Mary Rose is a hauntingly beautiful play about lasting love. Originated by J.M Barrie, the creator of Peter Pan, it explores time, love and loss. Such enduring themes are given a fresh treatment which is trademark to Conn Artists Theatre Company; here to speak with us about their unique approach to reworking classics is Artistic Director, Producer and Actor Ross Muir.
Can you tell us about Conn Artists and what they represent?
Conn Artists was founded out of a passionate desire to produce great works of live theatre at the Connaught Theatre in Worthing from whence our company derives its name which essentially means “artists of the Connaught”. We then tour that work specifically to other regional theatres and arts centres. We strongly believe in giving Worthing and Sussex based artists an opportunity to create exciting work and encourage them to become stake-holders in their regional theatre as part of making a positive contribution to the health and wellbeing of our community as well as inspiring regional theatre audiences up and down the country. We pride ourselves on always making brave creative choices and we are deeply committed to producing the best quality shows we can. We have shared so many magical moments over the years with our audiences who really appreciate the love and dedication we put into making the theatre we produce.
What has it been like bringing the production of Mary Rose to life? Has there been any challenges?
It has been Conn Artists’ biggest challenge to date. Firstly, as Producer, I had to completely reschedule the original tour from spring 2021 to spring 2022 because of the pandemic; having lost some venues and gaining new venues in the process with lots of diary headaches! Also, as Artistic Director of Conn Artists, I chose to do this play back in 2018 without realising I was then going to lose my father in 2019 (the play’s central theme is about loss) or that the world would then become gripped by a pandemic (the play was written just after the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918-20) or at the time having the slightest awareness or concern for the huge challenges it would present our Set Designer! We are touring it to such a diverse range of theatres and arts centres and the play spans a period of over 30 years; moving from a Sussex manor house which is seen at different times from being empty and for sale, back to its heyday and then to an island in the Outer Hebrides and back again! It has really stretched every member of the creative team in so many positive ways so far and will continue to be an amazing creative journey right up until the last night.
Can you tell us more about your role in Mary Rose?
As an actor in the production I get to double two very different roles. Mr Amy is a clergyman and friend to Mr and Mrs Morland who are Mary Rose’s parents. Mr Amy is a gentle soul first seen in his forties and then later on in his sixties but he and Mr Morland do have some funny scenes together bickering over the authenticity of prints that they collect…a shared hobby they enjoy! In contrast to Mr Amy I also play a young Scottish Ghillie.
How do they work within the dynamic of the show?
As I have Scottish ancestry I am really looking forward to playing Cameron with the soft accent of the Highlander. For me personally, the island scene in Act Two between Cameron, Mary Rose and Simon is one of the most brilliantly written scenes for the theatre that I have ever come across in any play. It is pure theatrical and eerie storytelling at its very best. Cameron tells us the local legend and superstition about the ‘Island that likes to be visited’ and of strange disappearances in the past. He is also an important character link in Act Three between the Outer Hebrides and Sussex when Mary Rose returns again after her second disappearance. As a classically trained actor who enjoys character parts I shall be in my element!
What do you think J.M. Barrie might make of the play?
J.M. Barrie is one of my favourite playwrights and I have been so keen to produce one of his plays for many years. He is always remembered for his masterpiece Peter Pan which tends to overshadow the rest of his work. He was a prolific novelist and playwright and some of his other plays, including Mary Rose, are absolutely outstanding like The Professor’s Love-Story, Quality Street, The Admirable Crichton and Dear Brutus; which have all made me laugh, cry and inspired much reflection. Barrie is so much deeper than a casual first glance might suggest and the quality of his work remains relevant and still has something to say; it just has to be reinterpreted by the next generation. I have the greatest respect for his work and I hope he would be proud of how we are reimagining and breathing new life into his wonderful play Mary Rose for which I am also writing new music to go alongside some of the traditional folk songs we are going to insert. We are finding ways to make his play accessible again to 21st Century audiences and, as Barrie came from Kirriemuir and I am a Muir, I like to think I have his blessing!
What do you hope audiences might take home after watching Mary Rose?
Mary Rose is a piece of theatre with absolute relevance and responds to the challenges that people are facing today. The play was first staged at London’s Haymarket Theatre in 1920, written after not only WWI but the Spanish Flu Pandemic of 1918-20, and is therefore an exploration of love, loss and hope that spans a time period of over 30 years.
Mary Rose doesn’t realise her life has past and she’s frozen in time; and almost as the opposite to Peter Pan, Barrie is not exploring the adventures of children who disappear off to Neverland; so much as the loss felt by those of us who have been left behind after they are gone.
I hope this production is magical and inspiring for our audiences as well as a gripping ghost story with some creepy moments! I also believe the play is cathartic and I hope by echoing our own unresolved losses the ghost of our heroine will become an instrument for healing.