Liverpool writer, Jimmy McGovern (smiling) _320
YOU might imagine it a matter of old chums slurping tea and nattering as they kicked around the idea for a play focusing on slavery and the Lancashire cotton famine in the time the American Civil War.
Yet, when London’s Southbank Centre director Jude Kelly met up with Liverpool’s prolific drama writer Jimmy McGovern, surprisingly, it was the first time their paths had crossed.
Liverpool-born Kelly cut her theatrical teeth at the West Yorkshire Playhouse after making a considerable reputation as the artistic director of Battersea Arts Centre in the early 1980s, and then a spell at the Royal Shakespeare Company. In 2005, to some acclaim, she took over the reins of the Southbank, which is the collective name for the 21-acre arts complex that is made up of the Royal Festival Hall, the Hayward Gallery, the Queen Elizabeth Hall, the Purcell Rooms and the Poetry Library.
For good measure, she is also chair of culture, ceremonies and education on the London organising committee for the Olympic Games in 2012.
McGovern needs little introduction after a sparkling career that takes in early days as a scriptwriter on Brookside, then Cracker, the Dockers, Hillsborough and latterly the Street although he does admit that King Cotton is his first “proper” stage play, and a musical to boot.
Way back in the early 1980s, he put together a two-handed show called True Romance starring Mark McGann at the Everyman Theatre. McGovern has commented that, although McGann was brilliant, the play “was crap”.
Since then, though, he has become almost the conscience of the nation – and certainly for Liverpool – with a series of scorching dramas.
Jude, who was awarded an OBE in 1997 for her contributions to Britain’s cultural life, has similarly singed a few eyebrows with her radical approach to the arts, and is quite thrilled to be working with McGovern and on this particular play, which she says incorporates two profoundly distressing stories.
King Cotton tells the story of the struggle to break free from poverty and slavery as seen through the eyes of Sokoto, a black slave working on an American cotton plantation, and Tom, an impoverished mill worker in Lancashire where people are starving because of the Union blockade of Confederate ship.
At the core of the tale is the building of the legendary CSS Alabama, a ship paid for by Liverpool merchants to equip the Confederate navy with means of knocking three bells out of the northern Union warships.
In essence, it is the fateful meeting of the two protagonists – Tom and the now-freed slave Sokoto – that sets the scene for the show, which mixes brass band music with spirituals and original compositions by Howard Goodall.
It may seem rather apposite that McGovern’s play should be premiered this year, at a time when there are ongoing commemorations to mark the 200th anniversary of the ending of commercial slavery in the UK.
But Jude first heard of the idea seven years ago when Ian Brownbill and Jimmy McGovern sent her an outline. “I was a bit baffled as it was all in verse,” she says. “But I was intrigued about it as a stage play and also about Jimmy writing it, as I knew he had hardly done any theatre work.”
“Ian later visited me in London and we discussed King Cotton and I agreed that I would help develop and direct the project,” adds Jude, who was born and raised in Princes Avenue, in Liverpool, but, after studying drama at Birmingham University, took her talents elsewhere.
“I left Liverpool when I was 18 and have never worked in the city, although I believe passionately that it taught me so much about the arts,” she says.
Over the gestation of the play, she and McGovern were in touch periodically – although naturally not every week, asserts Jude – and the idea of doing a big show around it became really exciting.
She concedes that slavery is a tricky subject to encapsulate, and that it is hard not be voyeuristic. “It is very emotional and although I was brought up in a multi-racial community in Liverpool 8 I didn’t know that much about the slavery issue, although I suppose I should have done,” commented Jude, whose first exposure to the arts was attending the Nora Batty School of Dancing at the West Indian Centre in Liverpool’s Chinatown where she was sent to learn ballet.
“In that area of Liverpool, many cultures lived and worked alongside each other and there was a feeling of great homogeneity. But now I fear there is a divergence of those different nationalities.”
Jude admits that initially she was a bit wary of Jimmy McGovern, as he had a “rather perceived fierce public image”.
“But I have found that he is very sensitive and extremely flexible and we are able to work spontaneously as the rehearsals progress,” she says. “It has been a wonderful adventure for me and Jimmy, and I’m now glad it is happening at this particular time, even though it was years ago when we first discussed it and only a year ago before I saw a working script.
“In fact, Jimmy is still showing me the script and it’s almost like a work in progress.”
* KING Cotton opens at the Lowry, Salford, on Wednesday, September 12, and arrives at the Empire Theatre, Liverpool, from Tuesday, September 25, until September 29.