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A sensitive portrayal of stammering

Rachel Everard | 01.06.2009

'Three Days of Rain' ran in the West End in Spring 2009. Rachel Everard is one of the City Lit team who coached actor James McAvoy to stammer on stage.

James McAvoy and Lyndsey Marshal in 'Three Days of Rain'We are all too familiar with the negative stereotypes of people who stammer in the media. In 'A Fish called Wanda' and 'Open all hours' stammering is seen as something to be laughed at and ridiculed. TV crime thrillers such as Prime Suspect and Cracker have used stammering as a way to highlight the inadequacies of criminals and psychopaths. Yet the character Ned in 'Three Days of Rain' conveys to a large extent the complexity of stammering.

Written by the American playwright Richard Greenberg, this play centers on Walker, his sister Nan, and their childhood friend Pip, who all meet in an unoccupied loft in lower Manhattan in 1995 to divide the legacy of their late fathers, who were partners in a renowned architecture firm. In an effort to bring some peace to their own lives, the three search for clues that might explain what had gone on between their fathers, and the women in their lives, decades before. The story then shifts to that earlier time, with the same three actors portraying members of the previous generation in the same loft, during the fateful 1960 "three days of rain," which gives the play its title.

I was first introduced to the play just before Christmas when at City Lit we received a phone-call from the actor James McAvoy asking for advice on how best to portray someone who stammers. I read the play before meeting James and was fascinated by all six characters in the play but particularly by Walker, Ned's son and Ned himself. James plays both father and son and is extraordinarily skilful at playing such different characters. By the time I met James, to be perfectly frank, my work had already been done for me: the playwright indicates on the script where Ned should repeat a sound or block on a word and James at that stage was deep in rehearsal and had already developed a realistic-sounding stammer. The fact that Michael Billington of the Guardian described Ned's stammer as "one of the most convincing stammers I have ever heard on any stage" is an overwhelming tribute to James' talent as an actor.

Avoidance in the play

Watching the play was a very different experience from reading it. The actors brought it to life through their energy, enthusiasm and skill. Ned's stammer was at times uncomfortable to listen to though it did not distract from the content of what he was saying. One aspect which resonated for me throughout the play was the role of avoidance, so often used as a coping strategy for people who stammer. Avoidance takes many forms, from choosing words that are easier to say to keeping quiet in certain situations or avoiding situations altogether. It appeared from Walker's account of his father ("my father was virtually silent") that Ned rarely communicated with his son and it could be surmised that this was partly because of his stammer. If this is the case, Walker showed little compassion and chose instead to see his father as cold and withdrawn. Another aspect of avoidance appears to affect his friendship with the more flamboyant Theo, his business partner in the architecture firm. Does Ned defer to Theo because he wants to avoid the limelight? And was Ned's love of drawing born out of sheer frustration of not being able to communicate easily?

I also pondered whether Ned's stammer is necessary: is it the fact he stammers that makes him more gentle, vulnerable, diffident, self-effacing and ultimately more attractive to Lina? It would no doubt be possible to express all these personality traits without stammering, but the fact he stammers appears to be an integral part of his personality. And there we have a problem - because the last thing I want to imply is that having a stammer means that by default you have a certain type of personality. As we know, no two people who stammer are the same but from an artistic point of view I can understand that stammering can act as a vehicle to convey certain characteristics.

I would highly recommend seeing or reading 'Three Days of Rain' if you get the chance, and making up your own mind about the role stammering plays in the overall impact of this beautifully written play.

From the Summer 2009 edition of Speaking Out, page 12.