Abigail Docherty never expected to win the Tron Theatre’s Open Stage playwriting competition. In fact, Sea and Land and Sky, the play that eventually scooped first prize and which opens in a full main-stage production at the Glasgow theatre this week, was never meant to be written at all. Docherty’s original plan was to pen a piece based on the life and work of Else Inglis, the Edinburgh born doctor who rose to prominence during World War One when she set up the Scottish Women’s Hospitals for Foreign Service Committee. This was an organisation funded by the women’s suffrage movement, with the sole aim of providing all female relief hospitals in the field to support the Allied war effort.
Docherty’s researches took her elsewhere, however, and Sea and Land and Sky isn’t about Inglis, but focuses instead on three nurses who go to the frontline of war torn France. One has lost her husband on the battlefield and needs to bury her own dead as much as anyone else’s. Another is a spoilt society brat who comes of age in the trenches. The third is a working class woman attempting to make her way in more privileged company, and whose own secrets eventually come home to roost. Docherty takes such archetypes to interweave an all too personal saga of love and loss amid the emotional crossfire.
“There’s a huge pressure on them, which is about how they all get home and how do they survive. People find different ways of surviving, and some don’t survive, and some choose not to survive. The people who survive are the people who are able to love, and that’s probably what the play is about. If you can maintain your ability to give and receive love in this terrible place, then you probably will survive afterwards, and if you can’t, then you’re probably not going to survive the war.”
If this all sounds a bit Land Girls, the combination of such an emotive subject matter with Docherty’s consciously poetic writing style is probably the reason for her success in the Open Stage competition, which was decided by public vote. Once she had the idea for the play, Docherty wrote eighteen pages of script which she submitted anonymously along with a synopsis of the play’s full plot. A selection panel made up of theatrical luminaries including Tron artistic director Andy Arnold and Herald arts editor Keith Bruce then shortlisted Docherty’s play from more than three hundred entries alongside fellow writers JC Marshall and Rob Drummond. Docherty was paired up with mentor Alison Peebles, whose experience as both a director and actor provided vital input to the play’s development.
“To get feedback after twenty pages or forty pages into a first draft was fantastic,” she says. “The day we came in we were told that the Tron was our home, and that it didn’t really matter who wins, because we were all going to get our scripts developed, and that was the best thing you can hear. I was just ecstatic, really.”
Short films were eventually made of each play, which were broadcast online and put to the public vote.
“We all equally could have won it,” Docherty says magnanimously, and indeed, both Plume by J.C. Marshall and Zurich by Rob Drummond will receive rehearsed readings at the Tron, and may yet be developed further.
Sea and Land and Sky isn’t the first play by Docherty to grace the Tron stage. Earlier this year, her short work Room was presented as part of the politically motivated Mayfesto festival. This play was previously seen at The Arches, and in both cases was directed by Lu Kemp, the former associate director of TAG with whom Docherty has forged a creative partnership with. The same year as Room premiered, Kemp directed 1000 Paper Cranes, a children’s play by Docherty which this year appeared at the Imaginate Festival of children’s theatre in Edinburgh.
Docherty was born in Irvine, but moved to England with her actor father Bob Docherty when she was still a child. It was here she stumbled on living examples of war which have fuelled much of her work.
“We grew up around buildings that used to be a war-time hospital,” she remembers. “All the buildings were disused, and my brothers and I used to literally find gas masks lying around and other amazing things in the rubble. Imagining people’s lives was so intense that I honestly think that my fascination with writing about war has come from.”
With Docherty senior a stalwart of Scottish stage and screen, with appearances in Looking After Jo Jo and Breaking The Waves, Docherty junior was exposed to theatre at an early age, and frequently found herself watching performances at Stratford from the back of the stalls. This was a huge influence on the ten year old, who even acted herself on radio and television when still a child.
“Acting and writing are the same thing in a way,” Docherty says. “I read an article by Hilary Mantel the other day, and she said that when you’re writing, you’re always acting your characters, just in a slightly intense way.”
A continuing passion for language under the influence of Harold Pinter’s poems, radio plays and film scripts rather than his main stage plays led Docherty to win a radio playwriting competition when still only fourteen. Once she started an English degree at Oxford, theatre writing was a logical progression. An interest in cinema, however, led Docherty to study film at Edinburgh College of Art. It was here while making two short film dramas that she discovered the differences between screen and stage language, and ended up moving back into radio instead.
Between 2003 and 2004 Docherty became a scriptwriting fellow for the Scottish Arts Council, and in 2003 became a visiting writer at the International School of Audio Visual creation in Paris. By this time an adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s novel The Waves had appeared at London’s Tristan Bates Theatre, and Goblin Market, originally a radio piece taken from a Christina Rosetti poem, at Southwark Playhouse. It’s only recently, however, that Docherty’s work has come into it’s own, and winning the Open Stage award and the subsequent production of sea and Land and Sky is by far her most high profile work to date. The play’s arrival, however, may also mark the end of her fascination with war.
“I want to write a play set in a strip club,” says Docherty. “I think you go through phases of things you’re interested in, and I don’t know what way my ideas will go yet, but I’ve the germ of something there.”
Again, Docherty points to Pinter’s film scripts for guidance, his work on the Joseph Losey directed Accident in particular.
“He does this thing of breaking your heart,” says Docherty, “because all these people are failing, and he’s really quite savage about that. It’s really human. You know he cares, but you also know these people aren’t going to be alright. Pinter’s conscience was so big, and I read Antonia Fraser’s book, which talked about how he could never relax because of it.
That’s not a great thing for your life, but I can see how if you’re a writer and care about the world, that’s what you have to do.”
Sea and Land and Sky, Tron Theatre, Glasgow, October 12th-23rd. A rehearsed reading of Plume will take place on October 16th, and of Zurich on October 23rd, both at 2.30pm.
The Herald, October 5th 2010