A correspondent writes to ask what is the story behind my play 'Living On', and has it had a production yet?
It came out of a conversation with Greg Doran, now associate director at the Royal Shakespeare Company. In the late 1990s, Greg was in North Wales directing a play, and he gave me a call. While in the US he had read an article I had written on endangered languages for the Library of Congress magazine, Civilization, and he thought this was an excellent subject for a play. I wholeheartedly agreed, as it had long been my view that the best way to communicate the issue to a wide public would be to get the artists of the world to deal with it in their different genres. And fiction, as Disraeli once said, 'stands the best chance of influencing opinion'.
Greg came across to Holyhead, and we spent an afternoon exploring possibilities. The only professional playwright we knew who had approached the subject was Harold Pinter, in 'Mountain Language', but that was a twenty-minute piece with a particular political angle, and not an exploration of the general theme of language death. Other playwrights, it seemed, either displayed little interest or little knowledge - hardly surprising, given the fact that the extent of the world language crisis had become known, even in linguistics, only five years before. As I knew the subject and had had some playwriting experience, he suggested I take the job on. The idea was to put the play on at the new theatre in Keswick, with which Greg was associated.
I set to with enthusiasm. I created a 'last speaker' of a language, Shalema, invented a language, Tamasa, for him to speak, and gave him a cultural background which was a fusion of notions derived from several endangered-language communities around the world. The plot revolves around the interaction between him and a field linguist, Derek, who has been documenting his language, and a British Council officer, Miranda, who works in the city where Shalema lives. All has been going well, but then Shalema refuses to cooperate any further...
The play was nearly finished when Greg moved to Stratford to become associate director at the RSC. Shakespeare - I suppose, not unreasonably - then took priority. I remember complaining at the time that 'Shakespeare had already had his chance, and it was time to let a new generation have a go...'! But although Greg gave me some excellent feedback about the writing, he wasn't able to take the idea any further.
I completed the play nonetheless, and through my linguist-turned-actor son Ben made contact with Bob Wolstenholme, a London-based director who was interested in taking the project forward. Bob worked with me on the script, and the final version is the result of this revision, along with other revisions which took place after various staged readings around the world. I've been able to try it out with audiences in Australia, Brazil, India, and Mexico, as well as in several parts of Europe, often tying it in with a lecture on language death, so I'm pretty confident that it 'works'. Indeed, I was dismayed/delighted to meet someone recently who recalled a combined lecture/play reading from a few years ago. 'I can't remember what you talked about in the lecture,' she said, 'but I remember the play very well!'
The text of 'Living On' is freely available to any group, and I have often sent it out. It is therefore possible that amateur readings or productions have taken place in some parts of the world. Any profits received from a commercial production should be assigned to a local endangered languages association, if there is one, and failing that, to the Foundation for Endangered Languages in the UK. A published version of the play will be available in due course, once it has had a full staged production. There's a staged reading planned in London during the week of 23rd April 2007, as part of 'Endangered Languages Week' at the School of Oriental and African Studies in Malet Street. There may be a full production in London in 2008. It is not exactly mainstream theatre, however, so I am not holding my breath.
A couple of performance notes. The play uses a culturally diverse cast, and a strong ethnic identity is needed for the character of Shalema. I had Morgan Freeman in mind, when I was writing, but no particular racial group is assumed: the characters could be from virtually any part of the world. The rainforest setting used in the script could be altered to any other, without this affecting the plot. The two leading white characters also have a regional background: Derek is Welsh and Miranda is Irish. For parts of the world where the allusions to the 'Celtic fringe' may not be especially meaningful, the text could be adapted to incorporate alternatives, also without this affecting the plot. The same point applies to any proposed translations. The play involves music and choreography/movement, for which appropriate specialists would need to be involved.
'Living On' will readily adapt for a screenplay; indeed, the physical events which are depicted in some ways are easier to display through the medium of film. These events, though, would be difficult to portray on radio, and some rewriting and plot adaptation would be necessary for any radio performance.