The collected interviews of Jim Mulligan

Young Men Sent to War as the Serpent Enters the Garden

It is written so that it is director-proof, the direction coming from the acting and the speaking of the words.

Although he has written parts for young people in his other plays, Peter Gill has never written a play in which each character is about 16 years old. Faced with this task, he worked with young people and his research showed that only particulars have changed in the condition of adolescence.

It wasn't very easy to be a working-class child in the 1950s unless you were a grammar school boy like me. The condition of being young and having to deal with that has meaning for you, and who you are is much the same now as it was then. Probably the only differences are the availability of drugs and young people now being more sexually sophisticated. There was a small group of artistic boys in my thug-ridden school and there were some gifted teachers who gave us profound insights. I left school when I was 16 and went to The Castle, now the Welsh School of Music and Drama. I quickly learned it was not very good and left after a year to take a job as an ASM on an Arts Council tour.

The stage is bare in Friendly Fire. Nine young people apparently fritter away their time hanging around the statue of a soldier or chat inconsequentially in each other's houses. Friendly Fire is not a devised work. It is a written play which must be treated like a string ensemble. Only the words, pared down to minimalistic exchanges and then blossoming into bleak metaphysical solos, are important. It is written so that it is director-proof, the direction coming from the acting and the speaking of the words.

The young people in this play are half-excluded from society. There are children who are much worse off than they are, in care for example, but it is not very easy for people like my characters. Despite that, I don't see their lives as full of despair. There is the view that young people are not having a life at all. Well the colour red is the same for these adolescence as it is for the children of the Prince of Wales. In my view young working-class people are hugely misunderstood. The range of their emotional experience is considerable and I have no doubt young actors will be able to cope with these parts.

At the centre of the play there is a triangle. Adie, Shelley and Gary have been friends for years and there has never been a need to talk about their love for each other. Shelley is a tough, clear thinking young woman who knows exactly how far to go and who is dismissive of her friend Karen because she has been stupid enough to have a baby. Now it is dawning on Shelley that Adie, the boy she loves, is probably more interested in, if not in love with Gary. She, for her part, rejects Danny's heterosexual posing which becomes objectionably obvious at Roger Jenkins' party.

Shelley does not have much time for Gary partly because she cannot see the pain he is in. He can get any girl he wants but not the one he really wants. Shelley realizes that Adie does not love her the way she loves him and she works out that most men are drawn to each other in a very particular way so that she feels excluded. The three of them love in an instant way but now the serpent has entered the garden. It needn't be a problem but we make it one. Sex is coming to their lives and now they have to deal with it. I think probably Shelley is going to withdraw and Gary is going to find it hard to do without Adie. But they are only 16. Next year that could all be different.

From the time Peter Gill started coming to London from Wales when he was seventeen he was fascinated by Charles Sergeant Jagger’s statue of a soldier on Paddington Station. The soldier is reading a letter and Friendly Fire starts with Dumb Dumb talking to a similar statue, asking who the letter is from. ‘Is it from your mum?’ But the statue cannot reply any more than Dumb Dumb can communicate with the others. In the last scene the young people reflect on the costs of war and Adie asks, ‘Why did his mother let him go?’

The boys in this play are not far off being people who would have been in the First World War. I believe that Europe has not come to terms with what it did with its young men in that war. It's fashionable to demonise young men now but, when it comes down to it, it’s young men without choice who have had to pay the price at critical points in this century. Adie questions the common belief that women have no power to stop what was happening. It appears to me that they seem to collude with sending these boys to war. There were plenty of intelligent women around. They could've shot them in the foot but they chose not to.

As the soldier comes to life the young women are shocked but the young man acts out the part of willing combatants, Garry the officer and the rest the fodder. Finally Dumb Dumb speaks. ‘There's nothing to say I got the right to silence.’

In my play I am trying to put young people in touch with the history they are not aware of. They have been robbed of it. The poor don't have a history. Nationalism is a fantasy of the upper classes. The sad, appalling ambiguity of Friendly Fire is that young men today do volunteer to be slaughtered in places like Kosovo, in the name of nationalism, and even the young men milling around the war memorials somewhere in Essex might still choose to become part of a deadly history.