Interview: Rowan Jacobs on Peaky Grinders’ New Show Life in Death

Peaky Grinders are set to play the Camden Fringe in late August with their new show Life in Death, which deals with important and controversial issues from a fascinating angle. The show plays at The Water Rats 20th – 22nd August so I caught up with Rowan Jacobs to talk all things Peaky Grinders, Life In Death and theatre…

35b748b0-14e1-4eb1-a833-b82e097af4a7.pngTo begin, tell us a little about Peaky Grinders as a theatre company – who are you, how did it all begin and what’s the story behind the name?

Peaky Grinders is a company that I created on the set of my first feature film in 2015. The work that I was starting to put together with my friends needed a memorable name behind it – someone said “Peaky Grinders” as a joke, and it stuck. I won’t tell you where it came from. You’ll have to guess.

What would you say the vision or goal of the company is at this stage?

To keep creating film and theatre work that is original and exciting. To build an audience that recognises our fresh and thoughtful take on things. Ultimately, I only have the same dream as anyone else in this industry – to be acknowledged and given the nod to keep going.

In brief, what can you tell us about your new show, Life in Death?

Life in Death sees us in the cell of Wallace, a prisoner on death row, with an hour to go before his execution. He seems OK. He’s not sitting in the corner praying, he’s juggling. His estranged wife Mary turns up unannounced, and tells him that she’s pregnant with his child. The thought of the gallows creeping ever closer forces the pair to confront their traumatic pasts and find some sort of peace in their future (or lack of it).

With Life in Death looking at such divisive and sensitive issues, how have you gone about portraying such a sobering focus on stage in terms of style and tone?

It’s certainly a serious play, but my hope is to find moments of intimacy and humour in between the heavy stuff. I think it’s important to have an intention of discussing as-yet-unsolved issues in society, but I believe the truest explorations only come when the human relationships are put first. So the play definitely aims to paint the bigger picture in a clearer light, but not before first putting its subjects under the microscope.

The play explores the notion of fate, which seems both ironic and fitting considering the positions the characters are in – does the play recognise fate as a legitimate notion?

Absolutely. I have always seen fate as a big boulder, rolling down a hill. Where it comes to rest will always be the same, but its path can be changed if you’re strong enough. So Wallace and Mary recognise their current lack of control, and try to claw back what as they can before it’s too late.

What inspired you to cover both the death penalty and abortion in one piece and what led you to focus specifically on the enforced ending of one life in direct connection with the potential creation of a new life?

I like vivid contrasts. Life is a cycle, and death is an integral part of that cycle. The play tries to connect the two and remind the audience that it’s your life, it’s your death, and as long as you’re not hurting anyone nothing else really matters.

From reading the premise of your show, it’s plain to see a fascinating and uncomfortable paradox; what challenges have been thrown up during the process of creating a narrative which inevitably draws comparisons between the differing views and ethics surrounding two very different means of the termination of life?

It’s really been empowering to take in everyone’s views on the subjects we cover. As pointless as it may seem, I’ve really tried hard to not offer any answers, but instead to ask questions and then leave it up to the audience. While writing it was a challenge to remain truthful to the characters and not veer off on some preachy political crusade, which is where I think a lot of new writing falls short. My voice doesn’t matter – it’s the voice of the characters that people will (hopefully) want to hear.

d2bd39f2-a4f9-4dc1-89d8-06284d0c437f.pngWould you say the show is seeking to deliver a political message about the death penalty and abortion or is it more about humanising issues and having audiences engage with the individuals behind the associated sensational headlines?

It’s not offering any solutions, nor coming down too strongly on either side. As I said before, the greatest revelations come when the audience gets there themselves, and not with me holding their hand. I try not to think about political messages in my work, as I believe it makes the writing stale and heavy-handed. As long as people leave with a renewed sense of interest in my chosen subject, I have succeeded. It’s not my responsibility to tell people what to think after that.

This play is set in 1964 – in your opinion, how does this specified era impact upon the depiction of the subjects, themes and characters?

In those times, abortion was more of a taboo and something frowned upon. Mary feels like an outcast in her community for even questioning whether she wants to have the baby or not, and so the play tries to shed light on her struggle for inner peace and self-determination when other people are trying to make her decisions for her.

But I would like to point out that the historical setting is not really a point of discussion in the play. It’s more of a way to plant the narrative in a realistic time so that the plot can really progress. I won’t say any more, but it might have felt out of place if set in our more enlightened time.

Life in Death is clearly going to tackle serious issues, but is there hope or light to be found within the piece?

100%. It may seem morbid at times, but it tries to look at the strong human bonds found in hard situations and celebrate the love that keeps us all going.

As Writer and Director here, you have a great amount of autonomy – what are the challenges and benefits of donning both caps at once when producing theatre?

My desk and the rehearsal room can become a bit of an echo chamber if I don’t invite other people in. The work suffers when I have no one to tell me my idea sucks, so it’s crucial to have people around me that will tell me when it does. And they do! Feedback and criticism are so important, especially when writing and directing, and I welcome it from everyone – the actors, the set designer, whoever.

What would you say are your overall intentions as writer and director of a serious piece like Life in Death – do you feel a weight of responsibility having selected a story like this?

Not at all. It’s make-believe at the end of it all, and I refuse to pretend that my play means anything. It’s just a passionate attempt to tell a difficult story and sympathise with two characters out of their depth.

If an audience takes just one thing away from seeing Life in Death, what would you like that to be?

All I ask of the audience is that they respect the choices I’ve made, and talk about it afterwards. I will have failed if an audience member leaves the theatre with nothing to say.
Now for the Auick Fire Round! 
Who or what has inspired you most in theatre?

The idea that we are carrying on a tradition that has been around for thousands of years – the tradition of telling and performing timeless stories that portray eternal truths. Who knows what will be the next Oedipus Rex or Macbeth?

Etiquette debates – worthwhile or futile? Where do you draw the line? (A production like Life in Death may well suffer far more in the face of rustling, phones and chatter than other, lighter productions might so I’m interested to hear the response here considering the nature of your show specifically.)

While watching a play there’s no place for anything other than complete surrender to it. It’s an insult to the hard work the company has put in if you can’t keep your phone in your pocket.

If you could bring change in terms of opportunities in Theatre to London right now, what would it be? What does London need?

More new writing in the West End. Everything has its place, but I think that there has to be fewer reruns and a more deliberate attempt to break new ground. There’s too much reverence for cash cows and not enough determination to move the culture forward with fresh perspectives.

Finally, to close, sell your show to readers in just one sentence.

Wallace is being executed in an hour, but he’s more interested in making it to the death row talent show down the corridor – will his pregnant wife be able to make him see sense?

So there you have it! Remember: Life in Death plays the Camden Fringe at the Water Rats 20th – 22nd August and you can find tickets here.

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