Rome, 78 BC. The ruler of Rome, Sulla, has just died. He has been much loved and much hated. Loved, because he has cut inflation and interest rates and restored public order. Hated, because he has achieved this by repressing the working-classes and lowering expenditure on the poor. When he dies, the professional mourners who are asked to wail at his state funeral don't like the idea of weeping and tearing their hair for someone who caused them so much grief while he was alive, and they threaten to strike. This brings about massive retaliation from Pompey (Sulla's political heir) - which falls mostly on the head of the heroine, Macu, the woman who has led the wailers' protest. To teach the wailers a lesson, Pompey orders his followers to start a fire in the part of town where they live - a fire in which Macu's daughter dies.
Written in a contemporary language representing Rome as somewhere which resembles a modern, polyglot, violent city with powerful competing interests and a large under-class, the play is a portrait of a divided nation. It's also about Macu and her anger. What's she supposed to do with it? When can she grieve?
First produced at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow, 13th October 1990. It was directed by Michael Boyd and designed by Rae Smith. The cast was Rosaleen Pelan (Macu), Billy McColl (Wocky), Ross Dunsmore (Pompey / Rufus / Butter), John Stahl (Crassus / Sorcha / Size), Jennifer Black, (Emilia / Jalata / Nuddy), Hilary McLean (Marcella / Ayeesha / Phyllida), Anne Lacey (Flood / Ranee / Zuzibarra), Jenny McCrindle (Rana / Laura / Ushla / Sharma), Peter Grimes (Gobber / Grin / Joppa)
I wrote the play while I was living in a part of Glasgow where more than a quarter of the population was unemployed (me among them). It was first produced in 1990 after a decade where politics had clearly been responsible for many private tragedies which could not be put right. And I began it after the leader and the party who had been responsible for those griefs had been triumphantly re-elected for the third time.
I set it in Ancient Rome to give myself and the audience some distance - to remove the story from the party political. It's about the heroine and her grief and her guilt and her anger and whether she can move beyond it.
Macu is a difficult heroine. She has more rage than people like to see in women and when she loses her child she does not express her grief as a "true mother" should. I cannot change that because that's the core of the play - real-life tragedy does not make us sympathetic, it's much more likely to make us remote and difficult.
That's the challenge of the part and the play.