As the dramatist’s powerful two-hander Downtown Paradise is re-staged by Welsh Fargo for a Welsh tour Jon Gower visited Mark Jenkins in his Cardiff home to discuss the play’s history and its politics.
Mark Jenkins won’t have far to walk to see his play at Chapter Arts Centre this week, where it has just opened before going on a short Welsh tour. His terraced home is just a stroll away.
When I met the ever affable playwright – whose work includes Playing Burton, recently adapted for TV’s Sky Arts channel and Rosebud: The Lives of Orson Welles – he told me he isn’t writing anything new at the moment as nothing makes him angry enough. Which led, as you can imagine, to a quick tour of the world’s ills, to see if Gaza, or Islamic State or the general inequalities of the world could light his blue touch paper. But this urbane, charming and utterly serious artist was also suffering from a touch of flu, so maybe didn’t have the strength for too much anger anyway.
Therefore we got right down to talking about Downtown Paradise, currently being performed at Chapter by actors Habib Nasib Hader and Catriona James under the direction of Michael Kelligan…
Jon Gower: Many of your plays, Mark, are based on real people such as the dramatist August Strindberg, the actor Richard Burton and the utopian philanthropist Robert Owen: is this play also based on real people and real events?
Mark Jenkins: I wrote it some time ago and I was drawn to this story because of my own political development.. I was extremely radical as a younger man and I shared a lot of the convictions main character in this piece, a Jewish lawyer called Rachel Bloom, which I obviously don’t share today, because I’ve been through all that and come out the other end. It’s really about the pitfalls of idealism. If you fervently believe in something and believe that cause to be correct it can lead you down very strange paths which you didn’t intend to traverse. That’s what attracted me to it: it’s about two extremely radical people who go to hell in a handcart, really?
You’re not someone who needs big casts and a capacious stage…
It was first performed at the Finborough Theatre in London in 1996 and ran there for six weeks and then it did a ten day run in Chapter. Unlike many of my other plays it hasn’t been done in the United States…it would be very interesting to see it done there and to get an American response. The economics of theatre at the time meant the cheaper the better so you just needed a few actors – this was before I was particularly well known as a writer. There was also the fact that if it’s down to two characters and how they interact you can’t get more deeply into who they are and what motivates them. So, fewer characters, greater depth – that’s the way I see it.
It’s a play with race issues very much at its heart: which seems all the more pertinent following the recent rioting in Ferguson in America…
Absolutely. It’s uncanny. Just when we think that’s behind us and that was the radical past, and the problems of the American left and now it’s as if Obama had never been elected…the same problems…an unrepresentative white police force amidst a largely black populace…and there’s no sense that any lessons have been learned at all….black people being shot…
Plays are so often about desire. What does this Jewish lawyer Rachel Bloom want?
She’s a radical lawyer who runs a private practice with her husband for people who cannot afford legal representation and they run it as a charity – defending black people against trumped-up charges and that sort of thing. What does she want? Well, she believes in what she’s doing. she believes that America is a very unjust society. What he wants is just as important. He, a Black Panther, just wants to bring down what he sees as the entire rotten system. He’s a bit of a nihilist, really. He’s had a rough deal in life – jailed for a seventy five dollar hold-up – and up to the time she first meets him he’s never killed anyone and we’re not really sure whether he did in fact kill Officer Steiger, one of the gaolers. This fact deliberately remains obscure. So here we have two people with their own agendas. He does warn her ‘You don’t know the real me…don’t get mixed up with me unless you’re prepared to go all the way…’ and he knows what he’s about….he’ll do anything. She, on the other hand, believes in due process, fighting through the constitutional route for justice. He thinks that’s a joke but he goes along with because he realizes that she could be good for him and she’s going to get his prison letters published. In the late seventies there was a book called The Soledad Brothers, by George Jackson, well it was loosely based on that. I can remember even then – and I was a pretty docile member of the Labour Party by then that I was very impressed by that book, an eloquent book written by a convict.
The characters don’t speak English, they speak American. How did you research the language they use?
By soaking and steeping myself in the culture…watching American movies and so. I’m fascinated by America. I regard it as a liberation to be able to use that sort of language. We were auditioning for the part of James, and one of the black actors said he’s really like to meet the brother who wrote this and the director said he’s ‘over there’. I was sitting with a few black guys and so he walked straight past me and went up to the most imposing of them and shook his hands and said ‘I love your writing’. When he found out I was the writer he couldn’t believe I was a white, middle-class intellectual!
How do you see this play within your output?
Most of my writing has been to do with escaping my imprisonment by Marxism as a young man. My father was a Communist factory worker in North London, and out of loyalty to him I adopted the cause and later became a Trotskyist, which was almost the same thing, a horse of a different colour. Everything I’ve written has been about the question what was all that about, what was that radicalism all about? Why did I get involved in it? And I’ve tried to be honest in this particular play to show that two people, driven by total conviction, and totally committed to the cause they’re fighting for, can lead to destruction. In real life they both died prematurely. It’s a tragedy. It’s an American tragedy.
Are there the same sorts of radicals around nowadays?
There probably isn’t: the world has changed so much. I think it may be a bit dated in this regard, but what saves it as a piece of drama is is the intensity of the relationship between the two main characters. Every actor who’s ever had anything to do with this says it’s a wonderful piece to play, you can completely sink yourself in the part.