Features Q&A and Interviews Published 27 August 2011

Jessica Swale

Jessica Swale is artistic director of Red Handed Theatre Company. Her productions include The Rivals at Southwark Playhouse, Palace of the End at Arcola Theatre and Bedlam at Shakespeare's Globe. She talks to Julia Rank ahead of her production of Hannah Cowley's The Belle Stratagem's at Southwark Playhouse.
Julia Rank

Following on from her highly acclaimed production of The Rivals, Swale directed Nell Leyshon’s Bedlam as part of the Globe’s 2010 season, the first play by a woman to be presented at the venue. “It’s a difficult space for new writers because it’s so vast. So much new writing is written for studio spaces with a small cast, while this was huge. Nell Leyshon isn’t bothered about being a female playwright – she just wants to write good plays. I recently directed her play Winter in Newfoundland, which was the opposite of Bedlam – five actors in a studio!” As for the difference between approaching modern and classical plays, Swale believes that the best approach is “to treat every classical piece as if it was a modern piece and to treat every modern piece as if it had classical sensibilities.”

Imogen Smith and Robin Soans in Palace of the End. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Swale encountered Palace of the End when working as an associate director with Out of Joint. “We would receive hundreds of scripts and I fell in love with it and was desperate to direct it as it’s so beautifully written. I had a friend who was in Iraq in the British army, whose experiences were quite extraordinary. I was adamantly against the war, but having a friend who was there to do a job made me question my own politics. Palace of the End is a really important play because it asks questions rather than trying to give answers. Many of the plays I’ve read about Iraq or Afghanistan are quite didactic and that tends to be rather dry as you know exactly where they’re going, while Judith Thompson is clever enough not to push a message down your throat.”

Directing three monologues lasting 40 minutes each was a challenging and rewarding experience. Swale remarks, “They’re so well constructed that you have to look at each one as an individual play. I use ‘actioning’ which is a method that Max Stafford-Clark uses, in which you have to find a transitive verb for each line. It’s very detailed, which eliminates any wishy-washy bits. The thing about tragic monologues is that you have to find the lightness in them. An audience can’t take half an hour of crying. It’s much more truthful for someone who has been through something horrible to tell it with some distance.” The qualities of truthfulness, sensitivity and a light touch are equally important in contemporary and classical plays, with naturalism and an understanding of characters as real people being more helpful than self-conscious ‘period’ posturing. 


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Julia Rank

Julia is a Londoner who recently completed a MA in Victorian Studies at Birkbeck College. Resolutely living in the past until further notice, Julia finds enjoyment in exploring art galleries and museums, dabbling in foreign languages, rummaging in second hand bookshops, and cats.

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