Freedom from torture at the Bath Literary Festival
‘What happened to me, the marks on my body, the memories, they are going to be my souvenirs.’
These words are those of a victim and survivor of torture recounting the horrific experiences she went through. The words are immortalised in the play Souvenirs which premiered at the Independent Bath Literature Festival earlier this month. I was one of five cast members, all from Freedom From Torture’s creative writing group, Write to Life.
Souvenirs is a unique play, a finished script woven from the real life testimonies of torture victims and survivors. It is about our experiences, frustrations, hopes and victories in the face of the odds stacked against us. What could be just a piece of theatrical drama becomes vividly real when the actual characters occupy the stage.
Although we had sat many times in the same room as part of the same writing group, it was only when we assembled for the first rehearsal that we learned what each other had been through. A wife and mother who loses her husband, then her children, to rebel forces: another mother disfigured by a brutal attack and separated for years from her daughter; an activist hounded by partisan security forces; a father forced to abandon his family and homeland; and a former child soldier whose childhood is stolen are skilfully put together by playwright Christine Bacon.
With no previous experience, we spent five months in the curious process of learning to ‘act’ our own conversations. Heavy things become light when you can share them with each other. By the time we arrived in Bath, we were nervous but we knew each other and the play.
When the door opened and we walked in and onto the stage, I was amazed at the numbers in the room. Looking at the festival programme, I had seen some very famous names; surely people who signed up for JK Rowling wouldn’t be interested in us? And yet, every seat was filled, with people of all sorts and ages.
As soon as one of the writers spoke her first lines, a playful, confident woman I knew, she carried us all with her and I knew it was going to be all right. I could see that people were attentive, switching their gaze between us as we spoke. I had been worried that they wouldn’t understand my pronunciation, but that didn’t seem to be a problem. And the comic moments, which I hadn’t really understood in rehearsal, suddenly came alive.
But it was comedy born of humiliation and frustration. Our stories are more sad than funny, and by the time the play finished, more than half of the audience was in tears. And yet, ironically, although it demanded great courage to share our stories with strangers on a public stage, what I felt afterwards was relief.
Why act your bad experiences? Because of that therapeutic nature of art, which relieves pain by putting it into some other form. That, after all, is the purpose of Write to Life. And also to be heard. There is a line in the play which runs, ‘When I sit in front of you, trying to tell you my story, you might think I’m looking for sympathy’. The point of the play is not cry babies looking for sympathy – even though that’s what it evoked. We are asking society to hear our side of the story.
If the Bard of Avon had been amongst the audience he would have said to Ben Jonson, or whatever friend was next to him, ‘That’s what I meant when I wrote ‘All the world’s a stage’. And the world was put on stage in Bath that afternoon.
If you’re interested in supporting Write to Life and Freedom from Torture, please contact the Bristol and Bath Local Group for Freedom from Torture firstname.lastname@example.orgTagged in: Bath Literature Festival, independent bath literature festival
Latest from Independent journalists on Twitter