James Martin Charlton is an award-winning playwright whose previous work includes the critically acclaimed Fat Souls, I Really Must Be Getting Off and Coward. This week sees the premiere of his new play, Reformation, which runs at the White Bear Theatre until 13th July. The play was inspired by the life and work of the Renaissance artist Lucas Cranach and tells the story of Eva, a young woman caught up in a world of powerful men. Directed by Janice Dunn, the production – staged in contemporary dress – strikes a topical note, with clear connections between Eva’s story and the #metoo movement.
As Reformation approached its opening night, we spoke to James about the importance of telling untold stories, getting to know Cranach, and just how much really has changed over the last 500 years…
Can you sum up briefly what Reformation is all about?
Reformation is the story of a young woman from a poor background who becomes involved with a celebrity artist and his son. The son falls in love with her and the artist uses her as a life model. When the powerful man who commissioned the artist sees a sketch of the model, he not only wants the painting – he wants the girl. It’s about what a person might be faced with doing in order to survive.
Where did the idea for this story come from?
An exhibition in Berlin of works that Lucas Cranach and other Renaissance artists did for the Berlin royals. I became fascinated by the portraits by Cranach of Joachim the Elector and his brother, and also by Cranach’s self-portrait. Looking at Cranach’s moral scenes, I was struck by how much flesh was on display. These were paintings which ostensibly counselled the viewer against being led astray by desire. At the same time they provoke desire. And I noticed a small, anonymous sketch of the Berlin of the time, with a gallows on the outskirts. Powerful men, desire, the consequences of upsetting the powerful were all there. I began to tell myself a story which put all of this together…
Why was this a story you wanted to tell, and why is now the right time to tell it?
I tend to write about people whose stories don’t usually get told. People on the side-lines. People who are neglected. People the media ignores. We hear a lot in the history books about the movers and shakers, artists and rulers, but what of the people around them? Each of their lives were important, and each life has profound depths. Luckily, we’re living in a time when such people are beginning to tell their stories and be heard. Obscure individuals are telling us how they brushed up against the wealthy, the powerful, the influential, and how that encounter then shaped their subsequent lives.
What would you like audiences at the White Bear to take away from seeing the play?
I hope that they’ll feel entertained, thrilled, moved, a little disturbed perhaps. I do not write plays with messages in them. I want each individual in the audience to encounter the story and think about what it might mean to them. I believe that stories should be democratic, and so I give the audience the choice of how to respond, what to think about what they have seen.
#metoo has been a frequent theme in theatre over the last couple of years. What is it that makes Reformation unique as a contribution to this ongoing conversation?
I conceived of the play sometime before #metoo hit the headlines. I choose stories which can be applied to any time and place. It is important for us to remember that our problems have been bothering humanity forever. The play, uniquely I think, connects #metoo to the Reformation. There seems to me to be some ongoing process of reformation which is happening with human beings, where we challenge power structures which become too rigid, bring their failings to light. Yet history tells us that new power structures emerge, which themselves become rigid. Have we really reformed?
How much of the play is based on historical fact – and does that significantly change your approach or process as a writer?
The powerful, famous characters are based on real people. Lucas Cranach and his son, the Elector Joachim and his Bishop brother Albert all existed. The peasants in the play are invented. Their encounters with the powerful are speculations. If I am writing a historical piece, I try to soak myself in the period as much as possible. I consume volumes of books, paintings, music, anything that helps. Then I treat all of this as the material for the play. No play is entirely a fiction, it’s all based in something one has encountered, either in one’s own life or in finding out about somebody else’s life. I take found material in and use it rather in the way the unconscious mind uses stuff when we’re dreaming. Any play of mine is a dream based on the real, with its own rules and roads.
Finally, as a successful writer, what would be your top tip to aspiring playwrights or those just starting out?
Find out as much as you can about everything you can. Keep up with what is happening in the world but don’t just look at contemporary stuff. Read myths, folktales, history. See and hear as much as you can, in any medium you can. But never lose sight of your own perspective. You’re a unique individual, and will have encountered things in a way in which only you individually could have. Try to talk to the individuals in your audience from that place which is known only to you.
Reformation is at the White Bear Theatre, 25th June to 13th July (Mon-Sat evenings, Sunday matinee).
Director: Janice Dunn
Cast: Jason Wing, Ram Gupta, Alice De-Warrenne, Imogen Smith, Adam Sabatti, Simeon Willis and Matt Ian Kelly