My Inspiration: Jake Murray – The Covid-19 Monologues | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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The Covid-19 Monologues is a series of five plays virtually directed by artistic director of North East theatre company Elysium, Jake Murray and available to watch via their YouTube channel. Each episode centres around a reporter in the North-East who gets a job at a care home to be close to her father. They were all filmed by socially distanced cameramen and feature a fine cast including Shobna Gulati (Coronation Street), Edmund Dehn (Knightmare) and Paul Herzberg (My Week with Marilyn).

We speak to Jake to find out what inspired this production…

The Covid-19 Monologues had a whole heap of inspirations. When the Coronavirus took hold and lockdown began, I, like all of us, was hit by a sense of confusion: how long was this going to take? How severe was it going to be? Would we ever go back to normal? Were we all going to get through it? Like most people in the Arts, it killed any plans I had with my company, Elysium TC. We had a whole production of John Osborne’s Look Back In Anger ready to go on tour in the North East and Liverpool, but C-19 blew that out of the water. We were suddenly beached and helpless, and, like most performers, had no sense of what to do or what direction to go in?

Then I saw what a friend of mine in America was doing. His name is Anand Vyas, and he is a classically-trained Sitar player. Every day he live streamed himself playing for free on the internet. The music was beautiful and completely uplifting. It inspired me. It made me think to myself ‘What can I do as an artist to inspire people too? How can I use my theatre company to fight back against the sense of hopelessness and fear everyone was experiencing?

We came up with a whole raft of things: first play readings with my actors, then online workshops on the great dramatists of Western theatre – Shakespeare, Sophocles, Ibsen, Strindberg, Chekhov etc. All of these went incredibly well. Actors and viewers flocked to take part and we created some really memorable experiences. It was incredibly creative. We all reconnected with these great plays that had made us want to work in the Theatre in the first place. We met new actors and the feedback we got from our audiences was amazing. It was fantastic. 

Then we were approached by the two main theatres in Durham, where we are based: the Gala and Assembly Rooms Theatres. Lizzie Glazier and Kate Barton asked us to produce something for their Onstage: Online Festival and it was then that we commissioned and produced our first filmed online piece of theatre, ‘Isolations’ by Gary Kitching. It was a huge success and suddenly opened our eyes to the possibilities of online theatre. So the Covid-19 Monologues were born.

We’d long wanted to work with new writers, but resources had always been too small to do so, so this seemed like just the right moment to change that. We asked five writers to write a short monologue each. We didn’t give them any restrictions on content; we said that they could write about Covid-19 directly but didn’t have to mention it at all. The writers ranged from veteran writers like Mike Elliston and Paul Herzberg, whose play The Dead Wait I had directed in 2002 at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester, to writers taking their first steps, like Hamza Rafique, an ex-student at Durham University who had come to one of my new writing workshops there. Diversity was another thing we really wanted to take seriously. The Black Lives Matter movement was the other big story of 2020 alongside Covid-19, and although we had already achieved a lot on this front in our few years on the stage, we wanted to go even further in reflecting the diversity of our nation.

The result has been five fantastic monologues with their fingers on the pulse on all the key issues of this extraordinary year. The first two, One Of A Kind by Rachael Halliwell and Push Yourself, Slightly, by Chris Dance, deal with Covid-19 first tragically and then comically/ With Paul Herzberg’s The Moth we move into #BLM territory, with an exploration of how the violence of South African Apartheid still effects us now. Mike Elliston’s Sugar is the perfect companion piece to that, dealing as it does with the morality of Sir Edward Colston, the notorious Bristol slave trader whose statue was toppled into the harbour at the height of the #BLM protests over here. Last of all we have Hamza’s The Art Of Being A Solution with Shobna Gulati as Preeya, a government advisor in the mould of Priti Patel and Suella Braverman. With South Asians now more represented in government than ever before, this is an extraordinarily brave and original take on modern politics…

I am incredibly proud of the Covid-19 Monologues. They have been great to work on. The range of talent in both writing and acting has been exciting to behold, as has the professionalism of all involved, including our erstwhile cameraman, Andrew Glassford, who has filmed everything within the confines of social distancing. It’s been brilliant, and I like to feel that all five give us a permanent record of 2020. There will be more! The Covid-19 Monologues Vol 2 will be out over the new year. Until then, I have to thank Anand Vyas for inspiring all of this, and opening my eyes to a whole new medium of theatre!

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