Interview: Joss Bennathan

The son of the famous left-wing historian Eric Hobsbawm is using theatre to bridge cultural divides.


By John Nathan, January 14, 2010
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A scene from Joss Bennathan’s latest production — a text-faithful version of Marlowe’s Dr Faustus

A scene from Joss Bennathan’s latest production — a text-faithful version of Marlowe’s Dr Faustus

You do not have to be the son of a world-famous Marxist historian to have a sense of social justice, but once you know that theatre director Joss Bennathan’s father is Eric Hobsbawm, it seems to make more sense.

They have both, for instance, devoted themselves to communicating their respective fields to as wide an audience as possible. In Bennathan’s case this not only means staging classics for those who rarely get the chance to see them, but performing in them too.

The 51-year-old founder of theatre company Present Moment is standing in deep thought, his chin resting on his knuckles. A question is forming. From the rehearsal room next door we can hear Ronnie Corbett and Sandy Toksvig singing their hearts out in preparation for their Christmas Cracker show. Bennathan’s production is a tad less commercial and destined not for the West End but east London’s Stratford Circus, where it will largely be performed by and in front of young audiences from local schools. The question arrives.

“What,” asks Bennathan, “is Mephistopheles thinking at this point?”

“I’m thinking that when you can have the world, wanting a wife is a stupid idea,” says the devil’s demon, or more accurately, Simon Rivers, the actor playing him. Rivers and Babou Ceesay, who takes on the title role in Christopher Marlowe’s Dr Faustus, are the stars of Bennathan’s latest show. It is four days into rehearsal and Rivers, best known as Ameer in the BBC medical drama Crash, is wearing spooky white contact lenses. They make him look like half man, half gecko.

“Babou is Gambian,” explains Bennnathan during the lunch break. “His background is Muslim and Simon’s family are Sikhs. So there is something here of the Muslim, the Sikh and the Jew doing a play about the devil.”

For Bennathan, his sense of Jewishness is certainly not a religious thing. “I was raised with no religion whatsoever. But culturally, and in the sense of my name, yes I am Jewish. I suppose my outlook is connected to my background.”

Ah yes, the background. Directing came relatively late as his career as a drama teacher developed. Although as a child he showed a certain facility early on. “I was one of those bossy children who marshalled other kids into doing plays,” says Bennathan. “So I was probably a director before I even knew it.”

And he not only has a world-famous historian for a father but pretty high-profile siblings too. From the Hobsbawm side there is his half-sister, Julia, the “ethical PR” guru. From the Bennathan side — Joss grew up with his mother Marion and was not aware that Eric Hobsbawm was his father until he was in his teens — there is half-brother Joel, a QC. Joss’s work is no less public-spirited.

The 17-strong cast of Dr Faustus is mostly drawn from east London schools. The area takes in Newham, Waltham Forest, Redbridge, Havering, Barking and Dagenham — deprived London boroughs in terms of drama. The only producing theatre within striking distance is Stratford East.

Bennathan talks about his objectives. “I look for a way of telling a story clearly, to bring it to life and make it accessible without dumbing down. I can’t bear that sort of backward-baseball caps, ‘let’s make the Capulets Asian and the Montagues black’ kind of theatre.”

Refreshingly, Bennathan wants to dumb-up youngsters rather than provide them with pop or rap versions to keep their attention from straying from plays to PlayStations. His past productions include The Country Wife and The Alchemist. And although more commercially his directing credits include A-Team The Musical which sold out in Edinburgh and which is due for a London transfer, it is the classics to which he most often returns. His Wilton’s Music Hall production of Volpone, directed in 2005, left him with memories of the transforming effects of theatre. The workshops of Ben Johnson’s 17th-century play resulted in East End kids having passionate arguments about whether Moska and Volpone were heroes or villains.

There was one performance where the audience included the well-to-do benefactors and Friends of Wilton’s Music Hall. Bennathan describes them as perfectly nice but by and large rich, white, posh people who work in the City. There was, he says, not quite hostility between them and his East End kids, but certainly a distance. “By the end of the show, everything had changed,” he says. “They weren’t exactly weeping on each other’s shoulders, but they had all been through this communal experience. The distance had closed. This is one of the great things theatre can do.

“I don’t want to overstate the mission to civilise the working classes, but there is a real danger that a benign, well-meaning intention ends up only providing the kids with culture they already know. All that happens is that they remain are trapped in their own experience. But nobody says that children in public schools should only be given Tom Brown’s Schooldays… People rise to the level you expect of them.”

It is a lesson Bennathan deploys not just as a director but as a father, and grandfather too. Perhaps because of his family history, Bennathan takes paternal responsibility extremely seriously. He was only 18 when his first of three children were born.

Four years earlier, his mother Marion had told him that his biological father was the eminent Eric Hobsbawm. But the boy saw no reason to attach more significance to the news than he did to what he already knew about his family.

“There are certain things I had somehow always known — about my grandmother having six kids and being pregnant with her seventh when she died of double pneumonia. Or about my maternal grandfather shooting himself in the foot to get out of the trenches in the First World War.”

The relationship with Eric Hobsbawm, now 92, may have started late but it is, these days, a good one, says Bennathan.

“There are regular family get-togethers. Everyone was at both my children’s’ weddings. Two years ago it was Eric’s 90th birthday and my mother’s 80th. That was a busy party year.”

If there is one particular outlook he attributes to the Hobsbawm side of the family, it concerns aspirations. “Not just having them,” he says “but in enabling other people to have them.”

You do not have to be the son of a world-famous Marxist historian to have a sense of social justice, but once you know that theatre director Joss Bennathan’s father is Eric Hobsbawm, it seems to make more sense.

They have both, for instance, devoted themselves to communicating their respective fields to as wide an audience as possible. In Bennathan’s case this not only means staging classics for those who rarely get the chance to see them, but performing in them too.

The 51-year-old founder of theatre company Present Moment is standing in deep thought, his chin resting on his knuckles. A question is forming. From the rehearsal room next door we can hear Ronnie Corbett and Sandy Toksvig singing their hearts out in preparation for their Christmas Cracker show. Bennathan’s production is a tad less commercial and destined not for the West End but east London’s Stratford Circus, where it will largely be performed by and in front of young audiences from local schools. The question arrives.

“What,” asks Bennathan, “is Mephistopheles thinking at this point?”

“I’m thinking that when you can have the world, wanting a wife is a stupid idea,” says the devil’s demon, or more accurately, Simon Rivers, the actor playing him. Rivers and Babou Ceesay, who takes on the title role in Christopher Marlowe’s Dr Faustus, are the stars of Bennathan’s latest show. It is four days into rehearsal and Rivers, best known as Ameer in the BBC medical drama Crash, is wearing spooky white contact lenses. They make him look like half man, half gecko.

“Babou is Gambian,” explains Bennnathan during the lunch break. “His background is Muslim and Simon’s family are Sikhs. So there is something here of the Muslim, the Sikh and the Jew doing a play about the devil.”

For Bennathan, his sense of Jewishness is certainly not a religious thing. “I was raised with no religion whatsoever. But culturally, and in the sense of my name, yes I am Jewish. I suppose my outlook is connected to my background.”

Ah yes, the background. Directing came relatively late as his career as a drama teacher developed. Although as a child he showed a certain facility early on. “I was one of those bossy children who marshalled other kids into doing plays,” says Bennathan. “So I was probably a director before I even knew it.”

And he not only has a world-famous historian for a father but pretty high-profile siblings too. From the Hobsbawm side there is his half-sister, Julia, the “ethical PR” guru. From the Bennathan side — Joss grew up with his mother Marion and was not aware that Eric Hobsbawm was his father until he was in his teens — there is half-brother Joel, a QC. Joss’s work is no less public-spirited.

The 17-strong cast of Dr Faustus is mostly drawn from east London schools. The area takes in Newham, Waltham Forest, Redbridge, Havering, Barking and Dagenham — deprived London boroughs in terms of drama. The only producing theatre within striking distance is Stratford East.

Bennathan talks about his objectives. “I look for a way of telling a story clearly, to bring it to life and make it accessible without dumbing down. I can’t bear that sort of backward-baseball caps, ‘let’s make the Capulets Asian and the Montagues black’ kind of theatre.”

Refreshingly, Bennathan wants to dumb-up youngsters rather than provide them with pop or rap versions to keep their attention from straying from plays to PlayStations. His past productions include The Country Wife and The Alchemist. And although more commercially his directing credits include A-Team The Musical which sold out in Edinburgh and which is due for a London transfer, it is the classics to which he most often returns. His Wilton’s Music Hall production of Volpone, directed in 2005, left him with memories of the transforming effects of theatre. The workshops of Ben Johnson’s 17th-century play resulted in East End kids having passionate arguments about whether Moska and Volpone were heroes or villains.

There was one performance where the audience included the well-to-do benefactors and Friends of Wilton’s Music Hall. Bennathan describes them as perfectly nice but by and large rich, white, posh people who work in the City. There was, he says, not quite hostility between them and his East End kids, but certainly a distance. “By the end of the show, everything had changed,” he says. “They weren’t exactly weeping on each other’s shoulders, but they had all been through this communal experience. The distance had closed. This is one of the great things theatre can do.

“I don’t want to overstate the mission to civilise the working classes, but there is a real danger that a benign, well-meaning intention ends up only providing the kids with culture they already know. All that happens is that they remain are trapped in their own experience. But nobody says that children in public schools should only be given Tom Brown’s Schooldays… People rise to the level you expect of them.”

It is a lesson Bennathan deploys not just as a director but as a father, and grandfather too. Perhaps because of his family history, Bennathan takes paternal responsibility extremely seriously. He was only 18 when his first of three children were born.

Four years earlier, his mother Marion had told him that his biological father was the eminent Eric Hobsbawm. But the boy saw no reason to attach more significance to the news than he did to what he already knew about his family.

“There are certain things I had somehow always known — about my grandmother having six kids and being pregnant with her seventh when she died of double pneumonia. Or about my maternal grandfather shooting himself in the foot to get out of the trenches in the First World War.”

The relationship with Eric Hobsbawm, now 92, may have started late but it is, these days, a good one, says Bennathan.

“There are regular family get-togethers. Everyone was at both my children’s’ weddings. Two years ago it was Eric’s 90th birthday and my mother’s 80th. That was a busy party year.”

If there is one particular outlook he attributes to the Hobsbawm side of the family, it concerns aspirations. “Not just having them,” he says “but in enabling other people to have them.”

‘Dr Faustus’ is at Stratford Circus, London E15 until February 6. Tel: 0844 357 2625

    Last updated: 10:59am, January 14 2010