Researching family history is big business, and it is easy to see why. Who wouldn’t, afterall, want to know if they were distantly related to a former president of France, or be tempted to see themselves afresh in the light of newly discovered relations?
Playwright Freddie Machin managed to trace his own ancestry back centuries to uncover a story that he has used as the basis for his new play, Don’t Waste Your Bullets on the Dead, which premieres at Vault Festival this month.
I might be related to someone who was on the Mayflower ship that went to America in 1620,” says Machin, a 30-year-old writer and actor based in Stoke Newington.
That someone is John Billington, who has the dubious honour of being the first English settler to be executed in the newly-colonised land.
Billington was aboard the Mayflower, the ship that transported the pilgrims from Plymouth, England, to the New World in 1620, a voyage that culminated in the signing of the Mayflower Compact, which established there a rudimentary form of democracy.
John and Elinor Billington decided to leave England to escape their debts, but 10 years after their arrival John was convicted of murder and sentenced to be hanged.
Machin’s play is not a retelling of their story. Instead it uses their story as the backdrop for a “metatheatrical piece” about someone who is writing a play about maybe being related to someone who was on the Mayflower.
“It has an autobiographical starting point, but from there it ceases to have anything to do with me really,” says Machin.
“We spend some time in 1620s and then I pull the rug and it comes back to the modern day. So there is a relationship between the writer and her own material. And in actual fact she comes face-to-face with her own character in the rehearsal room at one point.”
Machin made his main protagonist female to distance himself from the narrative, but admits that Don’t Waste Your Bullets on the Dead could be seen as autobiographical in another way.
“The main character is trying to choose between her relationship and writing this play, because writing for her – and for me too – is an all consuming act,” he says.
“I’m writing something today about if you choose to be a creative or if you choose to take any path in life you will do so at the cost of other things.
“The play presents a person at a crossroads, who has chosen to be a writer and finds she is having to compromise whether she wants to have a child in the future.”
The character’s decision is whether to have a real life baby, or to give everything she has to the ‘baby’ that is the play.
“I certainly feel like that,” Machin confides. “I’ve got a play going on, which means I’ve got no money and time for anyone else as all my energy and focus is going into the play.”
Don’t Waste Your Bullets on the Dead is at The Vaults, Leake Street, SE1 7NN from 10–14 February.