Poet Caroline Bird has had an illustrious career to date, winning the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award twice and twice being shortlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize. She won an Eric Gregory Award in 2002, and was a winner of the Poetry London Competition in 2007, and the Peterloo Poetry Competition in 2004, 2003 and 2002. Not content with taking the poetry world by storm, Bird is also a playwright. Her new version of Euripides’s Trojan Women is currently on at The Gate, where it has earned her rave reviews.
I ask if it was daunting, being asked to adapt a classic Greek tragedy. “Definitely,” Bird says, “but in the best possible way. It’s strangely liberating to be given a project that you can’t possibly do justice to – it’s such an audacious idea. Knowing that I couldn’t do justice to it in a way that would make everyone happy kind of set me free to do my own personal response.” And what about the practicalities of writing it – how does one begin to tackle such a task? “I’m a classics enthusiast but not a scholar – I read every translation I could get my hands on, went back and read the Greek myths. Then I put that aside and started writing – I wanted to absorb ideas to start working from. It was similar to creating a new play, except I stuck to the rough structure of the Euripides version. I wanted it to feel as organic as possible, but to be true to the original story.”
As a poet, Bird regularly performs her work. I ask how it felt to not only have other people saying her words, but also to hand over control to the actors and director. She describes the process as “amazing… if I was to think about an audience while I was writing [poetry] I think it would change how I wrote, not necessarily for the better – I need to write the truth not what I think people want to hear. Writing a scene, I’m imagining the charcaters living, not actors on a stage. But then in rehearsal, when you hear the lines out loud, there are lines that work on paper that don’t work in the air.”
Trojan Women went through about eight drafts, and “the process is a lot about listening and constantly revising… you can’t get too precious about any particular line. In rehearsals, in some run-throughs a line will sound terrible and then the actor will find new thoughts and it’ll sound great – and sometimes the other way round – and that’s exciting. That’s the wonderful thing – a writer can write a really dull line and actor can find something wonderful in it that I didn’t put in!”
Bird is enthusiastic about seeing something she “wrote alone in my bedroom” come to life on stage, and more than once, she refers to her script as a “recipe”, a starting point from which something emerges which is greater than the sum of its parts: “a play is constantly in flux, it’s collaborative, a recipe, a set of instructions. It’s not finished without the actors, director, designer, lighting, costumes, set, sound etc to bring it to life. It’s lovely to share with so many people – it makes it bigger than it was in my head.” She draws parallels with poetry, though: “a good poem does that, too: my favourite poems give me something new every time I read them. A good poem does feel alive – depending on what day it is, what mood you’re in, you’ll see something different. They don’t spell themselves out. They always contain mysteries.”
The script is a jumping-off point for cast and director rather than something sacrosanct, and Bird muses on the differences between working with a text editor for poetry and working with a group of people in a rehearsal room: “A play is much more fluid – it’s not just mine, everyone’s working on it. An editor is trying to make the poet sound the most like themselves. A play belongs to so many different minds and all opinions have to be taken into account.” Again, there are similarities, too. For Bird, both mediums are “about the things that aren’t being said. In Trojan Women it’s not necessary to spell out that a particular scene is really about gender inequality. Similarly, in a poem, it’s a different style but it’s about the space between the lines and the silence.” So there you have it: writing is writing is writing, “the big difference is that a play gets me out of the house a lot more – poetry is a more solitary act.”
The Trojan Women plays at the Gate Theatre until Saturday 15 December. For tickets and more information, visit www.gatetheatre.co.uk.
Image 1: Sam Cox and Louise Brealey in The Trojan Women by Iona Firouzabadi
Image 2: Caroline Bird by Iona Firouzabadi