The collected interviews of Jim Mulligan

Love, loss and our true skin

When Curtis eventually realizes the truth - that his mum has deliberately lied to him all these years - the revelation threatens to destroy him.

Moonfleece is the third Philip Ridley play to be part of the Connections programme. It is the central work in his ongoing storyteller sequence, which will, when complete, consist of seven plays. Set in the East End of London, the action takes place in a derelict tower block.

It is a very real tower block. It's at the back of the flats where I live. Every time I walked past it I used to think it was a fantastic place to set a drama. All that history. All those memories. Peeling layers of wallpaper. Old photos. Bits of furniture. And it was thinking about this that helped create the world of the play. A play about family and memory. The way we remember the past as opposed to what really happened. The way, as we grow up, we believe everything our parents tell us without question. And why shouldn't we? After all, they love us. They are there to protect us. And so their version of the past becomes accepted truth. But what if the people that love us are not telling us the truth? And so I hit on the idea of a family secret. And it's this secret that's at the heart of the play.

The history of Moonfleece is that of Curtis and his family. His grandmother was the first tenant to move into the tower block, while the concrete in the basement was still wet – her hand-prints are still there. All significant family moments took place there: children were born there, the dead were buried from there and, finally, Curtis’s father staggered up the stairs, bleeding from a fatal stabbing, and died there.

As the play starts, this old family flat is being squatted by Link and Zach. Two well-dressed intruders, Tommy and Gavin, members of the far right Avalon Party, have knocked down the front door and are taking over the flat for what Link assumes to be a Fascist meeting. But the gathering that's being planned is not a political one but a spiritual one. Curtis has been seeing the ghost of his long-dead brother, Jason, and is hoping that a séance will explain why.

Curtis had seen his mother go to pieces after the brutal death of his father. She was clinically depressed and only restored to good health when she met and married Mr. Avalon, now the leader of the Avalon party. It is implicit in the text that Curtis is going along with the racist rhetoric to keep his mother happy. As he says to Link, 'Dad's death ripped her to bloody pieces. You ever seen that happen to someone you love? Eh? It’s shit. I'd rather kill myself than see that again.'

Part of what Moonfleece is dealing with is the idea that we are what we make out we are. We have caught Curtis at the moment when he has to make a decision. If he carries on the way he's going he will end up becoming totally what he's been making out he is. If he's not going to become that, he's got to change now. Curtis has suspended all his emotions and feelings to placate his mother. So he has a non-spoken trauma. This is the loss of his brother. He now believes he has been seeing his brother's ghost, and all his grief and depression have caught up with him and he's on the brink of collapse. Loss is one thing that unites all the characters. In the play everyone has lost something: a brother, a lover, their past, their home, their mobility.

The people who gather in the flat, some by accident, some by invitation, work a kind of magic to bring Curtis to the point where he understands the choice he must make. Link, on the surface a cocky street kid, is able to pick up on the pain of others and he feels an immediate affinity with Curtis. There is a real affection between Tommy and Curtis, and it is Tommy who sets up the gathering. The others come together to play their parts and we hear two versions of the death of Kurtz's father: one is a factual account, as related by Jez and Alex; the other is a reinterpretation of the events as a fairy story, as told by Zack and Link.

The moonfleece is a symbol, I guess. At least it has ended up being one. The moonfleece is like the real truth of who we are. It's a statement of our emotional landscape. In terms of love, it says, "This is who I am." In terms of what I believe, it says, "This is my truth, this is my real skin." The moonfleece is what we really are. Sometimes we are born with it and sometimes it has to be given to us. Sometimes we wait years and years to be given it, and the person who gives it to us is the person we are destined to love. The question is, do we reveal the moonfleece or do we keep it hidden?

As the story is finally told we learn that, just as Curtis has shaped his life to protect his mother, so Jason has chosen exile rather than hurt her - an exile that will ultimately lead to his own suicide. Before he died, Jason had sworn Zack to secrecy. Jason had wanted to come and tell Curtis the whole story of how Mr. Avalon had forced him out of the family because of his relationship with a man who ran the dolphin merry-go-round in the local park, and how Mr. Avalon had faked Jason's death rather than have his political ambitions besmirched by Jason's dubious friendship. But Jason couldn't tell his brother all this, because he didn't want to upset his mum or have Curtis thinking bad things about her. When Curtis eventually realizes the truth - that his mum has deliberately lied to him all these years - the revelation threatens to destroy him.

There are issues in the play, of course. But we shouldn't make too much of them. I think the play reveals itself through character, story, emotion, passion and truth. It is about a group of young people trying to sort out the truth from the lies. It's about love, loss and our true skin. The play shows a moment in people's lives. That's all. And it leaves Curtis, in a strange way, at exactly the moment when the drama begins. He's looking at photographs proving conclusively that his brother had been alive all these years - that, in other words, everything you thought was true is a lie. So, is he going to go back home and confront everyone or is he going to keep it a secret? I think I know what he's going to do. But perhaps I'm wrong.