Wednesday 21 February 2018

Stage: 'The company started as a reaction to insularity'

Unfussy: Emma Jordan
Unfussy: Emma Jordan

Chris McCormack

In a Dublin hotel bar, director Emma Jordan bites down on a biscuit. "Do you have any influences?" I ask. She thinks for a minute before giving a decidedly unfussy response: "No".

You'd suspect Jordan would rather be precise than superfluous. With a mind for logistics, she's currently manoeuvred herself into a good place. She's in rehearsals for John Logan's play Red at the Lyric Theatre. After our meeting, she's off to see her staging of Educating Rita at the Gaiety Theatre. Also, Stacy Gregg's play Scorch, which Jordan directed, has just won a Best Theatre Award at the Adelaide Fringe.

Despite all that, she doesn't want to sound self-congratulatory ("I don't want to say 'achievement' because it sounds too arrogant"). She's been artistic director of the Belfast-based company Prime Cut, which aims to produce contemporary theatre, for 17 years. "When the company was conceived in 1992, it was a reaction against an insularity," she says. "The founders thought Northern Irish theatre was a bit parochial. But that was a long time ago. Northern Ireland has changed drastically."

Keeping apace with that cultural change, Prime Cut found an enriching approach through an international repertoire. She singles out the company's 1994 production of Death and the Maiden as a representative work. The chilling drama by Chilean playwright Ariel Dorfman followed a former political prisoner searching for answers in a post-war state. "It was deeply resonant in Northern Ireland despite being set in Chile," she says.

Jordan has found revelatory potential through adaptations. Educating Rita, for instance, exchanged Liverpool for Belfast, adding a fear of sectarian violence to the comedy's 1980s class struggles. She also convinced writer Patrick Marber to revisit his adaptation of August Strindberg's Miss Julie and move it to Fermanagh during the late days of the Anglo-Irish ascendency, making it into a curious history play.

Jordan speaks unabashedly about the Northern Irish government's refusal to face the past, and was disappointed when plans for a new peace centre on the site of the Maze Prison fell through in 2013. "There was great dispute in Stormont over whether that was appropriate or not," she says. "The project was pulled, which I thought was tragic. It would have been really significant, not only in terms of cultural tourism but finding some way to deal with the past."

Jordan found a miraculous mirror to hold up to the controversy through a trilogy of works by Chilean writers, which she produced in Belfast in 2014. The plays, dealing with Chile's political establishment after the fall of military ruler Augusto Pinochet, dealt with questions about former sites of torture and political stalling that were nearly identical to Northern Ireland's.

Red may not be as obviously combative a work, but Jordan insists on its relevance. Logan's play, first produced in 2009, is based on the American abstract painter Mark Rothko and events around his commission for New York's Seagram Building in 1958. Famously, the paintings, showing rectangular fields of deep red and burnt orange, were withdrawn when the artist discovered they were being displayed in a ritzy restaurant. Rothko gave the money back.

"This commission was the biggest of its kind," says Jordan. "It's a signature moment in art history when money of that kind was on the table." That could make Logan's play a sly critique of arts patronage. The funding cuts in Northern Ireland haven't been kind. Red is actually a co-production between Prime Cut and the Lyric. "Cooperation is the only way any of us will survive," she says.

Not least of her tasks is recreating Rothko's paintings. "They're incredibly powerful between the texture and weight of them, but they're also very painful," she says, praising stage designer Ciaran Bagnall in the same breath. But the process, to her surprise, has been personal. "Of course I'd relate to the passion and pain of Rothko as he wrangles over this commission," says Jordan, as if the breakthrough was obvious to everyone but her.

She mightn't go into detail on art's obsessions, for fear it will sound like self-praise, but Logan's play says plenty. "It's about art," she says almost joyously. "That's the centre of my life."

Red is at the Lyric Theatre, Belfast, until April 23

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