Caro Meets Theatre Interview

James Martin Charlton: Reformation

By | Published on Friday 21 June 2019

Headed to Kennington’s White Bear Theatre this week is a new play by James Martin Charlton, which is set in Renaissance-era Germany, and uses real historical people – in particular one of the most famous painters of the period Lucas Cranach – in its narrative.

I spoke to James, to find out more about ‘Reformation’, as well as his own history as a playwright.

CM: Can we start with the premise of the play? What is it about?
JMC: ‘Reformation’ is set in Berlin during the Renaissance. It tells the story of a young peasant woman, Eva, who gets involved with a visiting celebrity artist, Lucas Cranach, and with his son, also called Lucas. She begins a romance with the son, and agrees to life model for the father’s latest painting, ‘The Rape of Lucrece’. Things become complicated when Cranach’s patron, the local Elector, sees the sketches and falls in lust with the image of Eva. When the Elector says he wants something, everyone has to jump. Cranach, Lucas and most of all Eva are plunged into ethical and sexual dilemmas.

CM: What themes does it explore?
JMC: The play is about the people who don’t usually make the history books. It is about power, desire, and the loss of innocence. All of the usual dramatic themes! Perhaps most of all it is about what a person might be willing to do to survive. Contrary to how it might sound, it’s funny as well as a play with its depths and darkness. The characters are larger than life, with a theatrical vitality.

CM: Can you tell us a bit about Cranach?
JMC: Lucas Cranach was one of the greatest artists of the German Renaissance. He was enormously successful in his time, every bit as successful as a major Hollywood film-maker. He painted moral and religious scenes, as well as portraits of the German nobility. He was a zealous Protestant and a close personal friend of Martin Luther. Yet he continued to undertake lucrative commissions for the Catholic Church and nobility, even after the German states were torn apart by the Reformation. His son, also called Lucas, became a successful artist himself.

CM: Does the story (and the character of Eva) have any basis in reality?
JMC: Cranach, his son Lucas, the Elector Joachim and his Bishop brother Albert all existed. Joachim did commission portraits and moral scenes from Cranach, including a ‘Rape of Lucrece.’ Eva and her family are inventions, and the play is a speculation on the people whose stories don’t get handed down to us. I hope that I have kept true to the spirit of what it might have been like to have been like at the time to be a powerless woman mingling with dominant men, some of whom had absolute power.

CM: What inspired you to write a piece about this subject?
JMC: Some years ago, I visited a dear friend in Berlin, and she took me to an exhibition of the works that Cranach and other Renaissance artists did for the royal court of the Hohenzollerns. I became fascinated by the portraits by Cranach of Joachim and his brother Albert, 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…

CM: What relevance does this historical story have for contemporary audiences?
JMC: Recent revelations about the behaviours of such celebrities as Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey, and the whole #metoo movement, have shown us that too many women (and men) find still themselves in situations analogous to Eva’s. I also think it’s worth, as we teeter on the edge of Brexit, to reflect on the Reformation. This is a history we share with the rest of Europe. I have an idea that the Reformation isn’t something that happened half a century ago and concluded – it’s still happening now. It’s happening within society, and within each one of us.

CM: Have you been involved with the rehearsal process of this production at all? Can you tell us about the team involved in it?
JMC: I pop into rehearsals when I get the chance, to see how things are going. I am lucky to have a fantastic company and creative team working on the play. It became apparent after just a few minutes on the first day of rehearsal that Janice Dunn knew what she was doing and knew the play. I was excited to have her involved as she has such a great track record; she directed the premier of Howard Barker’s ‘The Europeans’. Barker’s plays from that period were in my mind while I was conceiving the play.

Jason Wing and Simeon Willis are tough actors, best known for their screen work in gangster and horror films, so they bring a quality of danger to Cranach and Joachim. This contrasts with Alice De-Warrenne and Ram Gupta, who are two fantastic young performers at the start of their careers, innocent babes still. The rest of the cast are all highly experienced, hugely skilled. We’re lucky to have a company of this quality on the fringe. We’re all supported by our brilliant producer, Nayomi Roshini, who has previously worked in film and academia, and she is proving to have formidable energy and patience. It’s great to work with company with so many women behind the scenes – director, producer, designer, lighting designer.

CM: Can we talk a bit about you now…? Did you always want to be a writer, and what steps did you take in making it a career?
JMC: When I was very young, I wanted to do everything – act, write and direct. I have done all of these, but writing is the thing I love best. I began by getting together with like-minded misfits and putting on plays in obscure venues in the late-80s/early-90s. I’ve never liked waiting around for others to put on my plays, I’ve always just got on and did it myself. One of my plays, ‘Fat Souls’, won a play-writing competition and was produced to great critical success. I’ve been writing ever since, as well as still keeping my hand in as a director. And I work as an academic, researching and assisting students who are developing their own voices.

CM: Of the plays you have written and seen performed, do you have a favourite…?
JMC: Probably ‘Fat Souls’. It is full of daring things – verse, masks, emblematic characters. It’s a very innocent play, naïve perhaps, and it still manages to move me, old and jaded as I now am.

CM: Do you have any aims or ambitions for the future?
JMC: ‘Reformation’ is the first production of a new company formed to produce my plays, JMC Fire. I have another new play, on Saint Alban the first British martyr, which we plan to produce. It would be lovely to see ‘Fat Souls’ done again, it’s about time it got another airing. I’m also talking to Just Some Theatre Co., who produced my play ‘Coward’ at the White Bear, about writing them a new play with elements of horror, blending AR technology with stagecraft.

CM: What’s coming up next for you in the short term?
JMC: I’m about to direct a new community-based play in the East End, ‘Alice in Canning Town’, by James Kenworth. I’ve directed a number of his plays. This is the third play we’ve done together that mixes a professional cast and creative team with brilliant young people from the Royal Docks area. We’re staging it in promenade, at an adventure hub called Arc in the Park in Canning Town, in August.

Reformation’ is on at the White Bear Theatre from 25 Jun-13 Jul, see the venue website here for more.

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Photo: Max Harrison