An Actor's Life: Jack Monaghan

An Actor's Life: Jack Monaghan

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Jack Monaghan (Billy Prior in Regeneration) talks about playing a character with shell shock, a love for maths and the highs and lows of touring...

You play Billy Prior in Regeneration. What attracted you to the role?

I read Pat Barker’s book a few years ago and remember being attracted at that time to this brilliantly drawn bundle of conflicted energy. He is full of opposing ideas - he hates the class distinctions he finds in the trenches, but he also says he didn’t enjoy his working class life before the war, he has this insatiable sexual appetite but disdains the desires of others, he is pulling himself in all different directions. He is strong, sarcastic, witty, and confident - who wouldn’t be attracted to that? 

You play a patient with a form of shell shock that would now be diagnosed as PTSD. How did you approach playing a character that may have been based on experiences of real-life soldiers from WW1?

I tried to expose myself to as much about the war as I could; but humbly, knowing our generation could never get close to comprehending the experience of those one hundred years distant. In his declaration, Sassoon declares that the people at home ‘do not have sufficient imagination to realise’ the agonies suffered by the troops. A century later and I am sure the gulf between us and them is ever wider.

I watched the BBC Great War series from the 60s to try to get a general overview and because it was full of footage from the time, and interviews with those who had served. Then I read and re-read Pat Barker’s trilogy, mining the books for any clues about Prior and his mental afflictions. Pat Barker’s book is incredibly well researched, so provided a real strong backbone to inform the play. Finally, I found some incredibly evocative first-hand accounts of experiences of war. There was one that stuck in my mind, it was called ‘The Attack’ by Richard H Tawney. Tawney was a Sergeant in the infantry during WW1 and describes going 'over the top’ on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. His account is full of surprising beauty amid the carnage and his description of his joy at having not let his men down was so close to Prior’s experience that it felt like I’d found what Captain Rivers would call a window into Prior's mind.



How did you learn your craft?

I was very lucky to have a whole range of brilliant teachers when I was younger. I joined my local drama club when I was at secondary school and it is entirely thanks to Colin Ward, our really inspirational director there, that I ended up working as an actor. I did a whole range of shows in my home town of Mossley near Manchester and then carried on acting at college and university. But I’ve still got lots to learn and there are so many brilliantly talented actors in this cast that, watching them, I have a revelation about how I can be better at my job as an almost daily occurrence.

What’s the most interesting thing you’ve learned from working on Regeneration?

There have been some incredibly interesting discussions in rehearsals. That the electro-therapy seen in the show is in no way fictionalised was a horrible discovery. That the government were worried about homosexuality among the soldiers was also something that I had never thought about before, and Pat Barker’s second book in the trilogy - ‘The Eye in the Door’ - explores this in detail. Seeing the process that Wilfred Owen went through to come up with his poems was also of great interest: it made his genius less mysterious to see that he went through all those drafts and didn’t just arrive at those stunning phrases in fifteen minutes.

I’ve also learnt a lot of very pretentious-sounding acting stuff but I’m not going to tell you about that.

We’ve heard you’re quite the mathematician. Was it a hard decision to decide between pursing that and being an actor?

Wading through streams of mind-numbingly complicated algebra in front of a lonely computer screen for sixty hours a week, or dressing up in silly clothes, pretending to be smarter and wittier than you are for a couple of hours a night, and people applauding you for doing it? No, it wasn’t a hard decision.

But in reality, I never actually decided. This is just what I’m doing now. I do miss academia. I’ve thought about it a lot on this tour and in a few years time, I’d like to go back and do a masters. 

What’s the best bit about being on tour?

The best bit is seeing all the new places and getting to explore all over the UK. That and the free booze on opening night.

…and the worst?

The food. It’s really rare to get a kitchen while on tour and I love cooking. You end up eating out a lot, or living off microwave meals and take aways. No fun. 

In a parallel universe, what would you be doing if you weren’t an actor?

I’d like to think that I’d be a gardener for a national trust castle somewhere wild and stormy. I’d live in a hut and grow a big beard and smoke a pipe.

Why should people come and see Regeneration?

This show has so many ideas to start you off thinking - it’s like brain food. It’ll lead you down some paths in your own head that you’ve not been down before. 


Regeneration premiered on 2 September 2014 (previews from 29 August) at Royal & Derngate, Northampton, where it continues until 20 September 2014. It then tours to York, Edinburgh, Bradford, Nottingham, Cheltenham, Richmond, Wolverhampton, Darlington and Blackpool where it concludes on 29 November.