Phil Morris gives us an exciting preview of Dirty Protest’s production of Parallel Lines, by award-winning playwright Katherine Chandler.
After winning the inaugural Wales Drama Award last year with Parallel Lines, playwright Katherine Chandler received overtures from several English-based theatre companies that were interested in producing her play. Chandler resisted the temptation to take her provocative drama across the bridge and accepted instead an offer from Welsh new writing company Dirty Protest to stage Parallel Lines in the city in which it is set, her home town of Cardiff. ‘At the risk of sounding worthy’, Chandler explains, ‘I think this is an important time for theatre in Wales. It feels like the play writing scene here is progressing well, and it only takes the action of a few people to push it even further forward’. Her commitment to having her play staged in Wales is not motivated by anti-English sentiment, or nationalist politics, but rather by a desire to reach an audience that will be excited and challenged to find their own lives represented and examined in theatres at the heart of their local communities, ‘The play should appeal to people outside Wales’, Chandler adds, ‘but it is very much written in the Cardiff voice, and that voice isn’t often heard in theatres’.
Dirty Protest has had a very busy 2013, a summer tour of their ‘plays in a bag’ evening was staged at the Royal Court, the Almeida Theatre and Latitude Festival. In October they organised a festival of new writing Dirty, Gifted & Welsh at the Park & Dare Theatre in Treorchy. Founded in 2007, the company has worked with more than a hundred Welsh writers, mounting sold-out productions in fringe venues that include pubs, clubs, a kebab shop, a hairdressers and a forest. Parallel Lines, however, represents a new development in the work of Dirty Protest, as director Catherine Paskell explains, ‘This is the first full-length play we’ve produced – and we’re grateful to Arts Council Wales for supporting us with this project, because the bigger picture here is that writers in Wales need support and development, and our long-term ambition is to make that happen’.
The excitement surrounding Parallel Lines is due not only to the fact that it is an award-winning play from an award-winning playwright, but also because it promises to be a contemporary drama that reflects vividly contemporary life in Wales. The play centres on Steph, a bright 15-year-old schoolgirl, and her teacher Simon. She is working-class and lives with her single mother Jan, whereas he enjoys a cosy middle-class lifestyle with his wife Julia. These parallel worlds collide when Steph makes a serious accusation against Simon, and the play explores the truth as to what actually occurred between them. To be clear, Parallel Lines is not an exercise in social realism; Chandler says that she hopes her play will ‘work like a thriller’.
During the first week of rehearsals, writer, director and cast workshopped the play, discussing in detail the mystery that clouds Steph’s relationship with Simon. Chandler says that everyone involved ‘questioned how they felt about that relationship’ – and it’s this questioning approach that drives the action of the play, and which poses the challenge to its audience. The play’s themes of class, sex and power are not explored by way of political polemic, as Chandler makes clear, ‘With Parallel Lines I don’t want to make a judgement in any way of a particular class. I’m more interested in what we do to each other as people and how we judge others who are not members of our own tribe’. Paskell agrees that the play is about anatomising social differences rather than staging class war, ‘The play is about how people from different classes interact with each other, talk about each other, and treat each other’.
The most intriguing aspect of Parallel Lines is how Steph negotiates her painful rites of passage. Chandler admits to falling in love with her characters and she appears to have particularly strong feelings for her teenage protagonist: ‘I think of Steph as like a form of superhero. She has had to work out, during her short life, that she has to find her own form of justice for herself, and learn how to get it’. RADA graduate Rachel Redford welcomes the opportunity to return home from London to play such a bold and complex character in a major new play.
Parallel Lines opens at Chapter Arts in Cardiff on 20th November, and one hopes that the commitment that Katherine Chandler and Dirty Protest have made to finding and growing a theatre audience in Wales is returned by theatre-goers who are looking for gripping and uncompromising drama.
Phil Morris is a regular contributor at Wales Arts Review.