The last play in Bryony Lavery: Plays 1 is More Light. It was written for a youth theatre production but tackles subjects some might consider risque for young performers: things like cannibalism, oral sex and castration. I love the fact that Lavery never shies from bold subjects and intense drama, and that she doesn’t ‘write down’ for a young audience. She appreciates that young people think deeply and are probably a lot more interested in gruesome stories than sweet ones.
More Light is the story of an emperor who has an elaborate and ornate tomb constructed for himself. Along with gold, silver and bronze, he also entombs the convicts who built the tomb, the artists and scientists who designed it and, in the inner chamber, his concubines who failed to bear him sons. It’s these concubines who are our protagonists and who tell the story.
All of the concubines, some of them young children, have been given their names by the Emperor. So we have our heroine More Light (because the emperor said her beauty brought more light to the room when she entered), Playful Kitten, Love Mouth, Pure Joy and Perfect Pleasure (to name just a few of the concubines).
MORE LIGHT: The tomb was like this.
The ceiling was the night sky
above the Empire.
Artists painted it the deepest blue.
Their arms ached with the work.
Every star was in its place,
a jewel cut and set by the most precise
The floor was the map of the Empire,
fields, woods, houses, roads, the skill of
gold- and silversmiths,
the three mighty rivers
made, in this tomb,
dry to the touch
and flowing from source to end
by the art of engineers.
This Emperor (who thought of almost everything) killed everyone who knew the location of his tomb, provided his remains with all the pleasures of life, but neglected one thing. He forgot that the concubines sealed into the tomb with his corpse would begin to starve. Once starving they might forget the servitude instilled in them from infancy.
MORE LIGHT: Eat him I say.
The ladies’ eyes go round. Their mouths open in an ‘O’.
Each painted red mouth
in each white-painted face opens.
He is our Emperor.
He has always fed us.
He would not want us to go hungry.
Let us eat him.
The concubines learn to cook and to be resourceful as they find implements to dismember the Emperor and utensils to use for cooking. But once his body is consumed they fall to hunger again and have to move to the next chamber, to feast on the artisans locked therein.
MORE LIGHT: The inner gate is strewn with bones.
The air smells of cooked meat and
The ladies’ faces are no longer white.
The red paint is gone from the mouths.
The skin is dank, yellow and smutted.
Our bellies are round and full as if we bear sons.
This is not a gruesome play, despite its subject matter. The women interred learn to imagine, play and laugh. They create their own art: fragile and beautiful. They are doomed but they are more alive than they’ve ever been.
With a cast of 19, almost all women, it’s a great show for youth theatres or universities to consider.
Publisher: Faber and Faber
Cast: 17F, 2M (although some productions have used mixed casts or all boys to play the concubines)
Read an interview with Bryony Lavery on More Light.