Blurring the boundaries

17th February 2006 at 00:00
David Harrower's play about paedophilia is both bold and provocative says Heather Neill, and it is an ideal starting point for discussions on morality in relationships

Blackbird by David Harrower

Directed by Peter Stein and starring Roger Allam and Jodhi May at the Albery Theatre, London WC2.

Tel: 0870 850 9199

An education pack is available at

sked to name the most contentious issue which teachers might have to tackle in school - especially in the light of recent news reports - many would probably say paedophilia.

A black-and-white case might be difficult enough to deal with, but what if there are ambiguities? Is it ever possible for an adult to take an under-age lover and not be culpable? Should paedophilia always describe such a relationship?

David Harrower's play Blackbird is not a straightforward warning to young girls or a piece of educational theatre - in fact it is probably unsuitable for any but the most sophisticated teenager under 16 - but neither does it make excuses or provide glib answers.

This makes it, for the right group of students, a fascinating subject to study as drama and an excellent starting point for discussion about personal morality and responsibility in relationships. Unusually for a commercial production in a West End theatre, Blackbird has been provided with a probing education pack to start drama, PSHE or citizenship teachers thinking productively.

Una, a woman in her late twenties, is in a messy, litter-strewn room in a factory with Ray, a man in his fifties. It is late in the day and most people have left. They are ill-at-ease with each other and it gradually emerges that 15 years ago they were lovers. Una was 12 at the time.

David Harrower was inspired to write the play (although Blackbird is entirely fictional) by the case of the American Marine Toby Studebaker who corresponded with a 12-year-old on the internet believing her to be 19. He absconded with her in 2001. When exactly he discovered her true age and the extent to which she was complicit remains unclear, but Studebaker was eventually sent to prison.

In the play, Ray was imprisoned for six years and has changed his identity.

Una has found him again after coming across his photograph by chance in a trade magazine.

David Harrower says he is investigating the extent to which a person truly knows himself or herself. He is interested in "how people validate or justify things to themselves, and what time does to memory and love. We never see the child Una was, but people make suppositions about children."

He makes it clear that this is not an apologia for paedophilia. "But in the real world relationships happen in which there are more conflicting and subtle emotions than ever appear in the reporting of them," he says.

"This is not a memory play but is about two people negotiating, trying to find the truth. Ray wants to put a positive spin on what happened, but whether he genuinely believes it or whether it is in his best interest to make (Una) believe he does is debatable."

There is a surprise at the end of the play which does not provide a simple answer to questions of culpability, but it may make audiences rethink judgments they have made.

Blackbird requires a high degree of emotional and analytical involvement from the audience. Students will be particularly interested in how Harrower achieves this. For instance, the language used by both Ray and Una is unusually fragmented.

Harrower says: "They are stuttering towards something, two people circling around each other and the memory of who they were." Interestingly, he didn't plan in advance what they would say on their moral positions. "It's odd; as soon as they came alive they stood their own ground."

There isn't even a particular event in the play. We see the characters both as "wrestling over the event in the past" and also as the adults, the sexual beings they are now.

Harrower introduces diversions - people walking past the window, the lights going out, litter to play with - to keep the audience's concentration. The litter (in retrospect) he acknowledges is a metaphor for abandonment and the mess the events of 15 years ago have caused; a good example for students of how theatre can combine reality and metaphor.

The education pack provides details about the responsibilities of different specialists on the production, including designer, composer, voice coach and fight director. It gives a synopsis and analysis of the play and a guide to "hot seating" (examining in role) the two characters.

Both actors, the director and writer have been interviewed and there is a discussion of the issues raised by the play and the role of the director in expressing them as well as practical suggestions and games to help the student appreciate such elements as the language of the piece and the way power shifts between Ray and Una.

David Harrower is a writer whose work is known for its ambiguity. This presents an opportunity for students and teachers who relish the contribution the audience brings to a theatrical experience.

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today