Friday, 27 January 2012

Exeunt Magazine interviews Jethro Compton on Belt Up, 'The Boy James' and growing up

I don’t think any of us anticipated this reaction when we first put it on,” admits Belt Up Theatre’s co-founder Jethro Compton. “I can’t quite put my finger on what it is that makes people cry.” But they do cry. Inspired by the work and life of Peter Pan’s creator J.M. Barrie, The Boy James is the company’s longest running and most successful production to date, and has been making audiences weep since it debuted at the 2010 Edinburgh Fringe as part of their ambitious House Above project in which they took over and transformed part of C Venues.

It has proved a curiously divisive production, one with a tendency to trigger extreme reactions in its audience. Certainly not every response has been as enthusiastic as Stephen Fry’s (his tweet, “still drying my eyes”, helped cement the show’s reputation), but Compton believes this is to be expected as it’s “not a narrative driven show. It’s more of an emotional journey.” Some people are less comfortable with that than others, he concedes, unable to resist a dig about critics “hiding behind their notebooks,” but for those who do connect with the production it often proves to be an incredibly powerful experience. In Edinburgh “people would come back a few days later to tell us they couldn’t get it out of their heads. We’ve been doing the show for so long now and are still getting similar reactions.”

When The Boy James was first performed it was somewhat buried amidst a number of other shows which the company were presenting under the banner of The House Above, so it was only seen by around 300 people initially. Yet of all Belt Up’s work it’s this piece which has gone on to have the longest life. The production transferred to Southwark Playhouse in London in January 2011 and the venue is again hosting the show, though this time off-site at The Goldsmith, a nearby pub which the company are transforming into a by now familiar Belt Up space. Belt Up, for many of their productions, favours non-traditional seating, sofas and floor cushions, a soft-edged and atmospheric performance space. Or rather a space within a space. “It’s not site specific,” Compton says firmly. “We’re making our own site. There’s no point us putting it on in a theatre and then spending time and money making it not look like a theatre, we may as well put it on somewhere else.”

This use of space is integral to the kind of theatre Belt Up want to make. “We’re not a devising company. We have a script [in this case by Alexander Wright] and a director with a vision. The audience is part of the story; [in The Boy James] the audience are his imaginary play-friends. If a character looks at an audience member, we want it to be OK for them to look back; if a character asks an audience member a question, we want them to feel like they can answer. We want them to feel like they can interact with us and, with a long running show, those are the moments that make it special and keep it alive.”

The company, though still comparatively new, have already established a particular aesthetic, a recognisable style, one that ‘places its audience at the centre of the production’. They’re currently working on a revised version of their production of Macbeth to be staged in the vaults of a former prison beneath the streets of Clerkenwell, a haunting space they filled with melancholic wailing and the unsettling scrape of blade on stone. “We can do a show like The Boy James and a show like Macbeth and they are completely different, the space is different, the audience is different, and yet there is something inherently Belt Up about them both.” Though some of their stylistic devices can seem a little too pat at times, they pursue them with commitment and consistency. One of the reasons Compton believes that audiences feel so strongly about The Boy James is the way the piece denies its audience closure. “As with all our work there’s no defined end point. The play comes to an end but the story continues. The characters remain in the space.” Compton, who works predominantly as a producer as well as playing the title role, is a fluent and passionate speaker, and you can sense within him the clear-eyed drive that has helped the company establish itself so quickly. The company was formed in 2008 by Compton, Dominic J Allen, James Wilkes and Alexander Wright, when they were still studying at the University of York. That same year they made their Edinburgh debut, winning the Edinburgh International Festival Award for their immersive Red Room project. By the time they graduated in 2009, they had already made a name for themselves as a company. “With a mixture of stupidity and ambition we’ve thrown ourselves into things,” says Compton with a laugh. The Red Room, described by The Stage as a ‘boudoir theatre’ in which they presented five full productions daily, “could have gone horribly wrong” but it didn’t and instead it provided a springboard for future projects. Soon afterwards they became company in residence at York Theatre Royal which “gave us a home, gave us a purpose, and gave us a support network.” Compton attributes their success to a mixture of luck and hard work and the fact that “by the time we graduated we already had a reputation and work lined up. We’d started building those relationships while we were still at university.” He also acknowledges that they’d set up hurdles for themselves by the very nature of the work they do. They had to be as prolific as they were, to do so much in so short a space of time, because of need as much as want. “Because of the nature of the work we do we can only have audiences of a certain size, so that was a challenge.”

Their plans for this year’s Edinburgh Fringe are somewhat scaled down – at least by Belt Up standards, which means only one or two new shows instead of the nine productions they juggled as part of the House Above (where Compton was averaging about three hours sleep a night) but they are, he says, planning to go big once again for Edinburgh 2013.

Compton’s energies in the main are now focussed on producing instead of acting, but he’s reluctant to relinquish the Boy just yet. “If it was another show I’d get another actor in, but because it’s The Boy James, because it’s that part, I haven’t.” He enjoys the challenges inherent in the role, the scope for interaction and unpredictability. “You experiment and you learn from mistakes. As an actor, it lifts you up and revitalises you.”

In the spring the company will be taking The Boy James and another show, Outland, to Adelaide and there’s every sign the show will continue beyond this, a state of affairs Compton seems happy with. “We went through a period where we created a lot of work very quickly whereas now we’re enjoying touring one show that grows and improves over time.” The Belt Up boys are, it seems, growing up. “We used to go wild because we had the energy to do that, but now we’re concerned with becoming stable, with becoming a company that doesn’t burn out.”

The Boy James will be presented by Southwark Playhouse, offsite at The Goldsmith, from 25th January to 11th February. For tickets and further information visit the Southwark Playhouse website.

Belt Up’s Macbeth will run from 17th April to 18th May at the House of Detention in Clerkenwell with previews starting 12th April. For further details visit the production website.

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