‘Highly inventive, visually unusual’

Jonathan Kemp, last seen in Athens earlier this summer in a riveting performance as Czech-born mathematician Kurt Godel, author of the Incompleteness Theorem in Apostolos Doxiadis’s play «Incompleteness,» is returning to a city he loves in order to direct the European Arts Company in a new adaptation of «The 39 Steps.» He talked to Kathimerini English Edition by email about his latest production and the delights of acting in Greece. What made you choose this play for this tour? «The 39 Steps» is highly inventive and theatrically and visually unusual. The premise of the piece is that an epic tale is told by four humble workers who are redecorating the flat of one of the characters in the story. As they are merely painters and builders, they must use the tools of their trade and their wit to represent the 23 characters and huge scenes of the Highlands of Scotland, the Forth Bridge and the London Palladium against which the story is played. The piece demands that the audience contribute their imaginations in order to «read» what is being played before them and as a result the whole evening becomes a collaboration between spectators and performers in realizing the telling of the story. The piece itself is a minor Scottish literary classic, written by John Buchan nearly a hundred years ago, and also a major film classic, thanks to Alfred Hitchcock, whose version introduced some of the boldest innovations in film language. This production pays homage to both. We selected «The 39 Steps» because we feel it touches a raw part of a modern issue; namely how Britain sees itself, how it views those from abroad, and the relationship between them. The strong feeling of insularity and fear of foreigners that is deliberately mocked in the play is still a part of everyday British life, and it may be interesting as well as amusing to those on the Continent to see where those attitudes have their roots. But most of all it is the fact that the piece is in the style of «The Poor Theater» that we are keen to take this piece abroad. Between us, we have worked all over the world and we are aware that although British Theater is lucky to have a good reputation in many countries, it is a traditional, text-based, «Shakespearean» reputation that is only one small part of contemporary theatrical life. Our piece places the performers and spectators on the same level – they have the same status – and every person in the space contributes to the theatrical experience. This is not the RSC, where the audience sit in hushed silence as in a church, receiving the performances of the god-giants on the stage who barely engage with them. We expect our audience to engage with us. The most cherished memories I have from when I acted in the original production seven years ago is of little old ladies shouting advice to me on stage and discussions breaking out in the seats about who was on whose side. What particular challenges does the play present to a director? As a director, I have the pleasurable task of letting actors run riot with their imaginations in rehearsals and of watching amazing bravery in trying anything at all to tell the story in the clearest possible way. My only difficulty is in saying «no» to some wonderful idea because it will upset the balance of the scene or distract from a moment of truth and emotional contact. It is easy to tell an actor his idea is terrible, but much harder to tell him his idea is fantastic and still won’t be in the show. That requires self-discipline from both director and actor; but we help each other. Aristophanes by starlight Our readers will remember your recent performance as Godel in «Incompleteness.» What is it like for you to work in Greece, as an actor and as a director? I can only say that the experiences I have had have been one of the main justifications I can give for being in this business. I have had the «holy» experience of playing Aristophanes in the starlight at the ancient stadium in Delphi, the fascinating and hugely rewarding summer in the intellectual gymnasium of Apostolos Doxiadis’s «Incompleteness» and the pure joy of performing Pinter’s «The Dumb Waiter» to truly educated audiences that actually felt the menace and got the joke (something which happens more rarely than you might think in England). I find Greek theater the only one outside of London that has the same scale and variety and probably more passion – not really surprising I suppose, you did invent it after all… The play «The 39 Steps,» adapted for the theater by Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon from the film that Alfred Hitchcock based on John Buchan’s classic adventure tale, opens this Friday at Theatro Embros, Psyrri, and runs till October 11. The production, which promises to be fast-paced and witty, will be performed in English by the European Arts Company, directed by Jonathan Kemp, with sets by Michalis Kokkoliadis. The company is here as the guest of the Greek Center for International Theater, sponsored by Cutty Sark and with the support of the British Council. The director Jonathan Kemp has acted in the West End, the National Theater and for the BBC. He toured Aristophanes’ «Clouds» and «Frogs» all over Europe and North America. He directed an adaptation of «Lord Jim» by Joseph Conrad in London, and has played Macbeth in Japan, and Mercutio in a world tour of «Romeo and Juliet.» Recently he directed and performed in «Much Ado About Nothing» outdoors in 16th century mansions round the south of England. Kemp played the leading role of Hannay in the original production of «The 39 Steps.»

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