Max Roberts, reflects on his journey, and that of the development of the play, Clear White Light
I first came to Newcastle in the early of Autumn of 1973 to study drama at what was then Northern Counties College on Coach Lane in Benton (now part of Northumbria University). To my mind Tyneside seemed an attractive place - a long way from home and the beginning of a new chapter in my life.
The band Lindisfarne were part of that early experience – their music seemed distinctive and representative of the new culture I had begun to inhabit. The opening song in Clear White Light epitomises that:
‘I can see it all now falling into place, we can leave all our troubles behind. You can tell at a glance by the look on my face that it’s really whippin‘ up my mind.
And It’ll be alright we’ll have a drink on a Friday Night. It’ll be oh so good, we’ll do everything that I know we should.’
But it wasn’t just good time rock ‘n’ roll music, the songs were lyrical and political; they contained a pride of place and a distinctive sound that fused 70’s rock, blues and traditional influences with a lyrical content clearly influenced by Guthrie, Dylan and The Beatles.
Alan Hull, the leading song writer of the group, whose songs have inspired this play was one of the most talented and original song writers of his generation, nationally and internationally, but a Geordie through and through.
In my ambition to become involved in theatre I was lucky enough to be taught and inspired by a fantastic playwright called C.P, Taylor. Later Tom Hadaway and Alan Plater shaped my sensibility and vision as a director of plays and I was privileged to be able to develop my craft and direct shows by all three of those brilliant writers.
What those guys taught me was to find out about the place that I was living and working in. Its history, its culture, its politics, its landscape, its literature and to keep abreast of the issues and concerns that effect its people.
As the Artistic Director of Live Theatre, Newcastle upon Tyne, I needed to harness the above into a policy and a mission. I soon realised that if I was going to succeed in achieving my aims I was only ever going be as good as the writers, actors and artists I worked with. Theatre is a truly collaborative process.
I eventually managed to activate a vision that sought out talented writers who shared my sensibility and who wanted to write about the constituency Live Theatre serves. A new generation of writers following in the slipstream of Cecil, Tom and Alan’s prodigious talent came through, along with a wave of actors, artists and arts administrators who helped the theatre to thrive and flourish.
Memorable plays came into being by fine writers including Lee Hall, Julia Darling, Pater Straughan, Paul Sirett, Shelagh Stephenson, Michael Chaplin, Sean O’Brien, David Almond, Paddy Campbell, Patrick Marber and most recently DC Jackson and Alex Oates.
Clear White Light has been ‘in development’ for several years. I was lucky enough to work once with Alan Hull before his untimely death, but have known Ray Laidlaw for some considerable time, and I’m now delighted that our joint ambition to create a play with Alan’s music has come to be. Ray and I wanted to find a vehicle for Alan’s songs that would not only interest fans of our generation but a new and younger audience who would enjoy discovering the music for the first time.
Paul Sirett was the writer who has made it happen. We had collaborated successfully in the past and Paul has a real skill in creating theatre that harnesses popular music. A chance meeting where we discovered a shared love of the music of Lindisfarne finally triggered the project. Paul’s undertaken several drafts and we had a few false starts along the way - but we kept going back to Alan’s music and then Paul remembered a story Ray had told us about ‘the early years’ of the band and a quote he uncovered by Alan.
‘We are all on the brink of drowning in a sea of madness’
Many of his songs are about society’s outsiders, the dispossessed and oppressed. There are songs about love, loneliness, regret and depression and others are angry anthems of injustice. And of course, there are quirky and funny ones inspired by the culture of Alan’s beloved Tyneside.
Before Alan joined up with Ray, Simon Cowe, Rod Clements and Ray Jackson to form Lindisfarne, Alan worked as a mental health nurse at St. Nicholas Hospital in Gosforth; by his own admission he wasn’t the best nurse in the world, but he played the piano and sang songs with the patients and Ray said he let the old fellas keep their socks on when they went to bed, which they appreciated. I suppose we might call all that ‘therapy’ today. He also read Edgar Allan Poe stories on the long night shifts. A Poe story The Fall of the House of Usher struck a chord and inspired the song Lady Eleanor. And when returning home one day after a shift he played his wife the embryonic version of a song that gives the show its title Clear White Light.
Thus, the premise for the play came to fruition. We certainly didn’t want to create a ‘juke box’ musical stringing together the ‘hits songs’ but rather create a contemporary drama that explored issues around mental health and caring in an accessible manner where the songs and Alan’s lyrics became an integral part of the narrative.
I thought it was an appropriate gesture to offer up the direction of the play to our new Artistic Director Joe Douglas and he was delighted to take it on as his first production for the company. That was quite a wrench, but it just seemed the right thing to do.
Seeing and hearing the words, action and songs blend together as the play slowly and rather magically comes to life has been uplifting, quite emotional in fact and I can’t wait to see it up and running in front of a packed audience.
I’m thrilled that two established Live Theatre actors (Joe Caffrey and Charlie Hardwick) are back on our stage joined by Bryony Corrigan and Phil Adèle, Alice Blundell and Dale Jewitt, three young, super talented actor / musicians from the region. They’ll be playing alongside Ray Laidlaw and another Lindisfarne member Billy Mitchell who jointly undertake the musical direction of the show. Watching Ray and Billy work with the company – especially the younger actor / musicians has been a joy to behold and I know our audience are in for a real musical treat.
I am looking forward to another ‘special’ night out in a very ‘special’ theatre; Live Theatre, Newcastle upon Tyne.
Emeritus Artistic Director, Live Theatre
Max Roberts has recently stepped down as Live Theatre’s Artistic Director. The Board of Directors have appointed him as Emeritus Artistic Director he supports Live Theatre’s new Artistic Director, Joe Douglas. Max will carry on directing plays and has several in development with some of our audience’s favourite writers and new and emerging talents who are also under commission.
The World Premiere of Clear White Light plays at Live Theatre from Thurs 18 Oct - Sat 10 Nov 2018.