John Lennon’s short stories adapted for the stage for the first time since 1968
When actor Jonathan Glew was a humble and hungry student at the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts, he stumbled across a bizarre book of short stories in a second hand bookshop. That book was the start of a wild love affair that would see him perform the work in its entirety at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe 18 years later.
The collection of stories in question is the little known In His Own Write, by none other than John Lennon. And the show of the same name made its world premiere at the Fringe this summer, presented by Baldynoggin Productions, directed by Jonathan Glew.
While 2015 marks no special anniversary of the work, Glew decided to make it this year for purely personal reasons. He says: “I found the book when I was 20 and knew it would be great for a stage adaptation, but I was in no position then to do anything about it. It was only towards the end of last year that I decided it was make or break: I either did the show or I threw the book away”.
The journey begins
It all started with a letter to the lawyers representing John Lennon’s estate – a worthy work of literature in its own right by the time Glew had finished tinkering it. He admits that it took him three weeks to craft, as he was keen to convey how he didn’t want to impersonate, make any statements, or use Lennon’s name for his personal gain, but simply to present the work faithfully and in full. Easier said than done. “I knew that they must receive countless requests everyday, so it was really important for me to let them know I was in it for the right reasons and to do the book justice”.
After a couple of weeks he got his first response from Attorney Jonas Herbsman, and the dialogue began. Glew continues: “I reiterated my position, and how my approach to present the work as part of the Free Fringe was testament to my not wanting to make a profit from it. I answered their questions, and tried to focus on the artistic aspect – how I just wanted to represent the work in full to see if it would resonate with an audience”.
After that, more waiting, until just after Christmas he got the news he had been hoping for: “I was completely elated – but then when I looked at the book again and it was like I had never read it, as I was looking at it in a completely new light. There are references to old news headlines and outdated language, and I started to worry about how I could make the book ‘live’ for a 21st century audience”.
Glew got straight to work, enlisting actor friends to assist him with reading and staging the piece. He even tried to get in touch with various people that had influenced or shaped the book: its original illustrator, Robert Freeman, and publisher Tom Maschler from Jonathan Cape. And despite what could be seen as huge pressure to present the work by someone so famous, last seen at the National Theatre in 1968, Glew took it all in his stride: “I got my team together and we worked through it slowly, making sure to be as faithful to the book as possible. The amount of serendipity within the creative process was just beautiful”.
Glew admits that yes, he did watch a first edition recording of the original National Theatre production, but in no way did he try to copy it: “Theirs was hugely different to what I wanted to do with it. They presented two pieces (In His Own Write and its sequel A Spaniard in the Works) as a bit of a mash up, and used the performance to make a broader comment about childhood and growing up at the time. But I didn’t want to say anything, rather let the work speak for itself”.
Making the dream a reality
However, aside from developing a theatrical adaptation that Yoko Ono would be proud of (an idea that terrified Glew 18 years earlier), his biggest challenges lay in the production side – just how do you get a show to the Fringe?
He started by launching a Kickstarter campaign to fund the basics like travel and accommodation for the company. He revealed, though, that crowdfunding was “one of the most stressful things in my life” as he felt like he asked everyone he had ever known to contribute. He was perhaps helped in his mission by a tweet about his project from Yoko Ono herself to her 4.7 million followers – certainly not something that happens every day! Thankfully, he raised enough money to develop the show and bring it to Edinburgh without any more worries. Or so he thought.
If all the world’s a stage…
Finding a venue proved to be the biggest challenge of them all. After an application to one of the free venue groups with what he thought would be a sure-fire hit, and a tantalising six week wait for a response, Glew was told in no uncertain terms that he couldn’t be guaranteed a slot, and he started to panic. With time ticking away, he then used his personal network of contacts to come up with a Plan B and get in touch directly with Peter Buckley Hill, who manages the PBH Free Fringe. After pitching his show and his predicament, Buckley Hill responded in less than 20 minutes with an offer of one of the largest performance spaces on the free circuit. He even signed off his email as “Arnold” as a tip of the hat to John Lennon and his work. “I owe PBH a lot, they really saved me”, says Glew.
Now Glew and his production are here, performing to very healthy crowds, and garnering a fair amount of press attention, is it mission accomplished? “It’s been a fantastic experience and I’d love to take this even further. As soon as we finish the run in Edinburgh, I’ll be putting a report together for the John Lennon estate, including some ideas of where I’d like to see the piece go next. I can’t make any detailed plans though, as they may say the project has come to the end of the road, but fingers crossed.” Luckily Glew already has his next acting project lined up though, at the National Theatre no less, but he’ll be back at the Fringe before long, in one guise or another.
In His Own Write is showing at The Voodoo Rooms daily (17.10, 1hr) until 30th August.