Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Jo McInnes: Valhalla

By | Published on Thursday 24 September 2015

The latest show to go up over at Theatre503 is the second winner of their most recent playwriting competition (the first was the much praised ‘And Then Come The Nightjars’, whose run ends this week). Paul Murphy’s ‘Valhalla’ is the story of a couple who find themselves in an isolated location, seeking a cure for a global epidemic.


The show is helmed by acclaimed director Jo McInnes, whose face you might recognise courtesy of her extensive work as a performer. I sent some questions over to Jo, to find out more about the play, and why she was attracted to it.

CM: Can you start by telling us what the play is about? What’s the basic story?
JM: The play works on several levels but in essence it is about a couple who love each other very much, and are battling over their past, present and future. They flee their home for an isolated island to continue their research into genetics. But their work starts to go wrong, and the environment around them becomes more and more hostile. They enter into a tense battle of wills during which the future of their love and the whole human race is at stake. It’s hard to pin it down to a genre because the play is unique but if I had to, I’d describe it as a thriller/horror/love story.

CM: Does the play explore specific themes? Does it have particular points to make?
JM: Yes, Paul Murphy has written a piece which is so simple in its premise but full of themes, scientific, moral, human. It explores the new field of epigenetics – the theory that our genes aren’t fixed but adapt in response to our environment and experiences. It applies this in a very human way though, exploring the relationship between the sexes over hundreds of years. It also raises questions about the morality of medical research – how far should you go to try to cure disease? What sacrifices or compromises should we make in the name of progress? Like the best plays, it forces us to face difficult questions about what makes us human, but doesn’t give us any easy answers.

CM: How did you get involved as director? What attracted you to the piece?
JM: The play was one of two winners of last year’s Theatre503 Playwriting Award, which had around 1600 entries from 42 countries. The award included a guaranteed production, and I was brought in as director a few months after the award was announced. I was really attracted to the play’s style. It reminded me of the best of European cinema – if Michael Haneke or Lars Von Trier wrote a play this would be it. The language is so precise and the way the play creates tension is extraordinary.

CM: Have you worked closely with the playwright on it?
JM: Yes, Paul has been in rehearsal with us and as with all new plays it has shifted and changed through the process. He is a very exciting talent with a strong voice and vision – I have to keep reminding myself that this is his first major production because what he has written is so accomplished and brave. He’s got a great future ahead of him.

CM: Are you particularly interested in new theatre?
JM: Completely: I think new writing is the most exciting area of theatre. I’ve been fortunate enough to work on a lot of new plays in a lot of different contexts and every time I approach a new play I feel thrilled about the whole process.

CM: You’ve worked extensively as an actress as well as a director. Are you more focused on the directing these days, or do you have the desire to do both?
JM: I’m fully focused on directing nowadays, I’m happy to have left my acting career behind me. Working with such brilliant actors like Clint Dyer and Carolina Main on this play has been amazing.

CM: Are there any plans for the further development of ‘Valhalla’?
JM: We hope so – it will all depend on how audiences respond. There is always a risk with new plays, especially one as ambitious as this, and right now we are focused on making this production as thrilling and powerful as possible, which is what the play deserves.

CM: What’s next for you?
JM: I’m directing a film next, and then back to theatre with the first London run of Simon Stephens’ play-with-songs ‘Marine Parade’ at The Coronet in Notting Hill. Then I’ll be working on ‘Watership Down’ by Rona Munro, which plays in London and Manchester.

‘Valhalla’ is on at Theatre503 from 30 Sep-24 Oct. See this page here for info and tickets.


Photo: Jack Sain