ED2011 Columns ED2011 Theatre ED2011 Week2 Edition

Steve Hennessy: Murder and madness on the fringe

By | Published on Friday 19 August 2011

Murder Club

Writer Steve Hennessy talks about his ‘Lullabies Of Broadmoor’ quartet: four plays telling true stories of murder and madness from 19th century Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum.

“I love the Fringe Festival and come up every year to watch great theatre, but have never brought a show here before. This is our first trip to the greatest theatre festival in the world, and we are all incredibly excited about it! It is something we have been working towards for many years. All of the plays in the ‘Lullabies of Broadmoor’ quartet have been produced before, but this is the first time we have produced all four together with the same cast. After Edinburgh, we have a 5 week run at the Finborough Theatre in London.

I have a background of over twenty five years working in mental health, and the subject is very close to my heart. For the last 15 of these years, I have been running Stepping Out Theatre, the country’s leading mental health theatre group. Every year we produce three or four small scale studio productions on mental health themes using theatre professionals as well as a large scale community play with 30 or 40 mental health service users. The power of creativity – and in particular theatre – to heal those recovering from trauma and distress is at the heart of all that we do.

When I wrote a play about a well known 19th century resident of Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum back in 2002, I had no idea I was about to embark on a project that would stretch across almost a decade. ‘Wilderness’ grew from my fascination with the story of Dr. William Chester Minor. A surgeon during the American Civil War, he had settled in London before being sent to Broadmoor after killing a complete stranger while under the influence of his delusions. Minor was famously involved in the research for the Oxford English Dictionary.

As a writer, I quickly found myself gripped and fascinated by the challenge of writing a sequence of plays for the same group of four actors, all linked by theme and setting, with some characters appearing in more than one play. Once the idea of a linked sequence had taken root, the project would not go away. Two plays eventually led to a third, and finally a fourth.

The older archives of Broadmoor are now open to the public and the archivist offered me access to original medical records and other material to help in writing the plays. The creative team for this production were also given a tour of Broadmoor by the present Director of the Hospital, looking at the old theatre there and other places where our plays are set. It was an incredible experience.

The very existence of Broadmoor goes to the heart of the debate about murder and personal responsibility. Chester Minor, a man completely insane for much of his life, expressed deep remorse for the murder he committed. But Ronald True, another inmate, was the complete opposite. The play he features in, ‘The Murder Club’, is set against the background of the 1922 British campaign in Iraq where British airmen and politicians, in the grip of a different kind of collective insanity, cheerfully bombed and gassed their way across a whole country without apology, murdering thousands in their pursuit of the British imperial project.

Each of the four plays can be seen alone, and works perfectly well that way, but seeing two will enrich the journey for the audience, and seeing all four will provide a special theatrical experience where each play enhances the audience’s understanding and experience of seeing other plays in the sequence”.

Steve Hennessy’s show ‘Lullabies Of Broadmoor’ was performed at C Venue during Fringe 2011.