Following the critically acclaimed Clickbait, playwright Milly Thomas is back with not one but two new plays. We caught up with her as she was preparing for a double bill preview of Brutal Cessation and Dust, both of which will be heading to the Edinburgh Fringe this summer.
Theatre Bubble: Were these two plays always separate projects, or did they feed into each other and then become two different shows? How has the creative process been?
Milly Thomas: They were completely separate, they were both just things I had cooking. They’re definitely not a conversation, or a response, or anything like that. In fact, Brutal Cessation is very much a departure for me. It’s not recognisable as one of my plays. I’ve decided to play about with form, just because it’s something I’ve not done before. I was always planning to take Dust this year to the Fringe, that was something I’d had in my head for about two years, and had had the idea for much longer. Both of these plays I really sort of feel like I’ve jumped in the deep end, but you know, you’ve just got to sort of doggy-paddle your way out.
TB: Could you tell me a little about the inspiration behind Brutal Cessation?
MT: Brutal was a scratch. I was desperate to work with Beth Pitts, because I thought “Spine”, which she directed, was absolutely astonishing, and I had this little scene that I’d written, and that didn’t really have a home. It was just a scene, an idea of something that really interests me, and something that hurts me, and that’s where a lot of ideas come from.
TB: What do you want to get across with it?
MT: It’s an exploration of stale relationships, and within that framework I really want to look at the abuse of power in relationships, and how we look at gender on stage. So it’s a heterosexual relationship, and the man and woman will swap roles throughout the show. I’m really fascinated by couples who you look at and think, “You should not be together anymore.” But when you’re in that bubble, it’s so hard to break it yourself because you can’t see.
TB: Do you think it will make for uncomfortable, “home truths” viewing?
MT: Potentially, yes. On the one hand that people have said are really relatable. But then it’s also looking at this knife edge between boredom and violence, if that’s a thing.
TB: In your blurb, you ask, “Why aren’t we more afraid of women”…
MT: Absolutely! I think putting dialogue in the mouth of a man and the same dialogue in the mouth of a woman, is so fascinating. I’ve written it, but I’m watching it thinking, “Wow, that’s really challenging the sexism, the systemic sexism I thought I’d got rid of in myself.” Looking at violence and the threat of violence – not necessarily domestic abuse, but often emotional abuse and the threat of physical violence – for some reason, we’re not as afraid of women as we are of men, and I’ve no idea why that is. On stage you see that, and I’ve caught myself out doing it, you think women will slap, they’ll have a sort of “bitch-fight”, and that’s that. But I’m interested in what comes beyond that, when the red mist sets in.
TB: Can you tell me a bit more about your second play, Dust?
MT: Dust is a one-woman show. It’s the story of Alice, who is depressed, who commits suicide, and who is then stuck like a fly on the wall, and has to watch the consequences of her suicide and the fall-out from that spiralling around her. It’s an exploration of a high-functioning depressive in the world today. It’s caustic. We’re going to laugh – hopefully it’s funny, and I think some of it is funny. Depression isn’t sitting and crying, not for everyone, not necessarily. I can’t speak for all symptoms of depression and people with depression everywhere; this is very much one person’s story. And Alice has had a great life – she’s not had trauma in her past, she’s not had all these things that you often see in depictions of depression on television. I think it’s really important because there’s this guilt you feel when you think, “My life’s amazing, why do I feel this shit?” I think that’s quite a relatable thing.
TB: Dust started life as a Channel 4 pilot, before becoming a theatre monologue. This year, Thirteen Reasons Why has really taken off on Netflix, but there’s been a significant backlash, with people claiming that it glamorises suicide. Is that something you’ve considered, and how do you avoid that?
MT: Absolutely. Thirteen Reasons Why utterly boiled my piss. I thought it was one of the most irresponsible pieces of television made, and that’s one thing I definitely do not want to do with this. We’ve been working with the Samaritans, and we’re very clear and aware that we don’t want to glamorise this. It’s not going to be an easy watch. We are going to have a laugh, but at the same time you see the reality of what happens when someone dies – people do move on, your life does go on. You don’t get to be this myth, this legend, this cool mysterious person who never was. And so I think what I’m trying to do with Dust, is I just really want to say, “Please don’t kill yourself!” And if I’m saying anything else, it’s that lack of communication is killing people. People are dying because they’re not talking, or letting people know. We’re in a time where it’s okay to talk about mental health, but we’re talking about talking. Anyone can say, “A few years ago, I was having a really tough time and then I dealt with it and here I am.” And that’s a brilliant thing and I’m not knocking that at all. But it still doesn’t feel okay to stand up and say, “Hey guys, I’m not doing okay right now.”
TB: In the past you’ve spoken about trying to create more nuanced roles for women, and showing the diversity of female experience. Suicide is often seen as a male thing, so what made you decide to explore it in this way?
MT: I think for that reason really. It’s brilliant that we are talking about male suicide because it is an epidemic, and I think that the societal pressure on men to be “men” is really powerful. But there’s something to do with the notion of hysteria, where women aren’t taken seriously. And I think when women talk about suicide, there’s a societal attitude that they won’t – that women don’t. And that’s not true. This is just a story that I’ve felt really compelled to tell, and also to tell myself. It’s a story I’ve seen reflected in the people I know. I would watch the male version of this play in a heartbeat, but I also think for right now this is something that’s important to me, and something I haven’t seen before. I thought Anatomy of a Suicide was sublime. There was something really refreshing about seeing the honesty of it. And as a woman in the audience who suffers from suicide ideation and depression, it felt like someone was hearing me, like someone had heard me, and was saying, “I know.” It felt really important. Dust is nothing like that tonally. But hopefully there’ll be something that people can relate to within it.
TB: And it’s going to be funny?
MT: I think so. Families are funny. There’s something inherently funny about the makeup of a family and people’s coping mechanisms. And there’s something inherently ludicrous about a situation so extreme. If someone asks you the question, “what would you do if you were invisible for a day?” most people smile, it’s almost a naughty question. That’s how I navigate the pain in this script.
TB: You said that Brutal Cessation does not seem like one of “your” plays. Is Dust closer to your usual style?
MT: I definitely think Dust is more in my voice. With Brutal I really try to put myself in the shoes of two people who were strangers to me at first. Whereas Alice’s humour is my humour. She’s not me, but there’s something about her that I know. Being her feels like wearing an old jumper, and I know her family, I know her friends. In that sense, I’ve really tried to push deeper on themes that bother me, using something I know really well.
TB: How are you feeling about pushing both shows at Fringe?
MT: Really excited! I’ve programmed them both at the same time so I can’t watch both when I’m in Edinburgh, which I did on purpose. There’s nothing worse than being in the audience as a playwright, chewing your nails!
Brutal Cessation is at The Box in Assembly George Square, 3rd-28th Aug (excluding 14th), 16:20
Dust is at the Underbelly Cowgate, 3rd-28th August (excluding 15th), 16:40