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Interview with Betrayal director Jo Newman

24 August 2017

Jo Newman is a great example of how new talent can be nurtured in the theatre. Jo joined Salisbury Playhouse on an 18-month Regional Theatre Young Directors Scheme residency in 2015; in September this year she directs a Harold Pinter play on the main stage.

Jo has steadily become an invaluable member of the Salisbury Playhouse team: she was appointed Associate Director following her 18-month residency and has worked on a range of projects since, as she explains, while talking about Betrayal, the production which opens Salisbury Playhouse’s autumn winter season.

Betrayal director Jo Newman and cast

Jo Newman (second right) and cast from left to right: Kirsty Besterman, Robert Hands and Robert Mountford

When asked to describe her journey at Salisbury Playhouse in three words, Jo says it’s been “immersive, inspiring and life-changing”. She says working at Salisbury Playhouse has been “an invaluable experience, an opportunity to develop my craft as a theatre director, to build experience, being involved in a range of projects”. She’s worked alongside artistic director Gareth Machin on a number of productions and programmes shows for The Salberg.

At Salisbury Playhouse Jo assisted Gareth Machin on Little Shop of Horrors and The Magna Carta Plays. She worked with directors Ria Parry on Bike and with Jess Swale on Fallen Angels; she co-directed Stage 65’s Clause 39 in Salisbury Cathedral and directed This Land, a co-production with Pentabus. She was associate director for Salisbury Playhouse on we’re here because we’re here, the Second World War centenary project. She collected verbatim interviews for the National Theatre’s production My Country, when she travelled around Wiltshire, Hampshire and Dorset asking people about their experience of living in this country today. Jo has worked with emerging artists, offering dramaturgical support on new commissions and with the planning team on new seasons. She’s worked with the Take Part team doing workshops and managing Theatre Fest West, setting up the Theatre Fest West writers’ prize.

“It’s been so valuable,  assisting exciting directors and working with leading writers and creative teams,” says Jo. “It’s a huge step, directing on the mid-scale and it’s exciting to do that here, at a venue that has been so supportive of my development so far.”

Jo chose Betrayal as the production she would direct, so what makes Betrayal such a great play and why has it remained a classic? “Pinter is an incredible playwright. Like all his plays, Betrayal has poetic qualities to it. Every single line is there for a reason. It’s like a piece of music in some ways. But there’s a lot more back story to this one and it’s more accessible, less oblique than some of his other plays.”

Jo explains that the motif of betrayal running through the play has more than one meaning. “The play explores universal ideas of betrayal, not just in relationships but what happens in the course of a life, how a person can inadvertently end up betraying their own ideals.”

Beyond that, Betrayal explores questions of identity and the role of memory. “There are rigid social structures that keep them from being able to express themselves,” says Jo. “The play is so much about male friendship but for me it’s also interesting to explore what it was like to be a woman at that time [1978 when the play was first performed]. There’s a lot which will resonate with a modern audience, giving us the opportunity to explore what we’ve inherited as a society and where we’ve moved on. It’s also really funny, darkly funny. It’s so precise and what’s thrilling is the way it goes back in time. We meet the characters at the end of their affair and we hear about memories and see those memories play out so it’s about our perception of memory.”

Jo chose the play with an eye on its relevance to today. “In 1978 when it was produced at the National Theatre the curtain nearly didn’t go up on the first night because there were huge union riots and it was leading into the Winter of Discontent. It feels interesting to put this play on now, at such a turbulent time where I think a lot of people feel betrayed by the government. It raises the question of what people feel betrayed by.”

Not surprisingly, Jo can think of any number of reasons why audiences should come and see the play. “The cast are incredible, really captivating and they have such a great way with Pinter’s language. It’s an exciting opportunity to see one of Pinter’s greatest plays but it’s also really funny and interesting, the way the story unfolds in reverse so you have to piece it together. It’s a brilliant creative team, stunning design and an original soundtrack. It should be a really great night out at the theatre – and it’s not very long!”

What’s been the biggest reward of directing Betrayal? “Just doing it, working with an incredible cast on a stunning play,” says Jo. “Every day we’re discovering something else in rehearsal. It’s such a privilege to work on something that’s so well written and with a company that is so talented and to work at this scale. We’re using lots of fancy things like trap doors; I’ve never worked with shows with big enough budgets for all those tricks before.”

Looking ahead to life after Betrayal, one of Jo’s responsibilities is managing Theatre Fest West, the annual festival of performances from and about the South West run in conjunction with Salisbury Arts Centre, The Pound at Corsham and Trowbridge Arts. How does she select productions to be part of the programme? “It’s hard because there are more projects than there are slots. We look for a range of exciting work that appeals to different audiences from all over the South West, things that would resonate, exciting stories, exciting companies, things that are bold and innovative.”

What should audiences expect from Theatre Fest West in 2018? “There’s lots of work so it’s a great opportunity to try something different. There will be work for all ages, a family programme and a really exciting range of work in the studio. There’s a production taking place in a kitchen. It’s work made in the region that is nationally acclaimed and we’re excited to give it a home here.”

Theatre Fest West will return in February 2018. Betrayal is on in the Main House from Thursday 7 September to Saturday 23 September. For more information and for tickets visit www.salisburyplayhouse.com or call Ticket Sales on 01722 320333.