Haunting Julia / Snake In The Grass: All You Need Is Love (2008)This article was commissioned by the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, for the Things That Go Bump season in 2008.
“They’re really about children, their parents and what they occasionally do to each other and to innocent bystanders - all in the name of love. Not much change there.”
There are many things to be afraid of in Snake In The Grass: the encroaching darkness, voices from the past, tennis balls….
But the main thing to be afraid of is love.
Beyond the thrills and chills of Snake In The Grass and its companion, Haunting Julia, these are plays driven by the nature of love, about how we hurt those we love and the relationship between fathers and daughters.
If this does not sound like the stuff of nightmares, think that at the point the hairs prick on the back of your neck, it’s not just due to whatever lurks beyond the bedroom or garden of these plays; it’s because when things start to go bump, we are scared because we know just where the bumps are coming from.
For what haunts these plays is neither supernatural nor extraordinary; it is all too natural and ordinary. Which is, of course, far more frightening.
The horrors which lurk beyond Julia’s bedroom or the Chester’s garden are disturbing because we recognise and understand where they come from.
What looms above both these plays is the love of two fathers for their daughters and all the damage that does. Love, as the saying goes, hurts. In Ayckbourn plays, it cuts and tears, crushes and scares. It dominates Haunting Julia and Snake In The Grass; scratch beneath the surface and it isn’t ghosts which appear, but raw mental and physical wounds of love.
It is rare in Ayckbourn plays to see the father / daughter relationship put under the knife, yet Haunting Julia and Snake In The Grass represent two of the most intimate portrayals of parents and children in any of his plays; all the more extraordinary considering one half of the equation is missing from each play. Julia and the Chester sister’s father may not be present in the flesh, but they are never out of view.
Both characters are raised from the dead - perhaps figuratively, perhaps literally - through the memories of those left behind and the repercussions of actions many years before: a suicide in Haunting Julia, abuse in Snake In The Grass.
For this being Alan Ayckbourn, the fathers’ love is not altogether that which we would hope. While some of their actions are understandable, such as how we walk the tightrope between protecting our children and still giving them the freedom they need to develop, other decisions are less readily understood.
In Haunting Julia, the father is a down-to-Earth, Yorkshire-born man who is in no way equipped to care for his genius daughter. All too believably, his overcompensation leads to alienation and ultimately, at least to his eyes, the most absolute rejection of love imaginable. Amongst the wreckage of a life obsessed with a dead daughter, Joe’s misguided love and desire to find answers is perfectly understandable.
Blind to his desire and with the spirit of Julia apparently trying to reach him, he turns to Julia’s boyfriend and a psychic to essentially create a séance, determined to tear answers from beyond the grave with little consideration the truth may bring unwanted and unexpected answers.
In Snake In The Grass, Miriam and Annabel’s father’s love is of the other extreme and even more chilling in its familiarity: a driving desire for children to achieve and perhaps punishing his daughters for not being the sons he wanted. The ultimate ‘pushy’ parent, Father’s abusive love, visited upon his children in different ways, can never be escaped and is carried into adulthood. The sins of the father are never far away in this play and in some cases are still being played out with others assuming the role Father has vacated. The Chester sisters are looking less for a way to contact their father than to exorcise him.
Ultimately, both plays offer us images of parents one does not want to imagine, but all too easily can. Both fathers would say their actions came from love and a desire to do what is best for their children: how they demonstrate that love may be poles apart from each other, but each has terrible repercussions.
The critic John Peter once said Haunting Julia was “Very much a play for the living”; for all their supernatural overtones, these plays are all too human in their concerns. The real horror is not in the ghosts raised by the plays, but the way the living treat the living.
All apparently for love.
Copyright: Simon Murgatroyd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.