Researching, rehearsing and staging the reconstructing of an icon of evil
The most unsettling moment was when Andrew stopped the car. We asked why he had done so. He said it was the place. Which place? The one where Myra Hindley had stopped her car and picked up the first victim of the infamous moors murders. The five of us in the vehicle fell silent. Instinctively, we all looked towards the pavement from which Pauline Reade had stepped to commence her final journey. It felt as if we were in a time-travelling condemned cell for the innocent.
Andrew drove on, chauffeuring us through a guided tour of Gorton, the district from which Hindley hailed. It is much-changed now in general, but some constituent landmarks remained the same, the Victorian Gothic St Francis Monastery where Myra went to Mass for example. From there a thirteen-mile drive north eastwards took us to Saddleworth where four of the murdered children were buried following their deaths at the hands of Myra’s boyfriend Ian Brady between 12th July 1963 and 6th October 1965.
The solemnity did not leave us. It was impossible not to feel painful compassion for the victims. Strangely, a shred of sympathy was also attached to the moor itself. Like all high heath-land it has an epic beauty, but this place is forever tainted by the meme of the moors murders. Once one knows what happened there, it’s impossible to disassociate the memory from the mounds.
Uneasy theatre staged the show in the spring of 2011 and we were well into rehearsals by the time we made the visit to the moors. We knew the facts of the murders by then, and the cast were undergoing that peculiar injection of empathy that actors must use to search for the truths inside the heads of the perpetrators. The day was fine and reasonably mild, but chilling nevertheless. We used the same method as the police had done when trying to find the burial grounds. Brady and Hindley had foolishly taken photographs of the burial sites and the police used the distant topography in the pictures to focus their hunt. Even so, they very nearly failed, with a mixture of persistence and luck eventually uncovering the first that they found. We did not pinpoint the precise places – that was never our aim – but being in same general locality was sufficient to stir the subconscious.
From the area around Hollin Brown Knoll, we travelled further east towards Shiny Brook. Somewhere there Keith Bennet still lies buried, despite over half a century of official and unofficial searching.
The project had begun on a whim. Victoria Glover had created a stern but sympathetic Jane de Hoghton in the uneasy theatre production of Will at the Tower and it was while reflecting on that that the notion that she might make a compelling Myra Hindley was mooted. Once she was on board, we embarked on an extensive and intensive programme of research, which is something that is especially important when depicting incidents that affect people who are still alive.
Most sensitive of all was the question of representing the victims. All though all were technically children, the last Victim, Edward Evans, was almost an adult at seventeen. John Kilbride was twelve, Keith Bennett twelve, Lesley Ann Downey ten and Pauline Reade sixteen. It was decided not to bring the youngsters onto stage but rather to have Myra speak directly towards the audience when addressing them, quite literally giving the viewers the victims’ perspectives.
Before staging the show, we wanted to signal our good intentions, and not wish to appear exploitative, and hence we made a substantial donation to the Keith Bennett Appeal, which was funding the hunt for Keith’s remains.
The bulk of the research was conducted by Andrew Brindley and myself, but the cast also carried out their own investigations. Vicky manged to track down and telephone someone who had known Myra prior to her arrest. There is a plethora of sources online and in print, but we found the most useful to be The Lost Boy by Duncan Staff, and One of Your Own by Carol Ann Lee, and it was the latter that provided the most valuable material theatrically.
The discovery of the part Myra’s sister Maureen played in her arrest and conviction was the gold dust moment in terms of finding the dramatic core. Maureen was not only Myra’s sister turned nemesis; she was also one of her victims. Maureen was ostracised by her own family for giving evidence at Myra’s trial and then had to live the rest of her life tainted by association. She died from a brain haemorrhage aged thirty-four, on 9th July 1980 over two decades before Myra died and thirty-seven years before Brady gave up his ghost. An imagined argument between the two women became the starting point for the discourse at the heart of our script. Once we had that central dialogue we had the spine of the play.
The reading research took several weeks and was crucial to the viability and honesty of the play, but it was the day trip to Gorton and Saddleworth Moor that had the most profound impact upon us, as outlined above. It came mid-way during the rehearsals, so by then all three actors had a well-developed knowledge of their roles, but visiting the locations honed the imaginations and tightened the transmission of atmosphere and loaded space.
Shaping the Script
The problem with this kind of topic is that the audience will range across the full gamut of prior knowledge from the totally ignorant to the fastidiously expert, so it is tricky to find the balance of exposition and dialectic. The simplest solution is always the best, and an essentially linear structure was settled on, with an opening introductory scene, followed by one in which Myra recounts her initial meeting and union with Ian Brady, then a scene for each of the murders in the correct sequence, followed by a concluding battle of the two siblings. Technically a scene ends when all the characters leave the stage but that never happens in Making Myra, so the scene divisions were really just to help us break the play down for rehearsal. To sustain the tension, we opted for a single unbroken performance of eighty minutes. It was important to establish the complexities of the three characters so they too, had a scene assigned chiefly to each of them.
As intimated, the role of Maureen is the key to this play. In a classical sense she is the chorus character – questioning, commenting, provoking. In rehearsal we found her to be every bit as harsh as her older sister, but she had retained the one characteristic that Myra had supressed: sympathy. Maureen is the only one on stage who can claim the moral high ground, but our research showed that Brady had a unique classification method when it came to morality, and this had influenced Myra, whose subsequent sentence also meant she had lot of reflection under her belt before the moment when our play started, so the debate was far from one-sided. Myra was prison-hardened, but Maureen had lived through a decade and a half of banishment, accusation and assault. Amy Llewellyn played her with unrelenting prosecution and persecution.
Myra: How can you say that?
Maureen: Because I’m your sister. I knew the child killer when she was a child. You haven’t changed at all. And that’s your biggest crime. You are clever enough to change. But you won’t. Because you are Myra, and Myra won’t do anything that Myra doesn’t want to do. And Myra doesn’t want to undo anything that Myra has done. Because Myra is Myra. Myra is what she is, and whatever she is that’s what she will be. And do you know what? Despite everything – prison, hatred, life sentence, abuse, and scorn – I think Myra really loves being Myra.
Myra: Then you don’t know me.
Arguably, Ian Brady was the most difficult character to pin down. He can be realised as completely two-dimensional – simply a demented villain – but that doesn’t explain how he attracted, snared and recruited the open, warm, trusted babysitter that so many of Myra’s contemporaries knew. Brady, for all his depravity, had a high intellect, but most intriguing of all was a kind of psychosomatic carapace that he displayed. By all accounts his ambition was to find the pinnacle of wickedness and embody it without subsequently experiencing remorse. That’s a very difficult persona to adopt. Alex Kerfoot rose to the challenge, finding a repulsive magnetism linked to a jubilant detachment. We found the way in to Ian was via one of the few things he loved: language.
Ian: I have never experienced the need to corrupt anyone. I simply offer the opportunity to indulge extant natural urges. Everybody wants to kill. It’s there, inside you. Extant. It exists. The urge to kill exists. It’s there inside you, now. Dormant. Sleeping. Don’t think you haven’t got it. You have. Couldn’t harm a fly? That depends on the fly. If it’s do or die, then it’s goodbye fly. If you have to do it, then take the trouble to do it properly. If I do that it’s called murder. If a hypocrite does it, it’s called the Death Penalty.
As one of the production’s reviewers pointed out, it is so difficult to avoid presenting Myra Hindley as a pantomime rogue. What Victoria Glover unearthed was a means of portraying Myra as a multi-layered victim but without excusing her infamous involvement in the crimes. Myra was undoubtedly a victim of Brady, of herself, of the press, of political self-interest and of public fury. Each of those attitudes is understandable, and Vicky made Myra understand them, but she also found sufficient integrity to not only plead a proportional punishment, but to bitterly accept it would never be granted her. It’s not good enough just to put Myra on stage and make her cry; the spectator has to understand why she cries, and that needs empathy. Getting an audience to empathise with a child-killer is no easy task.
Myra: I am not myself.
Maureen: Then who the hell are you?
Myra: A fiction. A tragic heroine. Antigone, Medea, Medusa. The wicked witch. The devil’s bitch. I’m the repository of all your deep-rooted, child-scaring psychology. I’m the anti-Christ as created by a million child-molesting journalists. They made me what I am now. I can’t un-write myself. I must play out this role for ever. No applause. No final bow. As many encores as you like.
Maureen: Don’t look for sympathy Myra, it doesn’t suit you.
When actors do their jobs properly, directing rehearsals is a doddle. This production was a dream to direct. There are two possible approaches. The action begins with the arrival of Myra at her sister’s deathbed too late to speak to Maureen. The play can then be staged as a literal haunting or by a more post-modern approach of suggesting all the subsequent action happens in Myra’s imagination. The latter allows for great flexibility in the staging, thus enhancing the theatricality without sacrificing the naturalism of the dialogue exchanges. It also solves the problem of switching locations, and not depicting the children. It was that route that proved productive. Directing then became a matter of being constantly mindful of the limitations of the performance venue, the needs of the audience, and assisting the actors to hit the emotional highs and lows. It was also vital to always keep the title of the play in mind, for it was those two words that defined the fundamental question of the play. We were not just interested in how Myra became a serial killer, but in what made her the most recognisable icon of serial killing in the UK long after she had been convicted.
Promoting the Production
The Moors Murders is one of those topics that seldom remains out of the headlines for long, though that may dilute now that both perpetrators have died. It was easy to get press coverage, features on local radio and attract attention on social networks. Then, as now, Myra Hindley’s mugshot was recognised by a very high proportion of the British population, so the play almost promoted itself. It certainly sold very well, in fact, too well. The venue oversold the show and we had people standing at the back on the final night.
A selection of comments from the audience:
Last Thursday, we were privileged to attend a performance of ‘Making Myra’ at The Continental, Preston. I must admit that I was a little concerned that the play would somehow exonerate Myra from the evil things she did but how wrong can you be? The play was exceptional in every aspect – the script, the set and most of all, the acting. The audience was spellbound throughout. The many themes explored were disturbing, interspersed with humour, pathos and intensity and culminated with Myra weeping at the end. Congratulations to the whole team. It was a really memorable evening.
I found the performance to be a poignant tribute to all of the victims of the moors murderers. The story was gritty and had the audience spiralling through a vast array of emotions. Overall a strong production with an exceptional performance from all actors who delivered a thought-provoking and emotive script.
Very thought-provoking and poignant with some electric and sinister moments that made me shudder.
Making Myra is a well written, exceptionally acted (especially by Victoria Glover) and well-staged production. however, most importantly, it manages to approach the subject matter without portraying Hindley as either a tragic hero, or helpless victim, whilst at the same time making her more than a mere pantomime villain. Is Making Myra perfect? Certainly not. Is it the most well-balanced and realised depiction of Hindley we’re likely to see in our lifetimes? Most probably.
Well done to everyone involved! Such an amazingly strong cast! Superb acting! A very powerful performance.
Well done to all. The perfect antithesis to the swinging sixties. Loved the writing and the three individual performances were strong. This was at least as good as the three London productions I’ve seen this week.
An awesome production.
Making Myra was the easiest uneasy theatre play to produce and the most difficult to deal with. As with Saddleworth Moor, it is impossible to revisit it without hearing the dolorous chime of the bell of mourning. It is, however, one of our productions that generates the most pride. No one can deliver those five children the outcome they deserved, but we feel we did justice to their story.
The draw of such of topic is part fascination and part fear. There is a macabre attraction which may be fuelled by a phobia that something similar could happen again, or even more terribly that it might in some way reveal something about the human condition that is as integral as it is unpalatable.
The Myra story is not a classical tragedy but it does have classical components to it. The thing that made her ‘great’ in the eyes of her lover was also the cause of her downfall. He tested her loyalty to the limit and she passed, but that devotion also secured her destiny. She did not start socially high, but from a social norm, and in modern society that is a more frightening fall, because most of us reside at that level. She fell just about as far as she could. As with ancient tragedies, there were consequences for the whole family – especially her sister Maureen.
The audience got what they primarily expected – an account of the crimes – but they also got a little more: Maureen’s perspective. That angle is often given a much lower importance than it was here. We also asked how much of Myra’s notoriety is a consequence of her gender, before posing the most uncomfortable question of all, which was: to what extent was Myra’s punishment compounded and extended by public opinion?
What made Ian Brady into the monster that he manifested was not the focus of this play. As for what made Myra into what she became, the actors provided the best answer they could – by asking the audience.
6 thoughts on “Making Making Myra”