The collected interviews of Jim Mulligan

Journey to the Centre of Yourself

Dust is intended to put women centre stage but it is not a comment on men or boys or the male gender.

Dust is the second play that Sarah Daniels has had in Connections, the first one having been Taking Breath. Her 1983 play Masterpieces has been produced around the world and was selected by the National Theatre as one of the best plays of the 20th century.

The idea of writing a play about female gladiators came from a newspaper cutting sent by at least three people to Sarah Daniels with the message,’ This could be the play for you.’ The article described how the grave of a female gladiator had been found near the site of the London Amphitheatre in Southwark.

The fact that these people, who knew my work and my desire to put women characters centre stage, thought it was a project for me seemed like an omen. For the next few months when anyone asked me what I was doing I would tell them about the idea, my research trips to the Museum of London, the British Museum, the Guildhall, hidden bits of Roman London, the baths at Bath and even the Coliseum in Rome. They too thought it was a good idea. This enabled me to delude myself into thinking that when I did sit down to start work the play would write itself. Of course it was at this point I became stuck - or do I mean unstuck? When I really started to think about it, I didn't want to do it. I don't like the idea of women boxing (I don’t like the idea of anyone boxing, which is probably the nearest sport we have left over from gladiatorial combat). And I certainly didn't like the idea of women killing each other for entertainment. So I decided to write something else. But what of Suzi Graham-Adriani, who'd commissioned the play, and the people who were so excited about the idea of women gladiators? I then began thinking about approval. How much it meant to me. What was I prepared to do to get it? How it is difficult at any age but much more painful to go against the flow when you're a teenager. And so the gladiatorial idea became a metaphor for a young woman, so desperate to be part of the group, she tries to buy their friendship and ultimately betrays herself in the attempt. Her ‘fight’ becomes a journey during which she finds the courage to be true to herself.

Dust starts with a group of young women and their teacher on the underground going to see a Shakespeare play at The Globe in Southwark. Lisa, the leader of the gang, is goading Flavia, trying to come between her and Chloe, who is torn between maintaining a friendship with Flavia and being accepted by the other girls. At this point an unattended bag is found and the train is evacuated, leaving the driver and Flavia on board. There is an explosion and Flavia finds herself in a disused tunnel under Kings Cross Station with Boudicca (Boudicca's body is thought to be under Platform 8). Before they part, Bo addresses the audience with one of three pivotal monologues in the play. This one is a reflection of suicide. It is light-hearted but deadly serious.

I don't necessarily agree that ‘It's better to be a hammer than an anvil’, but it is the sort of thing Bo would have said. She is very fiery, but she is also giving some serious advice: if you think it's lonely out there, it's much worse here. I'm concerned about the rate of suicide among young people and she is saying, ‘Don't go there. It's not better.’

Under the arena Flavia encounters the Woman with the Baby, the alter ego of the woman begging on the tube. Her baby is already dead when it is taken from her. She is the girl who stinks of poverty, whose kid died for lack of food, who used a dead baby to smuggle drugs, who abandoned her child, who murdered her child. She sears the audience. ‘You look at me like I'm shit on your shoes but you cannot shake my dust from your feet. You have always revelled in reviling me. You're more concerned with making sure animals don't become extinct than with trying to eradicate me.’ Maybe we will think twice next time about ignoring the mother begging on the tube.

When I set a play in the past I like to be able to connect it to today so that it really feels relevant. What's important is that young people doing the play, wherever they come from, can identify with it and don't think this is all yesterday. We still haven't eradicated poverty, yet we think we are so civilized.

The third monologue is delivered by Trifosa, the posse leader on the tube train. Under the arena she and Claudia are practising their glam-glad act with their long eyelashes and red lips, the mask to hide their cowardice. But their glamour does not save them when they have to go in against wild animals. Trifosa tries to beguile Flavia into taking her place, but she stands up against her and they go to their deaths. She confesses to the audience, ‘I always thought of myself as special, better than the rest. I couldn't stand their humourless, lifeless, miserable whining. I got pleasure out of baiting them. The more I did it the more I wanted to and the better I became at it.’

Morally I don't agree with retribution but in the Roman part of the story Trifosa and Claudia think they are so glamorous and sexy that it will save them and their lives will never be put at risk. Basically they are living in a fool’s paradise. What Trifosa does is evil in this sense. I think an evil act is when somebody does something nasty or hurtful and enjoys it. We all have the potential to do that.

Dust is intended to put women centre stage but it is not a comment on men or boys or the male gender. Indeed, there are some good, funny parts for boys. The staging can be simple. For example the announcer at the beginning sets the stage and the audience knows precisely where they are.

Dust is not about creating some amazing spectacle. That can only be done on film. Keep it as simple as possible. The central thing about Dust is: try to be yourself and do not betray yourself. That affects everybody so I hope those involved in the play will be able to identify with Flavia. I don't think theatre can change the world, but it can change an individual's perception of some aspects of life.