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Jimmy Walters, © Robert Boulton

A Subject of Scandal and Concern: Interview with Jimmy Walters

29 April 2016 Tom Faber

This year marks six decades since the first performance of John Osborne’s landmark play ‘Look Back In Anger’. The piece was responsible for introducing the country to a new social realism and a focus on the working classes in theatre. To mark the anniversary, The Finborough Theatre is staging one of Osborne’s more obscure pieces, ‘A Subject of Scandal and Concern’. We caught up with director Jimmy Walters.

London Calling: Can you tell us about ‘A Subject of Scandal and Concern’?

Jimmy Walters: It hasn’t been performed in 40 years so this is its London premiere. It was originally written for television in 1959, starring Richard Burton and directed by Tony Richardson. It hasn’t really been touched since because it hasn’t been available for print so we unearthed it.

It’s a true story about a man named George Jacob Holyoake who was on trial for blasphemy in 1842. He was walking from Birmingham to Bristol to visit his friend who was already in jail for publishing a journal that the establishment deemed to be improper. Holyoake stops off at Cheltenham to see his wife and address a lecture at the mechanics institute. That evening he was arrested for speaking out against man’s relationship with God. His life changed forever.

 

LC: Does this choice of play have modern relevance?

JW: Yes I do. Not so much to do with religion because it has more commentary about the press than it does about religion. Something that never really goes away is this media onslaught that takes place when someone is accused. There’s a feeling of one man or woman against the world when they’re accused of something controversial. It’s got that element of a witchhunt. It reads very well because there are three different acts and each one tells a different story.

 

LC: Do you feel that there are ideas still today that would be considered blasphemous?

JW: I think we’re beyond blasphemy in this country. Religion isn’t controversial. When I was reading the text for the first time I was expecting a commentary on religion but I think it’s much more about how the press operate and behave. It’s got that feeling of something spiralling out of control. Everybody’s looking at you, every single paper in the country - you’re slap-bang at the front of it. To imagine what that must be like is interesting.

 

LC: I suppose Osborne himself was no stranger to the press.

JW: Yes he was someone who was very much in the public eye and it was written in reaction to that. He was actually driving to France with his wife to escape the press at the time the play was written.

 

LC: Do you think a writer always writes a part of themselves into their work?

JW: It depends. With Osborne there is always a point he’s trying to make and I think a lot of the time he puts a character in place to represent that, to represent him. I think with Chekhov there’s often a mixture of characters that show his perspective. There’s always something that they’re trying to say.

 

LC: So if a writer always has a part of himself in his work, does a director, too?

JW: To an extent, yes. My idol is Sam Mendes who always talks about having a way in. There has to be some kind of emotional connection between myself and the story. We recently did two Noel Coward plays and I thought - what’s going to be the way in here, to two short, fluffy plays? And I remember when I was a child and I went to see fun comedies at the end of the pier and that drew me back and I wanted to create that experience for the audience.

I know certainly for John Osborne post-war life in the 1950’s was very bleak. It was a no-mans period between the end of the war where everything was very victorious and the swinging sixties. It was like a period of isolation. Up until that point plays had been about the upper class, whether serious or satire, and Osborne was the first person who put the working class centre stage and made someone that real people could relate to. That resonated with the British population and that was in 1956. For him that was a really strong emotional connection. As a director, you need to find something that you can relate to as well.

 

LC: Osborne was a legend of his day. Do you feel like there are any contemporary playwrights around who are as revolutionary?

JW: Certainly, look at Simon Stephens, at Jez Butterworth, these are all people who are having an impact. Laura Wade is fantastic as well, people who represent a modern-day similarity with Osborne in some way. Every playwright is different and has a different rhythm. This is interesting for me as a director because I’m a big believer that the script always comes first and it’s about putting the playwright on a pedestal. Coward’s got a certain rhythm, Osborne’s got a certain rhythm, Shakespeare’s got a certain rhythm. Looking at playwrights today they’re very different but also the representatives of modern day social commentary.

 

LC: If you work in a method where you put the scripts on a pedestal, would you not be interested in devising work through rehearsal and improvisation?

JW: I think that’s a different way of working, you’ll still find some fantastic things. I’m more about the text myself. It’s my experience, you learn by experience. There’s another thing that Sam Mendes says, that people go to theatre to see writing and acting. Film is very much the director’s medium. You know a Wes Anderson film, a Tim Burton film, a Guy Ritchie film. You wouldn’t necessarily know a Trevor Nunn play or a Sam Mendes play because the audience can look wherever they want and there isn’t a lens dictating that for you. It’s very much about the scripts and how it’s performed.

 

LC: Where would you go to see theatre in London?

JW: I love the Old Vic because it’s where I had my first job was I was 16 I worked backstage there on a production of Hamlet which was amazing. There was a young Ben Whishaw playing Hamlet. That was great, it was an unpaid job just for a week but the chance to be in that role was amazing. Whenever I go there I’m reminded of those days. The Young Vic’s great, and I love The Old Red Lion where we did our last production. It’s got this great cosy feel to it and lots of things begin there and then go on to do great things. Those places in particular are brilliant.

 

‘A Subject of Scandal and Concern’ is at the Finborough Theatre from 22nd May to 7th June.

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