NxNE: Chris Lee of Wildbird

20 May 2011 in Dance & Drama

CHRIS LEE is the writer and director of Wildbird and Mull Theatre’s joint production The Mysterious Death of Netta Fornario

NORTHINGS: How did this collaboration with Mull Theatre come about?

CHRIS LEE: It was something that came out of our touring show A Midsummer Night’s Dream, actually. We took the show to Mull, and we got chatting with Alasdair [McCrone, Director of Mull Theatre] and said we must do something there. When the chance to apply for North by North East funding came up, I already had the story of Netta in mind, and with the Iona connection it seemed to fall into place.

Writer and director Chris Lee at Druimfin

Chris Lee at Druimfin

NORTHINGS: Is it based on a true story?

CHRIS LEE: Yes, it is based on an entirely true story, and it’s a huge mystery to this day. The bare facts are that this young woman came to Iona and died mysteriously on the island, having claimed that she was being magically attacked by various occult forces.

NORTHINGS: She died on Iona?

CHRIS LEE: Yes. Her body was found lying on a hillside, naked except for a black cloak, with no injuries or wounds other than some cuts on her feet from running around barefoot. The cloak itself was an occult object, and she had a silver cross round her neck. She was a member of couple of occult organisations, so there is an intriguing Gothic hook to it all.

NORTHINGS: How much of the real story have you used?

CHRIS LEE: I’ve taken the bare facts and invented everything else, while trying to present as near as I can get to the way she actually was from the available information. There isn’t a great deal of that, it has to be said, and most of it is cut-and-pasted from the same source material.

NORTHINGS: What kind of material?

CHRIS LEE: Mainly the contemporary newspaper articles, which get increasingly wild, with strange lights seen in the sky and mysterious strangers reported on the island. According the Oban Times, she was found with a piece of paper covered in indecipherable characters that was allegedly passed to the Procurator Fiscal but then disappeared. Her cause of death was recorded as accidental death.

In rehearsal at Druimfin, Chris Lee (front) watches Rebecca Sloyan, Greg Powrie and Mairi Phillips

In rehearsal - Chris Lee (front) watches Rebecca Sloyan, Greg Powrie and Mairi Phillips

NORTHINGS: How have you chosen to frame your story?

CHRIS LEE: There is an element of murder mystery in it, but it is mainly a Gothic, supernatural tale, and the possibility or probability that she is very ill with paranoid schizophrenia is very much in there. Because of that I have created a main character who’s name is Dr John Tyler [played by Greg Powrie], and he has come to Iona at a crisis in his own life, suffering from problems caused by his experiences as a medical officer in the field ambulance service in the First World War.

He is addicted to opium, and ends up staying in the same guest house as Netta [Rebecca Sloyan]. It is actually a real house, but I have created a new proprietor for it, a widow named Ruth Blacklock [Mairi Philips], who was involved in the occult through army freemasonry.

They are all broken people in one way or another, and all of these threads are woven together, leaving both the possibility of the occult and of illness alive in the play. It consciously borrows from the Gothic literary tradition.

NORTHINGS: We’re on the set here at Mull Theatre’s production centre at Druimfin, but the physical set on stage is only part of the story – talk us through how it will work with the film projections that Graeme Roger and Fraser MacDonald are working on?

CHRIS LEE: How will that work – good question! We won’t really know the answer for sure until we have run them together, but the relationship of the projections to the action isn’t just about backdrops for the scene. They take us in layers from inside Tyler’s head to inside the house to outside on the island, and even into the trenches in the War, and the whole thing is simultaneous. It’s all told in retrospect anyway, and is a bit of a morphine dream.

NORTHINGS: So it is all reflected through Tyler’s perspective?

CHRIS LEE: We see or feel what Tyler has seen or felt – his is the narrative voice, so when we cut between scenes, we are jumping to events that he is recalling. There are no scenes of Ruth and Netta together without him, with one exception, and he is overhearing it through a crack in the door.

NORTHINGS: It sounds quite a tricky process?

CHRIS LEE: Designing and making the clips is the time-consuming part of it. Once they are done, we can play around with the cueing and fading in and out and so forth.

The first thing we had to do when we came here wasn’t to have the usual read-through of the script, it was to film people against green screens and go out and throw Rebecca [Sloyan, who plays Netta] into a swimming pool at a house along the road, and indeed have Graeme jump into the pool after her in an army greatcoat, in one of Tyler’s flashbacks to the War. So we were on that for a couple of days even before we had a read-through.

Actress Rebecca Sloyan in the pool

Rebecca Sloyan in the pool

NORTHINGS: So the look of the show will be very dependant on the projections?

CHRIS LEE: They are key to the way the project will look on stage, yes, but it is also fair to say that if something catastrophic occurred technically one night, the play will still work without them – we could do it with a table lamp.

NORTHINGS: The physical set itself looks fairly plain.

CHRIS LEE: The set is tailored to the dimensions of the smallest stage on the tour. It’s a box, basically, and I’ve been calling it a flight simulator because of the way it will work with the projections and lighting and sound.

It has been deliberately designed to be a wee bit asymmetrical and slightly unsettling to look at, and the projections allow us to really open the perspective and take the audiences attention out to a wider view.

The set which Alan Melvin has built for us here at Druimfin is an interior, and the AV takes us out into the island and into the trenches in the First World War and so on. The projections are not a token technical add-on, it’s very much integrated.

NORTHINGS: You are just going into the second week here at Druimfin as we speak – how has the rehearsal process being going?

CHRIS LEE: The biggest challenge was losing about a third of the text – I always think it is better to over-write initially than under-write, and it’s not until you start to work with the actors and see things played out in rehearsal that you really get the feel for what you need and what you don’t need, and how things are actually going to work.

I suppose you could get quite precious about your literary text, but I’m not. It’s very Gothic, so there is lots of doom and gloom and death and despair. It’s a chance to come and wallow in Goth, and it is very much in that tradition, and stylistically aware of that tradition, which is all part of the fun and theatricality of it.

Discussion time at Druimfin

Discussion time at Druimfin


NORTHINGS: Netta strikes me as quite a difficult character to pull off, both for the writer and the actor?

CHRIS LEE: Yes. She is genuinely suffering from schizophrenia, which is not what people often assume it is. It’s very complicated, and there is what I’ve been calling a sine-wave to Netta where she hops from one state to another – it’s not multiple personalities so much as different aspects to herself which she chooses to show you at different times.

She goes from kind of fairy queen at one end to lost changeling child at the other, and many places in between, and there are lots of points in the play when she is also very ill and exhibiting various symptoms. Above all else, though, she is manipulative, and she is addicted to that kind of cult mentality she has from her membership of occult groups. She likes to manipulate and control and possess people, while genuinely believing she is helping them.

We are trying to create a picture of a woman who could have been Netta Fornario. Not a great deal is known about the real Netta, but a lot of what went on in these cults smacks of abuse, certainly mental but possibly also physical. For her it’s all true and it isn’t true at the same time, it’s real and it isn’t real, and it’s ultimately up to the audience to draw their own conclusions.

NORTHINGS: The action is set in 1929 – how important is the period context?

CHRIS LEE: Context is very important – the world in 1929 was a very messy place in many ways, with very different attitudes, and you have to be careful about bringing hindsight to that. It is so easy, for example, to present a picture of the Great War in terms of how terrible it was, but soldiers also participated voluntarily in it, and they found a kind of love and camaraderie in it, and had experiences that were enormously influential in their lives, and can never be repeated for them.

It’s a bit like the Blitz mentality – people get stuck in that frame of mind in a way, and it’s always with them. Tyler has a lot of that about him. It’s all based on solid research, and I’ve tried to present something that is not so obvious and a bit more interesting.

The Mysterious Death of Netta Fornario is on tour from 28 May – 25 June

Chris Lee is the Artistic Director of Wildbird.

© Kenny Mathieson, 2011