It centres on three friends whose bonds are stretched to breaking point, then mended, against a backdrop of dancing, jostling, unwelcome male attention, and debates over activism and gentrification. I first saw it at Battersea’s new writing haven Theatre503, and loved it - feeling it deserved a bigger audience, without having much faith that the staid and gridlocked West End would make room for it.
Two years later, J’Ouvert is playing the Harold Pinter Theatre, and has been filmed by the BBC. Its director Rebekah Murrell said that “early on in the pandemic, Yasmin and I talked about whether theatres would respond by closing their ranks to new voices and relying on what they thought would be more commercially successful. So it’s really gratifying to see producers being bolder than ever.”
J'Ouvert in performance. Photo: Helen Murray
Producer Sonia Friedman has brought J’Ouvert to the West End alongside brand new play Walden, and small-scale show Anna X - they’re all female-led stories that respond to the world as it is now. But J’Ouvert feels especially urgent. For Murrell, its carnival spirit is extra necessary right now, when people are prevented from gathering, but also because there’s something carnivalesque about the weirdness of the pandemic, where normal patterns and rules are questioned and broken down. “In the Caribbean origins of Carnival, it's a time where the normal social order is flipped on its head, a time where the worker can wear the boss’s clothes and act like a complete reprobate. And the point of it is that you view the world differently when you come back to normal.”
In the context of the theatre industry, that means doing things differently, and reexamining its stubbornly white-dominated power structures. “How can we possibly go back to the way things were before?” says Murrell. “J’Ouvert opened the same night as seven methods of killing kylie jenner at the Royal Court, as well as and breathe... at the Almeida, and that feels really exciting, that all these new writers have very rightly been given the platform and the space to share their work.”
Although studio theatres have a distinct power all of their own, Rebekah Murrell feels that a big West End stage is just what J’Ouvert needs.
“I did a workshop during lockdown, and someone described it so perfectly. He said that studio spaces are great for intimate plays where the ideas turn inwards, and larger sort of spaces are good for plays where the ideas spiral outwards, and upwards. I worried we’d lose something by taking this play to a massive stage, but actually, the heart of this play just wants to sing outwards and upwards.”
The new venue also makes way for live music. “In the original script, there was a DJ who was part of the world. We couldn’t manage to sort that out for the Theatre 503 run. But now we've got a brilliant DJ called Zuyane Russell, who’s seven months pregnant, and she actually works on a carnival trap, as well - she's wicked.”
Having a live DJ helps build the sense that this isn’t a standard sit-down-and-shut-up West End show. “We’ve had rowdy, amazing people come along,” says Murrell. “I love it when the audience really get involved and cheer and encourage our actors, you can see how much energy it gives them. You're giving people the permission to free up themselves, you know, after this year of frickin rules - sorry, the rules have been good and kept us all safe - but you know, after all that, it just feels like a tiny slice of actually coming together to be free.”
Now, as J’Ouvert gets West End crowds dancing in their seats, Murrell is working on another side of her career - she’s currently in rehearsals to play the leading role of Juliet opposite Alfred Enoch, in Ola Ince’s production of Romeo & Juliet at Shakespeare’s Globe. It’s pretty rare for someone to be simultaneously starring in one high-profile show, while directing another one, but as Murrell explains, the acting and the directing sides of her career have both developed together. “It’s just happened organically. I quit my job at a charity a few years ago, with the idea of becoming a director. And I’d always acted too, so I naturally fell back into step with that. I just want to serve a project in whatever way I can, if that makes sense.”
Rebekah Murrell in rehearsals for Romeo & Juliet. Photo: Marc Brenner
Murrell explains that she has a “really special working relationship” with Yasmin Joseph, which has only deepened during lockdown. Joseph was commissioned by the Retired Caribbean Nurses Association to create a play based on their stories, and Murrell found it working on it was a source of real inspiration. “They are literally like the most badass group of women actually organising, actually doing the work. And the play only became more relevant because we were seeing the frankly murderous rate at which black and brown people working in the NHS were dying. The piece ended up being performed online, and it was probably one of the most moving things I’ve ever done.”
J’Ouvert has also become even more poignant in light of recent events: “So often, the real world and the story world kind of converge in this mystical way that no one quite understands,” says Murrell. “J’Ouvert feels different in light of the ongoing Grenfell inquiry, which is a massive kind of silent, beating heart of this play, because we’re missing carnival, in the sense that we don’t know when life will get back to normal… it feels like a real moment of suspension.” As things hang in balance, J’Ouvert feels like a vital way to interrogate the past and look to a brighter, freer future.
J'Ouvert is on at Harold Pinter Theatre until 3rd July. Book tickets here