Jo directing the Oxford Playhouse 16|22 Company in The Odyssey (2015)

Jo directing the Oxford Playhouse 16|22 Company in The Odyssey (2015)

Last year Jo Noble directed Oxford Playhouse’s 17|25 Young Company in Jane Eyre, which “got really good reviews”, she recalls. “It was a complicated text in many ways,” I’m told. “Often in quite dense novels, an awful lot of interest is in the minutiae of the writing, the descriptions and so forth, which of course can get lost in a physical production. So we did our best to try and retain all that but in a quite upbeat way – which I think the audience enjoyed.”

The year before Jane Eyre she directed the same company for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (the show she was promoting last time I interviewed her), and in 2018 she leads them again in On the March. What is it about working with young actors that makes her keep doing it? “I love it,” she answers. “I love the fact that they think they’re learning from me, but I often think I learn as much from them.” A fair few of the young actors she works with are university students, she states, repeatedly required to analyse texts and characters in a certain way. She asks them to be more playful, stripping away what she calls “the sophistication of studenthood”, to get right into the characters. “What that does is really release them,” she explains, “and that’s when the exciting things come out.” She tells me there are times when she has an idea for how she wants a scene to play out, and her young actors’ input and playfulness creates something more rousing, individual and original than she’d initially envisioned. The process is two-way, she says – she receives from them and they from her. “It’s an organic process. It’s a bit like a lab where you hope you’ve got all the things right, then you light the Bunsen burner and you’re off, and hope it doesn’t explode (too much).”

On the March | Oxford Town Hall | 20-21 March

On the March | Oxford Town Hall | 20-21 March

This year’s 17|25 Young Company offering is performed in the same month as International Women’s Day (8 March), and marks 100 years since some women were given the vote. Written by Clare Bayley, On the March will take place in Oxford Town Hall, where in 1913 suffragist Millicent Fawcett gave a speech championing women’s rights following a suffrage march from Banbury to Oxford. Thus, Noble says, the play inhabits “a hallowed space”. 1913 is the year the promenade piece first settles in, before catapulting forward to the early 1970s which saw ample protest movements. The third section of On the March is set in the present day, focusing on the environment of Westminster. The final stages of the show take us back to 1918 – the year some women got the vote. “It’s a journey through time,” says the director, “and a journey demonstrating how women have fought for their rights.”

She is assisted by award-winning musical director Matt Winkworth (“very good at working with young people”) and movement director Emma Webb (“really brilliant at responding to my bonkers brief”). They make a good team, she reckons, “and we challenge each other. We don’t ever want to repeat anything; we want to do something different, new, and quite dangerous.”

With women’s rights still such a hot topic of conversation, I ask her how the world of theatre is faring in terms of gender equality. “We assume the industry we work in is an enlightened one,” she starts, before saying that the number of female playwrights who get their work put on is “hugely disproportionate” to the number of males that do. “It’s not because the women aren’t producing the work,” she resumes. “They just for some reason don’t get chosen.” It’s being addressed, she says, albeit very slowly. Plus all-women productions staged by prominent female directors have to her mind “caused a bit of a stir”. However, she claims, it’s “far too little and far too late. As an industry we are only beginning to wake up to the inequalities that exist and have done for generations.”

On the March plays at Oxford Town Hall 20-21 March

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