Reformation: Q&A with James Martin Charlton

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?

Photo credit: Max Harrison

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.

Director: Janice Dunn

Cast: Jason Wing, Ram Gupta, Alice De-Warrenne, Imogen Smith, Adam Sabatti, Simeon Willis and Matt Ian Kelly

Review: Woman Before a Glass at Jermyn Street Theatre

Lanie Robertson’s Woman Before A Glass is an apt choice to kick off the Scandal Season at Jermyn Street Theatre. Starring Judy Rosenblatt in an impressive solo performance, the play explores the eventful life and times of Peggy Guggenheim, the loyal patron of contemporary art, whose collection – which includes the likes of Picasso, Kandinsky and Pollock – can still be visited to this day at the palazzo in Venice in which she lived, and where the play is set.

Photo credit: Robert Workman

We join Peggy in the 1960s as she’s trying to find a gallery to whom she can leave her collection of works – her “children” as she calls them – and reflecting on a life of sorrow, scandal and lots of sex. A frantic search for something to wear for a TV interview rapidly turns into one long name drop, which is perhaps not surprising from the woman who married Max Ernst, had an affair with Samuel Beckett, and was an early champion of Jackson Pollock. She tells us about her sexual conquests – including the married ones – without shame or embarrassment, and remembers wistfully the one man she really loved, British literary critic John Ferrar Holms. Her grief over his sudden death decades earlier still feels fresh and raw, and gives us an early glimpse behind the brash socialite facade.

As the play goes on, this veneer cracks more and more often, with Peggy recalling the death of her adored father on the Titanic, and later the loss of her sister in childbirth. We see too her hopes and fears for her daughter Pegeen, a troubled artist who – for better or worse – carries the full weight of her mother’s expectation on her shoulders (her brother Sindbad having been written off long ago). The unspoken rivalry between Peggy’s relationship with her so-called “children” – her art – and her actual offspring lies at the heart of the play; her courageous and unwavering loyalty to her work is admirable, but may well come at a personal cost.

Judy Rosenblatt reprises her role in Tom McClane-Williamson’s revival of the New York production directed by Austin Pendleton. In a dynamic and multi-faceted performance, she gives us an insight into the complexity of this remarkable historical figure, holding nothing back whether in moments of triumph or despair. “Il mio palazzo è il tuo palazzo,” she says more than once, gesturing around at Erika Rodriguez’s stylish, minimalist set – and it really does feel that way, such is the intimate, confiding nature of Rosenblatt’s delivery.

Photo credit: Robert Workman

Of course, not all Peggy’s revelations paint her in a good light – like her fondness for other people’s husbands, the way she dismisses her son and smothers her daughter, and her unwillingness to give the maid a day off to visit a new grandchild – but there’s no denying hers is a fascinating story that makes for an absorbing 90 minutes. And while we may not like everything we see, as Peggy herself showed us, that doesn’t make it any less worth seeing.

Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉

Review: He(art) at Theatre N16

Andrew Maddock has already established himself as a writer to watch with his previous work, including In/Out (A Feeling) and more recently, The We Plays. In particular, he really knows how to create characters that we care about, so that when the story suddenly takes a darker turn, we’re caught totally off guard. He(art), Maddock’s latest play, follows a similar trajectory, setting up two separate but equally compelling stories before smashing them together in an explosive final scene.

Alice is looking for a painting to buy with her boyfriend Rhys. But he’s reluctant to commit – to a piece of art or anything else, including seeing a doctor about his congenital heart condition. Meanwhile Kev’s just got out of prison and is hatching a plan with his sister Sam to get the money they need for their dying Mum’s medical treatment – by stealing the very painting Alice and Rhys have their eye on…

Photo credit: Jesse Night
Photo credit: Jesse Night

At first glance, there’s a lot in this story that doesn’t quite make sense. How did posh gallery curator Alice get together with “Wembley Warrior” window cleaner Rhys? Why do Kev and Sam have to steal that particular painting (and why any painting, come to that)? What happened to their dad? And what does die Maus Head Man have to do with anything?

We don’t get all the answers, but that’s sort of the whole point – Maddock gives us a sketchy snapshot of events, and how we fill in the blanks is up to us. If a few of those events are slightly random, well it just makes the overall impression more interesting – like a mouse head that triples a painting’s value. The opening scene, in which Alice tries unsuccessfully to teach Rhys about art, is actually as much for the audience as it is for him, letting us know that just because we don’t have all the info it doesn’t mean we can’t flesh out the story in our own way. The stage in director Niall Phillips’ production is a roped-off gallery space; the props are exhibits hanging from the ceiling, as is the painting at the heart of it all. This play is a piece of art in itself, to be examined, discussed and interpreted, not simply accepted at face value.

But as the title suggests, there’s more than just art here – there’s also a huge amount of heart. This manifests itself in small ways, like Rhys’ pride in the fact his are the only streak-free windows on the high street, or in Sam’s eclectic music collection and the affection for Johnny Cash that she shares with her brother. But it’s also built into the relationships of the characters; this is a story that’s absolutely driven by the heart instead of the head. On paper, Rhys and Alice’s relationship should never work. Sam and Kev’s planned heist is doomed to failure. And yet we find ourselves willing both to succeed, because both are motivated by that most fundamental of human emotions: love.

Photo credit: Jesse Night
Photo credit: Jesse Night

This love comes through powerfully in the four actors’ performances. Jack Gogarty and Alex Reynolds are very natural together as Rhys and Alice, revelling in their light-hearted banter about the value (or not) of Banksy and a recent scandal in the porn industry. But their relationship is just as convincing in its more intense moments; her anxiety about his health and his longing for a normal life both feel entirely genuine. Similarly, the close sibling relationship between Kev and Sam, played beautifully by Shane Noone and Flora Dawson, feels completely authentic, precisely because it isn’t picture perfect – his concern for her welfare is frequently tinged with impatience and even violence, while her childlike emotional vulnerability and desperate desire to please him put everything at risk more than once.

In He(art), Andrew Maddock has another hit on his hands; it’s a poignant and at times very funny story of two halves – and if this time the twist in the tale isn’t entirely unexpected, that doesn’t make it any less compelling to watch. (One of the great things about theatre in the round is you can see how other audience members are reacting, and it’s safe to say I wasn’t the only one on the edge of my seat there at the end.) Most importantly, it reminds us that whether we’re talking about painting, music or even window cleaning, there’s no such thing as “just art”.

Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉