Playwright Rosemary Jenkinson is turning her satirical pen away from Stormont and is dipping her nib in the dark ink pot of Westminster with her latest rapid response work – Mayday! – a one woman show with Jo Donnelly playing Prime Minister Theresa May. I caught up with Jenkinson earlier this week …
After bringing the increasingly irreverent and fantastical tales of Michelle and Arlene to the Accidental Theatre stage four times over the last 22 months, it’s now the turn of Theresa May and Brexit?
I love the rapid response format as it’s important for theatre to confront politics head-on, Dario Fo-style. I had a great time with the Michelle and Arlene satires, but as the Stormont stasis is still ongoing, I’ve decided to switch to Brexit. It’s the huge political question of our era. When I spoke to Richard Lavery of Accidental in mid-April about a Theresa May play, we weren’t even sure if she’d stay in power till the end of May but that’s what makes the play exciting. The more dynamic the politics, the more dynamic the play. I also love satire. Comedy makes you laugh; satire makes you laugh and think.
The Prime Minister is turning out to be quite a remainer, delaying all attempts to get the removal van around to 10 Downing Street. What attracts you to write about her Brexit predicament? You have a certain (human, if not political) sympathy for May?
I connect with Theresa May, firstly, as she’s a strong woman and secondly as she’s been handed an unenviable task with Brexit. Once I researched her, I was fascinated by how single-minded and ambitious she’s been: her dream of becoming Prime Minister seems to date back to her teenage years. Even though Mayday! is highly critical of Theresa May and the government, it’s a one-woman show and so it’s vital to get inside her mind. Naturally, I have empathy for events in her life such as her parents’ deaths and how she and her husband tried to have children and couldn’t. Human understanding gives a richer texture alongside the satire.
Satirical humour of course relies on being heartless, but that doesn’t mean your characters should be emotionless ciphers. Jeremy Corbyn appears as a cardboard cut-out, so the last thing we need is Theresa to be one too! Theresa, it has to be said, hasn’t the most highly developed sense of humour, so her comedy moments, as in the Dancing Queen, tend to be hilariously inadvertent.
Are you excited about Jo Donnelly stepping into the kitten heels of the isolated Dancing Queen premier?
The first actor I thought of for Theresa May was Jo Donnelly. She’s such a brilliantly instinctive comic actor and at the read-through she delivered the lines exactly as I heard them in my head. I’ve been dying to work with her a long time, so to say I’m excited is an understatement. She may be twenty years younger, but she’ll nail Theresa’s essence and put her own hyperreal spin on the character. Jo loves playing parts outside the usual Northern Irish stereotypes.
Jeremy Corbyn’s presence is felt throughout the play. There’s a real sense that he’s not the biggest threat to May?
I think Jeremy Corbyn is a fusion in this play between being Theresa’s enemy and a fellow victim of Brexit. Clearly, in real life Theresa’s biggest enemies are within her own party. Continuing Brexit talks with Labour is both an attempt to buy time and to make Labour share the blame when a deal can’t be reached, but her gambit has only served to alienate the Conservatives even more. Boris Johnson is definitely her main antagonist.
Can Brexit be redeemed by laughing at the madness that surrounds those who are trying to negotiate a deal?
The only way to deal with impasses just like Brexit and Stormont is to laugh at them. With Brexit, you simply have to ridicule the number of votes we’ve had in parliament and the continual failure to find agreement. As Theresa’s favourite Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, might have said, “Never in the field of human politics was so little achieved by so many for so few.”
Mayday! will be performed in Accidental Theatre, Shaftesbury Square on Thursday 30 and Friday 31 May. Tickets £8-£10. Between now and then, the Prime Minister will no doubt continue to write new chapters in her own tragi-comedy reality show.
Alan Meban. Tweets as @alaninbelfast. Blogs about cinema and theatre over at Alan in Belfast. A freelancer who writes about and reports from civic, academic and political events, reviews cultural performances, chairs discussions, and live-tweets, streams and records lectures and conferences. He delivers social media training, coaching and consultancy, produces podcasts, is a member of Ofcom’s Advisory Committee for Northern Ireland, FactCheckNI board member, and is a member of the Corrymeela Community.