As she prepares to bring two plays, The Delights of Dogs and The Problems of People and Lullabies for the Lost, to the Old Red Lion Theatre, Rosalind Blessed tells us about the personal experiences that inspired them and why dogs are so important to her. Read the interview, then book those tickets.
The dramas run in repertoire at the Islington venue from 7 January to 1 February 2020.
The Delights of Dogs and The Problems of People is a study of domestic abuse. It asks what causes a mind to unravel and why we don’t recognise the dangers lurking under our own roofs until it’s too late. This is not a story of a monster and a victim – life is not that simple.
In Lullabies for the Lost, eight souls come together to share their secret stories as they desperately try to escape their self-created limbo. Looking at modern mental health and exploring depression, social anxiety, childlessness, hoarding and eating disorders, Lullabies for the Lost remains full of humour and ultimately hope, especially when there’s a helping paw to hold.
Blessed stars in both shows. The writer and performer is joined in The Delights of Dogs and The Problems of People by Duncan Wilkins, while the Lullabies for the Lost cast includes Blessed, her mother Hildegard Neil, Kate Tydman, Chris Pybus, Helen Bang, Liam Mulvey, Nick Murphy and Chris Porter.
When The Delights of Dogs and The Problems of People opens at the Old Red Lion, it will mark a return to the venue where it originally received a public reading. It subsequently enjoyed a six-week run at the Courtyard Theatre, when London Theatre 1 said it had “the potential to save lives”.
The Delights of Dogs and The Problems of People and Lullabies for the Lost run in rep at the Old Red Lion Theatre, 418 St John Street, London, EC1V 4NJ from 7 January to 1 February 2019, with performances Tuesdays to Saturdays 7.30pm, Matinees Saturday and Sunday 3pm. Tickets are priced £16.50 (£12.50 during previews). CLICK HERE TO PURCHASE!!
Rosalind Blessed on The Delights of Dogs and The Problems of People and Lullabies for the Lost
What inspired you to write The Delights of Dogs and the Problems of People and Lullabies for the Lost?
I had written a short play at Exeter University as part of my course many moons ago… and it was dreadful. It was dense, overly poetic, symbolic garbage that no actor could possibly perform, so I tucked writing away, filed under ‘really can’t do that’ and moved on. However I got older, got some life experience under my belt and felt I had some tales to tell. I hoped that by sharing the darker, usually hidden parts of my life, it would encourage the audience to open up about theirs; to feel included and supported. I simply followed my English teacher’s advice of write what you know. I had a few years experience of writing for comedy sketch shows and brought humour into my work. I deal in serious subject matter, because, well, it matters but I always couple it with humour, if a little trench. I don’t want to lecture but to keep an audience open and engaged.
How do the two pieces complement each other?
Both the plays explore the mental prisons we can create for ourselves. In The Delights of Dogs and The Problems of People we explore an initially successful relationship spiraling into abuse. It shows how easily a mind can unravel. In Lullabies for the Lost we follow the stories of several characters trying to pull themselves out of their personal hells, so in a way the reverse. How can we put ourselves back together again after mental anguish?
The character I play, Robyn, is in both plays as the two inform each other. I believe my mental health problems made me an easier target for domestic abuse and the abuse escalated my mental health problems. It is a cycle I have now broken.
You’ve staged The Delights of Dogs and the Problems of People a few times in the past. How has it grown over those performances?
I developed The Delights of Dogs and The Problems of People over several years. As my first play, I wanted to hone it and discover, with the help of other artists and audience the very best version I could offer. It was clear from the first outing at the Etcetera theatre that it chimed with audiences and was clicking into an important subject that affected people. I did feel it wasn’t quite streamlined enough however and that we hadn’t got it at optimal impact.
At it’s 7 week run at the Courtyard Theatre, I found the best acting partner in Duncan Wilkins, who brought huge charm, intelligence, heart and blood-chilling danger to his role. The audience response was huge. After each show people would come up to me and tell me their heartbreaking stories, or email me with experiences. It became clear that it is a sadly common and widespread issue and an important play for people to see. I still felt that the show could use a restructure and a re-imagining however.
In it’s now final version, I have restructured the play into a 70 minute straight through roller-coaster so that the audience are strapped into the experience as much as the characters. I also found the most wonderful director in Caroline Devlin, who I have worked with at Guildford Shakespeare Company. We are of an age and she has great sympathy and understanding of the subject matter as well as incredible imagination and skill. I felt this story really needed a woman’s touch. With a wonderful set and sound design – it is a totally new production.
The Delights of Dogs and the Problems of People is drawn from personal experience. How challenging is it to be that honest in your writing, and then perform in it on a nightly basis?
Both plays are written from personal experience and not the nice bits. One might imagine that that would be hard to perform, but in actual fact the opposite is true. As an actor, I approach the text with the same analytical eye I would any script and therefore it is easier to understand and work through my issues.
For example in The Delights of Dogs and The Problems of People, I revisit some of the worst bits of domestic abuse that I suffered, focusing on the mental abuse. Whilst on stage, I will be as distraught as the character requires, sobbing from the gut, but afterwards I feel light and free. It’s like an exorcism of sorts. I think it is far harder for Duncan playing my partner, who has to say the terrible things to me,
to shake it off. I always carried guilt, shame and blame for allowing myself to get into abusive relationships, but after working through the play, I was able to finally let that go.
Both plays advocate the use of dogs to help with emotional turmoil. Why are you so passionate about that?
By far the most joyful stuff to write about in the shows are the dogs. They serve pretty much the same purpose in both, to be sources of empathy, love and redemption. I cannot imagine life without my dogs. In some ways I’m not entirely certain I would be here if I hadn’t had my dogs to inspire me to get up, feed them, walk them and get on with life.
All my dogs, throughout my life, have been rescues and I strongly wish to champion adopt don’t buy. I would like to say that the rescuing was equal on both sides. I particularly want to champion Staffies who continue to fill the cages, often face awful lives and suffer from a bad reputation. My Staffie Sam has incredible love and empathy, as did my last Staffie. Sam will run from any part in the flat if he hears me cry, or just manages somehow to intuit distress and will grab me in a comfy bear hug until I can’t help but feel better. Dogs save lives.
You’re performing with your Mum in Lullabies for the Lost. How are you looking forward to that?
I am so excited to have my mother Hildegard Neil in the show. We have worked together in the past. She directed me as Sylvia Plath early in my career and we have acted together several times.
My mother remains my biggest inspiration as an actor. She is truly extraordinary and is what I consider to be the greatest example of professionalism, skill and artistic authenticity. I wanted a voice of reason in the play and who better? She has been a great supporter of my writing but this is the first time she has been speaking my words and it is such an honour.
How are you feeling about staging the plays together at the Old Red Lion Theatre?
I am delighted to be bringing both shows to The Old Red Lion. It is a wonderful venue with a real passion for exciting theatre. I have found that The Old Red Lion is incredibly supportive with a great moral compass.
It is a wonderful opportunity to have the shows running in rep together. It is exciting to see these complimenting shows side by side and a hell of an acting challenge to be doing them back to back!
What can audiences expect from a trip to see The Delights of Dogs and the Problems of People and Lullabies for the Lost?
A trip to see The Delights of Dogs and The Problems of People and Lullabies for the Lost, is an intimate, inclusive and almost voyeuristic journey through dark secrets. The audience can expect to laugh a great deal, cry a good bit and be a more than a little disturbed, but we promise to hold your hand throughout it and we will all come out stronger and more unified at the end. And remember… there are always dogs!