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“Terrorism is what society has been taught to be most afraid of”

Playwright Cordelia Lynn on her Royal Court play One For Sorrow

Playwright Cordelia Lynn is no stranger to the Royal Court. Having been a member of their Young Writers Programme, her first major play Lela & Co. was produced in their Upstairs Theatre to critical acclaim. She has written librettos to multiple operas and worked with world-class directors including Katie Mitchell. Now her latest play about fear culture, refuge and liberal bias is premiering at the Royal Court.

London Calling: What is One For Sorrow about?
Cordelia Lynn: It’s about a man and a family who are thrown together by an attack on London when the elder daughter joins a campaign inviting victims to take refuge in their house. It’s about the relationship between the danger outside and the danger inside, how the most troubled dangers can be suppressed inside us, and how we don’t know how to recognise them or what to do with them when they come out.
LC: What inspired you to write this play?
CL: Those were ideas I’d been thinking about for some time, ideas that gnaw at you, and you worry at them and make little notes with the understanding that at some point they’ll make themselves known in a play. When the Bataclan attacks happened in Paris on 13 November 2015 I read about Porte Ouverte, French for ‘Open Door’. What struck me, touched me, was in the midst of this terrifying event, many Parisians, some very close to the sites of the attacks, opened their doors to anyone who needed to come in and take refuge. I thought it was an extraordinary gesture, a brave gesture, one that flies directly in the face of terror, and of the people who respond to terror by telling us to be afraid, to close our doors, to close our borders, to shut off our empathy and to shut people out. But the playwright in me often reacts quite differently to the human in me, the playwright often says, ‘But what if…’. One For Sorrow came to me whole, in that moment of reading about Porte Ouverte, in this place where half of me was full of pride at the care we are capable of in the darkest places, and then the other half was troubled, and questioning, and sad.

 James Macdonald, Cordelia Lynn and team, Photo: Johan Persson

LC: What made you want to write about terrorism in contemporary London?
CL: I didn’t particularly want to write about terrorism in contemporary London. What I wanted to write about was fear and fear culture, how in a brutal world, despite your best intentions, sometimes the hardest thing is putting your beautiful theories into practice. I think that’s something we can all recognise, because we’ve all tried to do something good, or wanted to do something good, and failed. It’s just that with this play the stakes for trying, and for failing, are very high because of the context. I chose terrorism rather than another fear-inducing context not out of a particular abstract interest, but because I feel that the constant threat of terrorism, real or otherwise, is what our society has been taught to be most afraid of, the monster that can most be employed to affect our behaviour, attitudes and personal and political choices. We all want to be safe, but what is the price of our safety? Where has the pursuit of it taken us? And how much further down this path are we going to go?
LC: The play explores the biases and prejudices of British liberals. What are you trying to say through this exploration?
CL: I’m more interested in the suppression of the biases and the prejudices than the biases and the prejudices themselves, how they exist in all of us because we have learnt them, but we don’t know how, or don’t want, to recognise them in ourselves. At the heart of theatre, right back to the Greeks, are these characters who don’t know themselves, who can’t or who refuse to recognise their flaws or their darkness until it’s too late, with tragic results. One For Sorrow is just an extension of that tradition.
LC: What has been your process working with director James Macdonald?
CL: It’s probably one of the nicest things that can happen to a playwright, working with James. He’s very pure. As far as I can understand he thinks that the playwright is trying to say something with the play, and he sees his role as trying to understand and deliver that gesture. He does things like asking after rehearsals if that was what I ‘meant’ or what I ‘want’, which was confusing at first because it’s quite an unusual experience to be asked that so consistently by directors. Not that I have much experience, but even so it feels rare and precious.

 James Macdonald, Cordelia Lynn. Photo: Johan Persson

LC: Your first play Lela & Co. premiered at the Royal Court three years ago. How have you developed as a writer
CL: Lela & Co. wasn’t really my first play. There’s a history of work and practice behind me, and a history of writing bad things and unsuccessful things and going back to it again and again. As to how I’ve developed since, I’ve had the privilege of working with two amazing directors, Katie Mitchell and James, who do very different things in very different ways, and who I think are both unmatched in what they do. This has been an education for me. They have such experience and knowledge, and are both so generous with it. I’ll take what they’ve given me into everything I write now.
One for Sorrow premiers at the Royal Court, Jerwood Theatre Upstairs from 20 June to 11 August.