Caro Meets Theatre Interview

James Hogan: Ivy, Joan and Oberon

By | Published on Wednesday 14 January 2015

©NOBBY CLARK +44(0)7941-515770 +44(0)20-7274-2105

If you know anything about the world of drama publishing, you’ve probably heard of James Hogan, the founder of Oberon Books, known for its commitment to printing new works, as well as publishing the output of established names like Arnold Wesker and Peter Hall.

And, if you know about Oberon Books, then you may also know that James is himself a scribe, with a past career that’s seen him work as a journalist as well as a playwright. A double bill of his two short plays, ‘Ivy’ and ‘Joan’, which deal with themes of love, loss, and futile hopes, is currently being staged at Jermyn Street. I sent over some questions, to find out more about the show.

CM: ‘Ivy’ and ‘Joan’ appear as a double bill. Are the plays linked, or do they stand alone?
JH: They are intricately linked with many parallels; eg, each of the women has lost or never had emotional fulfillment. In visual terms, in each play a broken vessel (the broken heart) is symbolic. In ‘Ivy’ it’s a china tea-cup and saucer, in ‘Joan’ it’s a wine glass which is never filled, and which she sweeps aside in anger and shatters at the end. In each play there is a wedding in the background. In ‘Ivy’ it’s going on in the hotel where she has worked for 40 years. In ‘Joan’ it’s a memory of a wedding procession passing through the Piazza San Marco (Venice).

CM: Can you give us an idea of what they are about? What are the central narratives?
JH: In both plays the basic story is how any of us can face a bleak future without that special person who would be the love of our lives. Many people carry this sad secret around with them, but they never let on. In ‘Ivy’ it’s a former head waiter in the hotel who disappeared years ago after a one-night stand, but ‘Ivy’ is still convinced that one day he will return and marry her. In ‘Joan’, she discovers that the man she has been married to for decades has never loved her. But there are wider, more worldly themes filtering through… for example, Joan is an amateur painter, she has returned from Venice believing that art is useless as a tool for civilization. In ‘Ivy’, our central character is obsessed, waiting for her lover to return, and the theme is futile hope, which lurks within most of us at some time or other in our lives.

CM: What themes do the plays tackle?
JH: ‘Ivy’: Loyalty, both true and misplaced. The power of lost lovers/partners to dominate our lives.
‘Joan’: We may long for another kind of life, but we only have this one. Most people’s lives fall short of their aspirations and ambitions. How do we cope?

Has the explosion of art in Europe, often sponsored by the church, made a better world? No, because not far away thousands of people are being slaughtered for their beliefs.

CM: What inspired you to write these plays? Where did the ideas for them come from?
JH: For me there’s always a point of departure. This can be a phrase I overhear, or a small incident.

For ‘Joan’ it was my own experience of Venice. I was sitting in the Piazza San Marco enjoying a glass of Chianti in the evening. A mist drifted into the Piazza from the Grand Canal, and through it there appeared a wedding procession led by folk musicians. It passed through the Piazza and disappeared down a narrow lane. Magical.

For ‘Ivy’, it was also my own experience working in a hotel as a student. During my break I listened to an old waitress who lived in the hotel and was obsessed with the delusion that one day her lover would return.

CM: As well as being a playwright, you are the founder of independent publisher Oberon Books, which specialises in publishing plays. How did you get into this field, and what made you decide to set up the company?
JH: In the early 80s, I was the joint convenor of a playwriting group at Riverside Studios. After 4 years I decided I had to move on. But I was struck by how difficult, and even unlikely it was, for new plays to be published. There was an embryonic programme text project at the Royal Court, but not much else. So I set up Oberon to fill the gap.

I had an agenda. The funded theatre and much of the fringe was riddled with cliques of one sort or another, eg, the intellectual left, which had a vice-like grip on everything that went on. The pseudo Trotskyites who set out to disrupt the system. The funded theatre was a power-base for all these aparachniks, and it had little to do with original writing. I remember being told that a play of mine would not be staged because it wasn’t left wing enough. Actually, it was. It just wasn’t partisan. Oberon is a response to all this. Bear grudges. It’s good for you.

CM: Through Oberon Books, you have championed unknowns and published the work of many notable contemporary playwrights. Do you have a favourite?
JH: Lots of favourites. But in terms of favourites, I think mainly of individual plays rather than writers. All writers have good and not so good moments. But as a publisher you embrace them all through it. Play A may be great, play B may be a disappointment, but by then I’m looking ahead to plays C D E and so on. A publisher is custodian of every writer’s total oeuvre. Cherry picking would be easy. Anyone can do that. And if it’s a financial headache to publish everything a writer does, it’s my job to face that challenge.

There have been great moments. When Sir Peter Hall joined Oberon I was over-awed. Our street-cred soared. He once told me why he’d come on board: because we publish so many new writers. I have my detractors too, but that’s life.

There is another priority, which is to reflect what is actually happening in the theatre. But I mean the whole of theatre, not just fashionable sections. This might mean that we miss out here and there on some over-hyped long-running hit. I never look at what other theatre publishers are doing, except out of envy now and then. We have our big hits too and that of course boosts our standing every time.

Our list should also be truly international, writers from just about every conceivable ethnic and cultural background. I remember a leading playwright saying that he couldn’t recognize an ideological thread in our list. I said “Which one d’you want?”

People ask me how I manage all this at my age. My response is always plain. I’ve filled Oberon with a team of extremely bright young people. I encourage them to lead. We have to meet a changing, ever modernising world head-on. Young people instinctively understand things that we older people don’t.

CM: What’s next for you? Are you working on more plays? What can we expect in the future?
JH: I’m working on a new play, but I’m not giving away the idea!

‘Ivy’ & ‘Joan’ are on at Jermyn Street Theatre until 24 Jan, see the venue website for info and tickets.

LINKS: | |