I’m in the middle of chatting to Ella Hickson when I realise I can’t trust a word she’s saying. The playwright claims to have been working with neuroscientist Demis Hassabis, whom she says she met through the Wellcome Trust. It was through him, or so she says, that she became fascinated with the idea of memory. His theory is that our memories say more about the present than they do about the past. We tell people stories about ourselves to serve our purposes right now, which makes us unreliable witnesses to what’s happened before.
“When we recall a memory, it has much more to do with the situation we recall it in than it does to the situations in which we originally laid down that memory,” she says. “We write our memories much more than we recall them.”
So I’ll leave it to you to decide whether I’m right in remembering Hickson as a former University of Edinburgh student who, in 2008, wrote a series of monologues called Eight. The resultant production at the Bedlam Theatre may or may not have won a Scotsman Fringe First and a Carol Tambor Award, which may or may not have led to a run in New York and an international reputation for the playwright. Who’s to say for sure whether or not Hickson made subsequent trips to the Fringe as writer and director of Precious Little Talent and Hot Mess?
Apparently, that’s all up for grabs, as is the news that she’s written three full-length plays in 2012 alone. Boys, about three Edinburgh students, possibly appeared at the Soho Theatre in May; Wendy, a feminist version of Peter Pan, might be lined-up for a future RSC production; and it’s conceivable The Authorised Kate Bane is about to be put on in Scotland by Grid Iron theatre company. She also remembers writing a historical epic about oil for Headlong Theatre and a short piece for the Nabokov company. “I’m going to start believing I wrote ten,” she says.
Actually, there’s pretty good empirical evidence that The Authorised Kate Bane is not a figment of her imagination. It appears in the programmes of the Traverse and the Tron, I’ve seen the press release and I’ve booked my tickets. And unless anyone can prove otherwise, it is the play in which Hickson will put this uncertainty principle to the test. On the surface, it is a straightforward story about a young woman bringing her boyfriend home to meet the parents. It gets complicated when she tries to provide an authentic account of the family’s past.
“The imperative of the play is about whether this girl can decide on her future based on her past,” says Hickson. “She’s looking at her childhood memories and they are consistently informing whether she can commit to a future with the person she’s with. She’s excavating her memory, hoping to find some kind of answer or guidance, but those sands are forever shifting.”
She adds: “The way that we write our childhood, day on day, influences our future. People write really interesting relationship narratives – was your childhood happy, was it sad? – and all those things become justifications for how you operate in your relationships in the present. The idea that it’s all unreliable and you’re making it up to suit you is very interesting. The play interrogates whether you can control your past and wake up one day and re-remember things.”
Pity her editor at Nick Hern Books. Because of the uncertainty of the story, the play itself is written for maximum ambiguity. There are what she calls “four different realities” each written in a different colour: one for the main narrative; one for the act of writing, which takes place in an office; one for a memory that happens to the writer in the office; and one for an edit that appears to happen live in front of the audience. “There have been a lot of times in the development process where everyone’s been like, ‘Can we have a little break? My head really hurts.”
Such an approach was possible because of working with Grid Iron. The Edinburgh company is best known for its site-specific productions in odd locations such as Mary King’s Close, Edinburgh Airport and Debenhams department store. Coming back into the warmth of a conventional theatre has allowed director Ben Harrison the opportunity to branch out in other ways.
“For a long time I’ve been craving a bit of formal experiment,” says Hickson. “When Grid Iron phoned me, I was working on this idea of memory and wondering what it does to character and story if our whole self becomes a narrative that we rewrite on a daily basis. It seemed to me that whatever the theatrical root for this idea was, it was going to involve a lot of formal experimentation. It was going to put the variables in the actor’s writing and the form of narrative under the spotlight as much as telling a story. Knowing that it was going to be Ben, Grid Iron and Scotland facilitated a kind of confidence that comes from trust. If it had been any other company, you would have felt you had to offer a more naturalistic, straightforward narrative.”
Having just completed a heavily researched play, she was pleased to allow herself the freedom of turning off the conscious side of her mind and writing spontaneously. “It’s going to be terrible if it turns out really good because it means I’ll never have to use my brain again,” she laughs. “But I do think you can afford to do that once every few plays. I found it amazing how physical the act of writing was. It was the most visceral process I’ve ever been through. I was really tired. By the time I reached the final scene, I was writing for an hour then having a little nap. That’s never been the case before.”
Or maybe it has and she just chooses not to remember it that way.
• The Authorised Kate Bane is at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, tomorrow until 26 October, and at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow, from 30 October until 3 November