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Angus Jackson

"I like doing contentious plays"

Philip Fisher talks to director Angus Jackson

Angus Jackson is one of a crop of emerging young directors who are beginning to make a major contribution to British theatre in the new millennium.

He has had a varied career to date and is currently directing the new West End musical, Desperately Seeking Susan, which marries a Madonna movie with music from Blondie.

He was invited into the project at an early stage. "They approached me about eighteen months ago to do a workshop on it when they knew that they had an idea and a script. They wanted to find out how it was going to work, whether it was going to work".

The next stage of the process says much about the way on which Jackson likes to work. Once they decided that the project was going into a theatre rather than recruit a team of actor-singers, "The first thing that we did was hire Tim Hatley, the designer. We then started accumulating members of the creative team. The last thing you do is make the offers to the actors".

Jackson was already a big fan of Blondie and relished the opportunity to work with Debbie Harry and Chris Stein on the music for the play, including getting the chance to commission an entirely new song written specially for the show.

He was less familiar with Susan Seidelman's film that starred Madonna and Rosanna Arquette but has grown to love it and in particular the "Shakespearean identity swap" that featured at its centre. "I love things where people get to be somebody else or get to experience someone else's life. I think that's very good food for drama and for audiences it is the ultimate fantasy, you get to live in somebody else's shoes".

Jackson's biggest career break to date must surely have been when Nicholas Hytner gave him the opportunity to direct Elmina's Kitchen by Kwame Kwei-Armah at the National.

"I just thought it was this fantastic melodrama, sort of opera of emotion and argument. I met with Kwame and we immediately hit it off. He's got a powerful intellect". He fondly remembers "the debates and raging rows we had when we were working on that show".

He also really enjoyed working with experienced British Caribbean actors such as Oscar James and George Harris. It was important for him "to learn something about their skills and what they bring to a project like that. As a young, white director it is a very privileged position to be in".

The dual relationship with Kwame was also interesting, in that the playwright also starred in the West End transfer of his own play. "I could ask him in rehearsals what he thought a line meant and he had to answer with his acting head, knowing perfectly well that he'd written the line in the first place. We did a deal on the way in about how we were going to behave" and he stuck to it.

The teaming obviously worked well as he subsequently directed the writer's follow-up, Fix Up, on the same Cottesloe stage and, had commitments allowed, might well have completed the trilogy.

Birmingham-born Angus Jackson had an unorthodox start to his theatrical career, having completed a degree in philosophy and physics, although he did direct plays as a student in his spare time.

His entrance into the professional world involved the bold step of finding a play, Carrington by Jane Beeson, that had previously been played at Chichester and which he thought he could do better. He approached the playwright who despite his inexperience listened. "That went rather well and I came to London and met Dominic Dromgoole who was running the Bush Theatre."

"I became assistant director there when I was 22 and I really got into the whole new writing end of things. Working on Elmina's Kitchen was a wonderful culmination of everything that Dominic taught me".

The next stage of his development occurred while Michael Grandage was running Sheffield Theatres, "I'd done this workshop performance of David Mamet's The Shawl and Michael saw this production and asked me to come and do it in Sheffield and then it all sort of snowballed from there. I started doing lots of American plays.

"I like doing contentious plays and I did this wonderful play called Prayer Room by Shan Khan at the Edinburgh International Festival which had a lot of bullishness and a high-stakes environment. I function well as a director with those things going on.

"I relish confrontation because I think that a lot can be achieved through confrontation and I like confronting things. I think that what was interesting about that play is that Shan, who describes himself as a crap Muslim, wanted to represent some of the debates and emotional whirlwinds that he'd been involved in, growing up in Scotland in a Muslim community. I love that sort of theatre. Elmina's Kitchen was good practice for that because it is a coming-of-age, a rites of passage story but it's also a melodrama".

Much of Jackson's time in the near future could lie at the Chichester Festival Theatre, which he describes as his professional home and where he is associate director to Jonathan Church, a man for whom he has much praise.

In addition, he's been commissioned to make a film of Prayer Room following up on one of Elmina's Kitchen, which "got nominated for BAFTAs and things. I would very much like to go through with that with the BBC, who are current deciding whether they will green light it".

Talking of his ambitions in the longer term, Angus Jackson expounds: "More than anything, it becomes about writers that you want to work with, as well as designers. I'd like to work on a version of a classic with Mike Poulton and I'm huge fan of Samuel Adamson, having assisted on his first play Bells and Whistles and directed his second. I would love to work with Kwame again, and we're talking about something at the moment with Shan".

With such a strong CV behind him, there is no doubt that we will hear a great deal more about this adventurous young director over the next few years.

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©Peter Lathan 2007