‘No experience necessary.’ is the unwittingly ironic and innocently damning line spoken by the son in Tom Hadaway’s still bitingly sharp short play The Filleting Machine, an excerpt of which was performed last night in a great celebration of his work led by actor and writer Sean Prendergast.
That line, about operating the machine of the title – instead of gutting fish by hand – marked the beginning of an inexorable disempowerment of the traditional working class. It marked another notch in a social process that distanced us both from our natural environment and our own potential skills and that led to our present, alienated passivity – or what a Spanish anarchist I met this Christmas in Berlin called ‘the plastic fantastic’.
Sorry if I’ve gone all bitterly political but watching Tom’s work last night aroused my inherent leftist perspective. I’m probably making him sound like a dourly hectoring misery and he absolutely wasn’t. He was funny, compassionate, wry and perceptive. He was a true poet but as tough as the North Tyne Pier. The language he gave his characters had a witty grit and lyricism and it rang with the insight of his perspective on their predicament, on our predicament. There was a prescient excerpt last night about a man attempting to lead creative writing classes in Durham prison (something which Tom did) In the excerpt one of the cons sourly remarks that the deftest writers are those in the topmost business class who learn how to cook the books and still end up with millions. They get away with it because of their way with words. Tom wrote that in 1986. “Quantititive easing” anyone?
I was privileged enough to have been in four of Tom’s plays, I knew him and I loved him. His influence certainly carried into my last radio play “The Painter and the Fishergirl” about Winslow Homer in Cullercoats; I think the first section of his play The Long Line stands alongside the work of JM Synge or Lorca. Nonetheless, it is understandable that younger people wear bemused expressions when he is mentioned as important or special. How can they know? It is also important for theatre to be contemporary, to reflect lived experience. Today, on the landing outside the Studio Theatre a performer from the cast of The Garden of Dreams (a Live/Monster co-production) recited to me the verses of Hindi he was learning from the play. It had the rhythm of a tabla – like one I recorded in South Shields in 2000, played by a boy called Ashok. So yes, new voices, new sounds, must always be heard in the theatre. Tonight I’ll go see two readings by emerging writers in the Studio and later this year I’ll co-script a verbatim piece by a diverse group of young women all living on Tyneside. But lineage is important too. Sean Prendergast credits Tom Hadaway with inspiring his writing, so do I and so does Lee Hall to name but three. Understanding the past is important and that’s not about treacly sentiment or ‘heritage’ , it’s about truth. I say ‘ listening to experience IS necessary’ even though it’s crucial to write what you know and be true to how you find life to be; or to quote Confucius – ‘Study the past if you would define the future’.
Today I took a long time to write an introduction to the in-house programme for The Taxi Driver’s Daughter. It was important to get it right. Tess also brought in a CD of songs to find what we might top n tail the halves with. There’s a great one by a band called Grizzly Bear, so we might use that.
I also reflected last night that both Tom and Julia sought to give voice to those unheard or sidelined. They put them centre-stage. How great they’ve got writing rooms named after them in this theatre that has rung with laughter at their witty, pithy words.