Butterworth hit comes to Durham

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Jake Murray, director of Durham-based Elysium Theatre Company, has an impressive resumé. Son of Braham Murray, one of the founding artistic directors of the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester, Jake Murray has had much of his own directorial success. Having directed the likes of Andrew Garfield (The Amazing Spider-Man and Angels in America) and Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Belle and Black Mirror­) in Romeo and Juliet in 2005 to critical success, Murray founded his own theatre company in 2017 with friend and former drama student, Danny Solomon. He tells me what drew him to the North East to set up his theatre company and what his hopes are for his company.

“When I moved to Durham I didn’t know what it would mean for me as a director. It so happened that the actor Danny Solomon, a friend and ex-drama student of mine, was living in Manchester in the flat I owned when I worked there at the Royal Exchange from 2001-8. We met for a catch-up in Waterstones in Manchester and I suggested we founded a theatre company that did work in the North. He said yes.

“I then proceeded to write to every theatre in the North East that I could. The first to respond was the Assembly Rooms in Durham, and we went from there. Theatres, artists and supporters of the arts across the North East have welcomed us with open arms and so it feels wonderful to bring what we have to offer here. I have never been happier than living in this part of England. The spirit of the area is inspirational, the people warm and friendly and it feels like we can bring something new and vibrant to the region. We would love Elysium to become a truly North Eastern company, a company that the North East really embraces and feels is their own.”

On the 29th and 30th of November and the 1st December, Murray brings a regional premiere of Jez Butterworth’s play, The River, to Durham’s City Theatre. First staged at the Royal Court Theatre in London, this will be the first time that the play has been performed professionally in the UK since its premiere meaning that, (in Murray’s words), “when you come and see it here you will be seeing a bit of British theatre history”. Describing it as a “mysterious, sensitive, poetic, beautiful, and intimate” play, Murray’s enthusiasm for it is clear. He explains to me what compelled him to direct this play:

“Elysium Theatre Company’s policy is to bring the best of world theatre to the North, with a particular focus on the North East where we are based. So far, we have done plays by Irish and American writers, but nothing by a British writer. Jez Butterworth will be our first. And who better to choose than the author of Jerusalem and The Ferryman, which are regarded as two of the best British plays of the last decade, if not the 21st Century so far?

So far, we have done plays by Irish and American writers, but nothing by a British writer. Jez Butterworth will be our first.

It’s also the first play we are setting up here. The play does not specify which bit of Britain it is set in, but after I had chosen it my wife pointed out that the Tyne Valley is one of the key British centres for sea trout fishing, which is a central metaphor of the play; so I decided we would set it in the Tyne Valley, making even more of a uniquely North Eastern production.”

Since leaving the Royal Exchange in 2008, Murray has not only been busy setting up his theatre company and putting on successful pieces of drama. Starting last year, Murray has established a connection with Durham Student Theatre, aiming to aid and enhance aspiring young actors. I asked him what fostered this enthusiasm to help students gain more understanding and experience of theatre.

“I want to convey my enthusiasm about these writers and the excitement of theatre; I want to open people up to writers they may not have otherwise encountered, whose work remains a major inspiration to me; most of all I want to help people. There was no-one in my university who offered support, mentoring, advice or training and once I was out in the big wide world of theatre most of the mentors I had were fantastic but came from a generation that had had a very different experience of working in the theatre to mine.

Murray has established a connection with Durham Student Theatre, aiming to aid and enhance aspiring young actors.

So I am very keen to be a resource to DST, through workshops, Q&As, seminars and lectures, as well as offering shadowing opportunities on our productions. Wherever I can I’d like to use DST students in a creative role. For instance, the music on ‘The River’ is being written by a student, giving her a professional credit and the opportunity to flex her creative muscles.”

And Murray doesn’t appear to be slowing down anytime soon with many ideas for future productions and collaborations.

“In March next year, we are graduating onto main stages with a production of Strindberg’s Miss Julie, which will be playing at Queen’s Hall, Hexham, the Gala, Durham, the Exchange, North Shields and the Majestic, Darlington. Although the principle actors will be from the core Elysium ensemble, we want to draw from each town and city for the great scene in the middle of the play in which the servants invade the stage as Jean and Miss Julie are making love next door. This will involve acting, movement, singing and dance and we are going to be calling on DST students to be part of this if they want to, so watch this space!”

Murray brings The River to the City Theatre on the 29th and 30th November and the 1st December. Tickets can be bought on www.eventbrite.co.uk.

Image courtesy of Elysium Theatre Company

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