Writer: Edwin Flay
Director: Bernie C. Byrnes
Whenever a writer titles their work after a Shakespearean quote, they are consciously performing an act of allusion: they hope that their audience will recognise familiar words in an unfamiliar context, and bring that meaning to bear on their own work. Numerous authors have gone before writer and performer Edwin Flay in quoting The Bard within their titles: The Fault in Our Stars (John Green), Infinite Jest (David Foster Wallace) and Brave New World (Aldous Huxley), to name but a few. This play, therefore, fits into a wider tradition of literary allusion, but it does so in a way which is subtle and meaningful: just as Portia extols the quality of mercy in The Merchant of Venice, so Edwin Flay examines what it means to be compassionate in the eyes of mass-murderer Harold Shipman.
The premise is compelling, precisely because Shipman is a fascinating figure: his estimated 250 murder victims make him one of the most prolific serial killers ever – and who could resist a piece which purports to uncover his motives? Through this one-man show, Flay and Bernie C. Byrnes attempt to do just that: to dissect Shipman’s rationale by delving into his personal past alongside his professional pastimes. But by letting Shipman tell his own story, himself, and on his own terms, they afford Shipman ultimate control over his own narrative. This is an ambitious move which has several pay-offs, but also creates a couple of narrative shortcomings.
On one hand, this autobiographical format allows Shipman to humanise himself: at various intervals in the play, Shipman will temporarily interrupt his confession to recall his youth, and his fractured relationship with his terminally ill mother. These moments of spliced narrative are artfully done: the lighting switches from the cold, white light of a hospital, to the warm orange light of the home. The play then moves just as quickly back to the main-narrative. It is within these moments of fracture that Flay most excels at playing the serial killer, alternating between naïve youth and quixotic murderer without skipping a beat. His physical expressions are carefully attuned to these two states: for the young Shipman, he is tense and awkward, and for the older Shipman he is more polished and articulate, occasionally breaking out into wide-eyed anger.
On the other hand, there were some aspects of this self-narrativization that did not work so well. Shipman is clearly a complex character, and yet when describing his own motives, his speech frequently descends into cliché. His overriding justification for his murders – reiterated several times throughout the play – is that ‘most people lacked my clarity of vision’, and that taking away their pain was to perform a kindness by ‘giv[ing] them certainty’. At one point, Shipman even delivers an encomium on euthanasia, describing it in lofty and beautiful terms. This feels unconvincing, in part because Flay’s writing never delves further than this superficial justification of compassion through certainty.
Perhaps this was Shipman’s ultimate motivation, and Flay, who extensively researched Shipman’s career, is likely to know better than anyone. But this project, which ambitiously attempts to chronicle the breadth of Shipman’s life, perhaps sacrifices this depth for a more comprehensive overview of the murderer’s history. However, this is only a small flaw, and it’s more than compensated for by a compelling performance from Flay, who keeps the audience captive through his imaginary dialogues with patients and his usage of the minimalistic props which make up his prison cell.
Philosopher Hannah Arendt describes ‘the banality of evil’ – the idea that maliciousness does not always externally manifest itself in malicious people, who may superficially appear normal. Flay and Byrnes clearly had this in mind with the initial depiction of Shipman, whose eminently reasonable image (cardigan, glasses, polished bedside manner) is at odds with the man we know him to be. But as the play goes on, the audience are given a better sense of the insidious methods with which this man took his victim’s lives.
On top of all this, the names of all his victims are projected onto a screen behind the stage – their numbers gradually multiplying to overwhelming proportions. It’s a beautiful touch by the production team, and one which ensures that this play functions as a tribute to all of Shipman’s victims, as well a deeper dive into the character of the man himself. Ultimately this play should be seen as a biographical history of Shipman, rather than a psychological analysis: it is most effective at explaining how he became a murderer, rather than why, and it does so in a way that is comprehensive, detailed and compelling.
Runs until 8 October 2022