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Interview ‘Something that makes people better is revolutionary’

JO CLIFFORD talks to Angus Reid about politics, life and most of all theatre of which she is a controversial and acclaimed practitioner

COVID REQUIEM, which will take place at Pitlochry theatre this September, is a first response by theatre-makers to the devastating loss of life that has been suffered in the UK because of the pandemic. It is the initiative of the playwright and performer Jo Clifford.

Her remarkable career spans from classic shows like Ines de Castro and Losing Venice, to her recent monologues as a transgender performer, Jesus, Queen Of Heaven and Eve. The reception of these plays in the UK and internationally gives her good reason to believe in theatre as a tool for social change and collective healing.

Covid Requiem will be a promenade performance through mature woodland, whose itinerary follows the five stages of grief. It is the last production in a remarkable open-air season at Pitlochry that has seen the company adapt to Covid restrictions, and in doing so to develop works that seek a new relationship to the audience and the wider world.

Clifford has embraced this radical questioning of theatre. If she sees the project of mainstream media as a “despair industry” whose effect is to weaken people, and render them passive, then her first move in this act of re-imagination, is to empathise with the audience. “The audience are coming along in grief,” she says.

“Everybody knows someone dead or dying. Everybody’s afraid that they might die. You don’t need to shock people anymore. And to make theatre,” she goes on, “is an act of resistance. It’s about strengthening the audience. In this case it’s about creating a safe space in which people can look at their grief, and feel their grief, so they don’t have to park it or pretend it isn’t there.”

Clifford herself is no stranger to grief and the danger of bottling it up. At the age of 12 she was forbidden by her boarding school to attend her own mother’s funeral; working as a nurse in 1977 she witnessed a patient die in isolation and, she says, “I still feel bad about it.”

When the outbreak began people were dying and relatives weren’t allowed to see them. After they died they weren’t allowed to hold funerals. “And that was adding more torment, more grief to the grief that people must already be suffering.”

How can theatre stand in for the funeral that so many have missed?
“We can create a place into which to bring our grief, and what we have done is to find a form of words that guides people very directly to that place.

“The place itself is very beautiful, a natural woodland that has its own cycle of death and renewal. We can invite people to bring the names of those they have lost, so that their existence is named and recognized and witnessed. We use words, we use music, we use place and we use togetherness.”

Is this like a happening?
“No,” she replies. “This is scripted. You need a framework. You need a structure in place if you are to cultivate a strong presence...”.

Presence, for Clifford, is at the heart of the theatrical experience: “It’s the first thing you learn as a performer. You’ve got to be there, in the moment.”

The event is described as a ritual, but is function to heal, or to entertain?
“Is there a distinction?” she replies with a smile. “The function of theatre is to give pleasure. That might sound facile,” she says, “but to me it is a very profound thing. If you give people two hours of pleasure you are doing something very important to them. To give pleasure through language – and beautiful language is incredibly important to me – through intellect and through feeling, deeply and passionately. Through getting involved in other peoples’ stories. Through empathy. It is all a healing thing.”

Is this revolutionary art or therapeutic art?
“A bit of both! If you live in a society that makes people ill for profit, as we do, then something that makes people better is revolutionary…”

But what about the anger people feel? Is healing also to be found in politics?
“Of course,” she says. “Covid mortality has been caused by political decisions. Alongside the grief, the pandemic has also lifted the veil on so much invisible labour. The people who have borne the brunt of it, the frontline workers – the doctors, the nurses, the deliverymen, the bus drivers, the plumbers – these people need to be recognised.”

“And the fact is that the Westminster government has used this suffering to enrich its cronies. To destroy the health service. To send children and staff into schools that are patently unsafe. They are not prepared to spend money to protect people. All these disastrous decisions ensure that we are not getting out of this disease, and that death rates and economic damage continue to grow.”

“You have to touch these issues carefully. To recognise the political dimension. To mention it, but to keep moving on.”

Her sensibility derives from a lifetime in which Clifford has questioned gender roles. She was brought up as a boy for whom manhood meant overcoming the supposedly “weaker” part of oneself, the need to cry, and to empathise with others. 

For her, the disastrous consequences of male conditioning are plain to see on the front bench of the Tory Party: “I recognise all those people,” she says. “It’s sickening. It’s all people I knew from school. Types…” . Her reaction has been to decide neither to be a man, nor to live as a man.

Identity politics has been used by the right to eclipse class politics. Is it not a weapon of mass distraction?
“I profoundly disagree with that,” she says.

“Right-wingers - be they British, Polish or Hungarian - all these reactionary men hate people like me because we threaten them. Section 28 was typical of the attempt to defend their order, their existence, their validity. So, identity politics is no distraction. It is resistance to imperialist values. Capitalism will use every means in its power to confuse, to distract and divide. You have to be careful. We have to keep our wits about us…”

And who will be able to see the play?
“We only have a few performances,’ she says, ‘and yes, I think that theatre should be free. We should have a national theatre service. But we’re not in that kind of society. Yet.”

Performance details: September 15-18 at Pitlochry Festival Theatre. Box office: www.pitlochryfestivaltheatre.com

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