'Orford Ness is full of stories' Elizabeth Kuti on playwriting

  • Date

    Fri 4 Aug 17

Elizabeth Kuti

With her play Fishskin Trousers being revived for a four-week run at the Park Theatre in London, Elizabeth Kuti, Director of Theatre Studies and the MA Playwriting at Essex, talks about her inspirations, the process of bringing a play to the stage and how her experience as a professional actor helps the writing process.

Elizabeth Kuti, Department of Literature, Film, and Theatre Studies)
Elizabeth Kuti, Department of Literature, Film, and Theatre Studies

Fishskin Trousers was written and first staged in 2013. Three characters on the Orford Ness shingle spit on the Suffolk coast tell their stories. They’re from different times but their tales become increasingly entwined as the play builds to its climax.

Mab is a 12th Century servant in Orford Castle who becomes fascinated by a wild man caught by fishermen and imprisoned in the castle’s keep. Ben is a scientist working on Cold War radar experiments to scan the waters, who hears strange screams from the sea. Mog is a young woman in 2003 facing a heartbreaking personal decision. It’s a play rooted in its location.

"Orford Ness has so many contradictory elements to it and has a very spooky atmosphere," says Kuti. "I found the layers of history fascinating.

"It's got remnants of nuclear testing that took place there during the Cold War and there are contemporary 20th Century myths about the secret development of weapons.

"Alongside that you've got the natural beauty; it's quite stark and quite wild but it's also very beautiful.

"And then there's a medieval strand – the well-known legend of the wild man of Orford who was apparently caught in fishermens' nets, taken to the tower in Orford, tortured and then released back into the wild.

"It's a place full of stories and interesting connections between those stories. The Cold War story was about fear and suspicion; the fear of what's out there in the water. That set off resonances for me with the medieval story of finding someone in the water and being completely distrustful and fearful of 'the other' that might be lurking out there."

Orford Quay with Orford Ness in the background)
Orford Quay with Orford Ness in the background
"spirit-logged, we are, these parts, the water drags 'em in and holds 'em"
Fishskin Trousers

Alongside a growing interest in the history of the area, Kuti had been looking at research on feral children. The two strands came together to form a key element of the play’s story.

"When I wrote Fishskin Trousers there were a lot of things going on in my mind around the question of feral children and people who have been found 'in the wild' and have no language.

"The wild man of Orford – we don’t quite know what that story was about, but if we take it that it was a true event, the questions in my mind were: Who was that man? Why did he have no language? Could it have been a person with a disability, or a person with what we today would call autism?

"That was a theme running in my head when I wrote the play because I have a child with autism who was quite a bit younger at that point. Some of what I was trying to explore with the play, through very metaphorical storytelling, was ideas around differences in people and how we relate to people who have no or little language.

"As ever with plays you think the play is about one thing over there, and as you write you realise that a lot of your personal life and feelings are going into it and coming out of it and being expressed through it."

Brett Brown as Ben in 'Fishskin Trousers')
Brett Brown as Ben in 'Fishskin Trousers'

The play was first presented at the RADA Festival in 2013 and then had a run at London's Finborough Theatre. The Guardian described it as "entrancing viewing" and Time Out "a fascinating and lyrical piece of writing". It was then performed at the church in Orford Ness and the Sailors’ Reading Room in Southwold. Internationally there have been productions in Canada and - in Greek translation - on Crete.

The revival will be staged at the Park Theatre’s studio from 17 October to 11 November with the three actors from the original run returning: Jessica Carroll, Brett Brown and Eva Traynor.

"For this revival, we found a producer called George Warren who liked the look of it and the Park was a venue that had been interested and thought it was suitable for their studio. It was a coming together of those elements, along with our desire to get it out, dust it off and give it another go. It's quite a minimal play – just three actors and three chairs, more or less."

Eva Traynor as Mog in 'Fishskin Trousers')
Eva Traynor as Mog in 'Fishskin Trousers'

'We' is Kuti and her husband, Robert Price, a theatre director who directed the original performance of Fishskin Trousers and will reprise that role this time.

"We’ve worked together on a few projects and, bizarrely perhaps, it seems to work fine! We get on well professionally.

"He's very much the director and he makes his choices as director. I know he's got some new ideas for this revival; some new design elements and sound elements that we want to play with, but he'll make the final decisions on those – that's the director's job and I let him get on with it."

"In a monologue story-telling form you can have ideas and events that would be impossible to stage… It’s very interesting and freeing for you as a writer."
Elizabeth Kuti Department of LIterature, Film, and theatre Studies

It was Robert who challenged her to write a monologue-based play; a form that gives the writer enormous freedom.

"It was a form that we’d been talking about and were both interested in. I'd had this collection of ideas around Orford Ness which I hadn't quite figured out a form for, and so I thought 'That’s an interesting challenge!'

"In a monologue story-telling form you can have ideas and events that would be impossible to stage; magical elements that you can have a character bring to life from their words. It's very interesting and freeing for you as a writer."

Before joining Essex, Kuti worked extensively as a professional actor and playwright in Irish theatre.

"I was an actor first. I went in to professional acting as I was finishing my PhD so I've always had this mixture of academic and theatre practitioner roles.

"I started out in the Irish theatre because I was doing my PhD at Trinity College Dublin. It was always my dream to be an actor and I managed to become one, which was wonderful. I did that for several years but had always written and been interested in writing.

"The benefit of being an actor is that you’ve experienced plays and you’ve got a sense of how theatre works as a material medium and so it was quite naturally in parallel.

"I had my very first professional production as a writer in Dublin in 1998, with a director I'd worked with as an actor. In a rehearsal one day I managed to say, 'I've written a script, do you want to have a look?' and that’s how that came about."

"It’s very helpful to have been an actor on the journey to becoming a playwright."
Elizabeth Kuti Department of Literature, Film, and Theatre Studies

Her experience as an actor also meant that she understood what an actor brings to the lines beyond the words themselves, through their body language and facial expressions.

"You have to not write too much so you leave space for the actors. But even with that experience, with every script you write you do a reading with actors and then realise all the mistakes you've made. You've over-written or under-written, so it's always a learning process.

"It's very helpful to have been an actor on the journey to becoming a playwright. Not all do, but a lot do."

'Fishskin Trousers' will run from 17 October to 11 November at the Park Theatre, London.