Folk star Joan Armatrading is a great believer of ‘it’s never too late to try something new’, writes Adam Shaw. She is someone who completed her degree whilst on tour and decided to run her first marathon when she was in her fifties.
Now she has undertaken a new challenge by bringing her music to the stage, working as part of a London theatre production. And in keeping with her style, it is not just any play. Joan’s first foray into theatre comes as part of Shakespeare’s The Tempest boasting an all-female cast and directed by Phyllida Lloyd, the woman behind the films Mamma Mia! and The Iron Lady. It was these impressive credentials which attracted her to the role, along with the fact that it was something relatively alien to her.
“It was something that was different to what I was used to,” she explained. “And people know the play, they are familiar with the themes and it was just brilliant to write the music to songs like ‘Where the bee sucks’ and ‘Full Fathom Five’.”
She added that she thought this would make the job challenging; that she would have to do the piece justice but at the same time, offer something new.
“I liked the idea though I sensed that it would be a challenge because it is something so different,” she said. “It’s interwoven with modern themes and I had to make sure that what I wrote worked with the scenes and worked with this representation of being in prison.”
Joan noted how this was something which worked well, given that in the original version of the play, the island on which the characters are trapped acts as a prison. She also explained how, in spite of originally viewing the project as potentially tricky, a number of factors soon washed away these concerns.
“I’m used to writing on my own and it was great because Phyllida left me to my own devices,” she said. “She didn’t try to micromanage and realised that I would work best if I was left to do what I wanted to do – provided I stuck to the play, of course.”
Her praise for the woman who directed the play extended to the man who wrote it as she felt he “made her life a lot easier”. “The words are so beautiful, totally brilliant, and they made everything a lot simpler,” she said. “I think people would like me to say that it was such a challenge but that wasn’t really the case.
“I don’t think anybody can denounce those words and it was wonderful for me to be able to put music to them.”
She also found that, once she got the ball rolling, things soon fell into place. Following a break after writing the music for ‘Come unto these Yellow Sands’ and ‘Where the bee sucks’, things picked up once again and she was able to complete the score “very, very quickly”. The result is a collection which matches her musical personality; a rich and varied sound which complements the modern approach the play is going for.
“I’m an eclectic person so the music has a very eclectic feel to it,” Joan said. “Some of the songs are very Shakespearian in nature but then, during the wedding scene for example, we use a contemporary dance track. “Then there’s music that’s sort of folk-y and some jazz elements as well.”
Having created the sound, the 65-year-old is very pleased with how it is delivered, acknowledging the actresses’ strength in performing the songs. She added that the presence of an all-female cast – including Dublin actress Clare Dunne – is appealing because it is an alternative approach yet one that doesn’t seem unusual.
“I think it works really well. You find that, as the story goes on, you get into the characters and because you’re hearing male names, you almost see them as such,” she said.
This aspect, along with the modern take on the play, is something which should draw the crowds in according to Joan. Throw in the fact that it is a brilliant piece of writing, that it’s performed in the tent, in the round and in central London and it has a lot going for it. Following its stint in London, the all-female trilogy of The Tempest, Henry IV and Julius Caesar will move to New York and Joan believes it will be a hit there too.
“I’m very much looking forward to taking it to America because I think the guys over in New York will really get it, they absolutely love Shakespeare,” she explained.
She compared American audiences to those in Ireland, describing them as “very enthusiastic”. And while she might have called time on extensive worldwide tours, a trip to Ireland isn’t necessarily off the cards. Given her passion for discovering new things and embracing new challenges, who knows what’s round the corner? The Shakespeare Trilogy including The Tempest runs at the King’s Cross Theatre until 17 December.
Tickets can be booked at www.donmaratkingscross.com/get-tickets