Yuppie Days Are Here Again; Theatre Director Joss Bennathan Makes Classics Sexy. He's Has Brought Ben Jonson Up to Date, Mixing Karl and Groucho Marx along the Way

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HEARD the one about the school dropout who became a comedian, an Ofsted inspector and a theatre director who sexes up the classics? Step forward Joss Bennathan, a man of so many parts that he was a married father-of-two by the age of 20, an academic 10 years later, a teacher of deprived children, a writer of textbooks and an absurdly youthful schools inspector by his mid-thirties.

The 43-year-old natural son of the Marxist historian Professor Eric Hobsbawm, he has made a career out of doing things differently. A paler version of Jeff Goldblum with the same sculptable head and bugeyed intensity, the 6ft 4in Joss used to win over East End classes of 11-year-olds by putting on his shades and pretending to be a vampire. That kind of lateral thinking and instinct for crowd control led to a spell at an improvisational comedy club and then a season of scriptwriting last summer for Paul Merton's Radio 4 series Late, produced by Merton's girlfriend and Bennathan's old university chum Sarah Parkinson. All good teachers, he explains, are performers at heart.

Not to mention directors, too.

Three years ago, impatient at the way period plays were forever being dulled down, Joss formed his own theatre company, Present Moment. After staging Wycherley's The Country Wife on a catwalk and Tourneur's The Revenger's Tragedy as a black-and-white B-movie, he's about to give Ben Jonson's The Alchemist a kick up the Eighties. The Jacobean satire has been set in the early yuppie days of Docklands, with music by the Pet Shop Boys and influences ranging from American Psycho to the New York Dolls.

"Jonson wrote about what people will do for money, sex and power. It's a plate-spinning farce with a moral purpose, with a political point," explains Joss midway through rehearsals in which he has been persuading his leading lady to scream like Kate Bush and her Barry White-shaped co-star to glide across the stage like a love god.

His interpretation resembles a cross between Groucho and Karl Marx, which brings us to the family connection Joss would prefer to play down - partly out of discretion and partly out of "vanity". …


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