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Jack McNamara: PlacePrints

By | Published on Friday 19 June 2020

When I heard about ‘PlacePrints’ – a ten part series of connected audio plays written by veteran scribe David Rudkin and produced by East Midlands-based company New Perspectives – I immediately made plans to get stuck in ASAP.

I also thought it would be good to find out more about what to expect from the series, which is available as a podcast.

So I spoke to director Jack McNamara about the project. Which also meant I could find out more another New Perspectives production, a recording of which is now available via the BAC YouTube channel.

CM: Can you start by telling us what to expect from ‘PlacePrints’?
JM: The idea of a ‘PlacePrint’ is a location that is haunted by a presence of some kind; a person, a feeling, an event from the past.

This presence is usually unsettled and yearns to imprint itself on the place, to be visible, to be heard. Yet today we do not see or hear them, other than sometimes by accident – as in the occasional ghost sighting. The writer, David Rudkin, has set out to give these places a voice, to enable us to see what is hidden in the landscape. What he has written is effectively an audio map of ten places across the UK, each with an unexpected story to tell.

The types of voices vary radically: a dead Celtic soldier, an Eleventh Century church, an Irish lake, an eighteen-year old girl awaiting execution, a large HGV truck hurtling down the motorway. The series travels us though time, bringing history into direct contact with the now.

What connects them really is the land itself. We journey through all of the extremities of landscape – mountains, lakes, sea shores, forests – to hear voices across many years of history.

In each piece you are spoken to very directly, as if the presence is addressing you alone, going straight through your ears into your imagination. Each piece asks you to imagine, to develop a visionary awareness of your surroundings that this extraordinary writer has. They are deep listening experiences, each one a mini feature film for the ears.

CM: Can you elaborate a little about some of them? Do you have a favourite?
JM: Each of them is a complete world, so it is hard to have favourites.

Though, mid-way through the series we go to stories in Wales, Ireland and Scotland and there is something so powerful about how the language and sentiment changes.

However there is one piece that has an incredible resonance today. ‘Here We Stay’ tells the story of the plague outbreak in the tiny village of Eyam in Derbyshire, but from the perspective of the plague itself.

One of the most riveting and frightening monologues you will ever have heard, incredibly delivered by Charlotte Cornwell. We recorded it five years ago in the very church in Eyam that these events unfolded, but back then we had no idea that it would develop such a powerful resonance in our current situation.

It speaks about social distancing, about how these viruses peak and return, and ultimately about how they can be defeated by the resolve of a community. But the language and atmosphere is truly stunning. I recommend putting it in your headphones and going out for a long solitary walk across lockdown England.

CM: Can you tell us a bit about the playwright?
JM: He has been a ground breaker from the word go. His first major production – ‘Afore Night Come’ in 1962 – tore up the theatrical rule book and had the censors up in arms. He went on to create a now legendary body of stage work, every play huge in its vision and ambition.

But he is unique in that he has worked extensively across artforms, and in each instance – be it radio, film, television or opera – he has made the form entirely his own.

His radical film ‘Penda’s Fen’ with Alan Clarke is still spoken about as a game changer for what was possible on terrestrial television. And at the time of writing he has just completed the libretto for an epic opera on the life of Budhha with the composer Param Vir. He is in his mid-eighties and is literally unstoppable.

CM: Can you tell us a bit about the actors involved?
JM: As the series gives a voice to the unseen figures from the past I wanted to populate this project with voices from Rudkin’s past as well.

Juliet Stevenson worked with him on a production of ‘Hippolytus’ years ago, so it was great to get her back to perform an absolutely searing monologue in ‘Grim’s Ditch’. Michael Pennington, Charlotte Cornwell, Frances Tomelty, Richard Lynch and Jack Wilkinson also all feature in David’s vast back catalogue of work.

Toby Jones’ father had performed in David’s first major production – the aforementioned ‘Afore Night Come’ – and his mother was in ‘Penda’s Fen’, so it was wonderful to finally bring Toby in to complete the family triangle. Stephen Rea was also great to bring in as he and Rudkin had once tried but not managed to work together many years ago.

But I also wanted to bring new voices into Rudkin’s world. I had recently directed a production of debbie tucker green’s Jamaica-set play ‘Trade’ with a brilliant young actress Rachel Summers, who performs one of the ‘PlacePrints’ most challenging pieces – ‘From The Stone Age/Cave Girl’.

I also loved the young Welsh actress Hedydd Dylan and got her to perform an extended monologue as the legendary Mary Jones in both English and Welsh.

Given that Rudkin writes for a lot of non-human characters it has been great fun trying to cast them. I needed someone to play an Eleventh Century church and I could just hear Josie Lawrence’s lovely West Midlands tones. Similarly, I needed a deep beautiful voice to play the role of a large HGV truck and chose the wonderful Tyrone Huggins.

CM: Were the plays specifically written to be audio plays?
JM: They were always supposed to go directly into the ear of the listener, yes. But their development as podcasts came later – the initial idea was a site-specific audio guide and they may well take that form at some time in the future.

CM: You’ve been putting the plays together for some time, haven’t you? What made you want to create work for this platform?
JM: I have always been very attuned to sound – it’s the sense that excites me beyond all others. So I knew I wanted to one day work more specifically with audio, but I was so busy making live theatre that it was hard to find the space to really develop something for the ears.

I am new to the podcast medium but I think it is hugely exciting. For one thing it seems very democratic, art that nearly anyone can access with no price barriers. But I am particularly interested in really working with the medium and its specific features. I love how it engages the audience in a very solitary way – you can really speak to one person directly.

It’s feels different to radio which has become more communal and possibly more passive. I think there is a huge world to explore here and for me it is still theatrical because it’s relationship to the listener is active.

CM: How does directing work for audio differ from directing work destined for the theatre?
JM: Less time and more pressure to get it right! You have to switch off the theatrical part of your brain that says “let’s just play around and see where this goes” and instead have to get much more decisive much earlier. It’s scary, and something I will only be able to practise by doing.

CM: Can we also talk about your recent production ‘The Spirit’, which is currently available to watch online via BAC? What is all about and what themes does it explore?
JM: ‘The Spirit’ is a collaboration I made with a radical Belgian artist called Thibault Delferiere, who works across performance, painting and sculpture. We worked with our musical collaborator Giuseppe Lomeo and conceived a trilogy of performance works that told the story of the changing nature of the human spirit, from servitude to freedom.

Thibault has a unique body and language and he has harnessed this in the most powerful way, fashioning a means of expression that is totally singular. He is truly daring and will go as far as the work needs him to, and often further.

The shows contain live painting, sculpture, object manipulation, physical theatre, game playing, audience interaction, nudity and an amazing improvised musical score by Lomeo on guitar, Steve Noble on drums and Sharon Gal on vocals.

The three works are like living sculptures that communicate feelings and meaning through very specific physical actions, images and sounds. I am confident that no one will have seen anything quite like them.

CM: Can you tell us about New Perspectives and the sort of work it does?
JM: We describe ourselves as a touring theatre company, but our work is constantly expanding beyond those definitions.

We tour an international programme of live theatre around the country and beyond, prioritising rural communities and urban areas of low cultural engagement. But we also make work for the digital domain, work for children, live performance art and literary events as well as working with inspiring, marginalised communities.

We are not here to perpetuate dominant, establishment voices but instead make work from a huge mix of cultures, backgrounds, ages and identities. We are based in Nottingham and have a deep commitment to developing the theatre artists here and offering creative opportunities to local communities.

In normal times in any given month our work might be on a rural tour, in the West End, in a site-specific location and at a festival abroad. In these strange times a few of those avenues have momentarily closed up, but new ones continue to open.

CM: In your time as Artistic Director what have been the highlights? What aims do you have for the future?
JM: Every show and project has its own specific highlights. Success is a slippery thing for a company like us, as there is no set way of measuring it. Sometimes a success is about how many people see a show but usually I would say it is about genuinely feeling that you have achieved or exceeded your specific creative or cultural goals.

A few recent highlights include running our Nigerian show ‘The Fishermen’ in the West End for six weeks, mounting the first tour of debbie tucker green’s ‘TRADE’, staging the centre piece of the London Literature Festival in 2019, running a packed Christmas show at the Unicorn for two months, and also connecting with communities like Mansfield and Cleethorpes that are overlooked but packed with creative thinkers.

We also run a year-long artist development programme called New Associates which has connected us to some stunning talent in our region and given us an opportunity to work closely with artists and do all we can to help them.

In terms of the future, well, to survive and thrive. This time has forced us all to look at the basics of why we exist and how we can serve our culture going forward. It has been scary but also galvanising and reaffirming.

CM: What would you have been doing if there hadn’t been a lockdown?
JM: We would be about to open a wild Japanese book adaptation called ‘Convenience Store Woman’ at the Southbank on route to the Edinburgh Festival. And then we were going to tour a new adaptation of ‘An Angel At My Table’; the extraordinary life story of New Zealand writer Janet Frame. But both have been bumped to next year.

CM: What have you been doing to stay sane these last few months?
JM: Trying to stick to as much of a routine as possible. Regular writing, regular reading, regular exercise. Trying to limit the amount of Zooms I take part in, or at least curtail their running time. Trying to stay focused, be positive, learn, reflect. All of which are almost impossible to do with three young children, but at least I have something to aim for!

You can subscribe and download the full audio series ‘PlacePrints’ free of charge via Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts and Spotify.

‘The Spirit’ is currently available in three parts via Battersea Arts Centre’s YouTube channel here.

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Photo: Emanuele Costantini