Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Joseph Charles and Robert Maskell: White Witch

By | Published on Friday 3 September 2021

Back in 2017, multi-racial company Thee Black Swan staged ‘White Witch’ at the Chelsea Theatre, and the response to it made the company determined to bring it back at a later date. The pandemic got in the way a bit, but they’re back this week, opening at Bloomsbury Theatre on 7 Sep.

You may well have heard of the play – and its author, the late Barry Reckord – before, but if not, be assured that it’s an intriguing and exciting work, and one that definitely deserves to be seen.

To find out more about the play, and the creative team behind it, I spoke to Joseph Charles, director of the show and founder of Thee Black Swan, and Robert Maskell, who plays plantation owner Simon Palmer.

CM: Can you start by explaining, for those unfamiliar with the play, what ‘White Witch’ is all about? What story does it tell?
RM: ‘White Witch’ is based on the legend surrounding Annie Palmer of Rose Hall in Jamaica, still considered one of the most haunted buildings on the island. It is said that all four of her husbands died in mysterious circumstances. Barry Reckord bases his story on when she first comes to Jamaica as the wife of Simon Palmer – the plantation owner whom I play.

From very early on in the play it is obvious that she is surrounded by mystery, bringing with her rumours of witchcraft, of free sexual exploits; a white woman with a black stable lad as a lover – whom her two brothers and Palmer allegedly brutally murder. Her two brothers burn to death in a barn fire – accident or…? And rumour has it that Palmer is next. Palmer doesn’t believe in witchcraft or these rumours about her and is utterly consumed with lust for her. But he begins to disintegrate as illness – or is it witchcraft? – gradually consumes him. What is fear and what is real…? Who controls who? Who manipulates whom?

CM: What themes does the play explore?
RM: In this country I think we tend to know more about slavery in America than that which took place in the sugar plantations of the British Caribbean. The recent reaction against the likes of Colston in Bristol and many others, has begun to open that window.

Black slaves were brought to the islands in the most appalling conditions, and if they survived were put to work under extreme and brutal plantation regimes. Woven through Reckord’s play are these constant themes of brutality – whether sexual or just in general life and existence. Palmer considers himself a man of ‘enlightened self-interest’ – but the smouldering volcano is constantly ready to erupt at the slightest ‘provocation’.

It is a very powerful piece and written by a very fine playwright.

CM: Some will be familiar with the work of that very fine playwright, but for those who aren’t, can you tell us a bit about him?
JC: I think Barry Reckord was an exceptionally talented writer. And that’s not just my opinion. This is a man who won a scholarship to Cambridge and was, I believe, the first black playwright to get his work staged at the innovative Royal Court Theatre. I knew him and we discussed ‘White Witch’ a long time ago. The play is beautifully crafted and all of the characters have depth and timbre. He was not afraid to take risks and challenge, he was not afraid to tell uncomfortable truths.

CM: What motivated you to stage the play at this time?
JC: We performed the play at The Chelsea Theatre back in 2017 and it was sold out and everyone was hoping we would re-stage it and possibly tour it, but the pandemic stopped things from moving forward. We were very fortunate, however, that just before the lockdown happened we had secured Arts Council funding – the Arts Council England have been superb in their support throughout and we were able to carry this forward to now.

I really felt that Barry’s play needed to be shared more widely and it is still very relevant today. It explores difficult and distressing matters, such as the plantation owners in Jamaica and their brutality, but it also looks at how human beings are many layered and this included those who were enslaved as opposed to some stereotypical picture that is forced on us so often. But what I really love most is the way in which the female characters have such an impact. Their roles are brilliant.

It is a great story and it needs to be seen more widely. It has not been easy managing to get it staged, but we always finish our projects at Thee Black Swan and I was determined we would get this on again. These are difficult times and we are grateful to the Bloomsbury Theatre for helping us to get us back on stage. We could have waited longer, but why wait, we need to get moving with live theatre again.

CM: Can you tell us a bit about the cast of the play?
JC: We are fortunate in having a superb cast for the play – and I have worked with some of the actors over very many years.

Robert is immense in the part of Simon Palmer: this is such a challenging role and he has attacked it with vigour.

Judith Jacob and I worked as actors in ‘Angels’ back in the 70s. Judith has tremendous integrity and I was delighted when she agreed to play Princess. I knew she would appreciate the depth of the part and Barry’s writing.

Charles Tomlin, who plays Rhone, has his own following and I worked with Charles for many years with Blue Mountain Theatre. Charles is a natural comic and does stand up as well as acting. This again presented a new challenge for Charles, and he loves it. Charles has a huge following among the Jamaican community and takes his acting work very seriously.

I have worked with all of the actors previously except Georgina Baillie. She is perfect for the role of Annie Palmer, she has embraced the mystery and ‘witch’ like reputation of Annie.

I worked with Natasha Springer via Blue Mountain Theatre nearly twenty years ago, and Nathan Thomas in shows which I directed, written by the Grenadian playwright Allister Bain. Darien Charles played Cupid in the original production at The Chelsea Theatre and he also writes and makes films.

Merric Boyd is a talented actor – also a natural comic, but I met Merric because he is also a superb musician and has advised me on many projects including opera. I think it is interesting to note that all of our performers are creative artists who act as well as being musicians, writers, singers, dancers and DJs.

Okon Jones and I haven’t worked together for thirty years and he has travelled all the way from France to do the part of Dawes – though with all rules and regulations followed! Okon came all this way because the part is so good. I actually have Barry Reckord to thank for my cast.

CM: Can you tell us about Thee Black Swan? Who is involved with it and what are the aims of the company?
JC: Thee Black Swan is a multi-racial company. We produce new and classic plays in fresh contexts. We are a small company and we have been supported for most of our productions by Arts Council England. We invest in our own productions, saving up in between shows, because keeping the integrity of our work and our ethos is so important to us, and the Arts Council project funding has enabled us to maintain this.

Our aim is to provide opportunities for multi-racial casts, and for individual actors and artists, so they have the chance to play good roles and develop their craft over a number of performances, especially women and those of diverse heritage. Our productions have actors from all backgrounds, heritage, and cultures, and this attracts audiences who want to see work that relates to them and their history, and who want to see themselves represented not just on the stage but in the producing and creation.

CM: We know this production was delayed by COVID-19 – how did the pandemic impact on the production in practical terms?
JC: Yes, we had to repeatedly delay the production and we are most grateful to the Arts Council for supporting this timeline and also to Bloomsbury Theatre for holding our spot and rolling it over to the next year. People have been so helpful. It is a great challenge getting people back into the theatre to see plays and this is wholly understandable.

Obviously having people in the cast from overseas has meant that we have needed to look at lead-in times and the actors have been extremely responsible in testing and keeping safe. We are determined to keep going with our work and to collaborate with other creatives for the greater good and the amazing contribution that the arts make to everyone’s wellbeing.

CM: Can we talk about your respective pasts, now? How did you come to be working in the arts, and was it what you always wanted to do? What steps did you take to further your careers?
JC: I have been an actor for fifty years and a director for forty years. I believe passionately that everyone regardless of their heritage, gender, needs or characteristics should be represented in the arts industries at all levels. Maybe it hasn’t happened quite as I had hoped or planned for me, I am at the twilight chapter, in more ways than one! But hopefully I will have helped others to get there and get their voices heard and their talent seen and appreciated. I will be doing this as long as I have breath left in my body. I’ve worked in all areas to get by over the years, cleaning, driving, teaching… all good material for acting!

RM: I have always worked in the arts. Music and acting and wildlife were my things at school – and I’ve worked in the first two..! I began as a professional French horn player, and for half of my twenty year career was a member of The Philharmonia, and I played and recorded with many other groups and ensembles. I eventually retrained as an actor and some of my earliest work was with Joe and Blue Mountain Theatre. My work is mainly theatre, and has included three West End Shows – the last before lockdown being ‘Fiddler On The Roof’ at The Playhouse.

CM: What aims or ambitions do you have for the future?
JC: For us to keep producing these shows, to get more audience following us – we are not for profit, but we want to pay our artists and designers more money for their superb work and their loyalty to our cause.

RM: To keep working! During lockdown I worked for the Royal Mail – the most difficult thing I have ever done! I have the utmost respect for the postie and the nine plus miles of walking, six days a week with very heavy loads. Not sure whether I have the strength to go back to that!

CM: What’s coming up next for you after this?
JC: Next production – multi-racial gospel opera of ‘Medea’, brand new with a diverse heritage cast and crew. Hopefully next year. We will be doing some workshop performances in the new year.

RM: So far the only definite acting work I have coming up is a part in the ‘Grantchester’ series on TV… so it may well be that I will be tapping on your door with a letter or package to sign for!

‘White Witch’ is on at the Bloomsbury Theatre from 7-18 Sep. See this page here for more information and to book tickets.

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