Carla van der Sluijs, our theatre editor, meets with Al Gillespie to discuss his directorial finale in St. Andrews: Jerusalem
1. What made you want to stage Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem in St Andrews?
It was three years ago to this very day that I sent a message to Ali Saldanha asking if she wanted to do Jerusalem. I had decided a while before that I really wanted to direct in St Andrews, so I’d gathered up all the plays I could find in Blackwells. Among them was Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off, (the first play I directed) and Jerusalem. I actually wanted to propose Jerusalem at the time, but it just felt a bit too much to do in my first year. It’s a massive show that requires a big stage and a big cast. I’ve been waiting three years to stage it and now I feel ready.
2. Why the decision to cast women in male roles and what do you think it adds to the performance?
For one thing, a lot of the best actors we have in St Andrews right now are female, and in the past this has been less well served than it should have been. But on a more basic level, the best auditions we had were from female actors. After seeing Hannah Ritchie perform Rooster’s monologue captivatingly, I simply couldn’t cast anyone else in the role. Overall we’ve cast quite a few females but kept their characters male, which I think has been done to good effect. Theatre history is extremely male-dominated and mainly written by men about men. If we want to increase performance opportunities for women, we have to take risks like this or we will simply never innovate. It’s a necessary choice to keep us making progress on the stage.
3. How has the rehearsal process been so far and what have been the biggest challenges?
West Country accents are hard to get, but I think we’ve finally nailed it. The text itself is also quite challenging. It veers slowly from funny to sad, and finding the right tonal shift to take the characters from one place to the next takes careful consideration. The technical side of things has also been tough. Our head of tech, Grace, has been great, but there are other problems to overcome, such as how on earth do you go about making a forest in the Byre? We have to accept that we can’t replicate the original production as we don’t the budget or resources. For this reason, we’re almost going in the opposite direction to it and really adapting the play to suit our space.
4. There are many differing theories surrounding what Jerusalem is actually about. What do you think its main message is?
If you travel back through English history, maybe even from Romans, there have been all sorts of myths about the English woods as a mythical space of magic, madness and change. This is not the Nordic and Anglo Saxon stuff, but also more recent early modern work, such as Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In a way, Jerusalem is a companion piece to these. There are plenty of stories about people going into the woods and emerging differently, but this play is about the person who lives there
The ideas about encroachment of urbanisation and modern Britain are where the play is really prescient today. We have the ‘authentic but nasty’ British identity of town fairs, for instance, which have a bit of magic to them but in reality are a lot more savage with poverty, violence and drug use. Jerusalem is about how that clashes with the increasing sanitisation of society. Neither is necessarily right. Jerusalem is effectively about finding that British identity and tracking where it goes, which in the face of Brexit is particularly pressing.
5. Finally, please sum up your production in three words!
Woods, riots, Blake.
Jerusalem is taking place at The Byre 21st/22nd April. Tickets can be purchased