Arts journalist Holly Williams talks to Alice Birch on all things [BLANK], our new co-production with Donmar Warehouse and her experience of creating work with women with experience of the criminal justice system.
When I tell Alice Birch I’ve read her new play, she’s shocked: “You didn’t read the whole thing? Wowsers.” This is hardly the usual reaction at basic interview prep – but then, the 32-year-old’s latest script is hardly a usual play.
[BLANK] comes in at 214 pages, with 100 separate, self-contained scenes: 50 to be performed by adults, 50 written for children – although fear not, no production should ever stage the whole thing. Instead, Alice’s script begins “This play is a challenge and an invitation to you and your company to make your own play”.
The play looks at the experience of women in prison as well as the impact incarceration has on their families. All the characters are unnamed – simply designated A, B, and so on – but Alice does thread tantalising character arcs and thematic connections through this exhilaratingly experimental piece. It would be possible to stitch together some dramatic narratives about women’s paths in and out of prison – but equally possible to make something abstract and multi-voiced. Crucially, no two productions will ever be the same.
“It’s a strange thing,” Alice acknowledges. “You want to offer something that could be very character-driven, the stakes could be high…but you also want each scene to work on its own, in case a director wants to do something much more kaleidoscopic.”
Her work has always been driven by formal experimentation, from Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again. – a feminist text blowing up the conventions of gendered language, which won her the George Devine award – to the Susan Smith Blackburn prize-winning Anatomy of a Suicide, where the words of three generations of women are scored like a piece of music so that they overlap.
In the case of [BLANK], the structure grew out of a very specific set of restrictions. Clean Break actually gave Alice her first ever commission, following the success of her first play, Many Moons, at Theatre 503 in 2011. But Alice “couldn’t find the right thing for ages.” Then, the National Theatre’s Connections Festival, which commissions plays for young people, approached her about writing something too.
Most people would probably not leap to the idea of combining a play for a large youth cast and a play for adult women. But it was this “impossibility” that finally fired Alice’s imagination.
“I couldn’t see a world in which those two things existed – and then that became the point,” she explains. For the young people, the play is about the absence of their mother; for the adult women, it’s about being separated from their children.
[BLANK] has already been performed by NT Connections groups, using mostly the children’s scenes, and watching proved surprising: “You go ‘oh I didn’t see that in it, that’s really thrilling. And terrifying.”
The production, for the first time drawing on all 100 scenes available, will be performed by a cast of adult women, including two Clean Break members, as well as a few children or teenagers. How involved is Alice in shaping this production with Maria Aberg, in choosing which scenes make it in?
“I genuinely don’t know the answer to that,” she says. “I can’t say what should be in the production, otherwise I would have written that play.” And that’s why it’s titled [BLANK] – the invitation is genuinely open. But she adds that there is “something about the kaleidoscopic version that keeps it big, which I think is useful.” That broader approach may reveal how structural inequities within society and within the criminal justice system can funnel women into a cycle of crime and reoffending. Those structural problems are what have fuelled Alice through the writing of this play.
[BLANK] goes to some bleak places, but Alice felt she had to reflect the reality of a failing, overloaded system. “There’s a scene about someone having to make 45 meaningful observations [of female prison inmates] in an hour, and each of those people is at risk of self-harm or suicide. That was a figure I’d taken from a real-life inquest,” she says. “It is horrific: these women are dying. How society treats its most vulnerable says everything – and I think we treat prisoners appallingly.”
Alice had been an admirer of Clean Break since she first started writing. “As a young female playwright, lots of the texts I was picking up were commissioned by Clean Break. And often the plays felt quite quiet; it wasn’t about women walking into places and shooting everybody, it wasn’t highly glamorised. I really felt drawn to the quiet craft, the kindness.”
It’s an important point. Alice’s plays often have a ferocity and anger that’s certainly not evident when you meet her in person – she is a gentle presence, thoughtful and considered. And to see her work as just a howl of rage would be wrong: “I think kindness is really what I’m writing about all the time.”
Holly Williams is an arts journalist and editor. She reviews theatre for Time Out and the Mail on Sunday.
This piece originally featured in the Donmar Magazine.