Pijin/Pigeon: In Conversation with Bethan Marlow

Pijin/Pigeon: In Conversation with Bethan Marlow

This week Theatr Iolo and Theatr Genedlaethol began their Wales-wide tour of the stage version of Alys Conran’s award-winning novel, Pijin/Pigeon. Emma Schofield spoke to playwright Bethan Marlow, who has adapted the play for stage.

Emma Schofield: I feel like I should start by saying congratulations as you’ve had your first show this week! How did it go?

Bethan Marlow. Well we made it through! Actually, it seemed to go really well; you can see it differently when you’re in a room with an audience and you can actually get their reaction to it. You see different parts of the play then, things that flow well and things that you might want to adjust a little, but it seemed to get a really good reaction.

Emma Schofield: I wanted to ask you about the process of bringing Pijin/Pigeon from the novel to the stage. It’s a really rich text; it’s got a few very funny moments, but it’s also got some really quite serious content about consequences and darker themes relating to violence. Where did you start with approaching that?

Bethan Marlow: You’re right. There is a real balance to weigh up and it’s interesting because I think I was probably quite aware of that balance between light and dark and that was a really good focus for me to have. Then, after that, it was just about me finding a way of compartmentalising it, kind of creating a jigsaw puzzle where all these different pieces could fit together. It’s a young story, one that is probably aimed at audiences from about fifteen to twenty-five and it needed to reflect that in a theatre setting.

It was also about cutting it down. You’ve got such a strong text, with so many different aspects to the story and, at first, there were just a lot of these pieces of text that I really did not want to get rid of. But slowly I kind of honed in on the fact that so much of the story is about friendship, the friendship between Pijin and Iola, and then anything that helped me to tell that story is what I kept. I was able to think, “okay, now we’re in a different medium, which parts can we use to go about telling that story?” and that’s how we went through the process of putting it together.

Emma Schofield: It’s interesting that you mentioned the target age group for this. The show has a recommended minimum age of thirteen, which is still quite young, especially when you have that challenge of trying to get across a story which evolves around topics that are potentially quite frightening. Yet at the same time, you’re also talking to an audience, that’s much older than that. There’s a huge amount of variety within that bracket.

Bethan Marlow: Yeah exactly. Then again, I think what I’ve tried to do is to be as honest as I can and stick as close as I can to the story in the novel. I wanted to look at the story head on and to think about that question of what it would feel like to exist with the kind of threat that Pijin lives with in his life. Then I looked again at who I was telling that story for and what might be appropriate within that. At the end of the day, an age limit is just guidance, but I think because of the themes, and the fact that we are talking about violence and some quite confronting issues, which we’re not shying away from, it can be quite a challenging piece. It comes back to that question of balance.

It’s not just the script either, it’s also the sound and the overall effect when it all comes together that you’ve got to consider. I like to have a specific person or demographic in mind that I’m writing for and with this, I felt like I was writing it for all the Pijins in Wales. I wanted to capture their attention and think about how I would draw them into it. So I’m hoping that we’ve done it in a way that’s not shying away from Pijin’s story, but is also taking responsibility for telling that narrative.

Emma Schofield: Obviously the language is central to the whole concept of the novel, but also to the narrative itself. It was the first novel to be published simultaneously in Welsh and English, but it also blends the two languages within both versions of the text. How have you tried to reflect that? Have you tried to weave them together in the play to mirror the way that happens in the book? I know you’re using captioning as well.

Bethan Marlow: Yes, so the play is definitely a bilingual play and very much has the Welsh and English woven together, to echo the world we live in now and the one we lived in during the nineties. We also have captioning in English and in Welsh and that’s really important to us because that was a big question: who are these Welsh captions for? Obviously it’s the people who want to read them in Welsh, but it’s also for Welsh language learners. They may be highly proficient in Welsh, but find it difficult, maybe because of the pace of the dialogue, to fully access it. It gives those people another way to access the play in Welsh, rather than them having to rely on the English. I think because it was a book and because it plays around with language and words so much, it kind of works and it’s actually okay that we’ve got so many words up on the stage. It’s really effective.

Emma Schofield: In the in the novel, language is portrayed as both a weapon and a shield. That must be quite a difficult thing to translate onto the stage as well because it’s very different to get that across in a novel, than it is to actually express that same sentiment in a theatre setting.

Bethan Marlow: I think the thing that theatre allows for, that makes it really exciting, is that you can have so much action. There’s something special within adding some action to onto a stage that then brings that battle to life and explores the idea of language being both a weapon and a shield. I think because I write bilingually quite often, but never with direct translation, it’s about accepting that there will be some things that people will understand differently to others and some variation because of the different languages. It was just a matter of playing with that and trying to be as unapologetic, but also sensitive about it all at the same time. There’s so much power in language, or not speaking a language, or changing a language, has on someone and we wanted to get that across. Of course, what you do have on stage, that you can’t necessarily pinpoint in a novel, is silence. You know, being able to hold a scene, or an action, with no words, that can be quite powerful.

Emma Schofield: I suppose it’s almost a different way of expressing that same power. The other thing I was thinking about in terms of actually adapting the novel into a stage play was the fact that in the novel Pijin is the title character, and yet his narrative is mostly told through other people and primarily through Iola. How does that work on stage?

Bethan Marlow: That was difficult, because it took a while to be able to get to a place where it felt right. For a long while I kept Iola’s narration in the play, but then I realised in the end that it wasn’t working, that it was just me holding on to the novel too tightly. Once I let go of that, it really helped me get to a place where I could set the story out properly on stage, so that the focus is more on watching these two friends and how their friendship unfolds. Of course, we can do things differently on stage; so we can follow Iola and see everything that’s happening in her life, but we can also watch what’s happening, at that exact time for Pijin, even though Iola is still active in that scene. There’s quite a lot of that; at one point we’re actually able to watch both their lives, so we don’t necessarily need as much guidance in the form of a narrator.

Emma Schofield: I guess that’s one of the advantages of bringing something like this to the stage as well. In the same way that you can use the silences within the language, you can also use the fact that the audiences can see for themselves how events are unfolding. You can allude to something that’s happened off stage, without necessarily having to be so explicit about it.

Bethan Marlow: That’s it, that’s true. It took a while to make that shift though, because the novel is so beautifully constructed.

Emma Schofield: You’ve got really exciting cast for this, there are some quite experienced actor, alongside a few newer faces. How has it been working with this cast?

Bethan Marlow: They’re an absolute joy to watch working. They’ve all worked so hard and it’s just always so lovely when you’ve got a cast and crew that clearly, really wants to make this work. And, you know, there’s real commitment from all of us and a passion to tell this story with dignity and with the care it deserves. So that has just been lovely to watch come to life.

Pijin/Pigeon is on tour, across Wales, until March 25th. Further information on the tour is available here.