The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas

Suitable for 11+

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas

Joe Murphy (director)

In conversation with Al Senter

At the time of writing, Joe Murphy, the rising young theatre director who will stage this adaptation of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, was recovering from his recent immersion in the intrigues of the Tudor court, as featured in the RSC’s Wolf Hall/Bring up the Bodies. As Assistant Director to his frequent colleague Jeremy Herrin, Joe was a key member of the team that turned Hilary Mantel’s saga of Thomas Cromwell into a much praised and highly successful piece of theatre. And there are certain similarities between the realisations of Henry VIII’s reign and of Auschwitz, as Joe Murphy explains.

“In Wolf Hall/Bring up the Bodies, we had many characters appearing in multi locations and it was seeing Jeremy work in that scale and seeing how the story-telling could be tailored to that kind of scale that has been a good preparation for working on The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. I don’t want to be bogged down by too much naturalism. It’s not that I have anything against naturalism - I enjoy all styles of theatre - but I’d argue that one of my tasks is to match the style to the story and to aim for a fluid, fast-moving production, making points by implication rather than being too explicit.”

As a young director climbing the career ladder, Joe has had to turn his hand to a variety of jobs, including the running of nabokov, a theatre company which seems to have little connection with the Russian author of that name. Instead, as Joe makes clear, its artistic policy is to produce work with a political and a social dimension and The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas seems to fall neatly into those categories.

“Our belief is in a society that is informed and emotionally intelligent and through our work we try to challenge ignorance and prejudice. We aim to attract younger audiences by putting on plays that are relevant to them and their concerns. We also organise pop-up evenings in locations such as The Vaults under Waterloo Station with food, stand-up, music as well as theatre and we try to expose people to other forms of art.”

Joe first met adaptor Angus Jackson when he applied for an Assistant Director Traineeship at the Chichester Festival Theatre. He failed to land the job but he bears Angus no ill-will. Quite the contrary.

“As a young director, I almost always zeroed my chances at the interview stage,” says Joe ruefully. “However, given the shape of the industry, interviews are just as much a way of meeting people and about establishing relationships that could lead to something later. In the years that followed, Angus and I have been vaguely aware of each other and then I heard that he’d come to see my production of Nick Payne’s Incognito at the Bush Theatre. It is a play with four actors playing twenty-five characters – with no set or costume changes – which required real clarity and real passion for the story-telling. And then Jeremy {Herrin} told me that I might be getting a call from Fiery Angel, one of the co-producers of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. And that call came.”

Reflecting on his own school-days, Joe is still puzzled by the way in which the subject of the Holocaust was taught.

“I remember that we learnt about the Holocaust as part of what we were taught about the Second World War. I found it odd that such an important event should be treated almost incidentally. It seemed to me that it should have been taught the other way round with World War II in the background and the Holocaust the main subject.

Joe prepared for his interview by reading John Boyne’s source novel as well as Angus Jackson’s stage version. He is planning to steer clear of the 2008 film, however.

“I’ll enjoy watching it when my job is done,” he says.

What did he make of his first encounter with the novel?

“My first impression is that it is incredibly harrowing,” replies Joe. “Yet at the same time, you think about the beauty and the innocence of Bruno. It is almost a parable, a simple story that sparks off a large number of questions in your head. We’ll be addressing two age groups within the audience and almost two types of awareness. The younger members of the audience will probably have a limited knowledge of the Holocaust, resembling the tip of an iceberg. The older part of the audience, however, will feel more anguish since they will be aware of what is implicit in the narrative.”

Understandably, both Bruno and Shmuel will be played by boy actors of a similar age to the characters. Given the sensitive nature of the subject-matter, surely the children will need careful handling?

“I think that it’s important for them to understand the context of the play,” replies Joe. “We have to decide how much needs to be shown onstage and how much the young actors need to know in order to tell the stories of their characters. I’ve talked to Jeremy and Angus about working with boy actors and they recommended that I should cast boys who have similar characters to Bruno and Shmuel. The further away a boy is from the character, the more he’s likely to struggle. But we should also remember that John’s novel is incredibly popular with schoolchildren anyway. Kids get the book and they get the horror of what happens in it. Of course, it is an intensely emotive subject but I believe that it is a subject which we should keep talking about.”

Joe also suggests that the play raises all kinds of questions that we should be asking ourselves.

“The first half of the play is brilliant in that it gives us a normal family, despite what is happening outside. You wonder how this normal family can collude with such a government or can turn a blind eye to what is going on. The teacher is trying to indoctrinate the children in a way that is really scary. I’d always argue that our allegiance should be directed to our friends rather than the state. At the same time, I wonder how we would act in such circumstances. Would we choose self-preservation over a criminal prosecution? Do you throw yourself on to the fire or save yourself for the sake of the family by compromising your beliefs and cooperating with those in power? There are no easy answers.”

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