In their new play Bathory Begins, co-writers Emme Hoy and Gretel Vella transpose the story of one of history’s most prolific mass murderers into a contemporary Australian classroom setting.
What’s more, they do it for laughs.
So, the first question has to be, simply, ‘why?’
Emme: We both were really interested in the idea of writing exciting comedy parts for women. There’s a real scarcity of them, I think – particularly for young women. And then we stumbled across the story of Elizabeth Bathory de Ecsed.
Can you tell us who Bathory is?
Gretel: She was a 16th century Hungarian noblewoman and to this day, she holds the Guinness World Record for the most prolific female murderer. It’s said that Bathory killed over 650 young girls during her lifetime. Emme and I both decided her story was too good to pass up.
It doesn’t exactly sound like a set-up for comedy …
Emme: She’s fascinating because she was a noblewoman who killed peasant girls, apparently. And then she would bathe in their blood … So it’s not exactly funny but it’s very strange.
Gretel: And her fondness for younger victims got us thinking about her existence today. If Bathory were reincarnated, what would happen if she took a job as a schoolteacher? And how would her young students fight back against this evil priestess of the night?
Emme: I guess what’s funny is the setup of this story. We have five public school students who are being told that all the girls who have gone missing from their class have been sent home because they have head lice. But the girls are convinced that it’s their art teacher who is killing their classmates, so they decide to take her down. Which is right at the moment a group of private school boys on an outreach program come to visit the school. All the comedy kind of flows from the moment.
So there’s a class thing going on here? Socio-economic class, I mean.
Emme: Well, the story goes that Elizabeth Bathory was able to kill so many times because her victims were peasant girls. My understanding is that though she went to prison, she was never executed because she was rich.
The public school we’ve set the story in is a pretty run-down one and the boys are from a very expensive private school. So there’s a real clash of culture and class, which is something that Gretel and I were very interested in writing about, because in Australia, we have this myth that there is no such thing as social class. Yet class is something that’s very apparent in the education system. We literally sort kids based on their ability to pay a certain price for their education.
But we’re not making fun of private schools. It’s more of a commentary on the way kids are stratified into social classes so early and that there are advantages to that as well as disadvantages. And we’ve tried very hard to be even-handed with our comedy. The boys and the girls both get a lot of fun poked at them.
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Why is it important to you to write works for young people?
Gretel: We are of the firm belief that young people need to see themselves on our stages. In the process of growing up, it’s easy to feel like you don’t belong, or that no one else is experiencing the hardships you are. Sometimes all it takes is connecting with a story, or seeing a character like you, to make you feel comfortable in your own skin.
Emme: And one of the great things about an ATYP Foundation Commission is that you have to write for a large cast. Juggling all those parts is actually quite exciting and a technical challenge, too, because you want to make sure all the characters have an arc and satisfying moments with each other.
Is writing comedy for young audiences different to writing for older audiences?
Emme: We actually had a really wonderful process. We had three readings with local schools and we got wonderful feedback from them – things that really helped us figure out which jokes were landing and which jokes we thought were current needed to be updated to 2019. Like, who knew that Voss is the posh water, right now?
There’s a lot of gender politics in the play because we have a girls’ school and a boys’ school and we are attempting to subvert ideas of what young women should act like and behave like. And the young people who saw the readings were very aware of that and really loved the characters we’ve written.
It’s been so great to write something silly and absurd but which also has some depth. Between us, Gretel and I have both seen the whole spectrum of the Australian school system and we’ve been able to write about it very affectionately.
Bathory Begins plays in the Allan Mullins Studio at The Joan Sutherland Performing Arts Centre, Penrith, September 11-21.