The collected interviews of Jim Mulligan

Putting marks on the blackboard of memory

Central to Brokenville is the way the characters learn and discover their language (and thus their identities) through telling stories.

Philip Ridley's play for Connections 1997, Sparkleshark, was a huge success. It was subsequently staged professionally at the National Theatre and taken on a major tour of the UK. The play has been in constant production somewhere in the world ever since.

Sparkleshark is a bit of a phenomenon. It just touched a fuse-paper and flared into a life of its own. Everyone who has done the play tells me that it is a very empowering experience. It gives young people a new way of talking about their lives no matter who they are or where they come from.

Brokenville is the third part of a storytelling trilogy. Fairytaleheart, the first in the sequence, is about two people - a boy and a girl - who use the language of fairytales to make tentative and flirtatious contact with each other. Then comes Sparkleshark with a group of young people exorcising their fears - about growing up, sexuality, responsibility, love and bullying - by speaking in the roles of prince, princess, king or wizard. This fairytale language is anything but twee or sentimental. It is hard-edged and streetwise, a way for young people to score points off each other and contest intimate feelings. Brokenville, however, takes these themes and pushes them into a broader, somewhat more global context. There is something breathtakingly epic about these stories.

The action takes place in a ruined house. A young boy - only ever referred to as Child - is joined by six characters, all of them suffering collective amnesia. Everything about them is deeply buried, even their word-finding power. One of the most moving elements of the play is to see people move from inarticulacy to oratory, from stilted narration to fully-fledged drama, from isolation to community.

We are only what our memories tell us we are. The characters’ memories are like a blackboard that has been wiped clean. As they go on a journey through the play they start putting marks back on the blackboard by telling stories which touch on half-remembered things about who they are, what they might have been and felt and what might have happened.

Philip Ridley believes storytelling is the way we make sense of the world. It is what children like to hear before they go to sleep at night, what parents instinctively do for their children.

Brokenville has changed significantly since I started the project five or six years ago. It started to come together in its present form soon after the war in Bosnia and everyone saw it as a child in a bombed-out Bosnian village. Since 9/11, however, people are seeing it in terms of a terrorist attack. It could just as easily be a natural disaster. It is up to every production to interpret the ‘what has gone before' in its own way. This is part of the joy of the piece. It's not about a specific thing. It's about a universal truth. It's about what makes us human, what makes us humane.

One of the things the play does is to link the personal with the global. It shows how our actions have consequences. The old saying that 'No man is an island' is aptly demonstrated. Whatever one character does or says affects the whole group. We are all responsible for each other.

As the people in the play act out their stories we see, for example, mass starvation caused by a prince not wanting to look old, a whole kingdom is burned to the ground because a queen wants to keep a son all to herself. Individual actions have a knock-on, domino effect. At first the Child encourages and relishes this destruction and carnage. He refuses to allow happy endings to the stories being told.

Central to Brokenville is the way the characters learn and discover their language (and thus their identities) through telling stories. There is one electrifying moment when Queen Bruise lets loose a shell-burst of poetry.

And the walls are decorated with gold leaf. Images of trees made of emeralds. Apples of rubies. You see? Across the ceiling a map of the heavens. A million diamonds make the stars. The moon is purest silver with crater of mother-of-pearl. The rising sun a swirling mix of gold and platinum. You see? And across the floor a river made of crushed sapphires. The ripples are rarest crystal. See?

And this from the woman who at the start of the play has difficulty remembering the word ‘lullaby’. By the end, though, such poetry has awoken the humane in all the characters. The Child takes control and restores broken relationships. He is willing at long last to allow a happy ending, willing to acknowledge the future.

The play is about one moment of grace. Everything outside of the room is the same as it was when they went in and, even though Child might be less afraid at the end, they still have to go out of the building into the devastated world. The question is: what happens then? Do they revert to what they were or do they use some of the humanity that they have discovered?

Brokenville is a concept play and Philip Ridley is confident young people can cope with the ideas because they understand the power of stories. He is optimistic about the power of young people to understand the world of poetry and magic and wondrous coincidence.

I believe we are all poets. It's in our DNA. I've heard incredible things from young people. Breath-taking things. Images and words of purest magic. And this is what art does, what Brokenville tries to do. It prepares us for the perception of magic. We leave the theatre and the world is transformed.