After writing 34 books (including comedy crime novels such as Divorcing Jack and Driving Big Davie) and numerous movies and TV series (BBC Northern Ireland's Murphy's Law), Colin Bateman recently experienced a new feeling at his desk.
“I don’t generally get emotional while writing, but I really felt it with this. It’s hugely personal,” he says of his first stage play, which premieres at the Derry Playhouse this week.
The title, Nutcase, will alarm some on posters and in print but, in dramatic context, is part of a questioning of attitudes and myths around mental illness. Addressing the audience directly during scenes, the two characters – Michael and his son Sean – act out the boy’s episodes of paranoid schizophrenia, sectioning in secure units, and eventual return home under heavy medication.
When the police drove off with my son I realised one of the officers had left his hat in my car. And the first thing I did was put on the hat and take a selfie. That was when I knew I was on the verge of cracking up as well
It’s soon clear that Michael’s career closely resembles Bateman’s, and he acknowledges that the play is based on experiences a few years ago with his teenage son.
“I would say 90 per cent of it is true,” the playwright says. Even a scene of dark farce – the son attacking his dad in the car outside a supermarket, leading to police intervention – is “exactly as it happened. The police came and got pulled into our car. And remember the police here are armed, so we are all rolling around with guns involved. And when they drove off with my son in the police car, I realised one of the officers had left his hat in my car. And the first thing I did was put on the hat and take a selfie. That was when I knew I was on the verge of cracking up as well.”
He stresses that his own sufferings have been a fraction of his son’s, and is also aware that one of the multiple current panics about literary ethics involves who has the right to write about other lives. “My son very much wanted the story told, but, in doing that, it also exposes the things that helped make him ill in the first place. So it’s a fine line to tread.”
What does the model for Sean think of Nutcase? “He hasn’t read it yet or seen any of the clips we’ve put up for promotional purposes. He’s coming to the premiere, so that will be interesting.” Given the current tension about ownership of stories, I was surprised the writer didn’t want his subject to read it. “He didn’t want to. It’s a holdover from the illness, which doesn’t go away. He’s doing extremely well, but, from being a great reader, he tends not to read anything now, as the concentration isn’t there. Who knows the cause? It could be the illness or it could be the extremely strong medication he takes.”
I accidentally took one of my son's pills, and I ended up in an ambulance after waking up unable to talk or move. The paramedics had to put a pair of trousers on me. And my son takes three of those
Bateman knows exactly how strong due to an occasion featured in the play. “At my advanced years I would take a cholesterol pill at night, and, at the same time, I would give my son his three night pills. I accidentally took one of his, and I ended up in an ambulance after waking up unable to talk or move. The paramedics had to put a pair of trousers on me. And my son takes three of those.”
That experience seeded one of the themes of the play: “Is the cure as bad as the illness in some respects? But can you take the risk of stopping the medication to see if it has gone away? These are terrible choices.”
It is also unknown what the cause of such psychosis is. Possibilities include inheritance (there is bipolarity in one branch of Bateman’s family) but also extreme stress and smoking very strong modern brands of dope, both of which may also be implicated in the story of Sean.
As long ago as the 1990s, Bateman’s trademark of writing comically about horrific subjects brought accusations of inappropriate tone, which can only have increased in a time of “trigger warnings” and prepublication “sensitivity readings”. Does he feel his imagination is more constrained? “I’m not aware of being more careful. I think it’s a dangerous way of writing if you are working within such limits. But there is probably, somewhere in there now, an in-built censorship, in that you know there are just things you can’t say. One of my books is called Mohammed Maguire and that wouldn’t be published now. But I am aware of possibly controversial language in the play, and haven’t been asked to change anything.” So is theatre braver than publishing? “It seems so. But I’m going to find out when the play meets an audience.”
Nutcase is striking within Bateman’s output in featuring just a tiny oblique reference to the decades of Northern Irish violence, when one of the many psychiatrists (the two actors share 23 minor characters between them) opens the wrong file and confuses Sean with a bomb victim.
A photographer was allowed into the nuclear bunker below Whitehall – and, recalls Bateman, 'there was a shelf with six books on, including Divorcing Jack. So my novel will survive Armageddon along with cockroaches'
But the writer, who grew up in a loyalist community in Bangor, in Co Down, says that the Northern Irish civil war will always be a central subject for him. He is finishing a childhood memoir, Thunder and Lightning. He holds up to the Zoom screen a photo showing him as a young child wearing a handkerchief mask and sun-glasses, brandishing a branch as if it were a gun and making a "no surrender" victory sign. This was his costume for pretending to be a member of the Ulster Defence Association, the loyalist paramilitary force. "Instead of Cowboys and Indians, we played UDA v IRA. We would dress like that, go out, stop traffic and ask drivers if we could look in their boot."
He is also completing his first novel since 2016’s Papercuts. Like his play, the book, White Widow, draws on startling personal experience, though of a less directly painful kind, fictionalising the bizarre geopolitical afterlife of Bateman’s 1995 debut novel, Divorcing Jack.
During the Northern Ireland peace process, the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party at the time, David Trimble, gave a copy of the book to Downing Street as an example of the "loyalist personality". Years later a photographer was allowed into the nuclear bunker below Whitehall – and, recalls Bateman, "there was a shelf with six books on, including Divorcing Jack. So my novel will survive Armageddon along with cockroaches."
Further years on, the book’s dust jacket turned up on the front page of the London Times. The novelist “thought, My God, what have they got me for?”, but it turned out that Sally-Anne Jones, a radicalised Englishwoman who became a recruiter for Islamic State, had doctored Divorcing Jack’s cover image – showing a nun with a gun in one hand and a Jack Russell in the other – as her identifying photo on social media.
“I’d been involved in the cover as well as writing the book. So it was the idea that, however ludicrously – I mean, how many Jack Russells are there in Isis? – something I’d created had been involved in luring young women to Syria, many of whom died. So White Widow is an exploration of something like that happening to a novelist.”
Having written that novel, Thunder and Lightning and Nutcase over the past 18 months, Bateman senses a change in his interests. "I don't know if it's a lockdown thing – being forced in on yourself – but I seem to want more and more to write about things that really happened." – Guardian
Nutcase opens at Derry Playhouse and online today and runs until Sunday, August 29th
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