Jon Halpin

The MessiahThe Messiah is the story of two rather incompetent, over-ambitious amateur actors who attempt to produce the ultimate Christmas story with a cast of two, an over-zealous opera singer and very little else.

On the eve of their National Tour, Paul Andrew spoke to the shows director Jon Halpin, Associate Director at the Queensland Theatre Company.



Tell me about the history behind The Messiah?

The Messiah was originally produced in the UK in the early eighties, starring the writer, Patrick Barlow and Jim Broadbent. It was a big hit for Patrick's company, The National Theatre of Brent; they specialize in doing epic stories with only two, and sometimes three actors. He later revived the piece in 1999, with John Ramm in Jim Broadbent's place and it was another big hit at the Bush Theatre. Patrick asked me (once it was programmed at the Queensland Theatre Company) to change the names of the characters, as he plays the same character through all of his productions. That's how the characters of Leslie Barrymore Lockett and Owen Blunt came about. 
 
Without giving too much away – whats the basic story?
It tells the story of Leslie’s spiritual awakening, and decision to stage the Nativity. He has enlisted the help of Owen to fill out the cast and an opera singer, Mrs. Bird, to sing pieces from Handel's sacred oratorio, The Messiah. Throughout the play, Leslie finds his ambitions falling well short of what he had in mind due to Owen's tradesman-like approach to the craft of acting. He is also hideously under-resourced to pull the show off. There are three wise men in the story and only two actors for instance, and of course his own hubris brings him undone. In the true spirit of the nativity however, lessons are learned and Leslie achieves a mini triumph.

Who are your favourite playwrights?
I love the works of David Mamet and Harold Pinter because of their masterful control of language. Their dialogue is so spare and yet so much is going on. Sam Sheppard writes with a beautiful lyricism that I find fascinating and Caryl Churchill constantly astounds me. Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller both wrote extraordinary plays. Locally, I think Patrick White wrote astonishing plays and anyone who caught Michael Gow's own production of Away last year would agree he's one of our greats.

How did you become a Director?
I began my career as an actor. I'd originally studied and graduated from a psychology degree at the University of Queensland and decided to take a year off before doing post-graduate studies. During that time, I got involved in local productions and realized just how much I loved working in theatre. After a couple of productions, I tried my hand at directing and was astounded at how much there was to know in order to make a production work. I continued taking as many acting jobs as I could, firstly because I enjoyed it so much, but also to work with as many different directors as I could to learn more. I also seconded myself as an assistant director wherever I could in order to gain as much experience as possible. When Michael Gow arrived in Brisbane in 1999, I was lucky to be offered an assistant directing role with him. Following that, and in discussion with Michael, an intern director's program was introduced at the Queensland Theatre Company and I was the first one to go through. I must have done something right, as I was then offered and associate position with the company in 2002, during which I directed three plays for the company.

Have you developed a signature style?
I'm not sure. I probably have, but I don't approach a play from that aspect. I read a play I'm going to direct a number of times and analyze my response to it. I then have discussions with my creative time and then come up with a concept. From there, I try and ascertain what the writer is trying to say and clarify to myself what I want to say.

What do you like to draw out in performance?
Primarily I think it’s the relationships between the characters that are of utmost importance - that's what I look for first. How one character feels about the other or others. This is generally what drives the conflict in a good play and if you can get that right, you have a good grounding for pace and the visual aspects of a production  

What has been your focus for performance in The Messiah?
The main thing I've kept in mind in this particular show is that the character of Leslie is supposed to be the writer, director and designer of the piece. Holding on to this, it's a question really of "What would Leslie do?" and then finding ways to undermine his intentions in order for the comedy to come to the fore.

It has been popular with UK audiences - why?
I think the strength of the story and the wonderful characters. Everyone knows a Leslie, someone who insists they are an expert in areas they clearly aren't, and we all have a friend like Owen who is pragmatic to a fault. A spade is a spade is a spade.
 
What makes “amateur theatre” so alluring and engaging?
I think the spirit in which it is undertaken. When people get involved with an amateur or community shows they are doing it through their love of theatre. Occasionally egos and internal politics get involved as well and that's what becomes enjoyable to poke fun at.
 
What do you enjoy about working at QTC?
Michael has a great wealth of experience in this industry and has been wonderful mentor to me. He is a successful writer, actor dramaturg and director with a strong commitment to sharing his experience and unearthing and promoting new talent. His ability to get to the heart of a show and to succinctly surmise what the writer is saying or trying to say is incredible.
 
What do you have in the director's pipeline after this?
This show is my absolute favourite production of all the shows I have directed so far. It is incredibly rare to find a play devoid of cynicism; as this one is, yet avoids the pitfalls of sentimentality. I'm thrilled that HotHouse Theatre has given us the opportunity to revisit this wonderful play. After this, I have two plays for the Queensland Theatre Company coming up, David Brown's new play called The Estimator, and a show called Heroes at the end of the year. Both are wonderful scripts and I hope I can do them justice.




The Messiah is touring extensively. For further information goto www.hothousetheatre.com.au


Tour Dates

FEBRUARY

20-21  Laycock Street Theatre, Gosford
23-24  Westside Performing Arts Centre, Shepparton
27 – 28 Frankston Arts Centre

MARCH
3  Mildura Arts Centre
6-10  Geelong Performing Arts Centre
14  Wyndham Cultural Centre, Werribee
16  Portland Arts Centre
20  Sir Robert Helpmann Theatre, Mt.Gambier
22  Brenton Langbein Theatre, Tanunda
24  Chaffey Theatre, Renmark
27   Keith Mitchell Theatre, Port Pirie
29  Middleback Theatre, Whyalla
31   Nautilus Theatre, Port Lincoln

APRIL
3  Mandurah Performing Arts Centre
5  Margaret River Cultural Centre
10  Bunbury Regional Entertainment Centre
14  Cardinia Cultural Centre, Pakenham 
17  Colac Performing Arts Centre
19-20  The Capital Theatre, Bendigo
23-24  Townsville Civic Theatre
27-28  Cairns Civic Theatre

MAY
1  Mackay Entertainment Centre
3-4  QUT Gardens Theatre, Brisbane
8-13  Illawarra Performing Arts Centre, Wollongong
16-17  Jetty Theatre, Coffs Harbour
19  Orange Civic Theatre
22-June 2  Glen Street Theatre, Belrose



With thanks to Sabina Reynolds

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