New Dawn Fades – The Story Of Joy Division is a new play – currently running at The Liverpool Epstein Theatre and touring nationwide – by writer/actor Brian Gorman telling the classic tale of four lads who, inspired by the punk revolution, came together to form one of the most influential bands of all time. Here the writer talks to Chris High about the play and the legacy of Ian Curtis the man and the singer.
When did you first discover Joy Division and Ian Curtis?
Only around 6 years ago, to be honest! I grew up in Wigan in the 1970s, in a very non-communicative family, with a dad who hated ‘modern music’. He blamed everything on The Beatles! Consequently, the only music I heard at home as a child was stuff by Jim Reeves, Nat King Cole, and the like. I was a big film fan, and collected second hand film soundtracks, especially John Barry. I loved downbeat, melancholic sounds, and John Barry was the master! I loved New Order in the 80s, and was vaguely aware they came from another band. But it was only around 2010 when I was researching for a graphic novel on the history of Manchester and Salford, that I came across footage of Ian Curtis on You Tube. I was blown away! I found his performance both disturbing and (initially) hilarious. I bought the two studio albums, Unknown Pleasures and Closer, and they became my favourite band (previously, that honour had gone to Duran Duran and U2!).
The title of the play is taken from a song on the Unknown Pleasures album. There are a lot of emotive Joy Division songs, so why this one in particular?
The first title was simply ‘The Story Of Joy Division’, then ‘True Realities’ (from a line in ‘Dead Souls’, my favourite JD song). I settled on New Dawn Fades because it just sounded right, is a great song, and says everything about the themes I wanted to explore in the play – every new dawn eventually fades, but life goes on, things are in constant flux, changing, evolving.
Anthony H Wilson is the narrator of New Dawn Fades, played by Lee Joseph. How difficult was it to cast such an enigmatic character as Wilson to play alongside Michael Whitaker who plays Curtis?
Very difficult indeed! We were incredibly lucky with Lee, although I initially thought he had no chance of creating a believable Tony Wilson. He proved me utterly wrong. Lee doesn’t copy Wilson, or Steve Coogan’s famous interpretation in ’24 Hour Party People’. But, he channels the spirit, the energy, and the charisma of ‘Mr Manchester’, and creates a unique character. Rowetta from the Happy Mondays came to see our first ever performance in 2013, above The Lass O’Gowrie pub in Manchester – in a tiny, hot room that held just 32 audience members; including John Robb – and she was in tears at the end. She loved Lee’s interpretation of her late friend, and that was a tremendously satisfying endorsement. We have to be very careful when portraying real-life people.
How long did the process of creating New Dawn Fades take for you to put together?
Phew. Here we go. I wrote and drew a 140 page graphic novel, that was advertised for publication, by Simon & Schuster, in 2012. Due to some confusing rights issues, it wasn’t published, so I decided to turn it into a stage play. In 2013 we scheduled the premiere for Ian Curtis’ birthday (15th July) at the Greater Manchester Fringe Festival. And here we are now, on a national tour!
Joy Division released only two studio albums, Unknown Pleasures and Closer, a title which could be taken one of two ways, homophonically, and there first and arguably biggest hit – Love Will Tear Us Apart¬ – came weeks following Curtis’ death. How do you think he would have viewed chart success?
I believe he would have wanted chart success, and to have the freedom (financially) to create ever more unique material. I don’t think he would have wanted the media intrusion, or the pressure to become bigger and bigger (e.g. U2). I like to think he would have established himself, and the band, and then become a writer/poet, etc. It’s very difficult to guess what would have become of him, and we’re grateful for the light that burnt so brightly, yet for so short a time.
The play has been on the road and receiving rave reviews. What has been the most rewarding / exciting / surprising aspects of the experience?
The fact that audiences get it! It’s not a ‘jukebox musical’ or a tribute band. It’s a play, exploring Curtis’ view of life, through his enigmatic lyrics. I was initially unsure of including so much historical detail in the play, but my idea was to plant seeds early in the narrative, and for those seeds to grow in the audience’s minds, and come to fruition right at the very end. A major benefit of the great reviews, and audience feedback, is that our amazing cast and crew are finally being rewarded for all their hard work and dedication. We’ve worked long and hard, and our hearts are in this.
His work with the Civil Service and particularly that which brought him into contact with the disabled, is clearly something that brought Curtis a lot of satisfaction. He also read a lot of political authors and philosophers which inspired the music and lyrics he created. Is there anybody that you would compare him to?
Good question. He’s a pretty unique figure, but he had that questioning, curious approach to life that many of my ‘heroes’ have. He was intrigued by people, and desperate to understand the human condition.
There isn’t a lot of “joy” in Joy Division’s work – even the name of the band comes from a Nazi prostitution wing of a concentration camp – so what can an audience expect from the play?
There are a lot of laughs in this play, and I was particularly careful not to just concentrate on the gloomy aspects of the story. The audience will see a group of young people, getting a band together, but also having some good times. There are a lot of supporting characters (Pete Shelley, Gus Gangrene, Frederich Engels, Derek Brandwood, Roger Eagle, etc.). Sean Mason plays around 8 characters, and is a superb actor, who steals nearly every scene he’s in (his Paul Morley is a masterstroke, and the audiences are in fits whenever he pops up). Of course, there is a tragic end to the band, but there is also optimism, and the D.I.Y. spirit of punk, that brings the light filtering through the shutters. I wanted this play/story to be both intimate and epic at the same time.
What do you think the legacy of Ian Curtis and Joy Division has been and will continue to be?
The songs are nearly all classics. They also echo the unique soul of Ian Curtis and the band members. Like many great bands, they were greater than the sum of their parts. Curtis’ enigmatic lyrics will continue to intrigue, baffle, and inspire for many years to come.
If there was one question about his music that you would like to ask Ian Curtis, what would it be?
I would ask him if he found the answers he sought.
New Dawn Fades is at The Epstein Theatre, Liverpool, until April 9th. For Tickets: http://www.epsteinliverpool.co.uk/whats-on.aspx