“It might have been written for the year of Brexit; perhaps it was just biding its time”

14 September 2018

Joyce McMillan on Jo Clifford

When Losing Venice was first performed at the old Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh’s Grassmarket, 33 years ago, the playwright Jo Clifford was still John Clifford, a young and sometimes struggling playwright living near Edinburgh with the brilliant Scottish journalist and feminist campaigner Susie Innes, and their two little daughters. Both Jo and Susie had graduated from 
St Andrews University a decade before, Jo with a brilliant degree in Spanish and Arabic; they had married in 1980, and in the intervening years, Jo had done many things to earn a living, including training as a psychiatric nurse, without ever abandoning her burning need to be a writer.  

By 1985, though, Jo’s early short plays for stage and radio, and her brilliant, passionate translations of Spanish plays like Calderon’s The House With Two Doors, had begun to attract the attention of theatre directors, including Jenny Killick, recently arrived at the Traverse as its youngest-ever artistic director; and in the summer of 1985, Losing Venice burst onto the Traverse stage in a huge pulse of theatrical energy, at the heart of a breathtakingly ambitious and imaginative season that also featured the first major plays of Peter Arnott and Chris Hannan. Losing Venice is a story about the loss or decline of Empire, set in early 17th century Spain; but it’s also the story of intensely human characters wrestling with issues of life and death, work and survival, and the toxic ideas about masculinity and strict gender roles that Jo Clifford has been challenging since ever she first began to write and perform as an unhappy public schoolboy in the west of England, convinced from a very early age that she was somehow, in her deepest self, not a boy but a girl. 

In that summer of 1985, Losing Venice became a sensational Traverse success, travelling on to Australia, Singapore, Los Angeles and other cities across the world over the next few years; it established Jo Clifford as a key voice among a brilliant generation of Scottish playwrights, and led to a half-decade of work with the Traverse that produced three more successful plays, Lucy’s Play, Playing With Fire, and Ines De Castro. In the mid-1990s, the Traverse shifted its focus to a new generation of playwrights, and Jo Clifford struggled to have new full-length plays produced in Scotland; but she continued to work at a ferocious pace, sometimes supplementing her family’s income by teaching, but always returning to her first love, playwriting. There were translations and adaptations of writers from Calderon, Lorca, Tolstoy and Pushkin to Shakespeare and Dickens, staged in theatres from Pitlochry to Southampton and far beyond; there were radio plays, and occasional new original works.      

By the early 2000s, though, Jo Clifford was finding the struggle to live as a man increasingly impossible. She suffered a breakdown; but 2003 also saw the first performance, at the Traverse, of God’s New Frock, the first in a series of increasingly personal works that would begin to chronicle Jo’s own journey into a new transgender life. Then in 2005, Jo’s wife Susie died, just six traumatic months after being diagnosed with a brain tumour; and without the relationship that had made her life as a man sustainable, at the age of 55 Jo began the process of transition, suffering severe health problems along the way, but always continuing to work.

In 2006, the Lyceum in Edinburgh premiered her massive two-part version of Goethe’s Faust, and in 2010 the same theatre staged Every One, a play about death inspired by the shock of Susie’s sudden collapse. During those years, Jo was also drawing comfort from a growing radical Christian faith; and 2009 saw the first performance in Glasgow – accompanied by a counter-demonstration by evangelical Christians – of her Gospel According To Jesus Queen Of Heaven, a communion-like vision of a Christ who embodies and speaks for marginalised transgender people. Jesus Queen of Heaven has since been seen in half-a-dozen countries across the world, and has become a cause celebre in Brazil, where it has attracted furious hostility, bans and even police raids in many cities, but also passionate support from advocates of a more tolerant and open society; and last year, Clifford’s remarkable life-story and work was recognised both by the National Theatre of Scotland, which commissioned her biographical monologue Eve, and by the Saltire Society, which named her one of the 10 outstanding Scottish women of the year.  

Today, Jo Clifford is – in her own phrase – a father and grandmother, living in Edinburgh. She is working with Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre on a play called Manchester, the third in her five-play New World Order series, begun in the early 1990s. She is preparing a new version of The Taming Of The Shrew for the Sherman Theatre in Cardiff; and she recently wrote the short five-part Radio 4 drama Five Days That Changed Everything, once again revisiting the devastating, transformative moment of Susie’s collapse, in a chronicle of a family facing up to the worst that struck a chord with listeners across the UK.

And she is delighted, of course, to see this long-awaited revival of Losing Venice, a play which has inexplicably never been revived in Scotland, despite its huge initial success. “I haven’t changed it at all,” says Jo Clifford of this 33-year-old play. “It is what it is. And reading it now, I think it is very prescient, in some ways. It was partly about the refusal of some people in Britain to understand that we no longer had an Empire, and about how dangerous it would be not to accept that. So in a way, it might have been written for the year of Brexit; perhaps it was just biding its time.”

Joyce McMillan is theatre critic of The Scotsman, and also writes a political and social commentary column for the paper @joycemcm

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