Jo Clifford: Every One
Since the mid 1980s, with Losing Venice, a wild and passionate condemnation of colonialism, the work of Jo Clifford has received international acclaim. She remained for many years a dramatist as frequently performed overseas as in Scotland before Mark Thomson brought her work home with a series of premieres at the Royal Lyceum. Her adaptations of Anna Karenina and Faust left Lyceum audiences mystified that the rest of Scotland has seen so little of her work over the last decade.
The hallmark of Clifford’s work is courage. Politically critical, formally experimental and warmly humane, Clifford’s work challenges audiences, but charms them too, with its sometimes rambunctious humour.
Her new piece, Every One, has a personal aspect, though Clifford insists that it is not a strictly biographical play. Clifford’s loss of wife Sue Innes to a brain tumour was a starting point. ‘Over the last five years I lost my partner, the love of my life, I had to undergo heart surgery and felt I’d lost my health at the time, I lost my previous identity when I had to say goodbye to John and become Jo, and all this tended to focus me, in a way I had to face up to death,’ she explains. ‘I realised that my life matters. I thought, “One day I’m going to die, it might be today, and what kind of shape do I want my life to be in when that happens?” Now, we’re taught in our culture to fear that, and treat it with dread, but I find the thought quite invigorating actually. I take much greater pleasure and much greater thankfulness about the whole gift of life.’
Grief touches the ordinary family at the centre of the play, who find themselves in the presence of an audience on a theatre stage in play.
Clifford has never been a fan of the fourth wall. ‘I’ve tried to create an ordinary kind of family. The father is a teacher, the mother is a part-time tax inspector, the daughter is interested in fashion, the son is into computers and the grandmother, who lives with them, is suffering from dementia.’
Clifford insists on keeping the details of the plot a surprise for his audience, but his keynote is that their suffering brings a kind of liberation of a political nature, rather than fear. ‘Society works to control people by fear, and our biggest fear is the fear of death,’ she explains.
The crisis of the play brings an awareness of the necessity of change to the family and Clifford’s commentary hints at the nature of this awakening: ‘I think we’re living through the end of an era, and it’s becoming more clear that our political and economic elites have no answer. Of course that applies to the economic crisis, but that’s just part of a larger crisis to do with ecology, climate change, and a sense of growing injustice that occurs within our own society, never mind the wider global context. Everything we get from the media tells us that change is not possible, maybe it’s necessary but there’s nothing we can do about it. It’s that old Mrs Thatcher mantra: ‘There Is No Alternative”. Well actually there is. We’ve got to wake up to where we’re at, we can’t just keep on sleepwalking as if nothing is happening and hoping that one day things might get back to normal.’
Every One, Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, Fri 19 Mar–Sat 10 Apr.