A Farewell to Arms – In conversation with Jude Monk McGowan

Imitating the Dog (ITD) has been creating and touring original performance work since 1998. Pete Brooks, Andrew Quick and Simon Wainwright are the Artistic Directors and their work has built a company with a unique reputation in the UK, Europe and internationally.

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Imitating the Dog creates outstanding work that challenges and connects with audiences, tests theatrical conventions and brings high-end design, technical and thematic ambition to audiences at small and medium-scales.
In their current production ‘A Farewell to Arms’, the team at ITD have adapted Ernest Hemingway’s novel originally published in 1929 and created a theatrical experience for audiences across the UK.

Manchester’s Finest got to talk to the production’s protagonist Frederic Henry played by Jude Monk McGowan just before he was to take to the stage for his second performance of the day.

In adoration of his current role as well as the contemporary technical techniques used by ITD to deliver an experience to an audience, McGowan talks of preparation, passion and the importance of the past.

There’s been a rise in historical drama, and its popularity not only comes down to the retelling of history but also the idea of romance and relationships set against this backdrop.

How do you feel when playing a role within this environment?

It’s a really fascinating challenge, and as you say, it’s something we look at often to make sense of history, the utilisation of love and its stories to make sense of the past.

We try to make it as evocative as possible so we have battlegrounds and explosions so it is a challenge – absolutely.

Its key, I feel, is to make it as interesting and as unique as possible because we’re over saturated with these stories, and certainly, the way we articulate the narrative is very unique to Imitating the Dog.
It’s a smorgasbord of film and theatre which makes the experience unique as we utilise sound footage from the First World War and have an exceptional score as well a great sound scape.

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We try to make it as evocative as possible so we have battlegrounds and explosions so it is a challenge – absolutely.

It’s how we articulate the story not the playing of the character – how we collectively tell this story, especially now we’re looking back to the first Great War and the events that precipitated the second.

It’s such a rich production – from the word go I was excited; I wasn’t intimidated or overawed by it, I was just very excited.

Do you feel the age of the literature works with the contemporary stage and modern ideas of the creators?

We’re so saturated by these historic images so to just merely do it in a perfunctory way without the use of projection and the soundscape and the evocative score just wouldn’t be enough.

The backdrop to the piece is incredibly impressive and I like to think it’s done with taste and a certain finesse which means it’s open to the audience to have quite a unique experience.

This is the first time you’ve worked with Imitating the Dog. Was it the role that enticed you or the company itself?

It was both.
When I received the breakdown I did some research on the book because I wasn’t as familiar with this one as I was with other Hemingway novels; and instantly found the role fascinating because this is one of his most biographical roles, his trajectory. It’s a real journey for Fred, this loss of innocence; he’s quite a Greek Tragic character.

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The book is actually incredibly formulaic. It’s written in a very tight formula and he’s tempting the fates, and, like when any hero tempts the fates, he’s ultimately doomed.

It’s said that ‘A Farwell to Arms’, is autobiographical. Do you feel the pressure of not only playing a role in an adaptation of a great novel but also the pressure of playing the man himself?

It’s the richest character I’ve had the opportunity to play – it didn’t feel like a burden in that respect.

I really wanted to give a great sense of the nuance and the pain in the character. That was really the only pressure I felt – I wasn’t overawed by being Hemingway but being a crucial part in our collective history.

Does the character resonate with you in anyway? Or has the plot affected the way you play the role of Fred?
He’s very cynical when we meet him he’s not very easy to like, he’s out to drink wine and seduce women and have a good time.
And then he falls in love and he has to desert from the army, which is a huge moral conundrum for him, especially as America are about to join the war – so he could be shot or treated as a traitor; he’s had to make a choice, and it’s the choice ultimately that will define him.

What process do you put yourself through when developing and playing a role?

I research as much as I can around the era to get a sense of the time and what it would have been like to be a young American living at the turn of the 20th century.

It’s easy to research Hemingway because there’s so much written about him – it was fascinating to research him.
He released this in 1929, the crash was about to happen and his Dad had killed himself and everyone knew there was going to be another war, so much of Europe was in disarray, so many revolutions and obviously Hitler was just about to take power in Germany. So I had to sink myself in to that level of research.

I also read the book a number of times, which always helps as the basis of my research.

There were two film adaptations of the book – did you watch either in preparation?

I did, I had a great drama teacher at school who always said if you watch films then you’ll just end up doing an impersonation of the actor meaning you’re not an actor, you should be able to watch a film and interpret the role in your own way. But I’ve never been afraid of doing that so I watched both the Carrie Grant and Rock Hudson versions.
But they were so oddly camp and almost deny the reality of the situation – it was obviously a different time and people certainly tended to internalise the trauma that they’d experienced over the Great War. But we know that most soldiers go through huge stress mentally and physically. So, when both films ended, neither actors’ performances gave any semblance of what it would have been like to have fought in the Great War or to have participated in it.

So it wasn’t difficult looking at their performance and thinking that it wasn’t how I would exactly do it or what I think is interesting.

Once adapted for film, the studios fought over the ending from 47 versions. Without giving too much away do you feel that the ending chosen by the creative team of ITD was the best one, and why?
Yes absolutely – absolutely.

As I’ve said, it’s such a well-structured piece, so everything about it is geared towards the ending and Hemingway obviously wrote the one we’ve gone with.

It’s quite interesting that there are so many possible endings but when a writer knocks up a novel there are multiple ways of interpreting every single sentence not just an ending.

As an audience member what is it about this production that would appeal to you?
I think it depends on your age primarily, maybe social circumstance, but tragedy is often a great unifier and the First World War is one that coloured my own family.
But this isn’t a look at the First World War from a British perspective but an Italian one, so this is obviously why we go to Italy because they participated on the side of the allies in the First World War.
And it’s also a love story which of course enables the factor of unifying an audience and its characters through hope, optimism and anticipation.

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