The play takes its name from an inscription on the Masjid Mosque on Brick Lane, which in its time has been a Huguenot Church, a Methodist chapel and a Jewish synagogue. The inscription on its sundial, Umbra Sumus, Latin for ‘We Are Shadows’ is a fitting tribute to the imprint such changes have left on the psychology and fabric of east London, and the unique inheritance bestowed on each successive generation of young east Londoners.
The play itself is a series of stylised interwoven monologues for nine characters all aged 16 or 17. This form was initially a response to a request from Half Moon’s schools, and its own youth theatre, who were struggling to find monologues for characters of this age to polish up into audition pieces for college and other drama groups. But rather than simply dash off nine unrelated speeches I wanted to use the opportunity that this form afforded to expose some of the invisible links which connect people in areas of high density living. The result is a sort of solo La Ronde (without the sex) where the actions of one character have a profound effect on the life of the following character, whether they are aware of it or not.
The theme of The Shadow running through the play was in place very early on. In thinking about this image as a metaphor I first looked up a dictionary definition, and was surprised (and pleased) to find that there are about 20 entries for ‘shadow’. There is of course the obvious patch of shade caused by a blocked light source, but it can also mean a person’s ‘dark half’ or a spectre or ghost. ‘Shadow people’ and ‘shadow demons’ appear in many of the world’s oldest mythologies. It can also mean shelter or protection - ‘seeking solace in the shadow of the church’. It can be a premonition, ‘a shadow of things to come’. It can mean an exhausted or half-dead individual, ‘a shadow of his former self’. It can mean both a repressive dominating presence in one’s life (‘he overshadows you’) and an admiring positive youngster who follows you around (‘he’s your shadow’). As an image it litters our language.
As a symbol of the psychological struggles we face in our teenage years it seemed appropriate. You only have to open the papers for another story of teenage violence, be it murders, rapes and assaults or suicide and self-harm. This isn’t the totality of being a teenager of course, but it is this visible manifestation of when things go most horribly wrong that gets the media attention. I’m not a psychologist, but it seems to me that some crucial battle is happening here, as young human beings transform from children into adults. The struggle that takes place at this age against one’s own personal darkness, of whatever form, often dictates the outcome of the rest of our lives. Sometimes we overcome our shadows and sometimes we don’t. In the play, I wanted to show examples of both.
I’m very interested in why, as a species, we tell stories. It’s interesting that so many of the stories we tell are aimed at the young. I’ve just finished reading the extraordinary book The Seven Basic Plots by Christopher Booker. It’s a truly monumental piece of work that took him 30 years to complete. It not only examines each archetypal story form in turn (Overcoming The Monster, Rags to Riches, The Quest, Voyage and Return, Comedy, Tragedy, and Rebirth) but then moves onto a fascinating analysis of what these forms - evident across all barriers of time, geography and culture – tell us about human psychology. It’s hard to do justice to the breadth of his thinking here, but in short, he concludes that almost every ‘dark force’ in a story is in some way representative of the human ego, and its destructive effects on individuals and whole societies if left unchecked. Booker asserts that the words ‘hero’ and ‘heroine’ contain the same etymological root as the word ‘heir’, and concludes ‘the hero or heroine is he or she who is born to inherit; who must grow up as fit to take on the torch of those who went before. Such is the essence of the task laid on each of us as we come into this world. That is what stories are trying to tell us.’
Facing our dark half, our Shadow or Ego, experiencing its power, and learning how to control it, is how we become fully human. We all have to go through this in one form or another before we can become fully mature and take up our place in an adult society. It is the responsibility of the existing adults in society to help their young people in this difficult process by providing safe spaces where this can take place, alongside empirical guidance and positive role models - as those who have come through it themselves and not only survived, but grown and prospered.
Theatres are one such space, and the stories we tell there are our maps for this journey. They are a humanist bible, available for study by anyone who wants to know the workings of the heart and mind of our species. Often they are cautionary tales, but just as often they are celebrations of the rewards that await those who prevail. They chart every possible outcome of this struggle, from the most triumphant to the most disastrous. We should tell them to our young people with honesty, with pride, and with love.
I hope that We Are Shadows might be one small contribution to this immense cartography of life.