Brighton Fringe 2018
Maybe the best way to approach Myra Hindley is as theatre.
Myra is a true twentieth century icon – ‘Evil’ personified. The newspaper photograph of her stern face and blonde hair is seared into the British psyche, so much so that when Marcus Harvey’s large painted reproduction (built up out of children’s handprints) was exhibited at the 1997 ‘Sensation’ exhibition there were angry protests and the artwork itself was damaged. That photograph makes Myra look like an SS concentration camp guard, and indeed Myra and Ian Brady had developed a taste for Nazi atrocities and torture, reading ‘Mein Kampf’ and the Marquis de Sade, while Myra bleached her hair to look more ‘Aryan’.
But this is also the devoutly Catholic woman Lord Longford found to be ‘a delightful person’, and who formed deep romantic and sexual attachments to several fellow prisoners, and prison officers, during her incarceration. In 1979 she wrote a 30,000 word ‘confession’ as part of an attempt to get parole from her life sentence, only to dismiss it nine years later as ‘a pack of lies’. A fellow prisoner described her as ‘a chameleon figure who could be whatever people wanted her to be’ . . .
It seems to me that we must always regard Myra Hindley as an actress.
As we entered the theatre the stage was completely bare apart from two black cubes, each big enough for Myra to sit on. All in black, with her platinum-blonde hair cut rather shorter than Hindley’s photo, hands in her lap and looking down at her feet. Then the lights came up and she started to tell us about herself. Lauren Varnfield has played icons before. A few years ago on this same Rialto stage she gave us a drug-ravaged Marilyn Monroe, trapped with Arthur Miller in their disintegrating marriage in ‘Reno’. Another blonde; that one was an actress – was this one an actress too?
Varnfield wrote this piece as well as playing the character, and most of it is in Myra’s own words, so we must assume that she drew on the long confession which Hindley wrote in prison. She talked about the killings of the five children, but always with herself in a minor role – enticing the target into the van, then sitting waiting while Ian Brady took them off to kill them.
Varnfield is slimmer than Hindley looks in photographs, but she put on a light though convincing Mancunian accent to become a very believable Myra. Never still for long – restlessly moving around the stage, sometimes staring intently at the audience to convince us of some fact, then looking down or away as she was forced to remember a more painful event. A monologue, but broken up into short phrases with pauses between as she seemed to search for the right words – or maybe navigating rounds bits of memory that couldn’t be faced full-on. Sometimes her voice became very quiet and she seemed terribly vulnerable. She told us that she was just eighteen when she met Brady and they had sex, although it seems that it was more like a rape – “That was my first time”. As Brady left, he’d turned to her and said “You’re mine now, Myra, and you’re going to do exactly as I say. Do you understand?”
She fell completely under Brady’s spell. “Pleasing Ian Brady was what I lived for”. “When you make someone happy, nothing else matters, because I feel like I’m the only person that could do it”. These are the classic symptoms of low self-esteem, intensified in Myra’s case because Brady was a very violent man, to her as well as to others. But she found it intoxicating – “You really know you’re living, when you live in fear. It makes you awake, alert, alive”. The low self-esteem that keeps so many women tied in abusive relationships – and that leads to the deaths of many at the hands of their partners. At one point she listed the victims – “Pauline, John, Keith, Lesley-Ann, Edward”. After a short pause she added … “Myra”.
What’s clear is that Myra was pliable enough to fall in with whatever Brady wanted, while having someone accept his behaviour unconditionally encouraged the already brutal man to develop his passions even further. A vicious circle of reinforcement. By the time she was twenty-three, the couple were prepared to kill people.
I wanted to know more about her early life. Lots of women are in abusive relationships but very few of them become killers. What made her disposed to murder? It seems that her father was a ‘hard man’, an ex-soldier who toughened her towards violence. Hindley doesn’t mention any of this, though, and Varnfield doesn’t speculate, or indeed give us much information at all except that Myra was brought up by her grandmother and didn’t see much of her mother.
But – almost all the production’s lines are taken from Myra’s own words, so can we trust them to be true? This is the woman who claims she simply ‘waited’ while Ian Brady did the murders, yet she’s heard on tape helping with the torture of Lesley-Ann Downey. She’s been accused of being a very manipulative person and I think we have to accept that.
The power of this play is that Varnfield gives us Myra exactly as if it was the woman herself, justifying her actions. Towards the end she tells us that she’s found God – “Nobody on this Earth will forgive me … God will”. If Myra is deceiving us, then that’s what Varnfield’s giving us – Myra giving a performance. Like most of us, I was raised on the iconic black and white photograph of Myra Hindley, it was uncanny to see the woman there in the flesh, in front of us.
For this reviewer, that gives a whole extra layer to this production. Lauren Varnfield creates Myra on stage – very believably – but the Myra she brings to life is probably a false Myra, a lie constructed by Myra herself to absolve the real Myra from her guilt. Myra needed us to be convinced of her (relative) innocence – she probably needed to believe it herself, too. It’s gripping theatre. Gripping enough that a friend and I spent over an hour intensely discussing what we’d just seen. We weren’t the only ones.
So, do you want to see a very talented actor playing an iconic figure? – Go and see ‘Myra’.
Will you learn anything about what made the real Myra tick? – That’s something that only Myra herself could have told us – if she had chosen to.