A completely new feature for this blog: I have an interview. Next week, Jesus Hopped the A Train begins in Durham and continues in Manchester, but what is most notable is the theatre company behind it. It has been ages since Durham has had a theatre company based in the city at professional level, and there are a lot of plans for the future. I caught up with Jake Murray after a rehearsal to ask about the play and beyond.
Fine print: This was a proper interview and not just a series of questions for an interviewee to fill in. This was recorded, types up, and a few minor edits were made to read better, but I didn’t need to make many changes and this is near-verbatim. The broad structure of the interview was agreed in advance. At some point I was probably write up the rules properly, but in the meantime, this is this as more David Frost than Jeremy Paxman.
I have with me Jake Murray of Elysium Theatre, who has just completed a rehearsal of Jesus Hopped the A Train, which is coming to the Assembly Rooms on Monday. We’ll be talking about this in the moment, but if we start from the beginning, Jake, bring us up to date of Theatre Elysium and what it has done so far.
Elysium Theatre Company is a company I set up with an actor friend, Danny Solomon. Basically, I came up to Durham a year or so ago, because I fell in love and got married and decided I wanted to bring theatre to the north, and the first person I spoke to was my Danny Solomon who lives in my flat in Manchester from my time there. The goal is to bring theatre to Durham and the north-east, but also the wider north, and we seem to be going great guns.
Our first production, Days of Wine and Roses, played at the Assembly Rooms in Durham last and then Theatre 53 two in Manchester, where it got nominated for a Manchester Theatre Award and got great reviews, but up here and over there. And the next play is Jesus Hopped the A Train, which is the northern premiere of an extraodinary play from America. It’s never been seen outside of London, and again we’re playing it at the Assembly Rooms then we’re playing it at Home in Manchester. After that, we’ve got a double-bill of Samuel Beckett plays, which is part of Durham Festival of the Arts, and we’re just in negotiations now for the rights to Jez Butterworth’s The River, which we’re going to be doing in Durham next year, and we’re talking to Durham Student Theatre about doing Miss Julie, also in Durham for 2019. So we’ve got loads in the pipeline.
We’re also connected up with all sort of theatres outside Durham in the north-east. We’re talking to Hexham, the Exchange in North Tyneside, Northern Stage, all these different places, many of whom are coming to see the show on Monday, so we’ve had an amazing response, which is almost unique from my time in Britain. It seems that in the north-east people are much much keener to get behind stuff and really get involved. So we’re hoping that Monday’s performance will open us out properly as a north-east company.
Tell us a bit about Jesus Hopped the A Train.
Jesus Hopped the A Train is set in Riker’s Island, which is the top security prison in New York, and one of the most notorious prisons in the whole of America. It centres on a young man called Angel Cruz, who at the beginning of the play has been arrested for taking a gun into a megachurch run by a sort-of reverend, an equivalent at the Moonie cult, called Reverend Kim. He was trying to rescue his best childhood friend Joey from the cult, spent two years building up, kidnapping and trying to deprogramme him, but Joey went back to the cult, and in a moment of fury Angel took a gun and ran in and shot the Reverend Kim in the ass, and he’s been arrested for this.
Unfortunately for him, the Reverend Kim then dies of complications when the bullet is taken out, so he’s accused of first-degree murder. And because he’s a rookie prisoner and he’s actually quite a decent human being, he can’t cope with Riker’s Island life and is beaten up by the inmates, so he’s put in protective custody, and for one hour each day, he’s allowed out into a cage on the roof where he can see the sun, where he can be allowed some fresh air. In the cage next to him is Lucius Jenkins, who’s an African American from Florida, who’s killed eight people, and is fighting extradition to where he can be executed in Florida. But the thing about Lucius is that while in prison he’s found God, and has converted, and sees himself as a transformed man, and a spritual man, and a man who has turned his back on the terrible things that he’s done. And Lucius is the first person who’s been kind to Angel, and a bond grows between them, and they start talking, and where the conversation takes them is the main meat of the play.
The other characters are two prison guards, D’Amico who’s the nice prison guard, and Valdez who’s the nasty one, and Mary Jane Hanrahan is the lawyer who tries to get Angel out. The play has got all the kind of energy of Tarantino, or a Scorsese, or a David Mamet. It also has this incredible poetic soul, and its themes are a meditation on religion, God, violence, race, politics, class, prisons, retribution, punishment, justice, all of it. And it’s a very beautiful piece of writing.
I noticed this this that the rehearsals were spread between Manchester and Durham. That’s unusual, I don’t know many plays that are rehearsed this way. What was the reason for doing this, and how has it worked out?
It’s purely practical. When we did Days of Wine and Roses, we rehearsed it all up here in Durham, because the Assembly Rooms was empty and we had two clear weeks on stage. This time round, the Assembly Rooms wasn’t free, so we didn’t have the rehearsal space. However, our producer runs a rehearsal space in Manchester, so we had two weeks in Manchester, and then the Assembly Rooms fell free for a week, so we’re rehearsing it up here can to the tech and the premiere. On this occasion also, out of the five actors, four were northern-based: three of them are based in Manchester, one of them is based in Harrogate, and one is based in London, so it seemed sensible to save some money and rehearse in Manchester. But with our next two productions, we’ll be rehearsing up here.
I heard you say in an interview with British Theatre Guide that you think Manchester has the strongest fringe theatre scene after London?
How close do you think we are to setting up a fringe theatre scene of this scale in the north east?
There are far more venues in the north-east that most people know. As well as the Assembly Rooms and the City Theatre here in Durham, there’s also the Exchange in North Tyneside, The Word in South Shields is about to open its own 15–seater space, then you have all the different theatres in Hexham and Washington which have small spaces, the Old Fire Station in Sunderland is going to have two spaces, Northern Stage has got three, the Alphabetti in Newcastle as well, so if we invested in it, I think we could have an absolutely fringe theatre network buzzing up in the north-east. And I keep telling my friends down south they need to come up here, there’s so much more possibility.
We do have have a fringe theatre scene in Newcastle. Can we achieve something similar in Durham, and if so, how do we do it?
I think it would be fantastic to create a fringe theatre scene here in Durham. I’ve been talking to Empty Shop about doing that. The first thing we need, obviously, is a venue, and I know that Kate Barton is keen, after the Assembly Room re-opens, to make it into a theatre that caters both for the town and the university, so she want to try to foster more opportunities for fringe companies in Durham. Similarly, there’s the whole issue of where the Gala’s going to go, but it would be wonderful to have a venue in Durham which is similar to Alphabetti in Newcastle, or Hope Mill in Manchester, both of which are beautiful middle-scale fringe venues. The hardest thing is getting an audience, and letting people know there’s theatre going on. I also want to find out what Durham people want to see, but at the moment, I don’t think we necessarily know.
I noticed the Assembly Rooms was going in this direction already. Last year they had Police Cops and The Dark Room. The Dark Room definitely has a huge audience, but that was mostly students. This year, there was Above the Mealy-Mouthed Sea, which was done in black box and got enough audience for that, but not much more. It does suggest that, so far, Durham Student Theatre’s reach beyond the students is a challenge.
I think that Durham Student Theatre are aware of that. A lot of people who aren’t students don’t know that the theatre is there, and if they do, they don’t necessarily think the theatre is not for them, the think it’s for students. There’s a lot of effort we all want to put into it of opening it up, making the people of Durham think that there’s a theatre for them. So I think how you break down the town and gown divide is the quest for the next five to six years.
Next month we have Durham Festival of the Arts. I’ve heard about this. I’ve heard about it, but never really caught up with what it does. In you words, can you tell us what this is?
Durham Festival of the Arts is primarily for the university. The university students apply for things to be performed around the city. It’s a celebration of the arts, so there’s theatre, there’s music, there’s all different kinds of performances. But professional companies are also allowed to apply, and that’s what we’ve done, so the show’s we’re going to do are going to be part of the festival. In this whole effort to break down the town gown divide, I think making this festival something which everyone is aware of and part of is a key aspect of that. It would be wonderful if the Durham arts festival became as full-on as Manchester Fringe festival and became buzzing all across the city.
As I said, I think one of the big quests is, if you want to put on theatre, where do you put it in. The Assembly Rooms has been really supportive to us, the City Theatre have been really supportive, but it’s how to get people used to the idea that this stuff is going on and you can see it, and that’s what I think we’re working at.
You’ve got a play in yourself. These are two plays of Samuel Beckett’s. Tell us about them.
Samuel Beckett is famous for Waiting for Godot, the play this is seen as one of the most iconic plays of the twentieth century, it’s an amazing play. He’s also known for Endgame, which is a darker play, but what most people don’t know is that is that he carried on writing short plays, all of which have a genius to them, and something very beautiful. We’re doing a double bill, one of which is Krapp’s Last Tape, and the other one is Footfalls.
Krapp’s Last Tape is about an old writer in his sixties. He lives in a kind of den, and every year, to celebrate his birthday, he make a recording about what happened that year. In this play, he is listening to the tape he made on his 37th birthday, and the voice of his past self is talking about the tape he made on his 27th birthday. Now, the play is about this artist looking back on his life and listening to these people who he was in the past, reacting to it, and it’s a brilliant device, about how we change in our lives, about lost dreams, lost loves, and it’s a romantic play, a very soulful and poetic play.
The other play is one of the rare plays that Beckett wrote for women, and it’s another beautiful play. Footfalls is about a woman faces what she has to cope with in life by pacing up and down, and as she’s pacing up and down, she’s talking to the voice of her mother. We don’t know if the mother is dead and in her mind, or alive, but the two of them are having this interweaving relationship, where they try to work out what their relationship was and why this woman paces up and down. It’s very beautiful, both plays are very funny as well, very soulful, and they show a very different side to Beckett.
It’s only about an hour, both plays are about 20-30 minutes long, so it’s beautifully perfectly pint-sized piece of theatre, but a chance to see two plays by a master playwright.
And who are you casting for these plays?
With Jesus Hopped the A Train, we’re using northern actors. With these ones, because they’re older actors, and I don’t yet know that many local actors – that’s my next quest – I’m bringing up three actors who I’ve worked with before. Robin Kingsland is going to play Krapp, and he’s been in a short film I’ve made and several of my plays. Felicity Dean who films with Al Pacino and Michael Caine, is going to be playing the woman in Footfalls. And an actress called Karen Winchester will be playing the mother. They were all in the short films I made, but they’re ones who are coming up for those two weeks.
One of the things to say about the company is that we’re looking to build an ensemble of actors, and as we become more established in the north-east, we’re going to be using more northern actors.
At some point, could you see yourself casting members of Durham Student Theatre?
Well, we are looking at collaborations with Durham Student Theatre, so for instance, with Miss Julie we’re looking at casting, for the servants who come in for an extraordinary scene in the middle of the play, Durham students. We want more and more collaborations like that, so we are looking for plays that might involve that. We’re also interested at providing opportunities to Durham students who are interested in lighting, design, sound and music, so in terms of a resident company at the Assembly Rooms, that’s very much part of our policy.
We’re also interested in working with Durham Dramatic Society in a similar way. We’re hoping it will create opportunities.
Are you now in a position to tell us about Famous for Fifteen Minutes?
Famous for Fifteen Minutes is a project I got from a friend called Tom Coash, an American playwright, who I contacted about the Islamic plays when I was still at the Royal Exchange in Manchester. He asked me to go out to Bermuda to judge what he called Famous for Fifteen Minutes. We’re hoping this will be some time in Durham next year, and we’re going to hold it at the City Theatre, we’re hoping. The idea is that people are invited to write 15-minute plays with no more than four actors, they have their own little company, and we will have a mini-competition, where you see eight of them each night, and then there will be a vote and a selection as to who wins, a kind of Oscar ceremony at the end of the whole thing.
The idea is to foster new writing and new talent, and that will be open to the students of Durham University, but also to the general population of Durham itself, so we’re hoping that it will bring together the town and gown in a way we’re talking about.
Do you have any other plans for engagement with Durham outside of the university?
Yes. We are going to start properly pushing a series of public workshops for school, but also for the public, in terms of playwriting and acting. In the second half of the year we’re going to plan all those, we’re probably going to become a service for Durham itself. We’d love to inspire a new generation of playwrights, and we’d love to really engage with the whole Durham scene. I want to work more with Empty Shop, with Durham Dramatic Society, we’re also talking to people like Redhills about their ongoing heritage lottery applications. We really really want to be embedded here, and we really want to light the place up, and inspire it, and get things going.
Finally, this is your free plug. You’ve told us about about Jesus Hopped the A Train. In a quick summary, why should people see it on Monday?
Several things. Number one, we’re going to be making theatre history, this is the first time it will ever be done outside London and the first time it will be done in the north, and the first time it will be done in Durham, and you’ll steal the march on everyone else. You’ll see it before the people of Manchester, and we’ve discovered there’s a production going on in London next year, so you’ll see it before then. Secondly, it’s just thrilling theatre, it’s an extraordinary play, it’s brave, it’s humane, it’s exciting, and we want it to be something that’s unforgettable. You’ll go out, talking, talking and talking, excited about it.
Jake Murray, thank you very much.