An Interview With Jelena Budimir – The Talented Director Of Beast On The Moon

BEAST On The Moon has received rave reviews since opening at the Finborough Theatre in London at the end of January. With the play drawing to a close on February 23, Close-up Culture caught up with talented director Jelena Budimir.

Q: You must be delighted with the reception Beast On The Moon has received from critics – and those lucky enough to have seen the play? How did the play come your way – and how did it then end up at the wonderful Finborough?

A: WHEN Neil [Neil McPherson, artistic director at the Finborough] and I started talking about me returning to the Finborough, we batted plays back and forth. Suggestions from me, from Sanna-Karina Aab who I have set up All Ignite Theatre with, and suggestions from him. Neil and his team have a huge number of plays that they have read and catalogued over the years that they think are of interest. He sent over some for us to read and I came across Beast On The Moon.

So, I have the Finborough to thank for putting this great play my way. When I read it, I thought I had discovered an unknown gem. It wasn’t long before I realised it had been done in twenty countries, including five years at the National Theatre of Estonia – Sanna’s home town – and I was a bit of a Jenny-come-lately!

Q: In this germination process, did you meet with Richard Kalinoski?

A: NO. I spoke to Richard on the phone. Partly, to make sure we could get the rights – a fifty-seat theatre might not be the best prospect when your play is part of the repertoire of the Moscow Arts Theatre! I was able to reassure him that the Finborough packed a surprisingly big punch. He was very generous – and told me about the genesis of the play and his experiences. We were then thrilled- though a little nervous – when he came over from Wisconsin to see the show.

Again, he was very sensitive to what was going on. He arrived at the tech, came to the second preview and then the press night – so there was no chance for the show to bed in. He was very kind in his comments about our production.


Q: How did you go about casting Zarima McDermott and George Jovanovic as Seta and Aram respectively? Zarima’s performance is quite extraordinary – her transformation from a nervous (non-stop talking and inquisitive) child when she first meets Aram to the confident woman she is at the end.

A: I SAW quite a few actors for both parts, all very good. I knew that I wanted to cast the characters as young-looking – it felt important that the opening scene showed two vulnerable teenagers who don’t really know what they are doing. One trying to follow in his father’s footsteps without the lived experience, and the other almost bemused that she is alive. This was important so the audience doesn’t think she ended up with a brute. I saw in both these actors the ability to make a journey, both in age and emotions.

Zarima and George have a brilliant capacity to find the nuance of the characters. The whole audition process is nuts really. You are trying to make a massive decision which will affect your play on a 20 to 30 minute meeting. I think that my time at Chickenshed [North London] has given me an instinct to really look at what the potential is in people – and to take risks. It can be a bit scary sometimes, but it usually pays off – though with such big parts as these, I take the responsibility very seriously to make sure I haven’t got it wrong.

Q: Were you true to Richard’s words? Or did you have to make compromises or edits – for example in light of the Finborough’s constricted space?

A: I changed very little – I think it’s a really finely-tuned play. I might have been tempted to have a prune of some of the long speeches, but I knew Richard was coming over! And they work. Once Sarah Booth [set and costume design] decided to go for a minimalist setting that emphasised the objects of the play – she’s done a lovely design, I love it – there didn’t feel like there was a compromise.

This was then so beautifully enhanced by Matt Cater and Joe Dines, with their lovely lighting and sound design, I really felt lucky to have such a great team. I hadn’t realised how many props there were in the show! Again, I was lucky in having a fantastic stage management team in Anuska Zaremba-Pike and Liv Page who kept us on track with that, not to mention providing all the stew and cake.

Q: The decision to cast Hayward B Morse as both narrator and the young boy he was when he first met Seta and Aram was a brave one. What was the reasoning behind this and do you think it works?

A: WELL, I’m not going to say it didn’t! As ever, I agonised over this for some while. I knew there would be benefits to seeing a twelve-year-old on stage, but there is something poignant about seeing someone older playing their younger self. As, people get older, they seem to remember so clearly the things that shaped them as children.

Also, I don’t generally like narrators and so it made the part of the Gentleman work better for me. And of course, Hayward has done both parts beautifully – it was a delight to see Vincent emerging in rehearsal.

Q: Although the tale’s backdrop is the terrible genocide committed against the Armenians in the late 1910s, this is as much a play about redemption, healing and the American dream. Do you agree?

A: ABSOLUTELY. That is the beauty of the play – that it has so much that is universal. It tells us about a certain time, but so many of those things have great relevance and resonance in today’s world. This is one of the reasons I was attracted to the play – there is still so much displacement of people in the world, families having to flee terrible situations.

Q: How many times have you watched the play? And are you a good watcher or you are constantly finding fault or wanting to fine-tune?

A: I’VE watched it lots – I’m enjoying it. Also, I have a lot of supportive friends who have come to see it, so I quite like catching up with them. Putting together a project like this has taken me out of circulation a bit. A production is such a fragile thing. It can shift quite easily, sometimes for the better as it beds in, but sometimes the emphasis can change, or slow, or be glided over.

The cast are very tolerant of my notes, which let’s face it are usually ones I’ve given before! They also have the care that all good actors have in trying to bring the very best performance forward every night.

Q: Does the play have a life post Finborough? And how hard is it to leave a play ‘behind’ – especially after it has been successful?

A: WELL, I’m always hopeful. It’s quite hard to place where it would work best. I think a theatre the size of the Donmar or Almeida would be lovely, but I don’t think that’s about to happen. We are looking to see if we can get interest in Manchester, Cardiff and Dublin, where there are Armenian communities and interest. But I think we will probably put it to bed, if a little reluctantly, on February 23.

White Guy On The Bus – my previous production at the Finborough – was very exciting and it looked like it was going to transfer to the Trafalgar Studios in London. We did a lot of work getting interest from regional theatre, but then it didn’t happen. So, I’m aware much more of what is needed to take plays forward. This experience did mean that Sanna and I (we met just before WGOTB went into rehearsal) set up All Ignite Theatre.

Q: Beast On The Moon is your second triumph at the Finborough – the White Guy on the Bus was much heralded by critics (including Close-up Culture). Do you have any plans for the hat-trick?

A: IT is very nice of you to describe them in those words. I was a little worried that Beast On The Moon might slip into a ‘second play syndrome’ – of not quite matching up. I’m so pleased it has been as successful. I have no plans for the next one, but its early days. I’m sure I will be starting to have conversations soon.


Q: What’s next on your agenda?

A: I AM directing a reading at Soho Theatre – Severed by Kathryn O’Reilly – which I’m looking forward to very much. I really think the play has legs. It’s an industry read and we’re hopeful it will gain some attention. Then there are a few projects we want to put into development, which are just ideas at the moment. But I would like to create some new material – I like working with actors and writers workshopping and then devising new work.

Q: Any desire to return to acting?

A: I HAVE not really left it. I just haven’t been doing it for a while. I have needed to concentrate on developing the directing side of my career since leaving Chickenshed.

Now, given I am working with a great producer in Sanna, I won’t have to spend so much time producing. I am hoping to have greater freedom to work both as an actor and director.

Q: Two final thoughts. Any thoughts on the Chickenshed – a theatre close to your heart – which is still doing some fantastic productions? And secondly, the importance of fringe theatre – are we doing enough to sustain fringe theatre in this country?

A: CHICKENSHED was an amazing place to work. There is no other theatre that works with such a diversity of people and therefore opens up so many creative possibilities. I feel like I carry that experience with me and I’m very grateful to have had such a long association with the company.

That nicely brings me onto fringe theatre, I think there is some great work happening, but the lack of money is hard which means we are more likely to work with small casts and can’t offer as many opportunities to actors who aren’t ‘traditional’. If somewhere like the Finborough had a subsidy as a building, they could provide the theatre free which would enable more money to get to the actors and creatives rather than them having to subsidise the work.

It would also mean there could be more support for actors from a variety of backgrounds. If we want fringe to be the kiln in which we develop new ways of working we need to have more public funding.

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