49 Donkeys Hanged

Writing 49 Donkeys Hanged

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Ideas come from strange places.

They sometimes arrive classically, as a spark of inspiration. But more often than not they come as an elusive clue, a formless something, a tantalising gift from the gods. They never come fully formed. But if the idea itself glows brighter than all the others, and you realise that it’s something your brain keeps going back to, then that’s the one that wants to be written.

The best ideas fight to live. When they start to clamour for your attention, you should listen.

For me, it started with a headline I saw in South Africa in 1999.

“49 DONKEYS HANGED”.

That set off fireworks in my imagination. I couldn’t stop picturing the scene. I saw the trees in my head. The corpses dangling. Heard the ropes creak and the branches groan. More importantly, it made me ask questions: Who would do such a thing, and why? What drove a person to commit such an absurd and cruel and difficult task?

I spent a number of years try to force a story onto the idea. I relocated it to Cornwall, which felt right. But the idea didn’t want to go down the route I had planned for it. How did I know this? Because it wasn’t getting written. Didn’t want to.

What was happening, however, was a series of the strangest moments of serendipity whilst writing it.

To explain: all I had to go on was the headline, and the name of the South African farmer who did it. Solomon Singo. It was 1999 when I saw the headline and the internet may’ve been coming, but it certainly wasn’t the tool it is now. I’d found found an article in the local paper. Nothing more. All I had was my questions. The why and the how? So it was a head-spinning moment for me when, whilst working on the play in London, I met someone who knew Solomon Singo.

I was staying at my friend’s house in Camberwell. She called me to say she’d be back late, but that her friend was going to stay the night and that I was to let her in. She explained that her friend was on the run and in-hiding from a jealous ex, and that she was coming with her son and her new boyfriend. Sure enough, they arrived. She was understandably wired. We chatted. I heard her story. And her boyfriend’s. He was called Andalay, and he was from South Africa, here, doing political science (if I remember rightly). Incredibly, we started to realise that he had run Johannesberg’s Arts Alive festival in 1999. The same festival that Kneehigh had performed at. That I had performed in. He remembered the show. We realised that we’d met. That was strange enough. But when he asked me what I was doing here in London, I found myself explaining that I was writing a play about a headline I saw whilst over there. He asked me what the headline was. I told him.

“49 Donkeys Hanged.”

“Ahh!” he said. “I know the man who did that!”

He told me how nice Solomon Singo was, and how he’d had no choice. How his crops were being trampled by wild donkeys. How the authorities hadn’t helped him. I almost didn’t want to know all this new information. I was frightened it would kill the mystery. But it was also extraordinary learning more about Singo and his situation.

What struck me about this insane chance meeting in Camberwell (dripping in coincidences which all started on the other side of the world, you understand) was that this felt more interesting than the story I was trying to shoe-horn in. The idea liked all this stuff. Reality impinging. Process as structure. Me being a character in the writing of it. And so, the play started to change shape. The more I listened and trusted the idea, the more the writing happened.

It actually jumped mediums just after this, and, just over ten years ago, become a radio play for BBC3’s The Wire. It was directed by the brilliant Claire Grove, who’s clarity and incisiveness helped it find its first iteration. But I always knew that it should be a stage play.

So when I got the chance to look at this again, I made sure I listened to the idea. And it’s a real thrill, after all these years and after various provenances and bizarre chance encounters, to see it finally made real.

Ideas come from strange places.

But they should always be listened to.

49 Donkeys Hanged is a Theatre Royal Plymouth Production in The Drum 23 March – 7 April, tickets are available to purchase here or via our Box Office 01752 267222

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