The Covid Requiem: can theatre play a role in the healing process?

A new collaboration between playwright and performer Jo Clifford and theologian and feminist campaigner Lesley Orr will offer a chance to reflect on the experiences and emotions of the past 18 months, writes Joyce McMillan
Lesley Orr and Jo Clifford at The Shore in Leith PIC: Andrew O'Brien / JPI MediaLesley Orr and Jo Clifford at The Shore in Leith PIC: Andrew O'Brien / JPI Media
Lesley Orr and Jo Clifford at The Shore in Leith PIC: Andrew O'Brien / JPI Media

Sixteen months ago, when the UK’s first pandemic lockdown was just six weeks old, Pitlochry Festival Theatre’s artistic director, Elizabeth Newman, gave an interview to The Scotsman about all that she and her colleagues were doing to try to keep the theatre alive as a creative and community hub, following the sudden shutdown that had caused the complete cancellation of what would have been Pitlochry’s 70th annual summer season.

Newman talked eloquently about the new online work the theatre was commissioning, and its telephone chat service for regular theatregoers feeling isolated; and towards the end of our conversation, she added a few words that stayed with me, like a prediction or a promise. “It’s already obvious,” she said, “that by the time we reopen again, the world will have changed. This pandemic is the kind of event that remains in people’s collective memories for a very long time, and we will need to acknowledge that, in many different ways. And whatever our audiences need, and whatever our artists want to do, my job is to make sure that somehow, this theatre will be here, trying to make that happen.”

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With those words, Newman perhaps became the first of Scotland’s theatre leaders to acknowledge the scale, and the special quality, of the losses people were suffering during the pandemic. And now, after a year and four months which in many ways seems like a lifetime, Newman’s promise to respond to that experience is coming true, thanks to two remarkable women. This month, the playwright and performer Jo Clifford, and the theologian and feminist campaigner Lesley Orr, will join forces to create a special promenade performance called The Covid Requiem, in the glorious woodlands behind the theatre, where the Pitlochry company have now built a lovely amphitheatre space for outdoor performance.

For about an hour, to the sound of music by Duncan Chisholm and Innes Watson, Clifford and Orr will lead an audience of 30 people through the woods to that space, and then back again, pausing at five stations or resting places, to reflect on the many experiences and emotions of the past 18 months; and, for those who want to do so, to speak and remember the names of some of those lost. Both women were drawn to the subject because of their own recent experience of loss – for Clifford of her brother Tony, who died late in 2019, and for Orr of her husband the Rev. Peter Macdonald, of the Iona Community and Broughton St Mary’s Church in Edinburgh, who died suddenly in February 2020, just before the pandemic; and both were struck by the need to acknowledge the profound pain of those who, during the pandemic, were not allowed to be with dying loved ones, and could not mark their passing with anything like a normal funeral gathering.

“There were hundreds of people at Peter’s funeral,” says Lesley Orr. “We knew that the pandemic was coming, and I remember thinking that day how helpful and comforting it was to be able to gather in that way, and how it might soon no longer be possible.”

Clifford had a similar experience, as she wrote and delivered the eulogy at her brother’s funeral. “It made me aware of how important it is for someone’s story to be told, and to be witnessed after their death. So during the first lockdown in spring of last year, I felt very deeply for the families losing people at that time. It seems to me that there is a massive amount of grief being held collectively, without ever having been given proper expression; and it occurred to me that theatre could have a part to play in beginning the process of healing.”

Clifford therefore approached Newman, who in turn suggested she collaborate with Orr, who like her late husband – and her older son, the gifted young actor Lorn Macdonald – is a lifelong theatre enthusiast. They began their collaboration by walking through the Pitlochry woods together, and resolving that the performance should take the form of a journey; and they also began to explore the various religious and spiritual rituals they had encountered in their parallel but very different lives as radical celebrants, in search of new forms of spiritual life. Clifford, for example, makes use of the ritual of holy communion in her internationally acclaimed and much-discussed show, The Gospel According To Jesus Queen Of Heaven; and as a member of the Iona Community, Orr is part of a radical religious movement which tries to create new forms of ritual for our times.

“We looked at traditional funeral services and requiem masses, in preparing for this,” says Orr, “and we are conscious of the comfort people often find in those traditional words. But our aim is to take people with us, and to react to those traditional services, and other mourning traditions, in ways that really hold and carry some of our feelings, at this moment.”

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“There will be many different emotions in our Requiem,” adds Clifford; “grief, and gratitude, and an element of anger, too – protest as well as lamentation. I’ve always been strongly aware of the sacred dimension of theatre, and now I am more certain than ever that theatre has to change, to embrace that role in people’s lives in order to survive.

“And Lesley, from her side, comes from a movement which believes that traditional religious institutions are also failing people, and need radical change. So we’re making something together that we hope will meet some of these needs, at this moment. And of course, there’s something very special about doing this here, in these wonderful woodlands, in September – the time of year that marks the beginning of another cycle of death, and of eventual renewal and rebirth.”

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The Covld Requiem is at Pitlochry Festival Theatre from 15-18 September,

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