After spending much of her early life as an academic, GAIL LOUW turned her hand to playwriting – a talent which has gained her a reputation as a multi-award-winning playwright today, with her work being performed throughout the world.
Gail’s award-winning plays include Duwayne, which won Best New Play at Brighton Fringe; Blonde Poison which won an Argus Angel for Artistic Excellence, Best of the Fest at the San Francisco Fringe and was the flagship production at the Hilton Arts Festival in South Africa; and Miss Dietrich Regrets which won a Naledi Award. She has also enjoyed huge success with Killing Faith, Joe Ho Ho, Two Sisters, Shackleton’s Carpenter, And this is my friend Mr Laurel and The Half Life of Love.
We caught up with the Brighton-based playwright before her latest play The Mitfords arrives at Stantonbury Theatre, and we were keen to learn how she goes about choosing a topic on which to write a play?
“It is varied”, explains Gail. “From an experience you have yourself, a story you might read or hear about, or simply getting your imagination going and conceiving characters, experiences, events, dilemmas. Or you pick up a book and find all those characters and experiences and events just waiting for you. And this was the case with this play.
“I was browsing Brighton Library’s biography section and came across a book about the Mitford sisters. I knew about them well enough and pounced on the idea. I tend to write about flawed characters; they excite me more than black and white heroes or villains. And all the sisters could certainly be described as people who were far from perfect. However, that was what made them so interesting.
“The more I read, the more I realised there’s just so much of interest about these women. Of all my plays, I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed the process of reading and learning about it more than with The Mitfords; I’ve found it absolutely fascinating.”
The six Mitford sisters lived in the 20th century. Diana was married to Oswald Mosley and a lifelong fascist. Unity was a great close friend of Hitler’s. Jessica was a dyed-in-the-wool communist. Deborah became Duchess of Devonshire. Nancy was a well-loved novelist. Pamela kept chickens. And much of their varied lives were synchronous with major events that defined that period.
With the topic of her next play chosen, why did Gail decide the incredible tale of these fascinating sisters would be best presented through the mechanism of a one-woman play?
“So that I would be able to cover all of the stories with their diversity and range of extreme political and social opinion – the sisters were all such big characters in their own right.
“And also that it would be a theatrical tour de force! It’s a challenge for one actress to play multiple characters who all sound the same, with very little to distinguish them by accent, class or language used – but equally, a one-woman play rewards you with much more freedom. The sisters can interact or talk to themselves; they can talk about their own lives and their reactions to the others. You can play with time and there aren’t any constraints.”
Naturally one of the major themes explored in The Mitfords is the political issues of the 20th century and just how the sisters developed such fiercely opposing views when forming their personal ideas about humanity, communism, fascism and Nazism.
“Unity and Jessica shared a bedroom and they divided that room into fascism versus communism: on the one side was the swastika and on the other side hung the hammer and sickle flag. It was always like that from a very young age, and yet there was an intense connection between the two sisters and a real love, in spite of their opposing principles.”
As we might expect from a story about The Mitfords, the play also explores what it is like to be a sister, a daughter, a mother and – perhaps most intriguingly – a wife.
“Their relationships are fascinating. All of the sisters gave up things for a man: the men in their lives were terribly important and they all suffered – in their own distinctive ways – for love.”
And what is it that Gail hopes that audiences take away from their evening with The Mitfords?
“I am sure this play will particularly appeal to many who are interested in a unique, challenging and exciting approach to telling the Mitford sisters’ story. I hope audiences thoroughly enjoy the theatrically of it all and that they find these sisters just as fascinating and captivating I do.”