tue 23/07/2024

Christopher Shinn: 'I did not know if I would be alive and someone wanted me to write a play' | reviews, news & interviews

Christopher Shinn: 'I did not know if I would be alive and someone wanted me to write a play'

Christopher Shinn: 'I did not know if I would be alive and someone wanted me to write a play'

The playwright explains the gestation of Against, his new play for the Almeida Theatre starring Ben Whishaw

'My health held': playwright Christopher ShinnMaria Baranova

Plays do not usually come into being in isolation. When I search my gmail archive I see that my first communication with Robert Icke about a commission came in April 2012. Rupert Goold and Rob were still at Headlong then. I was busy so asked that we keep the conversation going but not commit to anything.

In October 2013 Rob wrote that he and Rupert were now at the Almeida and would still love for me to write something, he was coming to New York and could we meet up to discuss. What Rob didn’t know then was that 11 months before, in November, I had been diagnosed with a rare and aggressive cancer called Ewing’s sarcoma and I was now being treated for a relapse that had quickly followed my initial course of treatment. 

I had just finished whole lung radiation and was about to return to chemo. The timing worked so that we were able to go to a café near where I lived. My memory of the conversation is hazy but I remember asking Rob if there were any worlds he thought would make for an interesting play. He mentioned Jesus and the contemporary world and something in me stirred.

I had been reading about Jesus and thinking about his message of non-violence for years. This only intensified when I got sick. My treatment was brutally exhausting and I endured a lot of physical pain too (my left leg was amputated below the knee). In the hospital I was surrounded by others’ suffering. Seeing and experiencing all this deepened my sense of all kinds of suffering. For example, I couldn’t read about a faraway village attacked by one of our drones without imagining every single person injured. I’d have a vivid image of the traumatic moment of impact. The immediate loss of life. Those who survived only to endure horrible pain and psychic catastrophe. Then the denial, apathy, and ignorance these victims faced in the aftermath. 

Ben Whishaw in rehearsal for Against at Almeida TheatreAny kind of violence I read about I seemed to “take in” in a new way. (Pictured: Ben Whishaw in rehearsal, photo by Johan Persson)

So after that meeting with Rob, I began to conceive a play to do with violence. Rob’s prompt had gotten me thinking about how a message like “turn the other cheek” did or didn’t have relevance in a modern world where violence exists in endless forms, from the most overt and physical to the most psychological and subtle. 

In February 2014 I finally ended treatment. I had been told that I would likely not stay in remission for long. Taking on a project felt like the most meaningful way for me to spend whatever time I had left. So in May, once I got on my feet, I wrote to Rob again.

I told him that I didn’t plan to write literally about Jesus, but wanted to explore how a Jesus-like ideology of non-violence fits “with a market-based culture” as I articulated it in my email. I also felt there was a spiritual dimension to the thoughts and feelings I’d had during my illness and I wanted to explore that in the play – though I kept that to myself. Rob replied that Rupert would be in New York soon and he and I should meet up.

In June 2014 I met Rupert for breakfast in the West Village. It was my first professional meeting since ending treatment. It is hard to express how encouraging he was. I did not know if I would be alive in a year and here was someone telling me he wanted me to write a play for his theatre.

In July I renewed my correspondence with Rob. We wrote long emails back and forth about Jesus’s non-violence, his psychological and rhetorical strategies, and the world today. By December the commission contract was finished. Rob and I kept up our correspondence until the spring of 2015 at which point the play began to take over.

My health held. Every day I felt stronger. On December 22, 2015 I sent Rob the first draft of my play, Against.

There was a spiritual dimension to the thoughts and feelings I’d had during my illness and I wanted to explore that

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