20 Questions WithÖRay Fearon
Date: 16 February 2004
Actor Ray Fearon, who opens this week in World Music at the Donmar Warehouse, talks about the goodness of the RSC, the demise of regional rep & the shocking historical truth about the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.
After drama school and cutting his teeth in regional repertory, actor Ray Fearon joined the Royal Shakespeare Company, where he worked regularly for ten years.
His many RSC credits, in Stratford-upon-Avon and London, include Murder in the Cathedral, The Merchant of Venice, Troilus and Cressida, Don Carlos, Moby Dick and The White Devil as well as title roles in Romeo and Juliet, Othello and, most recently, Pericles.
Elsewhere, Fearon has appeared on stage in Venice Preserved, Blues for Mr Charlie, Loveís Labourís Lost, Cloud Nine, School for Scandal and The Tempest.
Fearonís films include Harry Potter and the Philosopherís Stone, Clandestine Marriage and Hamlet, while, on television, heís been seen in Keen Eddie, Waking the Dead, The Life and Times of Shakespeare, As If, EastEnders, Band of Gold, Brothers and Sisters and Prime Suspect amongst other programmes.
This week, Fearon opens at the Donmar Warehouse in the London premiere of World Music, Steve Watersí new play about the troubled and bloody relationship between Africa and Europe.
Date & place of birth
I was born in London, in Park Royal, but I donít really want to say when if thatís okay.
Rose Bruford College of Speech and Drama.
Lives now inÖ
I have a London flat in Wimbledon and a house in Warwick, where my six-year-old daughter lives.
First big break
I donít know. I suppose Iíve had lots of great breaks really. Iíve been at the RSC for ten years, Iíve done lots of TV. But I donít actually consider them as breaks. Iíve just been lucky and grateful to keep working, and the work has gotten better all the time.
Career highlights to date
My daughter being born was my lifeís highlight. In terms of my career, playing Romeo at the RSC was a big highlight. The season before that, I played one of the lead characters in The White Devil. And I played Othello. They were all huge things. After that, did quite a bit of TV, and I was in Harry Potter. Itís hard to single things out because theyíve all been very good in their way. I donít think Iíve done anything rubbish. Itís just great playing the parts and working with the companies.
Richard McCabe did The White Devil with me and he played Iago to my Othello. Heís a great person and we had a terrific partnership. Nigel Hawthorne was fantastic on the film of Clandestine Marriage. I also enjoyed working with Kenneth Branagh on the film of Hamlet - heís a very very nice man Ė and with Helen Mirren. These are just names people might know.
The RSC in general has been very good to me. My last production there was Pericles, which I did for a year and a half, and I had a great time with Adrian Noble on that. Michael Attenborough, who I did Othello and Romeo and Juliet with, is terrific too. And Gail Edwards, who directed The White Devil. What makes them great directors? Their ability first to cast well and then to get on with the cast, to allow your process and theirs both to happen. All of them work in a very free and caring atmosphere. There are no arguments, no one is made to feel terrible. You feel safe in their hands, you trust them. Day to day, you sometimes donít even realise that what youíre doing is putting together a play and then suddenly itís there. Thatís a great feeling. Iíve always been a great admirer of Michael Grandageís too, I think heís doing great things for theatre. Hence, why Iím at the Donmar now.
Shakespeare, definitely. For someone who never studied any Shakespeare at school, it was the last thing I thought I would have grown to love so much. But I do love it, and when you get offered great Shakespeare parts with great directors, you canít refuse. I also like Tennessee Williams, though Iíve never done any. And Iím very impressed with the writing of Steve Waters - World Music is a great play. We need more new playwrights like Steve, who write plays about now.
What roles would you most like to play still?
Itíd be nice to do Hamlet or Macbeth someday, but if no one offers me the part, then tough. Hopefully, youíll get a job playing something else instead.
What's the best thing you've seen on stage recently?
After Miss Julie. It was great. A great script, very well directed and acted. And I love the Donmar space.
What would you advise the government to secure the future of British theatre?
Give some more money to the arts, especially regional arts. When I finished drama school, I went on tour with Oxford Stage Company and then did rep at the Liverpool Everyman. Rep was very good for a young actor - youíd get lots of experience doing great parts in great plays Ė and it was good for audiences too. People came. Regional theatres canít afford to do rep these days because they canít afford to keep a company on for a full season. No disrespect to soap actors, but now the thinking is youíve got to have some TV face to bring punters in. Whether the actor or the production is good or not, itís like that doesnít apply anymore. I think punters should get their moneyís worth in terms of quality and diversity of theatre. As for young actors, regional rep isnít an option now, itís just not there. If they want that kind of experience, they have to go to the RSC or the National straight off. Thatís really daunting and thereís a lot of competition. Assuming they get in, theyíre immediately in at the deep end and a lot will fail, because you canít be great first time out.
If you could swap places with one person (living or dead) for a day, who would it be?
Nelson Mandela. Heís a great man, a phenomenon. Just being alive now to see what heís achieved is extraordinary. Heís great for the world.
Favourite holiday destination
The Dominican Republic. I went there once a few years back. It was hot and tropical and they danced salsa - nice. And at the time, you could get some very cheap deals!
Ralph Ellisonís Invisible Man.
Favourite after-show haunts
I used to have haunts, but I donít go out anymore. After the show, all I think about is going home and seeing my daughter.
If you hadnít become an actor, what would you have done professionally?
I donít know. I used to place tennis for Middlesex County and even represented Britain a couple of times. I wasnít that great, but I would have enjoyed being a pro tennis player. I have no idea what else I could have been - hopefully not an accountant.
Why did you want to accept your part in World Music?
Itís a great play! My character is a local politician in a fictitious African country. Heís really into agronomy and land reformation. Thatís what heís about. But I canít tell you too much or Iíll give the game away. Letís just say heís not what he is on the page.
Though fictional, World Music is closely related to the histories of Rwanda & Burundi. Have you ever visited those countries?
Iíve never been to Africa at all, but I remember the media coverage of the genocide in Rwanda (in 1994). Iíve learnt a lot more about it all now. I think most of the news people didnít really know what was going on at the time. All the footage with the bodies and the refugee camps, the people dying from cholera Ė that was happening on the outskirts.
Did you do much research in preparation for World Music?
Yes, we did quite a lot of research. We read Fergal Keaneís book and saw his documentary. We spoke to a woman whoís family was killed and to Clare Short, whose development organisation went out there to try to help. But they had no one supporting them. People just turned their back on the situation. And it could happen again. I hope it doesnít. But once you find out what itís actually about, that itís all about history, you realise it could happen again anywhere. Clare Short said that too. These are horrors people think are so far removed from them and where they are, but they arenít.
What was the most shocking thing you discovered in your research?
All of it was shocking. The fact that a million people got killed in 30 days, and then their bodies were just left there. People said it was a tribal war but it wasnít. The truth is, there arenít tribes in Rwanda. It was the old Belgian colonial masters who decided that these tribes Ė the Tutsis and the Hutus - existed, when really it was about class. The Tutsis, the ones who had cattle, were the higher class. When the Belgians left, they left the Tutsis in charge to rule over the Hutu. That was only like 40 years ago, but it all stems back to then. There was an uprising and the Hutus took over to drive out the Tutsis and then the Tutsis mobilised and came back from exile. If you look back, responsibility really does come back to Europeís doorstep. And, yet, suddenly weíre dealing with Ďsavagesí even though it was our colonialism that created the situation in the first place. It was frightening to find out all of that. When big things happen, itís easy to forget about the history. We take the facts from a certain point but donít want to look back any further.
What would you like people to take away from World Music?
I donít know what people should take away and really itís wrong for me to say. My job is just to play my part, thatís it. Theatre is about having different opinions so I wouldnít like to pre-empt anyone elseís judgments.
What are your plans for the future?
I have a film lined up Ė if it happens, weíll see. But I try to concentrate on what Iím doing now. You could be in Hollywood blockbuster or you could be unemployed for a year. I have no power over that. I do plan to do more theatre, of course. As an actor, I love theatre. Thatís where I trained, and I love the live performance. Thereís a great danger and a great satisfaction being there, in the moment, and maybe changing peopleís lives for a day Ė or maybe not.
World Music opens on 16 February 2004 (previews from 12 February) at Londonís Donmar Warehouse, where it continues to 13 March.