The Quality of Mercy, a new one-man play about notorious British serial killer Harold Shipman, premieres at London’s Courtyard Theatre this month. Taking a break from rehearsals, writer and performer Edwin Flay told us more about his very personal family connection to Shipman’s crimes. Time to get booking!
From his cell in the early hours of the morning, Harold Shipman breaks his silence to record a confessional tape, laying down his version of events as he prepares to take one last life.
The Quality of Mercy has a strictly limited season at the Courtyard Theatre from 27 September to 8 October 2022. The premiere production is directed by Bernie C Byrnes and produced by Sarah Lawrie for Nailed Productions.
What is your connection to Harold Shipman?
I spent part of my childhood in Hyde, and he was my GP for about four years. Also, the Shipman Inquiry concluded that my grandmother Renee had been one of his victims.
Why did you want to write a play about Shipman? Do you touch on your family’s connection in the play?
Whenever approaching a piece of writing, I’m really interested in the subtext; so while the play is about Shipman, it also functions as an in-depth study of a narcissistic psychopath that develops into a rumination on death and justice. I feel that, as a society, we’re still too afraid to talk frankly about the end of life. As someone who is broadly pro-euthanasia yet still appalled by Shipman’s crimes, I felt he was a good vessel to start a nuanced discussion of the subject.
As for my family’s connection to him, I did feel that the play needed one depiction of a murder, and I felt that the murder of my grandmother was the only one I had any right to re-enact: there are many surviving relatives who despise his memory to this day, and I felt it would be profoundly insensitive to stage any other victim’s death.
How did you research The Quality of Mercy?
Researching the play was quite straightforward: the true-crime book Prescription For Murder was written while Shipman was still alive and reading that gave me a solid grounding into his upbringing and background. More importantly, the entirety of The Smith Report is available online in the National Archives, and everything I could possibly need was available there: from witness statements to an exploration of how he went undetected for so long as well as the professional opinions of four different criminal psychologists.
Having done so much research, how would you describe Shipman & his motivation?
Rather uniquely among serial killers, Shipman never sought attention or spoke a word about his crimes – indeed, during his arrest, trial and incarceration, he treated the entire legal system as beneath him. So one can only hypothesise about his motives.
He was clearly driven by a powerful urge to exercise control over other people, and needed constant praise and reinforcement, behaving petulantly and selfishly when contradicted. He was boastful and gauche, and venomous when challenged.
There are many people who share these traits, of course – just look at some of the larger-than-life political figures of the last few years! – but Shipman’s method of reasserting his superiority was to decide when someone lived or died, and he became addicted to that sense of power.
Becoming Harold. @EdwinFlay plays the infamous Dr Shipman in #QualityofMercyPlay which opens 27 September @CourtyardHoxton for a strictly limited two-week run. Directed by @BernieCByrnes and produced by @La_Lawrie for @NailedCreates #TrueCrime #NewWriting #WorldPremiere pic.twitter.com/UZ9Y9UL0om
— THE QUALITY OF MERCY @CourtyardHoxton (@NailedCreates) September 14, 2022
We’ve seen video of you becoming Harold physically. How do you become him mentally?
Blimey, there’s a question! When researching narcissism, I found an interesting quote, to the effect that the narcissist will make themselves the hero of every story where possible, and the victim where necessary. My director (Bernie C Byrnes) has been drilling me on limiting my emotional palette, eliminating empathy for anyone other than Shipman himself (or myself, if you like), and we’ve worked hard on developing different physical postures for the different stages of his life that the play depicts.
Aside from his mother, who is a recurring figure in the play, I try not to have much time for anyone else in the narrative. That said, I try to keep references to his own family to an absolute minimum, as they bear no blame for his crimes and deserve to be treated with compassion.
You’ve written a lot for screen as well. Why did you want this to be your debut stage play? Will you turn it into a film?
Theatre felt like the right medium for the subject. I started out writing for film, because I enjoy the strictures of the medium – I found I could write well in screenplay format, but whenever I’ve tried prose, I’ve hated every word! I’ve never had much of an eye towards writing commercially, and there’s no great plan for what I write (much as I wish there was!) – I just find a subject that interests me and see how it feels in my head. I have really enjoyed writing this, though, and I think I’m in the right place mentally to try another play next if the subject suggests itself.
If it has a life on film, the producer Sarah Lawrie, the videographer Neil Monaghan and I are talking about filming the show in the manner of hybrid theatre, like the National Theatre’s production of Death Of England – Face To Face, rather than a fully-developed screen drama like Des or Zodiac. I’ve got ideas for doing it as a one-man film, but we’ll see. There may be the possibility to turn it into a radio play, which would be very exciting, and challenging to translate the visual aspects to a whole new medium.
You wear many hats with The Quality of Mercy. How do you juggle them?
I have a very supportive and long-suffering partner (Kirsty Gillmore, who is also the sound designer). In the run-up to the show, I am thinking about almost nothing else; occasionally I scream incoherently into the void! The writing was done with a while ago, aside from the occasional minor tweak; the acting is what I live for; nothing on the producing side of things is my idea of a good time, but it needs to be done.
What would you like audiences to take away from The Quality of Mercy?
I’d like the audience to come away with a greater awareness of just what he did to a whole community: I feel like people are losing sight of the sheer extent of his crimes – I know I had when I began researching it. I’d like them to think about the difference between voluntary euthanasia and non-voluntary euthanasia, and whether or not we as a society are having the difficult conversations about death that we need to. To ponder how evil can thrive under the mask of concern and how a professed desire for justice can be a fig leaf for a lust for vengeance.
Anything else you’d like to add?
The script is being published by Playdead Press and will be available to purchase at the venue.
The Quality of Mercy runs from 27 September to 8 October 2022 at the Courtyard Theatre, Bowling Green Walk, 40 Pitfield Street, London N1 6EU, with Tuesday to Saturday performances at 7pm, Saturday matinee at 2.30pm. Tickets £16 (concessions £12). CLICK HERE TO PURCHASE!