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Sunday, June 26, 2022

‘Beckett on speed’: In conversation with Nocturne Productions

Anna Stephen talks to new theatre production company Nocturne Productions about their first play, a staging of Jez Butterworth's Mojo.

Nocturne Productions is staging its first play, Jez Butterworth’s Mojo, at the Michael Pilch Studio in Week 3. We spoke to director Max Morgan, producer Jemima Chen, and actors Noah Radcliffe-Adams (Baby) and Emma Pollock (Sweets) about the upcoming show.

You’re a newly-formed production company. How did Nocturne come about?

Max: Jem[ima] and I vaguely knew each other before we came to Oxford and I knew she’d been producing things. A lot of the production companies are run by second years, so we thought why don’t we have a stab at forming our own, making the most of drama at Oxford and how accessible everything is. We set up the company at the start of last [Hilary] term, picking the play, and now we’re here.

Jemima: We’re really keen on Pinter, Beckett, Jez Butterworth. I was already doing [Pinter’s] The Dumb Waiter [A2 Productions, HT22], and we want to do more dark comedy.

Max: Hence ‘Nocturne’, because it’s kind of dark, but also has the element of musicality and melodiousness. We had this image of a piano with the black and white keys.

Jemima: There were a lot of names. We were almost called ‘Wheelbarrow’.

Could you summarise what Mojo is about and why you chose to adapt it?

Max: I was really attracted to it because it’s been described as ‘Beckett on speed’: a real pressure-cooker play that unfolds over the course of less than twenty-four hours on a Saturday night and early Sunday morning, after six Soho gangsters in 1958 have discovered that their club owner, of the Atlantic, has been cut in two. It’s about how they descend into paranoia, and carnage unfolds in a network of marvellously-layered backstabbing.

Jemima: Mojo’s such a stylistic play and we can really mess around with that. We’re making the set immersive, having the first row of seating converted into chairs and tables; we have a live drummer. He suggested having a dress code for opening night: a 50s-Soho-Kit Kat Club style theme.

Max: It’s been described as a combination of Tarantino, Pinter, and Mamet in its witty dialogue and absurd tropes. It’s the ultimate combination really.

The Stage team this term are trying to demystify Oxford drama. Could you tell us a bit about your experience, and any advice you might have for those wanting to start out?

Jemima: At school I mainly did acting. I didn’t do anything behind the scenes, but I always wanted to do the producer aspect, because it’s kind of an ‘unsung hero’ role. It started like that. You pick it up so, so quickly and you go from there!

Max: I got here and was so overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of stuff on the OUDS Facebook page. I just applied for everything manically, and managed to get involved acting in the Jesus College Shakespeare Project but also assistant directing in the first term. It was such an incredible experience, being in a rehearsal room with student actors and a student creative team, and I learnt a lot from it. Assistant directing roles and getting involved in productions is a really good way of getting to grips with how you want to take things a step further, and people really want to give you tips and share techniques. There’s a lot on offer.

It’s often sadly the case that actors are discouraged by not getting parts, or simply don’t audition. What has your experience been like?

Noah: It is quite nerve-wracking auditioning for anything. You are going to get nervous and that’s a good thing. I auditioned for a couple of Covid online things and didn’t get them and had some serious self-doubt. Then at the end of the year there was a [St Peter’s] play on, and I got involved in that. That gave me a lot of confidence to just go for stuff. From the outside looking in, it does look quite exclusive. I felt like that. I think there is a certain element of getting your foot in the door. I couldn’t recommend enough going for as many things as possible and not being discouraged. I’d really recommend going for a college play.

Emma: The radio plays and Covid plays didn’t appeal to me at all. I hadn’t met anyone, it was absolutely terrifying. I came into second year having not done anything and just thought OK, I’ll put myself out there for as many things as possible. And the more you do things, the more you meet people, so the more you’re going to get things. To put yourself out there you really have to put yourself out there. And advertise that it’s your first time. OUDS is encouraging first-time actors, so that’s a plus.

Noah: People just take a chance on you, instilling confidence within you. That means you’ll act way better. A more comfortable, inclusive environment gets the best out of people. That’s no secret, really.

Could you tell us what attracts you to your part in Mojo, and how it differs from roles you’ve played in the past?

Noah: The last two parts I’ve played have been quite surly, senior characters and I wanted to do something completely different. I love the juvenile vulnerability of Baby and I think he’s so unpredictable and volatile but at the same time so vulnerable. That’s really fun to act and creates a tense dynamic with the other characters, intensified by the claustrophobia of the Pilch.

Emma: There’s a hierarchy of characters in Mojo. We’re scared of Baby but we kind of adore him and worship him in a strange way. Sweets is quite a paranoid person, but also very funny. Some of the stuff he spouts is hilarious. He’s one of a comedy duo, Sweets and Potts. They’re always on pills, and that makes them even more paranoid. I like to think of it as if you inserted a child into this gang environment: quite scared, quite confused by the violence, obedient and worried about what’s going on. But children are strangely aware of what’s going on in a way that adults aren’t. A different perspective on things, in a naїve way.

Do you have a favourite line?

Max: I think Noah’s is pretty good.

Noah: Well, I don’t know how much it would mean in isolation, but ‘Kiss my pegs.’

Jemima: I was literally going to say that.

Max: ‘There’s nothing like someone cutting your dad in two for clearing the mind.’

Noah: ‘My piss is black.’ That’s a great line.

Jemima: I like the lawnmower. ‘Over the face with a lawnmower.’

What can we expect from Nocturne Productions in the future?

Max: Next year we’re hoping to do Making Noise Quietly by Robert Holman, which is a series of three vignettes, and get first-time crews involved as their first production. We’ll have a different team on each of the vignettes, and hopefully do it at the BT Studio, and get as many people involved as possible. It’s really important. Fingers crossed for new writing too.

Jemima: And some films!

Finally, in one word, why should we come and see Mojo?

Jemima: Cutlasses.

Max: Speed.

Noah: Drums.

Emma: Violence.

Mojo runs at the Michael Pilch Studio from 10th-13th May.

Image credit: Biba Jones (@bibasketches)

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