no doubt, like many of you, I was both shocked and sad to hear the news that talented British actor and director, Alan Rickman had died. Like many others, I loved him as Snape in the Harry Potter movies. I had been a fan of his even before he played Severus Snape but what made me love Rickman even more was the compassion he showed in relation to Palestine.
It was Rickman who was the driving behind the play about Palestine solidarity activist, Rachel Corrie, who was murdered by Israel in 2003. Rickman turned Rachel Corrie's emails, letters and diaries into a one woman tour-de-force play about Palestine, love, compassion and solidarity.
He directed the first production of the play, which took the name "My Name is Rachel Corrie" and it won the new play prize at that year's Theatregoers' Choice Awards in London. Rickman later slammed the censorship of the play in the USA. Today, My Name is Rachel Corrie has been staged around the world and seen by thousands upon thousands.
Rickman recognised the demonisation of Rachel Corrie by pro-Israel apologists and Zionists and sought to redress that imbalance saying, "“We were never going to paint Rachel as a golden saint or sentimentalise her, but we also needed to face the fact that she’d been demonised. We wanted to present a balanced portrait".
In the face of pro-Israel censorship of the play, Rickman defend both Corrie and her participation in the struggle for a free Palestine saying: "Rachel Corrie lived in nobody's pocket but her own. Whether one is sympathetic with her or not, her voice is like a clarion in the fog and should be heard".
Rickman's stance on Palestine (via the play) of course stands in stark contrast to that of Harry Potter author, J K Rowling, who recently came out condemning the Palestinian non-violent Boycott Divestment and Sanctions campaign. While Rickman had not signed on publicly to the BDS campaign (as far as I am aware), My Name Is Rachel Corrie not only challenged the demonisation of Rachel Corrie but also the demonisation of the people of Palestine and their struggle for justice, human rights and self-detemination."
Rickman's compassion for those struggling for justice and human rights saw him also support the cause of refugee rights. In December 2015 he lent his voice to a fundraising viral video to raise funds for groups who aid refugees in the UK.
Rickman was not only a great talent, he used his talent to help give voice to those whose voices would be marginalised or disenfranchised.
In solidarity, Kim
+++I have included below the statement issued by Rachel Corrie's family on Alan Rickman's death, as well as two articles by Katherine Viner, who worked with Rickman on the production of My Name is Rachel Corrie. The first article is her farewell article to Alan Rickman, which was published today. And the second one is from 2005, about the production of the play.
Via the Rachel Corrie Foundation for Peace and Justice
Working with Alan on a play, I appreciated his vigour and commitment. When we became friends, I came to know his wit, compassion and keen self-mockery – even late at night, in a whisky bar, in Washington DC
It was March 2003 when Alan turned up at London’s Royal Court theatre, clutching an edition of the Guardian’s G2 section featuring the powerful last emails of Rachel Corrie, the American activist killed by a bulldozer in Gaza. Alan had recognised that Rachel’s voice could work brilliantly on stage, and I was commissioned to help him turn her words into a play.
But the theatrical and journalistic worlds are culturally very far apart – the former creative and thoughtful, the latter dynamic and urgent – and, as a Hollywood film star, Alan had been bitten by others in my trade. We had, shall we say, a lot of vigorous debate. Once, when I said something like: “Let’s just get on with it,” he turned to me and said, dripping with flamboyant disdain: ““Dear God, you’re such a fucking JOURNALIST.” We fought. He found me wearisome, then.
But the play we edited together, My Name is Rachel Corrie, had a greater impact than we ever imagined, with two runs at the Royal Court, a West End transfer, and productions around the world, from New York to Haifa. And on the opening night we each admitted that we couldn’t have done justice to Rachel’s words without the other. We’d been a partnership, we agreed, however crotchety.
A friendship was born.
And that was lucky for me, because Alan had a great gift for friendship. He was devoted to a large number of people and would somehow always manage to visit their obscure art exhibition, or phone them at 2am when he heard they were in deep trouble, or attend their opening night even when, as we now know, he was already seriously ill. He threw dinners; he ordered every dessert on the menu if you couldn’t decide.
I once asked if a friend, a teacher from Huddersfield, could cook for him so that she could put it on her CV – “cooked for Alan Rickman” (it made sense at the time). He not only said yes, but acted as her sous-chef and rustled up a top politician and a Hollywood actor as fellow guests. When asked recently about his proudest Royal Court moment, his answer was not about him: he said it was when he took Rachel Corrie’s parents outside the front of the theatre to show them their late daughter’s name in neon lights.
Different people love Alan as an actor for different reasons – there’s the Truly Madly Deeply crowd, the Die Hard set, those who became obsessed after Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. But his role as Severus Snape in the Harry Potter movies introduced him to a whole new generation. Of course he loved Harry, but as a classical actor he did get fed up with how often it came up. While we were doing interviews for My Name Is Rachel Corrie, Alan would have a rule: they could ask just one Harry question and no more. I remember teasing him: “But Alan, you’re such a wonderful Snape, you’re so good at it!” He turned to me and said, with that languorous diction, “I know what’s required.”
He didn’t mind being teased. His resistance to technology was a running theme (and a way of keeping some privacy in a very public life) until he finally got on email, in 2010, describing himself proudly as a “new computer geek”. From then we’d all receive witty little notes or occasionally, in my case, complaints (particularly about star ratings on Guardian reviews, which in his view made viewers lazy and reviewers power-mad). Like his partner, Rima Horton, a former Labour councillor, Alan was deeply committed to politics – a compassionate Labour man to his core.
He had been recognised everywhere he went for many years, was kind to his fan club (particularly the Arizona branch, who flew en masse to London to see My Name Is Rachel Corrie) and, as one of the Sexiest Men Alive (according to numerous polls), women would stare open-mouthed as he passed.
But the fame reached a new level with Snape. I saw this up close in April, when Alan came to the White House Correspondents’ Dinner as the Guardian’s guest; taking the short walk along a street in Washington DC from the event to a nearby whisky bar he was accosted by a succession of drunk young people, one woman sobbing loudly while begging for a selfie. (He refused all selfies – a solid rule about dignity. Non-selfie photos were fine.) He recovered quickly, and then stayed up until 3am with us all, discussing Obama, this bloody government, our hopes and dreams, the state of the world, the state of that bar, this life.
The Guardian: Saturday 9 April 2005
There is a particular entry in Rachel Corrie’s diary, probably written some time in 1999, four years before she was killed by an Israeli bulldozer in the Gaza Strip trying to prevent the demolition of Palestinian homes. She is aged 19 or 20. “Had a dream about falling, falling to my death off something dusty and smooth and crumbling like the cliffs in Utah,” she writes, “but I kept holding on, and when each foothold or handle of rock broke I reached out as I fell and grabbed a new one. I didn’t have time to think about anything - just react as if I was playing an adrenaline-filled video game. And I heard, ‘I can’t die, I can’t die,’ again and again in my head.”
Last year, I was asked by the Royal Court theatre to edit the writings of Rachel Corrie into a drama with Alan Rickman, who was also directing. I had read the powerful emails she sent home from Gaza, serialised in G2 in the days after her death, and I’d read eye-witness accounts on the internet. But I didn’t know that Rachel’s early writing - before she even thought of travelling to the Middle East, from her days as a schoolgirl, through college, to life working at a mental-health centre in her home town of Olympia, Washington - would be similarly fascinating, and contain such elements of chilling prescience. Nor did I have a sense of the kind of person Rachel Corrie was: a messy, skinny, Dali-loving, listmaking chainsmoker, with a passion for the music of Pat Benatar. I discovered all that later.
Rachel was killed, aged 23, on March 16 2003, by a Caterpillar D-9 bulldozer, a vehicle especially built to demolish houses. Three decades before, her father had driven bulldozers in Vietnam for the US army. Her death was the first of a string of killings of westerners in Gaza in spring 2003, as the war was taking place in Iraq: Briton Tom Hurndall, 22, shot on April 11; another Briton, cameraman James Miller, 34, shot on May 16. She and Hurndall were activists in the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), an organisation set up “to support Palestinian non-violent resistance to Israel’s military occupation”. Rachel was killed only two days before the start of the assault on Baghdad while the world was mostly looking elsewhere.
She became a martyr to the Palestinians, a victim of their intifada who had stood up to the mighty Israeli army; Edward Said praised her actions as “heroic and dignified at the same time”. But many Israelis considered her at best naive, interfering in a situation she didn’t understand. And to some Americans she was a traitor; websites blared that “she should burn in hell for an eternity”; “Good riddance to bad rubbish”; “I’m thankful she died.”
Those close to Rachel would rather she had not become famous for being the blonde American girl who got killed. As her ex-boyfriend Colin Reese said in the documentary Death of an Idealist: “The person that I knew has been summed up as a bullet point... Everything that Rachel was, every brilliant idea she had, every art project she did, it doesn’t matter, because she has become her death.” Reese committed suicide last year.
In developing this piece of theatre, we wanted to uncover the young woman behind the political symbol, beyond her death. As Alan Rickman, whose idea it was to turn Rachel’s work into drama, says: “We were never going to paint Rachel as a golden saint or sentimentalise her, but we also needed to face the fact that she’d been demonised. We wanted to present a balanced portrait.” We hoped to find out what made Rachel Corrie different from the stereotype of today’s consumerist, depoliticised youth. Having received permission from Rachel’s parents to shape her words into drama, we were sent an enormous package - 184 pages of her writing, most of which had not been seen before.
The material revealed a woman who was both ordinary and extraordinary: writing poems about her cat, her friends, her grand mother, the wind; but also, from a strikingly young age, engaging passionately with the world, trying to find her place in it. The earliest material we have is political; aged 10, Rachel wrote a poem about how “children everywhere are suffering” and how she wished to “stop hunger by the year 2000”. Her juvenilia shows, as Rickman says, that she “already knew what language was. She was witty, a storyteller, she had flights of fancy”. It also shows a rather sweet seriousness, and an insight into the wider world and her place in it. Aged 12, she writes, “I guess I’ve grown up a little. It’s all relative anyway; nine years is as long as 40 years depending on how long you’ve lived”.
In her teens, Rachel started to write about the “fire in my belly” that was to become a recurring theme. She visited Russia, a trip that opened her eyes to the rest of the world - she found it “flawed, dirty, broken and gorgeous”. And she engaged in a striking way with her parents, with writing that beautifully expresses ordinary anxieties about safety and freedom, which become particularly poignant in light of Rachel’s violent death. Aged 19 she wrote to her mother, “I know I scare you... But I want to write and I want to see. And what would I write about if I only stayed within the doll’s house, the flower-world I grew up in?... I love you but I’m growing out of what you gave me... Let me fight my monsters. I love you. You made me. You made me.”
She stewed, in typical late-teens fashion, on her future, and wrote about men and sex, from falling “in love with someone who is perpetually leaving you... and tells all stories as if they are blues songs” to bumping into an ex-boyfriend with his “hoochie-ass” new lover. Her wit was of the sardonic kind, and is one of the main things her friends remember about her.
Rachel’s political evolution gathered pace in her early 20s. She went to Evergreen state college, a famously liberal university in Olympia, itself a famously liberal town. She began railing against how “the highest level of humanity is expressed through what we choose to buy at the mall”. After September 11, she became involved in community activism, organising a peace march, but questioned the wider relevance of what she was doing: “People [are] offering themselves as human shields in Palestine and I [am] spending all of my time making dove costumes and giant puppets.” When she finally decided that she wanted to go to the Middle East, she explained her reason quite specifically: “I’ve had this underlying need to go to a place and meet people who are on the other end of the portion of my tax money that goes to fund the US and other militaries.”
When Rachel arrived in Rafah in the Gaza Strip, as Rickman says, “the rhythm of the writing changes dramatically. She has less time to consider but you can feel the growing fear.” The Gaza dispatches are hard-hitting and intense, representing a profound experience. On arrival in Jerusalem she was shocked to see the Star of David spray-painted on to doors in the Arab section of the old city: “I have never seen the symbol used in quite that way... I am used to seeing the cross used in a colonialist way”. In Gaza, she carried the body of a dead man on a stretcher while the Israeli army shot in front of her, but mostly her activism involved protection: staying overnight in the homes of families on the front line to stop their demolition; standing in front of water workers at a well in Rafah as they they came under fire; “close enough to spray debris in their faces”. (Before her death, Rachel believed, as did many activists, that her “international white person privilege” would keep her relatively safe.) Witnessing the occupation in action inspired in Rachel her strongest writing; in her last days her rage and bafflement at what she saw led to work of astonishing and cumulative power.
But the quantity of the material left us with a series of questions. How much of Rachel’s life before she went to Gaza should we include? And should we quote other people? The trend in political theatre, from David Hare’s The Permanent Way to Victoria Brittain and Gillian Slovo’s Guantánamo, is journalistic: the use of testimony, of interviews and on-the-record material rather than invention.
But for us there could be no re-interviewing to fill in the gaps. We had a finite amount of words to work with, as Rachel was dead. I was very keen to use some of the emails that Rachel’s parents, Cindy and Craig, sent to their daughter while she was in Gaza. They are full of the kind of worries any parent might have if their child was in a dangerous situation, but because Rachel never came home, they have a devastating poignancy. Two weeks before her daughter’s death, Cindy emailed Rachel: “There is a lot in my heart but I am having trouble with the words. Be safe, be well. Do you think about coming home? Because of the war and all? I know probably not, but I hope you feel it would be OK if you did.”
And what about the voices of Rachel’s friends? I interviewed many fellow ISM activists, most of whom have been deported from Israel since her death. We watched tapes of two of the moving memorial services: one in Gaza, which was shot at by the Israeli army, another in Olympia. We viewed documentaries on the subject, most notably Sandra Jordan’s powerful The Killing Zone, and considered using video grabs. But in the end the power of Rachel’s writing meant that, apart from a few short passages quoting her parents and an eye witness report of her death, her words were strong enough to stand alone.
The challenge, then, was trying to construct a piece of theatre from fragments of journals, letters and emails, none of which was written with performance in mind. It helped, as Rickman says, that Rachel’s writing “has a kind of theatricality. The images jump off the page.” As the process went on, the difference between my usual job, journalism, and theatre, became obvious: stagecraft is what makes theatre what it is, and there was no point creating scenes that read well on the page if the actor playing Rachel, Megan Dodds, could not perform them.
We’ve tried to do justice to the whole of Rachel: neither saint nor traitor, both serious and funny, messy and talented, devastatingly prescient and human and whole. Or, in her own words, “scattered and deviant and too loud”. We chose Rachel’s words rather than those of the thousands of Palestinian or Israeli victims because of the quality and accessibility of the writing: as Rickman says, “The activist part of her life is absolutely matched by the imaginative part of her life. I’ve no doubt at all that had she lived there would have been novels and plays pouring out of her.” The tragedy is that we’ll hear no more from Rachel Corrie.