Harold Shipman is one of the most prolific serial killers in modern history, and his actions are still having significant effect on families today, despite his death in prison in 2004. Having direct links to his crimes, actor and playwright Edwin Flay has created The Quality Of Mercy to explore attitudes surrounding death, and the thoughts that drove Shipman to his horrific intentions.
Edwin has answered a few questions about his experience on the show: keep reading to find out more.
What is The Quality Of Mercy about, and what is your role on the show?
The Quality Of Mercy is about the life of Harold Shipman, the doctor in Hyde who rose to infamy when he was convicted of murdering 15 patients. I wrote the play, and I am executive-producing and performing it.
What drew you towards investigative theatre, and the motives of Harold Shipman in particular?
While Shipman's notoriety has faded since his death in 2004, he has been a continuing source of fascination for people interested in criminal psychology because he maintained a complete silence about his crimes. The FBI lists attention seeking as one of the prime drivers of serial killers, but Shipman refused even to acknowledge the years-long inquiry into his career. Given this silence, investigative theatre seemed a natural fit to hypothesise on his psychology: the artificiality of the stage combined with extensive, meticulously detailed research into real events.
Can you tell us a little about your personal perspective and connection to Shipman, and how have you managed to explore the whole picture, rather than specifically just your experiences?
I felt I was in a privileged position to write this play, for two reasons: firstly I was a patient of Shipman's as a small boy, and have (admittedly fragmentary) memories of the man himself. Secondly, my grandmother was one of the victims identified in The Smith Report; I remember clearly the different reactions within the family following the revelation that he was responsible for her death - my mother was quite sanguine about it, as my grandmother had been desperately ill, while my aunt was understandably enraged and profoundly hurt. Having seen two such different reactions led me to realise that Shipman was the perfect vessel to explore themes of euthanasia and justice in a way that would be universal, but informed by personal experience.
Also, the story is not focused on my grandmother - it traces Shipman's entire career, and every one of his victims is acknowledged in a way that I hope will be very affecting for the audience.
How has this fed into the creation of the play, and how have you managed your wellbeing when developing this?
I did feel that the play needed one depiction of a murder, and I felt that the murder of my grandmother was the only one I had any right to re-enact, if that makes sense: there are many surviving relatives who despise his memory to this day, and while I inevitably have to single out some harrowing tales from his life in the narrative, I felt it would be profoundly insensitive to actually stage any other victim's death.
Well-being: that's an interesting question! I had lengthy discussions with my partner Kirsty as I was developing and polishing the script, and she was always ready to talk through the more sensitive issues with me. Going into rehearsals, Bernie C Byrnes (the director) was very aware of my own connection to the play, and made clear that she was happy to work around the scene involving my grandmother until I was ready to tackle it. I certainly found it the hardest scene of the play to learn, and when rehearsing I have to try and approach it as if she was a stranger to me; otherwise it would be overwhelming. As with every other surviving relative, I just have to accept that he will always feature in my memory of her death, and try not to let it colour her life.
What was your process of researching for the show like?
Researching was actually pretty straightforward. The true-crime book Prescription For Murder was written while Shipman was still alive, and reading that gave me a solid grounding into his upbringing and childhood, and a lot of news reports at the time of his arrest are still available online. Most importantly, the entirety of The Smith Report is available online in The National Archives, and it is remarkably comprehensive: not only are the findings into every examined death published (I found my own family's witness statements amongst the archived documents), there are assessments from four different criminal psychologists into his pathology and a full chronological map of his entire career from graduation to arrest. It even goes into detail about the different types of drugs available to him and how they might work. In the early drafts, I ended up ditching whole chunks of material that were interesting but slowed the play down.
What would you like the audience to take from the play?
Lots of things. That there's a difference between voluntary euthanasia and non-voluntary euthanasia, and that we as a society are not having the difficult conversations about death that we need to; that evil can thrive under the mask of concern, and we must be alert for the tells; that the way we treat the very worst in society reflects on our own morality; and that a professed desire for justice is often a fig leaf for a lust for vengeance.
Huge thanks to Edwin for giving such a unique insight into the topic, and what can be expected from this fascinating show. All the best for the run, and the future ahead.
Tickets can be found here:
Additional thanks to Matthew Parker for coordinating this interview.