The collected interviews of Jim Mulligan

The biggest geometric event you could ever witness

Lucy Lime is not entirely truthful.

In his isolated cottage on the hills outside the last Yorkshire village before you cross into Lancashire, Simon Armitage writes poetry, radio documentaries and, latterly, Eclipse. He had a conventional education at the local comprehensive school, followed by college and Manchester University. At school, he read poetry but wrote little as a student. However, when he was working as a probation officer, he started to write.

Simon Armitage writes extensively for film, radio and TV. He is also a novelist, and has recently received the Ivor Novello Award for his musical Feltham Sings, based on creative writing done with young offenders. But fundamentally he is a poet. So it is not surprising that, when he was commissioned by the National Theatre to write Eclipse for Connections, the language he used should be crafted and range over many registers.

I was living a double life at the time. I was driving through the cutting over the Pennine watershed into Lancashire to do my work and then I was coming back into Yorkshire, getting out of one set of clothes and into different clothes and writing, not with any particular ambition or objective. I was, and still am, obsessed with writing. I spend most of my time looking for things that will lend themselves to the purpose of poetry. And, although I write full-time now, I have this mechanism in my brain where l try to think I'm not a writer. In that way, if I'm not writing, I don't think I'm being lazy. If I tell myself endlessly that I am a writer and a suddenly stop I'll consider myself a failure.

Far from being a failure, Simon Armitage built up a collection of poems in magazines and had his first book published by Blood Axe. Subsequently, Faber and Faber published three more collections.

When it came to writing Eclipse, initially I was going to write about something that happened in Hebdon Bridge where a girl was abducted. She was young and was hanging out with other young people when it happened on bonfire night, which belongs to young people even though it is a national festival. There was a feeling that the kids knew something that they either wouldn't or couldn't tell. That was the territory I wanted to get into: knowledge without being able to see it, intuition, instinct. But I realized there were too many agonies associated with writing about a real event. So I found a venue and the time for an explanation of disappearance - a beach on 11 August 1999 when we will witness the last total eclipse of the sun this millennium. That's the biggest geometric event you could witness.

The play is structured with only children appearing. Adults are present but not seen. Each in turn goes into an interview room and makes a statement about the version of events which is either the one being remembered or the one being created. Between the monologues there is a series of flashbacks to the day when the eclipse occurred and Lucy Lime appears and disappears. Each person has a different version of the event and up to the point of the eclipse four children give their versions, telling us about themselves and moving the narrative on. After the eclipse there are two more monologues.

I am aware that the children tip from being childish into being child-like and sometimes into having adult sensations and sayings. That is what is fascinating about children in that age between young and becoming old. I think very young children have a particular special quality that relates to a primitive and ancient knowledge. As they grow up, they lose this intuition just as the human race has lost some of its instincts. Lucy Lime is not meant to be a celestial creature who arrives on Earth only to create havoc. Neither is she meant to be an ordinary child. She is somewhere in between. She brings modern ideas to the other children who are still caught up in old-fashioned ideas.

Lucy Lime is not entirely truthful. When she tells a story about her rebirth as she emerges naked from the canal with a new self-knowledge, she tells a story because she needs to convince the twins that they must give up their make-up and fripperies, she cheats at arm-wrestling and she wins the children's treasures by lying to Midnight.

Everyone lies up to a certain point. Lucy Lime says what she needs to say in order to be herself and to get others around her to accept her version of herself. I think we all have different versions of ourselves based on other people's ideas. Lucy certainly manipulates, but then we all manipulate. She's just pretty good at it. They're frightened of her because, as a complete stranger, she is able to get them to do things they didn't think possible. They recognize she has power over them and they aren't sure where that process will end.

Simon Armitage uses different language registers in Eclipse: there are realistic scenes which veer off into the language of rhymes, dreams and fantasies; the monologues mix up the version of the eclipse with early life memories, earthy humour and carefully polished images; there is a song which is a mixture of balderdash and resonances of losing something and getting something; there is Glue Boy's final rhyme.

The whole play is about occlusions, what is behind and what is in front, and I tried to write it so that some motifs came up constantly: disguise, masques, being in the dark, future-present and future-past. The last monologue is supposed to exist somewhere between a prayer and an alibi. Glue Boy explains that it is something they have concocted to say at a memorial service, so in a sense it is a token of their concern. But it is also an alibi in the sense that something as difficult to fathom as this could be concealing something else. Many of the elements are of people living without a roof under the stars. The very real is set against the very abstract. Some parts are set in the-here-and-now, others are cosmological.

Simon Armitage believes that we have become disconnected from the world we came from and this process accelerates so that as we move further away from our origins we move further away from explanations. However, one way to make the re-connections is through language used by poets. He sees poets as shamans, who can communicate with other realities of self.

Most poets are after some version of the truth, not all of them and not all the time and not always successfully. I'm not anticipating anything from Eclipse. I'm just interested in what will happen. After all, written down, it's only half done. What will be interesting will be to see how they perform it because every character has a duality and can be played as completely innocent or completely guilty. There are a number of ways this play can be balanced. If they try to look for deep meanings it might be too difficult. The best way is just to dive in and have a go at it. That's what I did. I held my breath and dived in. I don't think I've come up yet.