. I wanted to create a group of young people who would be really interesting to listen to because the pay-off will be that much more poignant. It is very sad, a terrible waste, a terrible shame.

The language of the play is unusual. Much of the time one or other of the characters addresses the audience, with the others commenting on what they are saying, joining in with natural dialogue.

I use the parenthesis ‘To us’ rather than the conventional 'Aside' because, although I want these to be confidential moments between a character and the audience, the other characters also hear what is said, and sometimes comment on it. It's an unusual soundscape for a play but when we eventually discover the world we’re in, the strangeness of the place, I think it becomes more understandable.

Nick Dear does not see the interlude with The Acrobats as in any way metaphorical. It is a couple of minutes’ worth of action to bring movement and colour to what might otherwise be a static play. He is, however, insistent that the acrobats should not wear masks, because he wants the masks to play a particular role at the end of the play.

I felt I could legitimately introduce masks because they are everywhere in the shops in Venice. I wanted to create a weird, slightly surreal, bizarre final stage picture. By this time, the audience knows what has happened, that we are in some kind of strange afterlife, and I wanted to bring things to a gentle dying fall.

Two themes that run through Lunch in Venice are the Pizza Theory of Life and the historical conflict between Christianity and Islam. The four seasons pizza is taken as a metaphor for the four quarters of the wheel of life. The young people have only had one slice of a metaphorical pizza. They are trying to put a brave face on things, all quietly thinking the unthinkable and accepting that 'this is how it's always going to be'. They might be eating pizza for eternity but it is no substitute for what has been denied them. The final music is ‘Winter' from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons.

There are references throughout Lunch in Venice to the city's warlike past. We hear of the Doge’s warship, the artist depicts Turks killing Christians, the George-and-dragon stuff takes place in Libya and, to make it explicit, Harley says, 'The Venetians made war with the Turks for centuries.' When the war is brought to Venice in the form of a terrorist bomb we are left in no doubt about what happens to the human body: blown to bits, fried to a crisp in a nanosecond, lungs caved in, the face imploding. And all told in a matter-of-fact way by the young people because it happened in a matter-of-fact way and they did not feel a thing.

Normally when we hear press reports of terrorist outrages the victims are perceived in a generalised way: 'Eight people killed by car bomb.' I wanted to present us with the reality of people's lives that have been lost. The way I have done that is to let us get to know a bit about the lives of these different personalities. I didn't want to make any kind of comment on the motivations of the bombers except to place the event in the context of a very ancient antipathy between Christianity and Islam. I deliberately position what I see as the great conflict of the 21st century in a geography where that conflict has been familiar for hundreds of years. I didn't want to say anything about political motivation. I wanted us to think about the victims.