Lime interview - Theatre
Emil and the Detectives - Jason Barnett interview
Erich Kästner’s famous children’s story, Emil and the Detectives, is being brought to life at the National Theatre this November by Carl Miller.
The story’s title character, Emil, is on the way to Berlin to give his Grandmother some money his mum has managed to save. After falling asleep on the train he wakes up to find his money has been stolen. Emil and a group of friends then work together to catch the man they suspect stole the money.
Jason Barnett, who plays ‘The man from the 177 tram’, is no stranger to the National Theatre having been in War Horse and Amato Saltone. He’s back for Emil and the Detectives and in between rehearsing he found some time to answer a few questions for us.
Can you tell me a bit about your character?
‘The man from the 177 tram’ is the adult conscience of the play. He’s an irascible newspaper editor who is passionately in love with the city of Berlin while also seeing its negatives. He is the only adult who really listens to the children.
Did you read the book as a child?
I think I did but mostly I remember a Disney version of the book that used to come on to the television from time to time. I loved that.
What’s the main moral of the story?
That society is in trouble if people feel their voice isn’t heard, whether it be children, community groups, political groups – whatever. Otherwise they will find a way to be heard.
Is it just for children or will it appeal to adults?
It will definitely appeal to adults, Berlin was such a racy city at the time and although this is a family show – there’s something for everyone!
What made you do this play?
I worked with the director Bijan Sheibani on two plays by Harold Pinter; Party Time and One for the Road at the Battersea Arts Centre (BAC). These won the James Menzies-Kitchin award and help set him on his way as a director. It’s been lovely to work with him 10 years later.
How do you prepare for a play?
I stop watching Homes under the Hammer on TV for a bit and try and get into shape by getting my bicycle out and pumping up the tyres. Then ignoring it and jumping on the tube to the rehearsal room.
Have you performed at The National Theatre before?
Yes, I appeared with Shunt in Tropicana and Amato Saltone. I was also in the original cast of War Horse, which was not a dissimilar experience to this in that on the first day of rehearsals I walked into a room full of amazing puppets that made me think ‘no-one’s going to be looking at me’ – I’ve had similar thoughts about the children in Emil!
What do you think of the theatre?
I love the National Theatre. Although a big institution, it still makes actors feel they are important to the core of the building, which might seem obvious but doesn’t happen everywhere.
Have you taken part in a play designed to appeal to children before? How is performing in front of children different to performing to an adult audience?
I’ve done lots of family shows in the past, for example: World Cup of 1966, and War Horse, but nothing specifically for children. The work I’ve done always has an important message for the adult audience.
But I also worked in theatre in education, so I’d say you have to work harder. I learnt more about theatre touring around children’s assembly halls than during all my training.
Have rehearsals started yet?
Yes, we’ve been rehearsing for five weeks – there are 180 children in the building to prove the point.
How long is the rehearsal period?
We have seven weeks in all.
There are three boys sharing the role of Emil, will it be difficult building up an onstage rapport with three different actors?
No, not difficult, it’s a fun challenge. They are each so good but in their own ways totally different, which makes it exciting.
What is the set like? Is it quite elaborate or fairly simple?
Bunny Christie has designed an amazing set but the acting company is also creating many of the settings – so a combination of the two.
You’ve worked in theatre, film and TV, do you have a preference?
I certainly have a preference for the changing rooms in TV and film but I’m a theatre person at heart.
Do you still get nervous before a performance?
Horribly, but the trick is to channel that into positive energy on stage to help your performance – a trick I’m slowly learning!
Why should people come and see the play?
Because of the original story is wonderful and Carl Miller’s adaptation is beautiful. Despite the historical setting, it has much to say to us now about respect, listening and what happens if you don’t.
Emil and the Detectives opened on 16th November and is booking up until 20th January.
Tickets range from £12-£48
Photo credit Marc Brenner
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