The writer and director spoke to Emma Clarendon about reviving his play A Prayer for Wings at the King’s Head Theatre.
Hi Sean, thanks for talking to me. How did the idea for A Prayer For Wings originally come about? Well actually it was a commission, a young actress wanted a leading role and so commissioned me to write the play. To begin with, I was very stuck, I couldn’t think of anything; I used to go to my studio every day and just look at blank paper day after day. Then I was watching BBC News, and I saw this article about disabled single parents being cared for by children as young as eight, nine or ten. I thought it was completely heart-breaking that a child would have to be a parent’s carer, and the government wasn’t helping out with this, or that the NHS was able to do very little, and I found it such a disturbing and moving news doc that it sort of inspired the whole idea. When I started writing it, I realised that I was writing it from observations of watching my mum nurse her mother and my father while they died, and my father had died right before I wrote this play, so although it was based on something else the feeling was very fresh and raw for me.
And became very personal to you? Yeah it did, very personal.
For those who aren’t familiar with the play what is ‘A Prayer for Wings’ about? It’s about two women, a 40 year old mother and 20 year old daughter, and the mother’s got multiple sclerosis. They’re absolutely broke and live in this disused church in the outskirts of Swansea, not far from the city centre really; they pay a very small rent and they live off what we used to call, back in the day, the dole, which was the government funding for people who were unemployed. They live on the breadline really, and they’re very intertwined and very compassionate but they push each other’s buttons because they have very intimate and fiery relationship. But the play is very funny as well because there’s a situation that can be very bleak but there’s a lot of humour within it. The girl starts going with young men and earning a bit of cash for sexual favours but really she’s looking for love – she ends up telling her mother she’s doing it and explains that she’s doing it for the cash, but really she’s looking for companionship, for love, she’s looking for romance, she’s got yearnings; young yearnings that are not fulfilled because she’s imprisoned by her mother’s illness.
And you spoke about the characters being on the dole, and being really hard up against it, and obviously you wrote the play in 1985, but it sounds like there are some quite contemporary parallels. Why did you decide to revive it? Oddly, I thought it would be very interesting as my career, since I wrote it, has been largely as a director. I thought it would be very interesting to bring my mature directing skills to my early writing works. I’ve been looking to revive it for quite a while, but I got asked to do it in Swansea because Swansea was turning 50 as a city and they wanted to celebrate Welsh artists. So it was there in my mind anyway, but I suppose the creative reason was that I wanted to see what I was like as a writer, I wanted to retrace my steps as an author and hope that I would write again.
It must be a really interesting process to revive it as a director now as your career flourished in that role, and now you’re reviving this 1980’s piece, but with you also as the writer. It’s fascinating because I bring all my directing skills to it, but I’ve got to treat myself, the writer, as I, the director, treats my colleagues, the other designers and the actors. I’ve got to be critical, I’ve got to say ‘is this really working?’ so I was quite scared and felt very vulnerable, but actually everyone around it has been so positive working with it and the response from the audience in Swansea was so positive, so it’s been a very happy experience.
And how does it feel to be bringing that production from Swansea to London, to the King’s Head Theatre? Well it’s thrilling because we only did it in July, and sometimes we struggle to get plays transferred, it can take us a year or two years, and often things have gone a bit off the boil, whilst this happened immediately so it’s very exciting. The King’s Head is important to me because my third play was produced here, back in the day when Dan Crawford ran it – he was a great supporter of mine and I acted in a show at the Drill Hall which then transferred to the Criterion. I’ve had a relationship with the King’s Head in the past but that was 30 years ago, so suddenly I’ve got a new relationship with them again and it’s lovely.
Finally, what can audiences at the King’s Head expect from the production? I think it’s a great play for women, because it’s a mother and daughter, they’re great roles for women and this is an important moment for women in theatre who are getting a lot of richly deserved recognition. I think it’s for women but audiences are going to be startled by the Welsh talent, the authentic Welsh voice, the Welsh poetry, and Welsh humour, and Welsh warmth. It’s a women’s play and it’s a Welsh play.
By Emma Clarendon
A Prayer for Wings plays at the King’s Head Theatre from the 30th October until the 23rd November.