Emma Jordan: Prime Mover

With After Miss Julie premièring across Ireland, the ambitious theatre director opens up about the demands of the job, keeping things fresh and leading actors 'into the darkness'

Emma Jordan, artistic director of Prime Cut Productions, is one of Northern Ireland’s most respected and prolific theatre practitioners. Born and raised in West Belfast, she attributes her drama education at St. Louise’s Comprehensive College in the Falls Road as a major influence on her love of theatre.

Like many others working in the sector, she can pin down her career path to a single light bulb moment - in this case, a school trip to the National Theatre’s landmark production of Antony and Cleopatra, in which Judi Dench and Anthony Hopkins played the title roles.

Little did she think that a year later she herself would be appearing on that big London stage with the college’s Marillac Theatre Company, performing The Hedgey Road Plays as part of the National Connections UK-wide programme of work by young people. That, she says, was it. There was no going back.

For a number of years, Jordan was a busy actress, performing on stage and on screen, including, in 1993, Ronan Bennett’s edgy, highly acclaimed BBC television drama Love Lies Bleeding, directed by Michael Winterbottom, in which she played the female lead alongside recent BAFTA winner Mark Rylance. Many in the industry were surprised when she turned her back on acting and made a switch into directing. But it was a wise, considered move.

Eleven years ago, she took over over from Jackie Doyle as artistic director of Prime Cut, the ground-breaking company initially named Mad Cow, which Doyle had co-founded with Simon Magill, set designer Stuart Marshall and lighting designer the late Aiden Lacey.

From the onset, the company’s raison d’être had been to present in Northern Ireland some of the most internationally successful plays in existence, many of which might otherwise never have seen the light of day here.

They were not always an easy sell. Some were well-known titles like Death and the Maiden, Endgame, American Buffalo, Shopping and F**king, A Place with the Pigs, Oleanna; there were world premieres by high profile writers, like Trevor Griffiths’s Who Shall be Happy; others were less familiar but no less impressive plays like Ashes to Ashes, Brilliant Traces, Problem Child, Vincent River; and then came Shoot the Crow, Antigone and Scenes from the Big Picture by Belfast playwright Owen McCafferty, with whom Jordan and Prime Cut have formed a mutually productive professional relationship.

Her most ambitious undertakings to date have been The Chilean Trilogy, a thrilling trio of plays by two Chilean writers, presented in a spectacular promenade set at the MAC, and the company's collaboration with Bosnian theatre director Haris Pašovič, which resulted in the creation of The Conquest of Happiness for Derry~Londonderry UK City of Culture 2013. This uncompromising, large-scale, open-air production toured to Ljubljana, Sarajevo and Mostar in a co-production with Pašovič’s East West Theatre Company.

In the years since she has headed up the company, Jordan has won a number of prestigious awards, including, in 2014, the prestigious Paul Hamlyn Foundation Breakthrough Award, worth £295,000 and set up to support exceptional entrepreneurs in the UK’s cultural sector. The money enables Prime Cut to build on its producing relationships and its invitations to perform outside Northern Ireland.

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It will support Emma to initiate and explore new artistic collaborations and aspects to her own work as a director. In addition, it will enable her to devise and lead a series of artist development opportunities for emerging theatre makers in Northern Ireland.

After all these years with Prime Cut, one wonders whether she ever feels by daunted by the pressure of keeping things fresh. 'It's something that has never been an issue,' she replies. 'One of the great aspects of my job is that we are constantly working on new projects. The company has evolved since its beginnings in 1992. For me one of the most important shifts has been the move to the MAC. It has really opened the perspective of the company being based in the heart of Belfast and the arts community.

'One thing that has not changed is our commitment to bringing to local audiences the best international contemporary writing around. Having said this, our application of this ethos has developed over time to include linking with international partners, such as our co-production with East West from Sarajevo on The Conquest Of Happiness.

'In addition we have developed an important developmental strand to our work by mentoring and developing Northern Irish theatre makers. We are responding to a strategic gap in the local sector and also changing modes in the production of work for artists who don’t necessarily want to set up a theatre company.

'Our community engagement programme is an important strand and some of the best work we have produced in the past five years has been in this field - for instance, The Baths performed in the public baths in Templemore Avenue. This work is really important to us as a contribution to the unique challenges that we face in post-conflict Northern Ireland.'

Jordan has become accustomed to juggling the tricky demands of being both Prime Cut’s artistic director and its leading director of productions. She feels particularly torn when she is in rehearsal for an emotionally and artistically demanding play and says she could not handle this double act without the support of her 'brilliant' management team and board.

'When I am in rehearsals, it is all consuming – as it must be – so it’s hard to balance all the strategic and logistical daily challenges of running a company, while being submerged in the world of the play. But one of the beautiful things about making and producing theatre is that it is entirely collaborative and this is a joyous element of both aspects of my job.'

Over the years, Prime Cut has built up an enviable international reputation for artistic excellence. Still, as Jordan explains, in these financially straitened times, life is no easier for them than for any other arts organisation fighting for public funding and private sponsorship. She fears for the next generation of artists facing an uncertain future here.

'Undoubtedly my job is getting harder, as it is for everyone else,' she says . 'It is extremely difficult to aspire and grow in a sector that is retracting. It has always been difficult but I am genuinely concerned for the future of the arts in Northern Ireland. Arts policy is being led by a political agenda and that is always dangerous. This can be a challenging place to live and if our artistic and cultural lives are contracting instead of expanding I worry about the reasons for staying. On a personal level, I am preparing to pack my three children off on a plane and I might not be able to make salient reasons for them to stay.' 

And, funding difficulties notwithstanding, what secrets is she prepared to share about future plans for Prime Cut, a company which always has an eye fixed on its next big idea?

'We are delighted that our production of Scorch – about a transgender teenager  has been invited to Paines Plough’s venue The Roundabout for the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and we are currently working on a national tour,' she says. 'We have also begun a European polyvocal playwriting project with five international partners led by the Viterbo Theatre Festival in Italy. So, exciting times ahead.'

On her immediate agenda is the Irish premiere of After Miss Julie, Patrick Marber’s accomplished reworking of a play written almost 130 years ago in chilly Sweden. August Strindberg’s Miss Julie is one of the hottest, most daringly realistic plays in the classical canon. It is beautifully constructed, fearlessly questioning and takes on issues of class, sex and social politics with relentless honesty. In spite of its vintage, it is very much a play for today.

It takes a brave and gifted writer to take on the task of adapting and reworking such an exemplary original, leave alone going on to agree to a revision of the revision. Marber wrote it in 1995 as a television drama for BBC2. He relocated Strindberg’s examination of sexual manipulation in Scandinavian society to a manor house in the English countryside, on the night in 1945 when Winston Churchill suffered a massive electoral defeat at the hands of Clement Attlee's Labour Party.

Its stage version was premiered at the Donmar Warehouse in London in 2003, a point when, in a neat historical inversion, the promises of Tony Blair’s Labour government were starting to ring very hollow. Now the setting has shifted again, from England to the archetypal Anglo-Irish big house in rural County Fermanagh during the celebrations surrounding VE Day and the end of World War II.

'As soon as I read it I knew this was a play we had to do,' says Jordan. 'But I also knew that I wanted to relocate it. I met Patrick Marber and he was extremely enthusiastic about working with me on changing the context. I went away and did a lot of research about the period then we went through the script together, line by line, and adjusted it.

'The big step had already been taken by Patrick. Strindberg's play is such a well-made piece of work. It’s a classic text in which everything has a meaning, each personal history is clearly defined. He was very clever in moving it out of its original time and place and making it a thoroughly modern examination of class and sex and complex relationships.

'These things take on even greater relevance when they occur within a society that was changing radically and in a world that was being blown apart politically and socially. With the war just over, Britain was on the threshold of seismic change and I was interested in how this change would impact on the land-owning classes in the borderlands of Northern Ireland, who saw themselves as British yet at one step removed.' 

At the play’s core is the tangled, dangerous liaison between Julie, the daughter of the big house, and John, her father’s chauffeur. As Jordan puts it, she is a young woman who feels isolated within isolation. Bored and frustrated by her privileged but aimless life in this beautiful, remote landscape, she lays eyes and hands on the good-looking servant who is betrothed to the house maid. Gradually the fall-out from their brief encounter starts to infuse and infect the entire household.

Prime Cut After Miss Julie

Jordan has cast three excellent actors in this triangular hotbed. Lisa Dwyer Hogg plays the title role, maturing impressively as a performer since she was cast by Jordan as an exploited young girl in two intensely disturbing dramas, Scarborough and Blackbird. Pauline Hutton takes on the challenging role of John’s fiancée Christine, having made a memorable appearance in the Chilean Trilogy in 2014.

The trio is completed by the experienced Fermanagh-born stage and screen actor Ciaran McMenamin, making his first appearance on home turf since being cast in Martin Lynch’s double-hander Holding Hands at Paschendale over nine years ago.

As a director, Jordan is well known for her skill and sensitivity in mining human emotions and exposing dark secrets lurking beneath the surface.

'It’s what interests me,' she says. 'I like to go deep into characters and relationships and encourage the actors to go with me. Because of my background, I am very much an actor’s director. I put my trust in my cast and invite them to put their trust in me as we go on this journey of discovery together.

'This is a very steamy play, a very sick play. These are damaged, self-destructive people. The actors are being asked to inhabit some pretty unpleasant places. So mutual trust is imperative. Patrick gave me very good advice before we started: ‘Try to ensure that the actors you cast are going to be kind to each other off stage, as they are so unkind to each other on stage.’

'I liked that from him. Actors who are prepared to go into the darkness with their roles must also be able to sleep at night, go home and function normally with their families and friends. It’s a big ask.'

After Miss Julie performs next at the An Grianán Theatre, Letterkenny on March 26 before a run at the MAC, Belfast (March 30 - April 9). For ticket booking and further details see venue websites.

Culture NI featured Emma as part of Creativity Month, a celebration of creativity and the creative industries in Northern Ireland all throughout March. To view the programme of remaining events visit www.creativityni.org/events.