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Interview with Jo McInnes, director of Valhalla

28 September 2015 | Ryan Ormonde

Valhalla is a new play by Paul Murphy opening this week at Theatre503. An intense two-hander, it is set sometime in the future when a strange disease threatens mankind. As an unnamed couple work on a cure in a research centre somewhere in volcanic Scandinavia they are confronted with ethical dilemmas around medical research, genetics... and love. London Calling caught up with the play’s director Jo McInnes.

London Calling: This play was discovered via the Theatre503 playwriting award. At what point were you brought into the process?

Jo McInnes: Not until after the play had won the award, so late May. I was sent the script – I see lots of scripts, not all of them good – and I fell for it for lots of reasons. There is an element of ‘lower-case’ science fiction and also a thriller aspect, which you very rarely see on stage, and I’m not talking about Agatha Christie – something much darker. It reminded me of Lars Von Trier or Michael Haneke and those are two of my favourite filmmakers.

LC: So you think a play like this - dystopian, asking big questions – isn’t something we normally see?

JM: Yes, because when tension is created - real tension and you’re actually in the space - there is something very dynamic about that which I think is really underused in theatre; it’s sort of been left to the more old fashioned type of storytelling. Actually there’s a whole new space now – people want that in theatre, they don’t want to be spoon-fed, they want to remain curious so that there’s a tension between them and the story. I find that in theatre [the audience] often jump ahead of it in its ideas.

LC: With just two actors involved, does that make it harder or easier to build the tension and atmosphere?

JM: The writing has an economy about it, which really helps that tension - it’s economic, it’s to the point - so in that space between just two people I think it’s easier to hold tension. But it all comes from the writing and also how it will look - we can really help that with the forensic nature of the production.

LC: Are you talking about the look of it, the design?

JM: Yes, so instead of having a very naturalistic set, we are in a room and that room could be anywhere, really. There is the feeling of the outside always bearing down on the stage and the clinical use of the lighting can also help create tension and fear and curiosity rather than just being illuminating. We’ve got this amazing, amazing lighting designer Nigel Edwards, who’s extremely experienced. He works a lot in European theatre, which can be – I don’t want to make massive generalisations – but it can be much more dynamic in its use of light. So it’s not naturalism, we’re not trying to be televisual, we’re actually much more filmic.

LC: And that comes from the writing does it?

JM: Yes. Those best films - especially the ones that frighten you - are also the ones that can make you laugh, because it’s like a nervous laugh, it’s fears that you recognise in yourself. It’s not just big existential ideas it comes from all of us. It’s what lies beneath our surface. It isn’t a play about science or epigenetics: Paul is using those as a backdrop for us to investigate what it is to be human.

LC: Have you found alarming discoveries in this process? Will we as the audience see that?

JM: Yes I have actually. The effect that DNA has on our behaviour and therefore our behaviour on the DNA and [the fact] that those two things are talking to each other constantly, I find absolutely fascinating. It makes you observe things around you differently, people’s behaviour. Like, epigenetically, your grandfather or your great grandfather, his experience in life is having a direct effect on your experience in life because it would have changed the coding of his genes, which will be in you.

LC: Is that the central theme here or is that just a part of it?

JM: Part of it. So - what a way to start a thriller!

LC: Can you tell me something about the title because it seems like it’s connecting with a mythological past?

JM: Yes, there is that all the way through. In Nordic mythology, instead of seeing a big hunk of rock in the sea they would see it as a troll caught in the sunlight and there’s something about that way of looking at the world that perhaps we’ve lost. Also Valhalla is the afterlife for warriors so those two things question and move each other as the play moves along.

Valhalla opens on Wednesday at Theatre503 and runs until 24th October. For more information and to book tickets, see the website.

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