Nothing but the truth: At 17 Anna Reynolds was given life for murder. She's going back to prison next month, as a playwright. By Nick Curtis
Wednesday 23 March 1994
Red is presented by Clean Break, a company established by ex-convicts 15 years ago, and plays at the New End Theatre, London, throughout April, before touring to three prisons, with Reynolds taking part in post-show workshops with inmates. 'When I was in jail, we were not very receptive to plays about women in prison, because we were already living it,' she admits. 'But people in that situation need to see drama that makes them know someone believes in them, and with workshops the experience leads somewhere; otherwise they are just banged up in cells afterwards, without the chance to talk about what they've just seen.'
Reynolds' third play, Red focuses on two women in a tiny holding cell, each having killed her husband. 'Rather than write about the issue of battered women, which people expect,' Reynolds says, 'I wanted to express the fact that you sometimes have to choose to play the victim. When you find yourself on trial for killing someone there's a belief that you can just tell the truth and you'll be OK. Then you realise you have to play a certain game and certain roles: and if you don't know the rules of the game, what chance have you got?' Courts aren't interested in the truth, she suggests, but in a recognisable response, an act of penitence. As Fiona Buffini, director of Red and Reynold's first play Jordan, points out, Reynolds never judges her characters or the roles they play; they do that themselves.
Jordan, a one-person show written with and for Fiona Buffini's actress sister Moira, was about a woman Reynolds knew who killed her baby boy and committed suicide after being released from prison. It won awards from the Writers' Guild and Time Out, and teary-eyed raves from even the most hard-hearted critics.
Her less-focused but equally powerful second play, Wild Things, explored Reynolds' pre-prison experience in a mixed secure psychiatric unit, where disturbed women were locked up alongside murderers and rapists for the good of their health.
A poised, slender figure with a ready laugh, Reynolds coolly anticipates the obvious questions, aware of the salacious interest she generates as both writer and ex-con. Although she clearly finds talk of her mother's death impossible, she's fairly open about her time inside.
'If I'd not told anybody, someone would have found out: you have to go to great lengths to cover something that big up. It's not that I want to talk about it, but I've got the chance to do something positive with my experiences. When you get that opportunity, I don't think you should tell journalists to mind their own business.' Motivated by a need to show the general public a side of life they may not know or want to know, she's also gratified by letters she's received from people who, believing themselves alone, have been touched to see experiences similar to their own expressed on stage.
Red, though, is different. It's not only the first play to be seen in prison, it's also the first to make Reynolds wrestle with her own demons. 'Jordan was based on another person,' she explains, 'and in Wild Things I was describing my own bitterness but had an invented a male character to voice it. In Red I've had the least protection: all it's about is two women who have killed someone. I'd never felt before as if things were being wrenched out of me - it cost me a lot.'
Dealing with her past brought its own reward. 'It's a release to step over the edge and realise that you've not gone to pieces. When you drag those things out of the cupboard you wonder what they'll look like because they've been hidden for so long. The more often you do it, the less frightening it is.'
Despite their obvious connection with her past life, to describe Reynolds's plays as reportage or as 'therapy' is a gross simplification. The theatricality with which she transmutes her rage, passion and compassion on behalf of people in extremis to the stage marks her out as an original new writing talent. Fiona Buffini says that Reynolds' plays are 'almost like verse plays; the language is so dense and rich'. Reynolds herself is forthright: 'The plays are about truth, about reality. I want to show people what these situations are like, but they are complete works of fiction. If you're writing for therapy then you're writing for yourself, not for an audience.'
Her harrowing foray into her own past for Red was not motivated by a confessional urge, but by the realisation that it would be a better play as a result. 'I've become harder on myself as a writer, and at second draft stage I realised it wasn't working because I was trying not to put myself on the line. Having forced myself to confront my feelings, I know I can't write about that aspect of my life any more because I've exhausted it, used up all the words I have for it.'
It's unlikely that she'll be idle, though. Reynolds says she is driven to write, and she's packed an extraordinary amount of work into her 25 years: the plays aren't the half of it. While in prison she founded a newspaper for inmates, Inside Times, and edited it for three years. After her release she wrote articles for the Times, the Observer and the New Statesman, and an autobiography, Tightrope, to explain to her son the facts of his enforced adoption. It was pulped shortly after publication on the orders of the Attorney General, who ruled that comments in it about Reynolds' trial judge amounted to contempt of court.
Reynolds also wrote and performed in a short film for Channel 4, The Winding Sheet, and has just completed a script for BBC 2's ScreenPlay slot. Called Paradise, it tells of a father too embarrassed to tell his children he's been made redundant: he and his wife try to persuade them to spend the holiday in the cellar of the family home, rather than abroad as usual, with uncomfortable results. No sitcom, it's still more obviously humorous than her plays, and for her next project Reynolds is keen to return to tragedy. There's interest from the Royal Court and from British Screen, and two publishers have asked her to write a novel.
Still reeling from the different demands of television, Reynolds is none the less keen to expand into other areas and new subject matter. Having so many different media at your feet must be wonderful, I suggest. 'Yeah, it's great. I've always wanted to write a novel and a film and now maybe I can try,' she says. 'It's far too good to be true, and something dreadful will happen next week.'
'Red' is at the New End Theatre, New End Rd, London NW3 (Booking: 071-794 0022) from 1 to 24 April; then on tour. 'Jordan' plays at BAC, Lavender Hill, London SW11 (Booking: 071- 223 2223) until 10 April
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