This week, the first three of five winning plays of a one act playwriting competition will be performed at Newport’s Dolman Theatre.
The plays, presented by Newport Playgoers Society are the winners of a competition held by the society in 2020 while the theatre was closed during lockdown. The prize for the five winners was the production of their scripts now that the theatre is open to the public again.
One of the plays featured on the opening week is Julia Lewis’ comedy satire, Plagued By Doubt, which takes the harsh realities of the recent pandemic and applies them to medieval London as it faces the ravages of the bubonic plague.
Julia is a doctor, as well as a successful local playwright whose work including Dowdy Abbey and Leeches has been produced by Theatre AdHoc and Dramatic Moose, among others.
Here, Julia chats to Thomas Howells about Plagued By Doubt.
Can you tell us about your play, Plagued By Doubt?
Well, we’ve done pandemics before. Because we were in the throes of the current pandemic when I was writing it, I thought back to how did our ancestors cope with things like the bubonic plague? So, it’s about plague and how an ordinary family in London is having to cope with the restrictions of having a very infectious disease ravaging their neighbourhood.
What was the inspiration for Plagued By Doubt?
People always say “Write about what you know.” It does feature a doctor and I am interested in the history of medicine. So, that was the one thing to put in.
I do know some funny little cures from mediaeval times that I thought I’d throw in, but it was a pandemic and we’re in a pandemic. It was literally that connection, let’s take the restrictions or the way we’re having to deal with the pandemic currently, throw them back into mediaeval times and see if we could get a little satirical comedy out of that.
What research did you undertake for Plagued by Doubt?
Well, I can say I’ve got a kind of an interest in the history of medicine. I’d previously written a longer play called Leeches which was about a medieval physician, so I already had a little notebook that was full of strange cures from medieval times.
Many years ago, I read a book called The Physicians of Myddfai that featured real Welsh physicians who worked in the court of one of the Welsh princes. They’ve got some very weird, wonderful cures in their book, so I used a few of those.
You need to refer to an accurate map of what London looked like in medieval times, because if you’re going to say that somebody walked around certain streets, they’ll be someone in the audience that knows the reality. So, you do have to know even simple things like getting maps of London from the 1300s
Were there any challenges you faced while writing the play?
I think probably the biggest challenge is the time limit. Even though you know in the back of your head it’s a 20-minute limit (for a one-act play) you end up with something more like an hour long. So, you really need to cut things. The biggest challenge for a short play is to make every line count and if it doesn’t add to the story it’s got to go.
Can you tell us about the characters?
So, we have Thomas Doubt. Thomas was (prior to the plague) a cart owner, and he would have gone around hiring out his cart in which he transported people around the streets of London. When the pandemic strikes, he has to think about how he can change his money-making venture, so he’s a typical entrepreneur. He turns into a carrier of the dead, so he looks to make money anywhere.
Then there’s his long-suffering wife Edith and their teenage daughter Clara, who is having to cope with lockdown as a teenager. Obviously, we didn’t have proper teenagers back in medieval times but that’s the beauty of satire – you do now!
Finally, there’s Gilbert, Thomas’ brother-in-law, and a physician. He does tend to look down his nose at Thomas. The story basically is how they deal with something that Thomas believes happened and is very worried about, then how they get to the bottom of it!
What other work have you done?
The first play I ever wrote was when I was about 17 years old. I wasn’t doing A-level drama at that time, but I handed it to the drama teacher to look at, then one day the A-level drama kids came up to me and said, “Julia, we’ve just done your play in the lesson!” So, that was the first one that anybody ever did anything with!
Since 2017, I ‘ve been a member of Theatre AdHoc and they’ve done a few of mine. The most recent been a tour of Dowdy Abbey (which people can instantly work out what that was a satire of). Then there’s another called Leeches which was the one I referred to earlier. Then over lockdown, we shifted to Zoom comedies – something I never knew existed before. We’ve done a few comedies online as well.
How does it feel having something you created performed on stage?
It’s nerve wracking. I largely write comedy, so as soon as you have that first laugh you. That’s the beauty of comedy as you get instant feedback from the audience. When you write a drama you don’t know whether it’s any good until afterwards when you go and talk to people. With comedy you hear them laughing, so you know it’s alright.
The beauty is when you’ve created something, then you give it to a director. They add another layer to it and you see things you didn’t realise were there when you wrote it. Then you give it to wonderful actors, and they add another layer to it. So, it comes alive in an interesting way which is different to books and words that are meant to be read rather than acted.
What do you hope audiences will take away from Plagued By Doubt?
I hope they laugh and go out thinking that was a good chuckle!
That’s the beauty of being a comedy writer, it’s just giving people the chance to have a good laugh. Let’s face it, after the last couple of years we could do with a good laugh, couldn’t we?
- The five winning plays will be performed at Newport’s Dolman Theatre over two weeks in groups of three and two plays.
- The Balloon Girls by Adele Cordner, Thanks for Listening Grandad by Niamh Jones and Plagued By Doubt by Julia Lewis will run from Tuesday 23rd until Friday 25th March 2022 at 7:15pm, with a matinee on Saturday 26th March at 2pm.
- Two further winners, Windows by Alice Lynch and Drawing The Line by Ross Salvage will open on Wednesday 6th April and run until Friday 8th April at 7:15pm with a matinee on Saturday 9th April at 2pm.
- To book tickets visit the Dolman Theatre website or call 01633 263670.
- Read more about the Newport Playgoers One-Act Play Festival here.