In January 1993 the Cockpit theatre in north London came across a script by the Scottish director and poet, Robin Lindsay Wilson, entitled Peripheral Violence. The play explores why a group of children kill. By the time the play had been fully evaluated one month later, two-year-old James Bulger had been murdered by two ten-year-old boys in Liverpool. Despite the strengths of Wilson's play, the Cockpit decided not to mount it. Its resonances were distressingly close to the Bulger murder. It was to be well over a year before they felt able to consider the piece again.
Now the management have decided to go ahead with the production. Conscious that they may be courting controversy, they have organised a conference to discuss whether, in the presence of recent traumatic events, there are certain topics theatre should not tackle, and if it can illuminate these sensitive areas constructively. The conference, to be held in the theatre auditorium on Saturday, will be attended by teachers, psychiatrists, playwrights, critics and representatives of children's rights groups.
It's difficult to imagine any artist arguing that theatre should not deal with such subjects, provided sensationalism is avoided and a respectful distance is kept from any related actual incident. Some child welfare professionals, however, are uneasy with any event that raises the spectre of an appalling murder passing itself off as entertainment. But where a media-constructed perception of children who kill has held sway for so long, perhaps theatre has a crucial role to play in adjusting the perspective. Moreover, given that the conclusions that sound most convincing - that children who behave violently are those who have been abused themselves - are also the ones that sound most banal, surely there is a case for changing the medium of the discourse. A powerful play which draws us into the minds and journeys of three young children and the murder they commit may take us a little bit further towards understanding why.
In Peripheral Violence, Wilson shows us the murder on stage. Natasha, aged 12, Steve, also 12, and Andy, eight, kill a middle-aged man called Fred. The situation differs significantly from the Bulger case in that the children are provoked. Fred, it transpires, is Natasha's stepfather; he has sexually abused her and has been threatening all three of them with violence. However, at the moment of the murder Fred is ranting and vulnerable. The children do not kill him instantly - they pass the gun from one to another and it takes three shots before he is dead. Dying, he pleads with them. The scene is brutal and protracted. Wilson explains:
'The murder is horrible and drawn out for all sorts of reasons, but primarily because the children continually wait for the adult world to intervene. Children are used to adults interrupting them, running their lives. Yet now they're free, powerful, at large and there's nothing to stop them doing anything they like. But it takes them a while to understand that. There's a great deal going on in the relationships between the three kids which increases the likelihood of murder. Natasha has taken a decision to kill, she is transformed, and the two boys need to prove themselves to her and to each other. Steve has residual moral leanings - he doesn't want to kill, he says 'let's just hurt him'. The scene shows all these interacting, motivating factors.'
Wilson readily identifies with the children. He grew up under the shadow of a violent father himself, and he knows their world well. 'I used to work in Edinburgh and live in Glasgow. Every day on the train I'd pass the Springburn Railway Club. It was a lonely, terrible place, sinister because it was so close to the railway line. Kids aged from 10 to 17 used to hang about outside there while inside their parents downed the cheap drink. The place was just waiting for something to happen. If I'd been sitting there, I'd have put a sleeper on the line just to make something happen.'
Wilson speaks passionately about the child protagonists of his play. He spent five years as a schoolteacher in what was then the dilapidated east end of Glasgow. Even though he believes wholeheartedly in the efficacy of drama as an educational tool, he couldn't do the job any more. 'It was too tough . . . I was unsupported, underfunded . . . most of the time all I practised was containment.' Yet his heart remains with those he struggled to instruct. At 39, married but childless, he sees himself as their champion.
'In my experience, children don't come into the world with a God-given set of values. The kids I know are amoral until they're taught - or cajoled or threatened or bribed - to be otherwise. A baby wants everything immediately. Growing up is about learning to defer hope. That can be a devastating experience. It's easy for people like me, who value education and can feel motivated easily, to underestimate how ready these kids are to give up. They are, like the kids in the play, children in despair. They think they're hard but they are the most vulnerable.'
Wilson is careful to distance his imaginary drama from the actual murder of James Bulger. Again and again he stresses 'this is just a story'. Yet, in the absence of any significant insight from elsewhere, perhaps such a story is the first step forward. As the near-legendary status of the Bulger case renders its details so well-known they are virtually devoid of meaning, perhaps we need to create and inhabit a fiction, different but similar to real life, in order to increase our understanding. It may be that in the artificial confines of theatre we can most searchingly explore real-life territory that is at once too terrible and too familiar.
'Peripheral Violence' plays at the Cockpit Theatre, Gateforth Street, NW8 until 11 June. The conference 'Who Suffers?' is at 4pm on Saturday. Ellen Cranitch be speaking
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