INTERVIEW: MM chat to West Side Story’s Jack Lord as show continues to dazzle at Manchester’s Royal Exchange

It’s a sunny Friday afternoon and I’m sat in the foyer of the Royal Exchange with Jack Lord on a rare day off.

Currently part of the theatre’s remarkable production of West Side Story as both Gladhand and Lieutenant Shrank, he is working overtime to embody two characters that could not be more different. One is naive but well-meaning, and the other is racist, hard-headed and ignorant of his part in the problem.    

In our current social context of Brexit divides and rising youth knife crime, it’s apparent that no matter how much progress we seem to have made, tragically little is fundamentally different since West Side’s writing in 1957.

We discuss exclusion in the dramatic arts, his acting process, this incredible production of West Side and the enduring relevance of its themes, and the vibrancy of Manchester’s growing cultural scene. 

MM: You came from a working class background up in Salford…

Well I moved to Salford from Rochdale – which was proper Lancashire working class. There’re some great actors from up here. Ben Kingsley, Christopher Eccleston, Albert Finney, Sir Tom Courtenay: these were all great heroes of mine because they show that it’s possible to make it from my background.

But I think it’s getting harder. For some of those guys coming up in the sixties, and me in the nineties, there was still a little bit of help and support.

It wasn’t easy, but now the fees for drama schools are obscene. What you’re saying to someone from a working class background is: “To chase your dream, you’re going to be thirty grand in debt.”

MM: It’s exclusive.

Well it makes theatre feel like a middle-class environment.

In my first amateur show, my parents didn’t come and watch me because they physically couldn’t cross the threshold to come in; they felt it wasn’t for them. Those psychological blocks, the elitism and exclusion, really upset me.

But I love theatres like the Royal Exchange, it just says: “Come in! It’s not as bad as you think.”

MM: It definitely doesn’t feel like you’re stepping into a theatre.

It’s my favourite theatre in the UK by a mile and that’s saying something. There are some very special spaces out there but there’s nowhere else like this.

I remember the first time I auditioned at ITV Studios on the South Bank [London]. It was so imposing. It took a lot for me to even walk into the building.

I was really envious of these uber-confident guys who just swaggered in and I was aware, with no disrespect, that they were all privately educated; they didn’t have a problem going for what they wanted.

It was the opposite for me, I questioned everything. “Why do you want to do this? Who do you think you are? It’s not for us.” But I was so bloody minded about it because the alternative was too scary: to surrender to a career or job that would destroy my soul and make me miserable.

My dad, who I respect so much, got up every day at 6am and went to do a job he hated. He was a fitter for machines in the mills: a relentless grind.

Come rain or shine he got out of bed, walked to work and did what he had to all his life. You’ve got to respect that but you also have to say, that’s not for me. I was lucky to get a university grant to go to drama school.

MM: And they just don’t exist anymore.

They just don’t exist but the financial barrier is almost the easiest to get over. A lot of the barriers are psychological: to feel like I can do this, I belong in this world.  

MM: Maxine Peake is very outspoken about classism in the dramatic arts. What can be done to alleviate this?

People need to be exposed to them.

I’m not sure it happens anymore but when I was a lad, we had school trips to the theatre. I came [to the Royal Exchange] and the first thing I saw was the Scottish play, I’m not superstitious but you never know.

It’s important to be exposed to drama and music, all these things that are being cut from schools. The older generation are stripping away so much of what makes life worth living and it makes no sense. To build the kind of societies we want: why are people doing that?

MM: It seems like we got closer to that and now it’s regressed.

You can see it in our Prime Ministers. Every Prime Minister from Harold Wilson to John Major was from state school but from Tony Blair onwards they’ve been from public school.

Blair, Brown, Cameron, May: the culture shifted and not in a good way. All that radicalism of the sixties where the working class broke through; you got your Beatles, you got your Albert Finneys.

We need the Maxine Peakes, your Peter O’Tooles, and your Richard Burtons. These were great classical actors but they were not schooled in that kind of thing.

They loved poetry, they loved verse and that passion took them through.

Even Eccleston is in his fifties now and he and Maxine are heralded as the great examples but they’ve been around for a long time now.

Where are the new ones going to come from?     

MM: Is there overlap with race issues in the dramatic arts?

Absolutely, that’s undeniable whether it’s conscious or not. There’s been that kind of exclusion but that’s slowly changing.

It started with Me Too and suddenly we’re finally questioning the people with the power who generally are middle aged white men. They, maybe in some cases unconsciously, perpetuated the status quo without owning their place as the problem.

Change is going to be about who runs buildings, what David Mamet used to call ‘the gatekeepers’. Their profile has to change.

I’m a massive Doctor Who fan and when Jodie [Whitaker] got the job, I was so happy but I questioned: who’s the next showrunner?

That should be a woman, or someone of a different ethnicity. Where the absolute power is, is still the same profile of person. Not to say your middle aged white guy can’t do it, but it’s time for someone else to have a go.

MM: Your versatility as an actor is very much on display in West Side when playing both Shrank and Gladhand: two very different characters. Did your process for one influence the other? 

Yeah they are, I wanted them to be as different as possible. I want the audience to not know it’s the same person playing both. They know at the end because I’m only one of two old buggers in the show.

In terms of my process, I’ve never been one for one particular school of acting like Stanislavski or Meisner; I cherry pick. Whatever story you’re telling dictates how you tell it.

One of the things I do love, that Stanislavski used to talk about, was each character having their own internal rhythm. With these two that’s where I started: what is their inner heartbeat and pulse?

Gladhand’s very nervous and shaky, and Shrank’s very controlled and manipulative in some ways. When I’m getting dressed into Gladhand, the movement comes and the persona happens from there. Even walking down to the stage, his whole physicality comes from that inner rhythm.

Gladhand started from a really bad Woody Allen impression: that nervous New Yorker type. He blossomed in the last week before the run started. The more I did it, the more I started to love him.

This movement came in and our fabulous choreographer Aletta [Collins] just let me off the leash. She would say to me: ‘I can’t watch anything else in the scene’. She’s choreographed this incredible 10 minute ensemble dance piece and she’s just watching this old ham freaking out.

MM: The theme of division is central to West Side and your characters embody two opposing reactions. Shrank’s racism is the worst possible while Gladhand’s attempts to keep the peace are well intentioned if a little naive. Those themes and reactions are as important today as they were in 1957.

If not more so. This whole Brexit divide is between the old and the young, with young people feeling the older generation have made mistakes.

Not only that, but their attitude to things like the environment is a major problem. You have Greta Thunberg, that wonderful young Swedish girl who’s being really dismissed by people like Piers Morgan.

It’s that kind of divide that my characters and David [Crellin’s] characters represent: the adult world that really doesn’t understand young people.

Like you say, Gladhand has good intentions but, because he doesn’t understand the dynamics of the young peoples’ relationships, his attempts to make things peaceful fail.

In the same way, Shrank is very heavy-handed and overtly racist so he contributes to division and not to any kind of healing. He realises his responsibility in the tragedy at the end as it’s the adults that made the rules.

There’s a great line where Doc says to the kids: “you make this world lousy,” and Action [Sebastian Goffin] says: “That’s how we found it.” It’s a perfect line.

I’ve got kids and I want to leave this place better than I found it. I understand the frustration of young people. It’s going to be their world but they have no voice at the moment, so what have they got?

This play reflects that and the recent explosion of knife crime. It’s difficult to see how we’re going to get through it, we need strong leaders that I’m not sure we have at the moment.

MM: Watching the show I couldn’t help thinking how have we learnt so little that we’re in exactly the same place now? How much did that awareness influence the process of the production?

There were lots of challenges. We wanted to make it relevant and contemporary but the music, the dialogue, that hip fifties talk is not. At the time it was on the bleeding edge but it’s quaint now, it’s comforting for some people because of the nostalgia.

The language makes it hard for the show to be purely contemporary but the sense of belonging and protection both the Jets and Sharks get from being in a gang are the same; the inevitable consequences are the same; it all gets out of hand.

MM: I think about West Side Story, the film in particular, and you look at it now and it doesn’t feel dangerous. This production does. How has that been accomplished?

I think one of the strengths is the space itself. Being in the round, the audience is so close, that really helps the hot house environment. In some of the dances, you can feel their sweat, you’re in it.

Anything that happens, the violence, it’s visceral in there. Because I’ve worked in the Royal Exchange so much before, I suspected that would be a strength.

There was a sense that with new choreography, in this space, in this town, with this audience, this was going to be something special. We all felt a buzz about it from day one and my God, this company really worked.

There’s such a great generosity to the company, such a great work ethic. Every night everyone’s feeding back: this could be better or this could be better.

So much of the credit goes to Sarah [Frankcom], Aletta [Collins]. Jim Arnold who cast it too, he just got the right people in.

Some might think, ‘Oh it’s West Side, it will do itself,’ but it doesn’t. This team both on-stage and backstage is so special. That feeling is why it’s coming back next year. It’s popularity on a massive scale. 

MM: This is director Sarah Frankcom’s last show as the Royal Exchange’s artistic director. This is one hell of a send-off for her.

It’s an amazing send-off. I did the first play Sarah did here in the studio. There was this competition where the winning writer got to put on a low-budget version of their work in the studio. Sarah was working in the education department and wanted to direct, so she was given this show to put on.

The Royal Exchange needed someone like her: one voice, a female voice. She’s done some amazing things here like her Three Sisters.

If anyone says ‘let’s go see some Chekov,’ I’m usually a ‘no, seriously?’ But it was one of the most alive shows I’ve ever seen, it was brilliant.

She’s fabulous on texts and the dynamics of relationships, sub-text, all that great stuff and she’s applied the same approach she took to Chekov here. I was surprised to hear she was going.

MM: It’s quite a loss.

Yeah but it’s now an opportunity for someone else to take it on and that’s exciting to see what new people are going to do. I wonder who’ll take over.

Someone like Lemn Sissay, I don’t know if he wants the job, but he’d be a great appointment particularly for the grassroots. He’s lived through it: being working class, being of a different race. But not just that, his whole psychology is wonderful.

MM: Looking at your credits you essentially had a residency at the Royal Exchange. 

I did at the beginning but then from 2006, I went to London to work with some different people and it was necessary.

A lot of my contemporaries from drama school [Arden] went straight to London but I think it was a good decision for me. You can get lost in London when you’re new particularly if you haven’t gone through the drama school system there, the RADAs the LAMDAs.

It’s tough if you’re coming from Manchester and trying to make an impact in London but here, just being at drama school I made quite a few contacts like Sophie Marshall who was casting director at the Royal Exchange.

I’m eternally grateful to her. She got me my first professional job after following me all through drama school.

MM: What differences did you find in the scene up here and the scene in London?

There’s much more happening in London but I’m really excited about the future of Manchester with The Factory being built. You’ll hear people saying, ‘we don’t need another theatre in Manchester,’ but I think we do. I think we can’t get enough.

While I’ve been here, I’ve been to Hope Mill, The Lowry and JB Shorts. There’s great stuff happening here, there’s such potential. We can’t rest on it, let’s keep it growing and become a real northern powerhouse.

We need a strong fringe scene and a strong mainstream. We need places like HOME to really succeed and satellite theatres like Bolton Octagon and Oldham Coliseum we’ve got to make it even more vibrant up here rather than cutting.

MM: Are there any downsides to London?

It’s a very expensive town to live in. The culture is the best thing about living in London but it’s not cheap. On the West End, we’re talking hundreds of pounds for tickets. It’s excluding a lot of people. [National Theatre Lives] are not the same. We need to open theatres up to people who can’t afford it.

City life’s got to have a cultural heart that’s open to all or a city will end up becoming a cultural dessert. Without that, what’s feeding your soul?

MM: I moved here because of Manchester’s heart and it feels like there’s an exodus from London due to the cost, particularly by artists.

People are really starting to think about work-life balance. Where can I operate at my best? Sometimes that is not London because of the financial and psychological pressures of being there. A lot of people are getting out and moving back up here.

The BBC and the rise of Media City led that. Channel 4 going to Leeds, I wanted it here. It would fit and be part of this growing scene. Manchester’s not even begun to reach its potential and conditions are ripe for it. The vibrancy is here, the passion is here.

MM: I know you’re planning a trip to LA. What’s next for you? 

I’ve been so lucky. It sounds like you’re biting the hand that feeds, but the last five or six years I’ve been completely non-stop and it’s been brilliant but I want a break.

At the end of this will be a pause. I’ve got jobs lined up starting in August so this gives me a couple of months with some spare time.

I’ve also been doing theatre for the last five years and not any film or TV so I’m out of practice at the different technique needed.

Particularly the tour last year, I was doing War Horse in these huge venues and you try and fill them; you’re very heightened shall we say, and for TV it’s the exact opposite.

Sometimes I go into a casting and I’m being bigger and I don’t realise, so I really want to re-train myself, just take some classes in film technique again just to refresh my memory.

I was chatting to Nat [Payne], my agent, about it and she was saying: “Why don’t you combine a holiday in LA and take some classes while you’re out there?” She has contacts out there. The worst that can happen is I’ll have a great time.

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