Jamie Wood’s one-man show Beating McEnroe is a blend of autobiography, fiction, clowning and physical theatre that takes the competitive tennis world of Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe as its subject.
In his time Bjorn Borg once epitomised tennis cool. He was everything Jamie and his brother wanted to be. Then John McEnroe came along in 1980 and Jamie was beaten. Thirty-three years of torment and self-questioning later: is Jamie ready to face his greatest opponent?
Beating McEnroe is about rivalry and love, how they can better us and destroy us. It is a show about competition and control, heroes and Zen.
Rich Jevons caught up with Jamie prior to his performance at Theatre in the Mill, Bradford on 21 June 2014 to talk about his aims and intentions, Surrealism, being a Clown Doctor, tennis (especially Borg and McEnroe), the autobiographical elements in the play and clowning as a ‘serious’ medium.
Can you tell us a bit about your previous work and your aims and intentions?
I think my work has always tried to create a space for people to think, to dream and to play. My main drive has been to not create boring theatre but an exciting visual and visceral experience for an audience that invites people to visit places inside themselves they don’t often visit.
Would you say you are influenced by Surrealist playwrights like Alfred Jarry and Eugene Ionesco (I guess Antonin Artaud comes into it too)?
I studied fine art in Liverpool. I think artists such as Tinguely, Miro and Picabia have influenced me. I remember going to a Tinguely exhibition when I was 6 or 7 and looking at these incredible mechanical mobiles that leapt in to life and made the spectators jump and clearly loving the idea that art could be funny and surprising as well as provocative and beautiful.
I think the Surrealists have had an influence on me in the way that when I’m making a piece of work I’m forever drawing on my subconscious to help me out, to tell me why I’m making this show at this point in my life. My shows always feel like the most vivid diary entry, recording in full technicolor where I am in my life. Other huge influences have been Buster Keaton and Laurel and Hardy and Samuel Beckett swell as Russian visual theatre companies such as Akhe and Derevo.
What’s it like working as a Clown Doctor and does this feed into your work in general?
We are now known as Giggle Doctors. I’ve worked through Theodora Childrens’ Trust now for nine years visiting children in hospitals throughout the UK. It’s incredible work. We are a team of specially trained individuals who create opportunities and invite spaces for sick children and worried parents and overworked staff to play.
Through the work I’ve been lucky enough to share such magical moments with families at incredibly vulnerable times in their lives, and I am entirely grateful. Sometimes play can be just what a child needs to give them a much needed opportunity to not think about their illness for a bit, and for a parent to see their child play it can be a tremendous relief.
It’s definitely fed in to my work, because it’s made me aware of the potential of direct connections and play with a vast spectrum of ages and cultures and the sense of how much most of us desperately want an opportunity to play.
I think it’s affected my work a lot, because it’s made me even more aware of how exclusive art can sometimes be, and how theatres no longer seem to belong to everybody as a place to think, argue, laugh and learn, I’m interested in how we break down those perceived obstructions and boundaries.
What particularly interests you in using tennis as a subject, especially John McEnroe?
The idea for creating the show began with remembering mine and my families obsession/fascination with the rivalry between Borg and McEnroe when I was 6 years old, and an ongoing reference to the two players and their different ways of being between me and my older brother.
At first I was just interested by the fact I hadn’t thought about this for twenty years or so. I then started to read, research and explore and it brought up a lot of rich stuff which led to the more autobiographical elements of the show, it also seemed to become much bigger than tennis or these two individuals.
Can you tell us about the autobiographic elements to the play?
The autobiographical elements were the very last bits to find their way in to the show because I was a bit ashamed of telling my own story and giving the impression I thought my story was in any way more interesting that any other person’s story.
But then this became a bit of a game in itself, the idea of individualism is so prevalent and powerful today, I became interested in how ridiculous it was to persuade people that this one moment in this one tennis match for this one six-year-old boy was actually important enough to put on stage.
This is where clowning is really helpful. For me clowning starts with the premise we are all idiots desperately trying to prevent the world from seeing us as that, the clown just doesn’t mind being seen as an idiot and so people laugh.
Do you think clowning is neglected as a ‘serious’ medium?
I think the word ‘clown’ will often conjure up images of white faces, red lips, red noses, orange wigs and balloons for a lot of people in this country. Throughout history it has had many different incarnations for different aspects of society.
I don’t know how serious it is, I just know that when I teach clown workshops to people they have a great time, laugh a lot, and uncover a lot of stuff that they feel they are unable to express in everyday life.
When I studied clown with Philippe Gaulier, I know that it changed my life and changed how I looked at people and the world. Through clowning people let go of a lot of stuff, they open up, they acknowledge the ridiculous aspects of themselves and then learn to play with these, they grow.
This is incredible to observe, experience and share. I am lucky. Recently I was teaching clown in Liverpool and a Spanish man was on the course, he asked me, “Do the NHS know about clowning, because I think everybody should do this.” I don’t know if the NHS know about clowning but I’m very glad to know it.
For more information, check out www.jamiewood.org.uk
Beating McEnroe plays at Theatre in the Mill, Bradford on 21st June 2014, see http://www.brad.ac.uk/theatre/whats-on/jamie-wood/