Thursday, 1 October 2015

Interview: James Northcote, starring in The Whipping Man at the Theatre Royal Plymouth

James Northcote is currently playing Caleb in the UK premiere of The Whipping Man by Matthew Lopez at the Theatre Royal Plymouth.

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the end of the American Civil War, one of the most lethal conflicts in American history but also an event that was pivotal in shaping the identity and future of the United States. 

Set in Virginia, following the final days of the Civil War, Lopez’s play revisits the fall of the American Confederacy and the end of slavery and is a moving and provocative look at this significant period of American history – the effects of which are still reverberating in US society today.

James’ theatre credits include: Translations (Sheffield Theatres), Lizzie Siddal (Arcola Theatre), The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (Chichester Festival Theatre), The Changeling (Southwark Playhouse) and Sixty-Six Books (Bush Theatre). 

On screen he has appeared in: Life in Squares, The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, Endeavour, Silk, Patient Zero, The Imitation Game, Nymphomaniac, Belle, Anna Karenina and Wuthering Heights.

I recently spoke to James about why The Whipping Man opens audience’s eyes, what research he did in preparation for the play and why he loves doing regional theatre…

What attracted you to this play?
The two things that attracted me to it were the uniqueness of the world that Matthew Lopez has created and also the incredible journey that Caleb, my character, goes on. The rehearsal process was all about getting to grips with the play and its world which is so far removed from any of our experiences. 

Is it exciting to be a part of the play’s UK premiere?
Well you feel a responsibility because you’re bringing the show and the story to a completely new audience. Although it’s not brand new writing, nobody in the audience will have heard the story before. The play is so full of surprises and things you don’t necessarily see on stage that often so the audience don’t know what’s coming.

How much research did you do? It’s a completely different world, isn’t it!
Absolutely! Well I’ve watched nine hours of the Ken Burns documentary on the civil war and read books that Tom (Attenborough, director) and Matthew (Lopez, writer) recommended, both on the confederates in general and also on the specifics of being a Jewish confederate which is such an amazingly specific position and a really interesting thing to research. I’ve tried to immerse myself as much as I can because it’s a world I didn’t previously know much about before I read the play and embarked on this process. 

James Northcote in The Whipping Man

A lot of audience members will be coming from the same position of not knowing much about it! What can people expect?
I think it opens your eyes to the world of pre-Civil War America and how different it was. What audiences can really expect is an incredible story of three people fighting to survive in an absolutely incredible point of history when anything could have happened. It was a time in history when everything was up in the air, and watching these three people come to terms with that in their own different ways is magical.

How do you find working at theatres such as the Theatre Royal Plymouth, Southwark Playhouse, Sheffield, Chichester etc? They all produce such incredible work, can you feel that buzz?
Absolutely! All of these venues are really keen to take risks. They’re not just willing to take risks – they want to take risks! For actors that translates into really exciting and diverse roles and having the chance to take on projects which wouldn’t necessarily get the same treatment in the West End. I feel very lucky to have worked at these types of venues because they push the boundries of what audiences expect and want.

Interviewed by Andrew Tomlins (Editor)

The Whipping Man runs at The Drum at the Theatre Royal Plymouth until Saturday 3rd October 2015. Please visit for further information and tickets.

Photo Credit 2: Steve Tanner

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