Old Earth: In conversation with Jericho’s Jonathan Holmes

Our newest team member, Marketing & Box Office Intern Bethan talks to founder and director of Jericho, ahead of the Summer Festival where they will be joining forces with The Sixteen and actor Alan Howard for the stage premiere of four Beckett monologues in Old Earth. Read on to find out more!

The title Old Earth is very evocative, where does it come from and can you reveal its meaning for us? 

The performance actually is made up of four monologues, of a genre Beckett entitled Fizzles. Each has its own title; the final one is Old Earth. We’ve taken it as the overall title because it is so evocative, and because it seems to suggest most readily the subject of the piece, which is a kind of negotiation with the grave…

The Old Earth project grapples with both written text and new music. How does the relationship between text and music come together in this work?

The text is extremely musical in its use of repetition, rhythm and counterpoint – perhaps the dramatic text closest to music I’ve ever heard. Alec [Roth] has rather wonderfully used this as a starting point for a new piece that echoes the words and starts a dialogue with them. In combination we hope for an experience that sits on the border of words and music.

What drew you to Beckett’s work above that of other twentieth-century writers? And why to this work in particular?

It wasn’t really a choice between him and other writers; I love his work and I’ve been fascinated by these pieces for a long time – by their economy, their musicality, and their power. And, though Beckett’s famous plays are performed quite often, there is much that escapes public notice, and this is a shame, as he is doubtless the most radical and experimental playwright since Chekhov. So the opportunity to hear Beckett say something vital about the world, while at the same time saying something new about Beckett, was irresistible.

The Sixteen and Harry Christophers who will perform new music by Alec Roth as part of ‘Old Earth’

Beckett’s work seems to have been an inspiration for a number of composers, including Berio, György Kurtág and Philip Glass. Why do you think this is? Is there an inherent musical quality to the way Beckett writes?

I can’t speak for those composers, of course, but yes, Beckett was influenced hugely by music, and his work, as I said, is closest to music of any modern playwright. He was fascinated by the relationship between sound and sense, and he was in a sense a miniaturist. This might be why minimalist composers are fond of him. Yet the themes are vast. How do you compress the biggest idea in the smallest space in the simplest way? This is the sort of question more commonly encountered by composers these days, so I suppose it provides an affinity. There’s a regrettable habit of thinking of musicality in text as a kind or ornament; Beckett has none of this, it’s more that he approaches his writing in the way that a composer does, by thinking structurally, rhythmically and harmonically.

You have been working on projects with The Sixteen for seven years now. Can you tell us more about your collaboration and what first inspired you to come together?

We came together because I asked Harry Christophers to help with a piece I made around the work of John Donne at St. Paul’s Cathedral in 2005. We found that we enjoyed working together, and were equally interested in the intersection of words and music and in exploring that frontier. Also, like many others, I’m a fan – they’re an amazing group, and a lovely bunch to work with.

Alan Howard will be performing the monologues in the performance, what drew you to working with him and what qualities does he bring to the role?

Alan is extraordinary. He’s among the outstanding actors of his or any other generation, and one of the great risk-takers (he was Oberon in Peter Brook’s famous Midsummer Night’s Dream). In particular he is a great textualist – his relationship to words is infinitely subtle. I think he has played more Shakespearean leads at the RSC than any other living actor, and he simply has the poetic equipment, as well as the versatility, to work with this text. The result is a performance of great range – funny, fearful, lewd, poignant.

This will be the first time Beckett’s rather strange (and in your own words ‘absurd’) monologues have ever been performed on stage – what do you hope the audience experience will be?

Well, they’re absurd in the proper sense of taking an idea to extremes, not in the sense of foolish. I hope this will come across. I’d like the result to be quite strange, but like Hamlet I hope the audience will give the strangeness welcome. Beyond this, I really don’t know how it will go down – it’s part of the fun of doing it!

Village Underground the setting for ‘Old Earth’ (credit Andy Schonfelder)

Many of our Summer Festival events take place in unusual venues, and Old Earth is no exception. What do you enjoy most about staging a performance in an unconventional space, what do you feel it brings to the project?

The thing about spaces not designed for performance is that they carry no baggage; the audience comes as to a blank slate. This is very helpful for a premiere of any sort, as it means there’s a sense of freedom in how the audience responds, and the piece itself is uncluttered by too much expectation. In most theatres and concert halls you kind of know everything about a piece before it starts, and the venue itself instructs you subliminally in how to respond. So as a director you have to work quite hard if you want to get past that. Found spaces have less of this.

Your Jericho discussion series ‘What’s the Point of Art?’ explores a similar theme to our Summer Festival event ‘What’s Music For?’ part-performed, part-discussed by cellist Matthew Barley. Could you share some of the ideas that came out this – why is it important to have art in our lives – and what makes this issue so prevalent at the moment?

That’s a very big question, and impossible to answer properly in a few lines! But one thing about art is that it resists reduction. It’s the opposite of a soundbite, and it’s quite hard to package. It can be messy and difficult. In the current climate this is a huge boon to the world, because it implicitly resists the dominant attempts to close down unruly ways of thinking. Good art should always be unfashionable.

Something else, in relation to music in particular: art crosses boundaries, whether cultural or linguistic. And it means something slightly different to everyone. It can be a great comfort without being suffocating, and a great liberator without being partisan. Politicians will always dislike it as a result, because as Daniel Barenboim said, politics is about compromise, while art is about the absolute refusal to compromise. It tends to reject the notions of ‘us’ and ‘them’ on which politics thrives, and so in times of crisis, like now, it becomes deeply unpopular with the powerful and all the more vital for the rest of us.

It’s also, when good, rather beautiful and appealing – almost everyone, on some level, wants to have art in their lives. This applies to no other communal human activity, and it means it can say things about the world that no other discourse can. Again, in times of great difficulty, this is essential.

You can catch Jonathan with Jericho in Old Earth at Village Underground on Friday 15 and Saturday 16 June, performances at 6.30pm and 8.30pm (with a special Insight event on Saturday 16 June at 5.30pm).

Book your tickets now via the Spitalfields Music website.

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