A Subject of Scandal and Concern: An interview with director Jimmy Walters
A Subject of Scandal and Concern was last performed professional forty years ago. Now Jimmy Walters, director of the critically acclaimed A Naughty Night With Noël Coward, is giving John Osborne’s adaptation of a tragic true story its long overdue London première.
What is it that made you want to take on the job of reviving Osborne’s A Subject of Scandal and Concern for the first time in forty years?
For the exact reason that it doesn’t really feel like a revival. A lot of the time when pieces of work are performed again and again you find audiences know exactly how the story pans out and it increases the challenge of making the familiar strange again. To forget that Hamlet’s uncle killed his father or to make the audience forget that Macbeth kills King Duncan becomes a constant black cloud hanging over you as a director. So the fact that this piece hasn’t been seen on stage in London and that it’s last staging took place over 40 years ago means that the audience will feel like they’re watching something fresh but also something from a hugely iconic playwright.
How much do you know about the original theatrical production? Have you taken any inspiration from it?
I know very little about it. Only that it was performed in Nottingham roughly a decade after the television drama. I didn’t want to do too much digging up on it if I’m honest because a lot of the time I find if I’m inspired by another performance that I’m recreating then I’ll run the risk of doing a pale imitation of their work and it will narrow my choices. So I approached this very much as a new piece of writing.
The play was originally written for television – has this translation of media presented any challenges?
Originally we were a bit wary of doing a television play on a small stage but we thought actually let’s embrace that. So we’ve committed to the idea of taking the audience to multiple locations and playing to that frenetic energy the story has through the use of sound, movement and some minimal but exciting set. All will be revealed when you see it.
Have you always been a fan of Osborne’s work?
For sure. I remember as a fifteen-year-old watching a performance of A Hotel In Amsterdam and being gob smacked by the character of Laurie. Everything he had to say and how complete his character was. That is Osborne’s great strength I think; to write protagonists who have a profound effect on the audience.
Osborne was once described as the man who “liberated theatrical language” – has this praise passed the test of time?
I do. I think Osborne has played a huge part in how far we’ve come in the world of British theatre and how we now feel completely comfortable holding a mirror up to society and representing real life. Who would have thought a character like Jimmy Porter could have been written for the London stage ten years before it was during the Second World War? It was a ground-breaking play because it did more than entertain, it unlocked a feeling with people that nobody could quite put their finger on but it was alive and it was real. All modern day playwrights are in some way indebted to Osborne.
The story centres around George Jacob Holyoake who is arrested for speaking out against the establishment – are there any elements of this theme that you see relating to the contemporary world of politics?
Absolutely. Nothing that will be directly imitated but this is very much a story told non-judgmentally of one man against the establishment who is accused of going against the grain and questioning our judgement as a people for what he considers to be the greater good. Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders have both sprung up in rehearsal room discussion, though we won’t be directly linking this piece to anything political today.
The play is based on a true story – has this helped or hindered how you presented the issue of challenging immoral authority?
I think it certainly helped. Because what we’re watching actually happened, I think we as an audience will question how recently it was that scenarios like this were taking place and hopefully realise how far we have to come with tackling so many issues such as press regulation, the idea of being guilty until proven innocent or not being suspicious of characters challenging the status quo. But what I like about the play is that it doesn’t shove a message down your neck, it opens up the debate on both sides and encourages debate and discussion.
What have your biggest challenges been with this project in comparison to your previous work?
With any playwright it’s all about owning the language and we are still in the thick of rehearsals working on this. It certainly is a challenge but it’s about finding the rhythm and unlocking quite a wordy exterior to cut to the heart of the story. I’d say that is certainly a greater challenge than any of our previous work.
If an audience member found you afterwards to compliment the production, what would you hope they might comment on specifically?
I think the idea of a media onslaught against one figure is still something very alive today and we’ve found ourselves focussing on that – it’s a very interesting theme. The idea of becoming part of a mob, sometimes to save your own skin, especially if it’s a witch-hunt, is something I think we do. It’s human nature and will never really go away so I hope those themes come to the surface. Ultimately though I think you just want the audience to have the limitations of their thinking tested and stretched a bit. Some people say theatre is just to entertain and take you no further than the stage door, and some is, but when you see an audience affected or changed by something they’ve seen, it can be very powerful.
Do you have a favourite moment or line from the current production?
“Man cannot live by bread alone. You must have jam. Even if it is mixed with another man’s blood”. It’s a great sign of Osborne taking a quote we are familiar with and turning it on it’s head to make the familiar strange again and remind us that there is more than one way of thinking.
Photo: Robert Boulton
A Subject of Scandal and Concern is on at Finborough Theatre from 22nd May to 7th June, for further information or to book visit here.
Check back soon for our review of A Subject of Scandal and Concern.