Whatsonstage.com theatregoers were treated to an audience with two knights last night (Thursday 23 November 2006), as playwright Sir John Mortimer (pictured) and Sir Derek Jacobi attended our exclusive Question & Answer session after our Outing to Mortimer’s autobiographical play, A Voyage Round My Father, now at the West End’s Wyndham’s Theatre.

The revival of Mortimer’s 1970 play, directed by Gate Theatre artistic director Thea Sharrock, opened to critical acclaim on 13 June 2006 (previews from 8 June) at the 250-seat subsidised Donmar Warehouse, where it finished on 5 August (See Review Round-up, 14 Jun 2006). It reopened on 21 September (previews from 14 September) for a limited season to 16 December at the 750-seat Wyndham’s. The play charts the relationship between a man and his blind barrister father who refuses to acknowledge his disability.

Mortimer and Jacobi were joined by cast members Dominic Rowan and Natasha Little at the post-show discussion, which was hosted by Whatsonstage.com editorial director Terri Paddock, where they talked about the appeal of a play “full of humanity”, father/son relationships, portraying personal emotions on stage – and Tom Cruise’s pay packet.

Highlights from the discussion follow…

John Mortimer on why he wrote the play & how it feels to see your life on stage

  • Somebody thought there was a story in my father because he really was a remarkable man, and so I started writing and then it grew. Alec Guinness has played him, Laurence Olivier did it, and now it’s here in the very best production.

  • If you’re a writer, you’re used to seeing your life turned into theatre. I live in the house my father built. When Laurence Olivier played the part, it was filmed in that house and so I watched my father die as he did in the play - and that’s really what happened, he said “I’m always angry when I’m dying” - and ten years later I watched Olivier do it in my father’s bed, saying the same line.

    The actors on why they wanted to accept their roles in the production
    Derek Jacobi: The reason I wanted to do it really was two-fold. I always wanted to work at the Donmar and Michael Grandage said “We’re thinking of reviving Voyage, would you like to do it?”. I hadn’t seen it, I hadn’t seen it on film or on stage… so they sent me the script and I read it and I said yes. It’s a wonderful gift. Here is a lovely play with a magnificent part and doing it in a theatre that I longed to work in, it was an offer I really couldn’t refuse. We thought it would be lovely at the Donmar and then that would be it. But the icing on the cake was bringing it here. It’s had an extended life. Every performance is a learning curve for me and I’m sure for all of us because every night the audience is different, the reactions are so different. Some nights we play to what to us is almost total silence and we think “they’re all cardboard cut-outs!”, but then people at the end react enormously. That’s the magic of the theatre. It’s an animal that’s completely untameable and absolutely rules you - which is why theatre for me absolutely is the best of all media because there is that tussle every night and that shared experience. The electricity you as the audience provide we then send back to you. It’s job satisfaction way and above a Tom Cruise pay packet. Although I wouldn’t mind a Tom Cruise pay packet.

    Natasha Little: I so liked the play when I read it. I thought it was a very unusual play for now because it’s so full of love and affection and I don’t think you see that very often nowadays. It’s much more usual to have controversy, and drugs and sex. I think that’s very brave to have something that has so much humanity. And I was excited by the prospect of playing Elizabeth. She’s a very difficult role… (John Mortimer interjects: She was a difficult woman!) …I went though a whole stage of thinking I wanted a dark wig and to be smoking cigarettes. I was pestering the director Thea Sharrock but then I got over that. Also, I met Thea and thought she was fantastic, and I knew Derek was doing it and it was such a lovely cast that I really wanted to do it.

    Dominic Rowan (on playing the author, who was in the room during rehearsals): He’s called The Son in the play, and I thought well it’s autobiographical but I should treat it like any other text, it’s not really playing John, but a character he thought up…. Incidentally, I thought I was playing the little boy, I thought it was going to be me coming out in shorts…. But then as time has progressed, I’ve realised I have to be more like John because his geniality and take on life are all part of the play. This is where it’s come from, this shows how the boy became the man.

    John Mortimer on his involvement with this production
    I was very involved. I went to a lot of rehearsals. We have a brilliant director in Thea and I can’t keep away from it. I’ve written novels and plays and what is so wonderful is to come to the theatre and hear the audience laugh at your jokes - it’s very rare you catch someone laughing at a joke in your novels. There was one writer I was with and we got on the train at Piccadilly with the intention of getting off at Green Park, but he saw someone opposite reading one of his novels. He knew on page 300 there was going to be a joke so we sat there until Cockfosters in the hope of getting a laugh that never came.

    Derek Jacobi on playing Mortimer’s father

  • We talked a lot about his father. The stick I use in the play actually belonged to him so it’s kind of osmosis, through that stick comes inspiration. We all came to the house and saw the garden so when we talk about the west copse we all know where it is and the dahlias, too.

  • I’ve only ever seen one person die and that’s my father. The way it is in the play is also how my father died. Each time I play that scene part of me says “forgive me dad for using your passing as entertainment”, but I know he would have approved because he loved the theatre and he was very supportive. And actors have to use and relive very emotional and important things in their lives. In the case of death, which is the ultimate, I’m ever-conscious at the end of the show that I’m approximating the way dad went. It really does affect audience members whose loved ones have gone the same way.

    John Mortimer on what his parents would have thought of the play
    My father would have been pleased if he had seen the play. My mother wouldn’t have done, though; my mother said the two most vulgar things people can do are write a play about their family and have a swimming pool. And I’ve done both.

    - by Caroline Ansdell