Glenn Meads chats to Sarah McDonald Hughes
Trial is a brand new site-specific show about sexual violence and the devastating impact of never being believed by Monkeywood Theatre in association with Octagon Bolton, performed in a courtroom setting for the Octagon’s REVEAL Festival from Thursday 26 April 2018.
The play is written and performed by 4 female writer/performers, telling real stories of women who have not been believed. The show weaves together multiple women’s’ stories and includes verbatim court material. Within the setting of the Council Chamber, the audience are immersed in the action and transported to each location in the story.
Glenn Meads caught up with Monkeywood’s Co-Artistic director, Sarah McDonald Hughes to find out more.
What does Trial explore, as a play?
The play is about women’s voices not being heard or believed, particularly in relation to sexual violence against them, both within the criminal justice system and in a wider context.
The play is made up of 4 separate stories following individual women and includes some verbatim material taken from a real trial, too.
How do writers collaborate on a piece like this?
We’ve developed the play over a year, with writers coming together to research and develop the play, and then working separately to read through and work on the material. The play is made up of separate stories, which are linked together with a piece of verbatim court transcript, taken from a real trial. The stories, whilst not autobiographical, have come ‘from’ each artist, in that they have written about something truthful to them in some way, inspired by real stories.
We’re really interested in exploring writers performing their own work, which is what we’ve done here, and so while in some ways the writer/performer roles are quite distinct from each other, there is some inevitable and useful bleeding of this process into the rehearsal room, which can be quite exciting.
Are you influenced by crime news stories, and the ways women are depicted?
Definitely. I think in a way that is the inspiration for the piece, the way the media and the world in general treats women’s stories and experiences. The idea for the piece came to us whilst we were working on other projects, because we kept coming across stories of women in the media, often local women, who had been disbelieved in court. We started to gather these stories and were overwhelmed by what we found, and by how the media reported stories of rape and violence against women. Often, female victims in these cases are portrayed, either directly or by implication, as liars, as untrustworthy, as ‘bad’ citizens. What also staggered us was how there seemed to be no challenge to this (or very little weight given to any challenge). It seemed as though, in general, men are automatically believed, whilst women are not. We started to wonder: do we really live in a world where so little weight is given to the voices and stories of women and girls?
Do you feel the #metoo campaign is inspirational, or does it need to go further?
I think it’s an important step, that women have started to speak out about abuses of power and crimes that have been committed against them, and some of the campaign has been really powerful. But I do feel that on it’s own won’t create change, or at least not sufficient change. Really, we need for ingrained attitudes and inequalities to be transformed and that’s an enormous and difficult task. There are still such huge inequalities between men and women: women are paid less, have less job security, are nine times more likely to be victims of rape, are objectified in a way men are not. When you think that Donald Trump has been elected as President of the USA despite what we know about his attitudes towards women it shows how far there is to go.
As a writer, what keeps you motivated, as it must sometimes be a lonely profession?
Yeah, maybe sometimes it can feel a bit lonely…but I feel lucky that I get to do a bit of everything. Sometimes I’m writing on my own in a room, but sometimes I’m working with others in a rehearsal room, working on a play. And Monkeywood often work on projects like this one with multiple writers which is exciting and helps with the loneliness!
In terms of motivation I think it’s a few things that keep me going - usually the thing itself, the idea, the play is the motivation, the effort of trying to express something clearly. Although yeah, I do want to throw the computer out of the window quite often!
The Manchester Project was a huge hit recently. How as that experience?
Oh, we really loved making that show, thanks very much for saying that! We’d been thinking for ages about making a project that was very definitely ‘about’ Manchester. We’re a Manchester company and this is an important part of our identity and our work, and we wanted to explore that a bit, to make a show about what it means to be Mancunian and why this is important. And luckily, HOME were really up for the idea, and they supported us to work out how and what the project was going to be.
We were really lucky with the writers and performers we were able to work with too. The writers produced some fantastic, heartfelt, brilliant pieces of work and it was thrilling to see audiences connecting with these so clearly. Hopefully it will have another outing in future so watch this space!
Trial is site specific. What challenges does that pose?
In a way, the site just becomes your ‘set’ in the way that a set on a stage would be. There are obviously logistical considerations that need to be worked out, as the Council Chambers aren’t designed with performance in mind (at least not this kind of performance!). The experience for audience and performers is quite different, in that the audience are amongst the performers, there isn’t that clear divide as there might be in a theatre. This all feels quite helpful to the piece though, that the audience are placed in the middle of the action and are asked to think actively about what they are seeing; they’re implicated.
What do you want audiences to get from Trial?
We hope that the play will make people think, and maybe make them angry, and to give them an insight into the worlds and stories of people they haven’t come across before. The play doesn’t have a specific ‘message’ that we want people to take away – I think that’s probably not our job. Our job is to present these stories in as truthful, authentic a way as possible, and to ask the audience to listen. I hope that the play is ultimately hopeful, though, in starting a conversation and demonstrating the strength and courage and humanity of these stories.
Trial runs from 26 – 28 April as part of the Octagon’s Reveal Festival.
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