The collected interviews of Jim Mulligan

The most courageous thing is to keep breathing

Not exactly the stuff of eco-warriors.

When she was sixteen a friend persuaded Sarah Daniels to visit the local repertory theatre using free tickets that the school had been given The first grudging visit developed into a passion that led, ten years later, to a full-time career as a dramatist.

In a way that wasn't even perceptible to me I went from thinking what a dull boring thing the first play I went to was to the point where I couldn't wait for the next one. When I left school I went to a lot of political and feminist fringe theatre. Inevitably, I saw some plays that were not very good and this gave me confidence to think that maybe I could write a play, so I got to work on one for eighteen months in my spare time without telling anyone. I sent this play to the Royal Court and, although it was rejected, I had an encouraging letter.

The Royal Court put on Sarah Daniel’s second play and then Anthony Minghella (at the time script editor for the children's drama series Grange Hill) asked her to submit a script. She has now been writing for Grange Hill for ten years and has written for the BBC soap opera EastEnders.

In Taking Breath five young people spend a night on a tree platform to prevent the destruction of the trees and some houses. One of the protesters, Elliott, tries to leave the tree, falls and is left unconscious. As he is lying there he encounters Lucy, a servant who in 1913 worked in one of the houses that is to be demolished. The dramatic thread weaves backwards and forwards in time. In the opening scene we learn that Elliott has been in a coma for a week. We then have scenes on the tree platform interspersed with Lucy telling Elliott about the suffragettes, how she was sexually harassed, how she had tried to frighten off the son of the house by telling him she had a boyfriend. Finally we have scenes in the hospital where Alana and Steve meet and we see them on the tree platform.

Sarah Daniels had in mind a play about protest but also about cowardice and bravery. In Taking Breath Elliott loses his nerve and leaves the platform, Jamie is too scared to check if Elliott has fallen, Tom can't get down quickly enough, Kelly is obsessed about the damage to her ear and Cassie, in the face of danger, reverts to singing ‘embarrassing old hippy shit’. Not exactly the stuff of eco-warriors.

I wasn't writing about experienced eco-warriors. I know that seasoned campaigners take a lot of safety precautions. I didn't want my characters to be very good at it. They aren’t old hands. They get this piece of news that the demolition is about to begin a day early so, on impulse, they decide there and then without thinking of the risk to handcuff themselves to the tree. I have great admiration for anyone who has the courage to protest, even if cowardice may make them forget their principles in the heat of the moment.

In Taking Breath Alana and Steve meet in the hospital. They are both abrasive characters and react angrily to each other. He feels guilty about the way he has treated his half-brother and angry at the way his life has gone up to this point. Alana has her own guilt.

I have a lot of affection for Alana. At the start of the play she is depressed and rude. I think she's very frightened of what she has done. Part of her depression is that she is afraid to face the outside world. And then she learns that Elliott has come out of his coma and is asking for someone called Lucy. By this time Alana has learned quite a bit about her great-grandmother and believes she might be the Lucy that Elliott is asking for. I believe it is very brave of her to go to the hospital with her sister to face the outside world, the hostility and ridicule. It is fortunate that she meets Steve, one of the few people who can help her.

By the end of Taking Breath, Elliott has recovered from his coma, the tree is still standing and Alana and Steve are supporting each other in a tentative, ambiguous way. For all her bravado, Alana is in no mood to contemplate a relationship with Steve. He, however, understands her because he has been unhappy, out of work, impoverished and has felt guilty. The question of protest is also somewhat ambiguous. The play examines the way protest has gone on throughout the century and how it has changed. Lucy, the suffragette, is at home with a bomb, she smashes windows with her toffee-hammer and believes in deeds not words. She is incredulous at Elliott's way of protesting, which he sees as very female, nurturing, peaceful and respectful of Mother Earth. Steve refers to principle as a luxury afforded the privileged few.

I think that everyone can have principles but, if you are poor and out of work as Steve is, you have to weigh the dignity of having a job against your principles. This is not an ‘issues’ play but most plays are political as much by what they don't say as what they deal with. I don't think theatre can revolutionize things but it can be one of many influences that can change people. I think if a play can engage your emotions, intellect and imagination then there's a chance that it will shift your attitudes.