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Features Published 24 January 2017

Jo Clifford: “What prevails is love”

Jo Clifford's ecstatic performance 'Jesus, Queen of Heaven' brought together christian imagery and trans politics. Here, she writes about the transformative ideas she discovered while translating 'The House of Bernarda Alba' for Manchester Royal Exchange and Graeae.
Jo Clifford
Writer and performer Jo Clifford

Writer and performer Jo Clifford

One way of understanding Lorca is to think of him as a writer struggling against censorship. Not simply a censorship coming from the outside world, but also from a much more dangerous place: from within his own heart.

I guess that was one thing me and Lorca had in common. One reason why I fell in love with him. One reason why I owe him my artistic life…

I fell in love when I was fifteen. At the time I didn’t really know why I loved him. I was just beginning to learn Spanish, and could barely understand him. But strangely enough that didn’t seem to matter. The amazing music of his poetry seemed enough to draw me towards him.

But there was a deeper connection I didn’t understand at the time. In those days I was known as ‘John Clifford’ and was still being forced to live as a boy; and it was about then that I also discovered acting; and realised that there was, after all, a place for me in the world.

I was always asked to play women’s parts, and loved it. And that also meant I had to confront the knowledge that I so wanted to live as a girl.

In the ferociously repressive culture of those days I had no choice but to try to repress this. And in the process theatre itself became a place of fear and shame. So I lost my vocation for the theatre almost as soon as I had found it.

It took me twenty years to recover from this and find my voice as a playwright; and another twenty years to find the strength, the pride and the courage to live openly as a woman and in the process re-discover the joy of performing too. All this time I was still in love with Lorca, and I somehow think that helped me. This was long before the invention of the internet, and so when I first got to know his work, the knowledge of his homosexuality could still be thoroughly suppressed. It was only much later that I understood by how much his art had had been formed by his struggle to be true to himself in a culture that so fiercely prevented it. That helped me understand that there was a parallel between his struggle to be open about his homosexuality and my struggle to live openly as a trans woman in a world that, when I was young, so pitilessly prohibited it.

I spent many years trying to censor myself: trying to suppress and deny the woman inside me. And when that failed, and I realised I needed to start to write about my gender identity, I found myself encountering censorship and resistance from the outer world.

It was in the early nineties that I first started to write about being a trans woman; and it’s no coincidence that I used a commission to write a play about Lorca to approach it. Perhaps also no coincidence that the play was rejected by the theatre company that commissioned it; just as they also rejected my next play on the same subject; or that that should have been the beginning of a long period when no theatre company in the UK would commission any original work from me at all. For a while, I simply gave up. And then when I did approach the subject again, I didn’t even attempt to get any funding for it. I consigned myself to failure before I even began; I self-funded whenever I could.

It wasn’t till 2015 that I managed to get the support around me to achieve funding for my “Gospel According to Jesus Queen Of Heaven” – seven years after the explosion of hatred that greeted its opening. I owe a lot to the hundreds of protesters who demonstrated their hatred in the street outside the theatre; and the hundreds of thousands of people who registered their disgust on the internet. In a strange way, they taught me that what I am doing matters. And they still do when they assemble outside the spaces in which I am due to perform with loudhailers or bagpipes to try to silence me; or when bishops denounce me; or I am called a “demon” by fundamentalist christians.

I used to console myself in the same sort of way when I first began dressing as a woman in public in broad daylight and people would shout abuse at me.

“Something is happening”, I would think, “I am challenging these people”.

And in a way I was right. Because, as I believed in my twenties, “the personal is political”. I think I still do. The world around us is changed by the way we live. And it wasn’t just because Lorca allied himself to left wing causes that the Fascists hated him. They hated him for being who he was. Something else me and Lorca have in common: there is a political dimension to both our personal struggles.

All of us, you and me and Lorca alike, are living under the shadow of fascism. One way of understanding “The House of Bernarda Alba” is to see Bernarda as the embodiment of the brutal right wing patriarchy that was prevailing in his time; and that now seems to be in the ascendent in ours. So in giving voice to Bernarda Lorca he was personifying the inner demon and the social prejudice against which he had to struggle to assert his right to love and happiness. That was how I understood the play when I first translated it, back in 1988… what I didn’t expect now when I revisited the play with Graeae was that this encounter would transform my experience of the play. And open up a huge range of new possibilities for creating theatre.

I should have known better, really, because the main purpose of Graeae is transformation: transformation of ideas and transformation of perception through the very simple, but profoundly revolutionary, act of placing deaf and disabled actors centre stage. And through integrating sign language, captioning and audio description from the very beginnings of the creative process to make theatre that is inclusive for everybody.

I’ve come to writing this article just after adapting a scene of the play so it can be performed by a deaf actor who communicates through sign language and a hearing actor who communicates through the spoken word. And the task of making sure that these two amazing actors can communicate with an audience as they communicate with each other, and that they can do so in a way that is absolutely accessible to a hearing and deaf audience, and a seeing and blind audience alike… it all asks profound questions as to what communication truly involves. And demands the creation of a new theatrical language in the process.

To work on all this in all-female cast with a an all-female creative team, too, moves me so very profoundly. It empowers me to accept an identity that for most of my life the world has denied me and that I worked so misguidedly hard to deny in myself. And I begin to understand that Bernarda is more than the embodiment of a profound and important idea; that Lorca’s theatrical genius has created the portrait of a fully rounded human being who, like all of us, deserves compassion and respect.

I begin to understand that, however disastrously she treats her daughters, she loves them and is doing what she thinks is best for them.

I begin to think of my own parents, who in so many ways treated me in a way that was so profoundly damaging for the very best of reasons and with what they thought were my best interests at heart.

Then I understand that I, too, have had my own Bernarda inside me, who for so many years struggled with every ounce of strength and determination to suppress the female energy and identity within me. That whatever our gender or our sexuality or our identity we all have our Bernardas within us whose misguided sense of duty and obligations demands the suppression of what is most vital within us. That is somehow how it is to live in a patriarchal world.

But even though we live in such reactionary times, we are also caught up in times of profound and unstoppable change. In the play, Adela breaks the oppressor’s stick, and Bernarda herself understands the coming of a new order of things, a time when men will no longer have all the power:

“Pepe you’re riding home, galloping through the olive groves, knowing that no-one will harm you. `but another day will come, and that day you will fall…”

I used to think that Bernarda’s final call for silence, for silencing the truth about her daughter, represented a chilling confirmation of the triumph of oppression over love. That it foreshadowed the triumph of the Fascists in the Spanish Civil War that broke out only weeks after Lorca had finished writing the play. The outbreak of the war that so quickly led to his own murder.

But now I’m not so sure. Every artist involved in the creation of this production has had to fight their own battle against the obstacles that would silence us. We have all had to struggle against the stigma of disability or the weight of prejudice.

A hard struggle, and a never-ending one.

But all of us are here. To that extent all of us have won. So that by the end of this performance what we all will have witnessed, creators and audience alike, is that silence does not prevail.

What prevails is love.

The House of Bernarda Alba is a co-production between Graeae and Royal Exchange Manchester. For more info, and to book tickets, visit the Royal Exchange website.

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