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Chris Monks on Moonlight and Magnolias

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In the second part of an extended interview, Chris Monks tells Simon Walker about his first production as artistic director of the SJT

Chris Monks’ choice of Moonlight and Magnolias for the opening production of his reign as artistic director of Scarborough’s Stephen Joseph Theatre is soaked in meaning. “Because it’s based around Gone with the Wind, I thought, ‘Here’s something to tap into, because this theatre used to be a cinema’,” he remembers. “It was an Odeon cinema in the 1930s, when Gone with the Wind was produced and the play is set, so I thought, ‘I can do something here that’s sort of site-specific’. It’s part of a three-pronged representation of the theatre’s past through the three plays in the main house this season. This one sort of represents the building’s past when it started; then we’re going to have a revival of an Alan Ayckbourn play that hasn’t been revived by him for forty years, which represents its nearer past; then my musical adaptation of The Pirates of Penzance represents where I want to take it.”

Written by Ron Hutchinson and first performed in Chicago’s Goodman Theatre in 2004, Moonlight and Magnolias is a speculative portrayal of how the script for Gone with the Wind was finished. It follows producer David O Selznick as he salvages the film from seemingly inevitable disaster, after sacking his screenwriters and suspending production. With the financial piping underpinning the film looking about as conscientiously sealed as that of Franklin D Roosevelt’s, or indeed (insert current politician)’s, proverbial pump, he quickly lures director Victor Fleming away from the unfinished The Wizard of Oz and hires writer Ben Hecht, before the trio begins an intense week of work on the script, eating only bananas and peanuts. As a genre label, “farce” isn’t too meandering, but Monks tells me that he prefers the term “screwball comedy”, as it “comes from the Hollywood tradition of Cary Grant and people like that, and it’s come back with people like Adam Sandler. It’s slightly off the wall and ridiculous, but you like it anyway.”

Monks offers several reasons for choosing the play. The simplest is that, when he watched it at London’s Tricycle Theatre in 2008, it appealed to him as a “funny, screwball comedy that really ripped the lid off what it’s like to produce a film”. However, he also cites his view that the play is one that few could find alienating. “I think that it will really engage a lot of different age groups. Young people who are into film can see something about its history, and older audiences will know Gone with the Wind and think ‘I’d really like to know how they did that’,” he argues. Later, he develops the point further: “Good theatre happens on many levels. A five-year-old could come along and see Moonlight and Magnolias and laugh at what happens with all those bananas, but then you’ve got the underlying current, which is that World War Two is just around the corner, and a lot of people in the States are ignoring it. There are two Jewish characters, one of whom is very active in getting Jews out of Europe, and one that couldn’t care less. Now, as far as relating that to today goes, it raises questions of whether you should welcome in refugees or keep them at bay. So there you’ve got something that’s really serious, and then you’ve got a play that’s about how many bananas somebody can eat in five days.”

Insofar as Monks has a discernible set of beliefs colouring his choice of material, this must rank as one of them. He likes comedy with an uncomfortable edge – a few tactfully interwoven, but not dispensable, slaps to the collective cheek of the prevailing social mores. He perhaps thinks that a more militant strategy incurs a danger of descending into theatrical thuggery. “Comedy, I think, is sometimes undervalued,” he says. “Tragedy is where we want to be. We want to do stuff that’s confrontational. Although I admire her writing, I would never want to direct Sarah Kane’s work, because it alienates too many people, and I think that the things that she says can be said in a different way. I’m not a great fan. Richard Bean, whose work I do like, is another example – a Hull writer who’s very funny but deals with some pretty heavy stuff. His recent play about racism in this country (England People Very Nice) didn’t go down too well with certain people because he’s uncompromising. But comedy is great stuff.”

Conversely, Monks was attracted to Moonlight and Magnolias because it peruses both the society in which it is set and the one in which it was written without furiously cross-examining or brutalising either. “Going to see The African Company last night, there was a fantastic story about a production of Richard III that happened in America in the 1820s with an entirely black cast,” he says. “I’d never heard about that or the questions that it brought up – it was banned because the white majority didn’t want to see that happening, and I think that’s a question that we have to keep revisiting. It might not be black people this week – it might be the Polish people coming to live in this part of the world – but that affects everybody, and if people don’t have an opinion about it then I think that’s the sort of thing that theatre ought to be stimulating. But I also want people to have a good time – I don’t want them to come to a lecture. Hutchinson manages to do that with Moonlight and Magnolias because he’s a good writer and can weave these things together. There’s a lot of stuff about The Wizard of Oz in there, and some of the references to the Munchkins show them in a way that most people won’t have considered before.”

It is possibly inevitable that some comparison between the play and the film whose rescue it envisions is made during our interview. I suspect that the one that Monks draws marks precisely why entertainment has always been able to stir him more when created live. “People can watch Gone with the Wind fifty million times and it’s always the same but, when you go to see a play, it’s different every night,” he reasons. “How audiences react will mean that the actors will play it slightly differently each time. There was a great bit in Lola: The Life of Lola Montez the other night. We had this showing by a fantastic flamenco guitarist and, at one point, he was death – he epitomised death – and Lola Montez said ‘Then, one day, death came for me’. The guy tried to get up out of his seat, but the guitar strap was caught round his chair so he fell back – which wasn’t supposed to happen – and then he tried to get up again and then it happened again, and then he got up and walked across and looked at the audience and said ‘Finally’. That will never happen again.”

Moonlight and Magnolias is at Stephen Joseph Theatre from 30 April to 27 June


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