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David Harrower's 'Blackbird' to have its West Coast premiere at ACT

The explosive drama about the consequences of a taboo encounter
won Britain's Olivier Award for best new play.


April 30, 2007

By Michael J. Ybarra

SAN FRANCISCO — The setting is utterly simple. Two people in a drab conference room — two people who know each other but don't quite know each other at all. An older man and a much younger woman. Their conversation is broken, disjointed, starting and stopping in fragments like a vase knocked to the floor.

"I asked to speak to Peter," says the woman, "and Ray appeared."

And then she drops the words that explode onstage like a nuclear bomb: "How many other 12-year-olds have you had sex with?"

David Harrower's play "Blackbird," which is on Broadway and has its West Coast premiere May 2 at ACT, has been one of the most talked about productions on both sides of the country. And for good reason. It's the gut-churning story of two people whose lives came together briefly years before, when he was 40 and she was 12, with consequences that have haunted them in the 15 years since.

"The play is about the narratives we live by," Harrower says by phone from his home in Glasgow. "Her belief is that she had some authorial voice in this. Desire is not this black-and-white thing. This play goes into some uncomfortable areas, and that's what I wanted to do."

The story unfolds in a single scene in the conference room when Una shows up at Ray's work. After getting out of prison, he has changed his name. And he insists he was not a pedophile:

"Those people.

Those sick bastards.

I was never one of them.

I was never that.


You've been told I was, I am, I

They called me that."

The idea for the play came from a newspaper article about a man prosecuted for a relationship with a girl he met online, who allegedly claimed to be 19 but turned out to be far younger. "What frame of mind would you have to be in to do that?" Harrower wondered. "Was he a pedophile?" He decided to put himself into the characters' minds.

"I had to suspend moral judgment in a way," he says. "I don't have to talk about the actual event; it's refracted through their memories. They created a relationship. Some parts of them may believe that relationship wasn't bad."

From dishwater to drama

In Britain, the work won this year's Olivier Award for best new play, beating out Tom Stoppard's "Rock 'n' Roll." The Broadway premiere was greeted with mostly raves, and the West Coast production promises to be equally gripping.

Director Loretta Greco says she knew nothing about the play when she picked up the script.

"I couldn't put it down or stop thinking about it," she says. "If people are thinking about Megan's Law, we're not doing our job. It's not a criminal case study but two people who shared an event that shaped their lives. These are two human beings together in a room who love each other deeply. For so long, this event had been claimed by everyone else. Finally, they're together, telling each other what they meant to each other. Like all love affairs, it's complicated."

"This really hits you in the gut," adds Steven Culp, who plays Ray. "When I read the script, my first reaction was, 'Oh, my God, what have I done?' It's challenging on every level; it takes everything you have and more. It's like Shakespeare; it has a power. You just stay out of the way."

Not bad praise for a writer who never expected to be one. Harrower was born in Edinburgh in 1966, the son of a working-class family whose schoolroom encounters with Shakespeare left him confounded.

"There weren't many books in the house," he says. "In school, Shakespeare was taught so bad I was scared."

After school, Harrower drifted through a series of unsatisfying jobs — including holding down three different dishwashing gigs at once.

He says, "I was doing these dead-end jobs and gave them up and gave myself two years to become a writer. It took three. Thank heavens for the welfare state."

A sense of complexity

Living on welfare, Harrower first tried his hand at fiction but soon decided playwriting was what he really enjoyed.

"I drifted into it," he says. "I tried prose. I got bored writing description. I just wanted to write dialogue."

In 1995, he walked into the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh and dropped off a script, "Knives in Hens," the story of a woman who kills her cheating husband with the help of a village outcast. The theater staged the play, which wound up being a critical and commercial success. "One of the most produced Scottish plays since 'Peter Pan,'" said the Guardian.

Other plays include "Kill the Old Torture Their Young" (1998), "Presence" (2001) and a number of adaptations.

In 2005, the Edinburgh International Festival commissioned Harrower to write a play. He labored for months on an early version of "Blackbird," with a cast of 15 characters. But he was frustrated by the results. When a friend asked him what the play was about, Harrower replied, "A man and a woman." Write about "them," the friend suggested.

Harrower cranked out the final work in a month.

"I had to think about two people, adults," he says. "The man has re-created himself. He's changed. Or thinks he has."

At times, Harrower sounds exasperated with the way the subject is usually treated.

"What do you do with pedophiles?" he asks. "You have to try to understand them. Our society prefers just to call them evil monsters and turn away from them."

Harrower says women have come up to him or written to him to tell him similar stories of prepubescent relationships with adult men.

"They absolutely concur with what is written in the play," he says. "They were not abused. They knew what they were doing when they were 12. I'm not going to argue with them."

Director Greco agrees.

"I have a daughter who is 6, and I see those sick freaks in the park looking at her," she says. "Yet I remember how desperately at 12 I wanted to be taken seriously by adult men."

For Harrower, that sense of complexity seems to be what he was striving for all along.

"There's no point in me writing what people already know is wrong," he says. "Judge them. That's fine. I'm writing something different. I'm not going to write something that bores me. I want to know something else."

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