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: Walk of Shame at the White Bear Theatre

Originally written as a monologue by Amelia Marshall Lovsey, Walk of Shame has been expanded into a hard-hitting two-hander with the addition of an alternative point of view, written by Stephanie Silver. We now have two perspectives on one night – and while on a purely factual basis the accounts may coincide, there’s a fundamental difference in how each character feels about the outcome and the events that precede it.

Alice likes sex, drinking, and wearing tight shorts to show off her figure. She’s in a relationship, but feels unsatisfied and unappreciated – and after a row with her boyfriend she heads out for a drunken night, with one very particular goal in mind. Liam is a nice guy who spent most of his teenage years caring for his sick mum, before moving to London and getting a job in the City. He’s having a heavy night out with the guys from work when he finds himself alone in a bar and runs into Alice.

If you had absolutely no context and had to decide based solely on first impressions who to believe about the way the rest of the evening unfolds, there’d probably be little doubt. Alice – played by co-writer Stephanie Silver – is a deliberately abrasive character who does what many people would consider all the “wrong” things, not just on that one night but in general. Calum Speed’s sharply dressed Liam, on the other hand, is at great pains from the start to convince us he’s a good guy – and the truth is that he probably is, under normal circumstances. But even when it’s revealed that his night out involves taking copious amounts of cocaine, nobody stops him – as they do Alice – to warn him that he “needs to be careful”. Infuriatingly, and as is so often the case, it’s generally accepted that the woman should be the one taking precautions to defend herself, with the man absolved of any responsibility.

At just over 30 minutes, the thought-provoking play, directed by Michelle Payne, certainly makes an impact, and the pivotal scene is played very powerfully, in almost total darkness, by both actors. The very short run time could, perhaps, be seen as an opportunity to expand the play and explore in more detail what happens in the immediate aftermath, what action each character chooses to take, and the reaction they face – particularly since the play’s title seems to suggest the story is more about the morning after than the night before.

As it stands, though, the play is already a very topical and important piece from Glass Half Full Theatre, which makes us all pause and question society’s – and our own – assumptions and judgments whenever a story like this makes the headlines. The company are hoping to take the show on tour to universities in the future and start a crucial conversation about issues of consent and drink and drugs. Hopefully it’ll also encourage its student audiences (and beyond) to consider the uneven distribution of responsibility between men and women; depressing though it may be, it’s clear that’s a lesson which is still desperately needed.

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…

Interview: Stephanie Silver, Walk of Shame

For one, it’s a night of glory – for the other, a walk of shame… Glass Half Full Theatre return with a topical new production next month, as they bring Walk of Shame by Stephanie Silver and Emelia Marshall Lovsey to the White Bear for a limited run.

“I don’t want to give too much away,” says Stephanie. “As with most of our plays we produce, it takes the audience on a journey and the ending isn’t what you expect; we like twists and turns. It’s a story based on two characters: Alice, written by Emelia, and Liam, written by myself. We merged the two characters together to create a story of one night and two different points of view.”

The show was first picked up by Stephanie through Actor Awareness, at a new writing event based at Spotlight. “I co-produce these nights with Tom Stocks and I read the script submissions,” she explains. “I read this piece and instantly loved it, and felt it fit the ethos of plays I wanted to produce through Glass Half Full. Thought provoking, tragic and funny characters is what I like to home in on.

“Initially it was just Alice that was written, but after directing the piece for the event I went away, wrote a two-hander and asked Emelia if she fancied putting it on. We’ve since done R&D with it at the Actor Awareness new writing festival and also with Get Over it Productions at the Tabard Theatre this summer.”

One aspect that particularly drew Stephanie to Walk of Shame was its relevance: “Alice is a very loud and sexually overt character, and a lot of judgments get placed on her by the audience for her in ya face nature. I think it’s important that as women we are still breaking down stereotypes of how people perceive we should behave. Alice is not ladylike; she doesn’t say the right thing or often make the right choices. So I think her story is important, as it’s getting female characters out there that aren’t perfect and are flawed. I think women everywhere will relate to characters like Alice.

“Liam, the other character in the play, is very interesting and it’s a very different journey the audience go on with him – and without giving any twist away, it’s very interesting to see how the audience respond at the end after hearing about Liam’s life.”

Walk of Shame brings together a cast of talented creatives, the majority of whom have worked with Glass Half Full previously. “Emelia was actually in my last play Our Big Love Story; she played Katie at The Hope Theatre in March,” says Stephanie. “As a producer, when I like people I keep them around. This is Emelia’s first play as a writer, so it’s exciting to be on that journey with her. She’s worked with the company a lot.

“Michelle Payne is a very accomplished actor, writer, director, producer slash superwoman. Her last play, Full Circle, about mental health won awards at the Brewery Fringe 2018. Michelle’s worked with Glass Half Full on new writing night Series of Short Plays, and she’s just set up acting school Caspa Arts. As a woman of all trades, and who knows the company’s work well, she’s a perfect fit to direct.

“As for the cast – Liam will be played by the very talented Calum Speed, who got an Offie nom for his role as Chubby in Chubby, which also had a run at the White Bear Theatre. And I myself will take on the role as Alice, which is exciting as I’ve been mainly producing for the last year, so it’s good to get back to doing what I love.”

The show opens at the White Bear on 11th December, where it will run until the 15th. “The White Bear is a great venue for new writing and it’s also a perfect space for the piece. Its intimacy will really lend to the story, and we hope the audience will go away with a lot to think about. We aim to challenge and get the audience to talk at the bar after. Our theatre company motto is ‘hard hitting and engaging’ – which this play is to a T.”

Review: Eros at the White Bear Theatre

In June of this year, Instagram hit a new milestone: one billion active monthly users. Facebook, meanwhile, is still streets ahead with 2.23 billion people logging in every month. It’s becoming more and more difficult to remember (or for the younger generation, imagine) what life was like before the Internet – and particularly before we were able to take it with us wherever we go.

Obviously, it has its benefits; without the Internet I wouldn’t be here writing this review, for one thing. But there are growing and legitimate concerns about the amount of time we now spend in the digital world, being exposed to fake news and impossible ideals, and the risks this poses on both a global and a personal level.

Photo credit: Stephanie Claire Photography

Set in the 90s, Kevin Mandry’s Eros takes us back to the early days of the Internet, and into the studio of Ross Black (Stephen Riddle). A former glamour photographer, he’s fallen on hard times and now scrapes a living helping small businesses produce marketing brochures. He dreams of giving it all up and moving to Scotland, much to the horror of his assistant Terri (Felicity Jolly), for whom the studio is much more than just a job. And then his ex-lover Kate (Anna Tymoshenko) arrives out of the blue to remind Ross of his glory days – and not in a good way.

The first thing to say about Eros is that it doesn’t necessarily go where you think it’s going… but it’s also difficult to pinpoint exactly where it does end up. Touching on various extremely topical themes – consent and female agency, our obsession with untouchable perfection, the growing influence of technology – it doesn’t really focus on any of them in any depth, and despite some intriguing details and hints that there could be a big twist coming, the explosive revelation we’ve been waiting for never arrives. As such the production, directed by Stephen Bailey, becomes somewhat lacking in pace before concluding on a disappointingly lacklustre note.

On a more personal level, as a portrait of the relationships between three disillusioned characters whose lives haven’t gone the way they hoped, the play is more successful. Felicity Jolly’s Terri is by far the most likeable of the three; after escaping a troubled past, she’s found some kind of stability with Ross, who she clearly idolises as a father figure. She’s terrified of losing both her home and her new-found Internet connection, which has allowed her to make new friends all over the world through the miracle of chatrooms.

Photo credit: Stephanie Claire Photography

The majority of the stage time belongs to Anna Tymoshenko and Stephen Riddle as Kate and Ross, whose relationship is complex and at times confusing. One minute Kate is bristling with righteous anger and hatred, the next she’s flirting, dancing around the studio, and even suggesting they get back together. She has what appears to be a picture perfect life – big house, successful business – but something’s missing, and it’s clear that despite everything she still feels some lingering affection for her former lover. There are a few moments where the two connect and it seems like this affection might be reciprocated, but they never last long; Ross has his own idea of a perfect life and Kate, it seems, has never featured in it.

Eros sets out to tackle some interesting questions about human nature and our relationship with the ever-changing world around us, and offers an enjoyable opportunity for those old enough to reminisce about the joys of dial-up internet. The personal story of the characters is intriguing to watch as it unfolds, but unfortunately a lack of focus reduces the topical contribution that the play could have made to more than one ongoing discussion.

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: Faces in the Crowd at the White Bear Theatre

Ten years after it premiered at the Royal Court, Leo Butler’s fast and furious two-hander Faces in the Crowd returns to London – which coincidentally is where one of its characters, Dave, ran off to after he abandoned his wife Joanne (and all their debts) in Sheffield, to pursue a new life of sex, drugs and financial freedom in the capital. A decade later, and Joanne’s just arrived in town for a very particular reason; she wants what Dave was never willing to give her before, and she’s not prepared to leave without it.

Unsurprisingly, their first encounter in ten years is not without a considerable amount of tension, and it takes us a while to get to the bottom of why Joanne’s actually here. She certainly doesn’t seem pleased to see Dave, poking around his rented Old Street studio apartment with an expression of bitter, sneering disdain, and resolutely refusing to be impressed despite all his bragging about plasma TVs and Sabatier knives. Dave in turn seems uncomfortable from the outset, filling every pause in the conversation with restless activity and irrelevant chatter, in a frantic effort to prove he’s made a success of his new life. It isn’t long before the simmering atmosphere – fuelled by ten years’ unresolved feelings of hurt, resentment, inadequacy and guilt – boils over, but while this threatens to derail the evening’s carefully laid plans, it also feels like a confrontation that’s long overdue, and that they both needed to have in order to move forward.

Butler’s script is fascinating to listen to: a rapid-fire, back and forth dialogue between the two characters, which feels often more like two monologues running side by side. Both Joanne and Dave want to have their say, and it takes a long time for the two of them – and therefore also the audience – to really listen to and understand where the other is coming from. Actors Bonnie Adair and Adam Bone maintain this pace well, but also know when to slow things down and offer us glimpses of the vulnerability and lingering fondness that lurks behind each of the characters’ hardened defences. These two individuals have been damaged – perhaps beyond repair – not only by each other, but by a world that fooled their younger selves into believing they could have it all. It’s a very relatable story for a 21st century audience.

Michael Leopold’s set is exceptional, recreating in minute detail the entirety of Dave’s apartment, right down to the light switches, kitchen equipment, and a bathroom door that leaves rather too little to the imagination. Sound effects from Vittorio Verta add a further touch of authenticity to proceedings, and bring Dave’s unseen noisy neighbour into the story as yet another impediment to the evening’s plans.

Simultaneously funny, devastating and at times toe-curlingly awkward to watch, Faces in the Crowd makes for an intense 80 minutes that will resonate with anyone who’s ever had their heart broken or dreamed that the grass may be greener on the other side (or in this case, down south). But there’s also a cautionary note about the perils of putting material needs ahead of emotional ones, and of being lulled into the false security of living beyond our means. Such is the pace of Law Ballard’s production (necessarily so) that it’s not always possible to catch every word the characters are saying to and over each other; I’d love to now read the script and find out what I missed. But that quibble aside, this is a well executed revival of a powerful and thought-provoking play.