An interview with James Martin Charlton, writer of REFORMATION

James was recently interview by MyTheatreMates. Please see the interview below. To see the original interview please visit

Where did the idea for Reformation come from?

I visited an exhibition of Cranach’s paintings in Berlin, focusing on the works he undertook for the Berlin royal family. The Rape of Lucrece was included, also portraits of some of the people who turned out to be my characters. I was intrigued by the amount of flesh on display in the “moral scenes.” At the same time as they ostensibly exist to teach the patron to be virtuous, they also provoke an erotic response. I was also struck by a sketch of Berlin with gallows on the outskirts. My characters and my story all grew from my encounter with these pictures.

How much did you know about Lucas Cranach before embarking on the piece?

Very little, aside from what I found out at the exhibition. I knew more about the Italian and Flemish painting of the time, but very little about the German Renaissance artists. This was a good excuse to find out more.

How much research did you have to do into the artist and the era?

I needed to do volumes of research, not only about Cranach but also Germany in that period. I was very intrigued to learn that Cranach was an arch-Protestant and friend to Martin Luther, but that he continued post-Reformation to undertake commissions from the Church and the Catholic nobles. It was a very febrile period, with those to proclaimed themselves as progressives battling those they saw as reactionaries. But the so-called progressives put their own peasants down violently. Kind of reminded me of my own times…

The play is about those who don’t make the history books – where does the line between fiction and reality lie in Reformation?

The characters without power – the peasants and servants – are invented. And I’ve also given the “real” characters personalities and peccadillos which are entirely speculative, because we don’t have biographies of these people, just accounts of what they did. I also took the liberty of pretending that Cranach used life models, which he probably did not, but it suits my dramatic purposes to have him do so. Plays are a bit like dreams – my mind takes in stuff, builds on it, and then comes up with some new creation.

Reformation tells a historical story. How is it relevant to today’s audience?

Although the play is ostensibly set many centuries ago, I try to find stories which could be relevant to people no matter when they lived, or where. The encounter between the powerful and the powerless, and being faced with having to do all sorts of things in order to survive – this is universal. But we need to confront the things which have vexed human beings forever. In doing so, we may find some strength to deal with our own personal versions of these situations.

How are you feeling about staging the production at the White Bear Theatre?

It’s great to be back. I’ve worked at the Bear, as writer or director, a number of times over the past 25 years. Michael Kingsbury, the artistic director, has always been enormously supportive. I am excited to be working for the first time in the refurbished space. The theatre and the pub are utterly transformed from the last time I worked there, on Coward. The space is perfect for the play, which is epic in the sense that it tells a big story, but intimate in the sense that the story plays out in as a series of very private scenes. It’s like the audience members are in the same space as these people facing profound temptations, threats and decisions.

What can audiences expect from the show?

To be entertained, I hope! And moved, intrigued, perhaps disturbed. My theatre has always been about finding a theatrical language – visual and verbal – which is unique to the play, and not quite like anything people have seen before.