Interview: Polly Teale director of Speechless
A chilling true story of two twins locked in a world of self-imposed silence is brought to the stage by Shared Experience and opens at the Arcola Theatre this week.
The sisters, June and Jennifer Gibbons, spoke only in the privacy of their own bedroom and lived in a turbulent co-existence until Jennifer's death in 1993.
Desperate for recognition and fame, they committed petty crimes and arson, and were sent to Broadmoor high security hospital.
Director and co-writer Polly Teale accepts there is a high level of responsibility that comes with dramatising such a work based on real events.
She said: "Morally there are some complicated questions. What I hope is that anyone seeing the play will leave with more of an understanding of the twins and see behind the freak show.
"My feeling was that if we were going to tell this story we would have to do it justice. We had a responsibility to get to the truth."
After watching a documentary about the girls' lives and reading their story in The Silent Twins by Marjorie Wallace, Teale wrote Speechless with Linda Brogan.
Teale said: "We focus on a very specific slice of their lives from childhood to adolescence between 14 and 17. It's a very critical time. The biological needs kick in, they start to fancy boys and question what they will do in the future.
Their lives in early '80s Wales were curious. "When they were out of their bedroom they were completely silent, moving in unison, their faces almost impenetrable.
"Once back in their room they were a hive of industry, writing novels and radio programmes and creating these great sagas for their dolls.
"They had a rich and vivid imaginary life and the contrast between the two states was theatrically interesting as well as being fascinating."
Speechless attempts to resolve why two girls with such potential ended up committing violent crimes and being incarcerated in Broadmoor Hospital for 14 years.
Teale said: "There is inevitably a freak show element to the story so we thought it was important to try to understand. It emerged they were very badly bullied at school, so much so that they left each day 15 minutes early and didn't go out on break times.
"They were the only black family in Haverfordwest where they lived and being twins their decision seems somehow logical."
Translating the story onto the stage proved a challenge. The creative team needed to find a way to present the claustrophobic, co-dependent environment.
Teale said: "The play starts in Broadmoor and goes back to when the twins were 14.
"They slept on bunk beds and that is the only piece of scenery. The bedroom looks burnt-out, as a premonition as to what would happen.
"There is a tension between inside and outside - the bedroom is a place of refuge and safety and also a prison.
"We started thinking about the bigger story. Their mum and dad had come over from the Caribbean in their 20s where their father had been at a school which was like an English public school.
"That aspiration explains why they might have struggled. We were trying to explore what it felt like to be placed in a society that you aspired to join and then be rejected by it."
Set against the backdrop of the early '80s, Teale has drawn further conclusions about the girls' struggle.
"The second half is set on the day Lady Diana gets married, which also happens to be around the time of the Brixton riots," she said. "It was almost as if they were having their own riot in Haverfordwest.
"The family were royalist so there was a contradiction in their desire to belong.
"They did everything they could to assimilate yet they didn't and it left them lonely and isolated. The girls had no voice, no role models and, as a consequence, didn't speak.
"When black families emigrated in the '50s and '60s they were told they were coming home. We are still coming to terms with the fact that was not the case."
■ Speechless, Arcola Theatre, £18 (£11), 7.30pm, until Nov 19, arcolatheatre.com.