Jay Wood is directing two plays at Newcastle Theatre Company back to back

Young talent: Director Jay Wood at Newcastle Theatre Company in Lambton. Picture by Simone De Peak
Young talent: Director Jay Wood at Newcastle Theatre Company in Lambton. Picture by Simone De Peak

It is an endeavour that would instil a debilitating panic in most theatre directors. Whether it be applied to an amateur or a professional, the wise or the inexperienced, there is even a rule, according to some, that openly discourages it. Those who break this rule are either brave, crazy or in possession of a talent that is as rare as it is generous. For the rest of the theatre folk, that unwritten rule is clear: only ever immerse yourself in one production at a time.

Director Jay Wood can be safely cast in considerably braver category of local theatre figures. Wood is presently directing the irreverent and abridged, Complete Works of William Shakespeare as well as the soon to debut Constellations at Newcastle Theatre Company in Lambton,

Yes, Wood is breaking the rules and inviting his audiences to bear witness to it. Given the breadth of his commitments to these shows, it was wrong to assume that a recent conversation with Wood would be over in a matter of minutes. Expansive and ever inspired, Wood can speak about his current projects for as long as anybody will listen. His composure under pressure invokes a philosophy that Shakespeare himself once noted in As You Like It:  time, supposed the Bard, can travel at different speeds for different people.   

The same might be also said for different audiences. In the closing scene of Complete Works last Saturday evening, Wood directed his three actors - in an ascension of acrobatic madness disguised as an encore - to perform an abbreviated Hamlet backwards.

It is an episode penned in defiance of the theatrically sacrosanct, in which the world’s most famous soliloquy, written by the king of English literature, is reduced to a regurgitated sound bite of gibberish.

Wood’s direction has carefully and thoughtfully examined the emotional complexities of modern womanhood.

Backpedalling at a breakneck speed through the drowning of Hamlet’s tortured love interest Ophelia, actor Claire Thomas gargles and then spits a mouthful of water across the stage.

“It’s quite bizarre,” Wood admits. “But if you perform the play backwards, our memory of Hamlet doesn’t really work unless the words are accompanied by these physical moments.”

What does work is Wood’s commitment to breaking another unwritten rule of theatre. Upending the traditional expectation that the Complete Works be performed by men, Wood’s decision to cast three females pays off for their audiences splendidly.

Beth Aubrey, Jo Cooper and Claire Thomas navigate the madcappery with an enviable wit and comedic timing.

“Even when performed traditionally, the rhythms and intonations of Shakespeare are difficult enough. So what these three actors achieve in this play is just amazing”, Wood says.

Their performances contribute to the director’s growing reputation for exacting professional standards of performance from the relatively narrow ranks of amateur female actors in Newcastle. From an imperious Claire Williams in Doubt (2015), to a pushy older sister by Elise Bialek in Proof (2016) and a wistfully bewildered Samantha Lambert as Sara in Knock & Run Theatre’s Grace (2017), Wood’s direction has thoughtfully examined the emotional complexities of modern womanhood.

Grace, Proof and Doubt may have all been written by men, but each of them are exceptional in their portrayals of tenacious and intelligent women, uncomfortably caught between duelling loyalties. In each instance it was a discomfort captured vividly on the stage, by actors who came to trust Wood and the wisdom in his direction implicitly.

Starring alongside Bialek in Proof was another Newcastle actor, Emily Daly, who has collaborated with Wood to great acclaim. After Wood wrote his first play Queen of Mars in 2016,  Daly was among his most obvious casting choices. Daly and actor Tim O’Donnell will be directed by Wood in Constellations, a play produced by Wood’s theatre company Seated Ovation, running September 13-15.

Tracing an imaginary, but somehow imperishable thread between Marianne and Roland, a couple whose destiny is itself portrayed as a kind of mathematical abstract, Constellations is a work that promises far more questions than resolutions.

“I see the play as taking the form of a dream”, Wood says. “If somehow we could see our every choice played out before us and the places that those choices could take us, then this is a play that imagines that reality. The idea that every one of these choices creates a path and that following a path could make all the difference is a spiritual one. I want to capture the thrill of that.”

Jay Wood directs The Complete Work of William Shakespeare Abridged through Sept 8 and Constellations, Sept 13-15, at Newcastle Theatre Company.