An Interview with John O’Connor
THE MUMBLE : Hello John, so you’ll be in East Lothian in a couple of weeks with Chekov’s Shorts. Have you ever been to the county before.
JOHN : Yes, we’ve played the Brunton Theatre many times over the years. Most recently with The Trials of Oscar Wilde and The Picture of Dorian Gray which both ended up in the West End. The audience in Musselburgh is always very knowledgeable, vocal and up for a good time. Also, my wife’s family are from near Haddington in East Lothian so I always enjoy coming to your beautiful county.
THE MUMBLE : You founded European Arts Company in 2002, what was the idea behind its inception.
JOHN : I was a jobbing (and sometimes not jobbing) actor and wanted to have some control over my career rather than waiting for the phone to ring. I managed to persuade the British Council to give us some money to tour Greece with a couple of Harold Pinter plays in 2002. We have since toured all over Europe (Italy, Germany, Ireland, Greece) as well as the UK and the name suits what we do. So to hell with Brexit!
THE MUMBLE : Since then you have done an awful lot of touring – 25 shows at the last count, right – what is it about a touring company that you love so much
JOHN : It’s something fundamental that goes right back to Shakespeare. When the theatres were shut by plague, the company would tour around the country and perform in towns and villages wherever they could find an audience. On this tour, we get to perform in theatres, schools, village halls, converted churches, barns, a former ropery and even a cattle byre! Every night is a new space, new audience, new experience and we always discover something fresh in the show that we might not have found if we’d been in the same place. It’s a fantastic way of seeing this country and connecting with people of all ages and from all walks of life. After touring THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY it found a temporary home at Trafalgar Studios in the West End. What does it feel like to suddenly become stationary, so to speak. After touring the show for six months, I think it needed to find a permanent home and settle down. After playing every conceivable space and in front of every kind of audience, it was good to put it on in London. The production got savaged by some critics and lauded by others. We had 5 star reviews and 1 star reviews on the same night but it sold out completely so we were happy!
THE MUMBLE : What does John O’Connor like to do when he’S NOT touring a play.
JOHN : Touring is a joy but very difficult to organise and you are always one phone call away from a crisis. Vans break down, props get broken, costumes rip and actors get sick so it’s tricky to switch off. I do a lot of walking which gives me time to think and Scotland is beautiful for that. My family come from the West of Ireland and the scenery is similar in places but you have heather and highlands and that great expansive beauty.
THE MUMBLE : How long does it take your company to develop a play for the stage.
JOHN : What you see on stage is usually the result of a year of planning. This show, Chekhov’s Shorts, is an exception as we first toured it ten years ago and have refined it over the years so it should hopefully purr like a well oiled machine!
THE MUMBLE : Can you tell us about Chekov’s Shorts, the play you are currently touring
JOHN : It’s been called ‘the perfect introduction to Chekhov’. Anton Chekhov is the second most performed playwright in the world after Shakespeare and one of the giants of world literature. He wrote over 600 short stories which are often very funny. Chekhov wrote his longer plays (The Seagull, Uncle Vanya, The Cherry Orchard etc) as comedies but they were played as tragedies by the Moscow Arts Theatre under the director Stanislavski. Chekhov was grateful for the success but frustrated by the ponderousness of the productions. Sadly, this tradition seems to have continued and I’ve seen some very dull, worthy, humourless productions of his plays. We wanted to show that Chekhov was a great comic writer and these 5 short plays were originally performed in Russian vaudeville theatres so were always meant to be populist and entertaining. They contain all of the beautiful bittersweet elements of his longer plays but with the brevity of a sketch show. This is Chekhov at his comic best, before Uncle Vanya started shooting, The Seagull got stuffed, The Three Sisters started moaning and The Cherry Orchard was ‘car-parked’!
THE MUMBLE : How are your experienced actors – Rupert Mason & Will Hartley – handling working with newcomer Eva Savage – & of course, vice versa.
JOHN : As I think you’ll see, Eva is giving them a run for their money! She might not yet have RSC or West End credits on her CV like the boys but she has done an awful lot of comedy. She has a great talent for farce and physical comedy which has added great energy to the show and complements their skills. They all seem to get on like a house on fire which is reflected in the fireworks on stage and often leaves audiences helpless with laughter.
THE MUMBLE : What does the rest of 2017 hold in store for John O’Connor
JOHN : This tour comes to an end in April and in May I’m going to New York because our version of The Picture of Dorian Gray is opening over there. I am directing another show in Italy this Autumn and then our acclaimed production of A Christmas Carol will be going out again in November/December. It seems perverse to talk about Christmas now but you asked! Hopefully we can bring it to East Lothian too.
CHEKOV’S SHORTS WILL BE PLAYING AT
THE BRUNTON THEATRE, MUSSELBURGH,
SATURDAY 25TH MARCH