The 250 theatregoers at our twice sold-out Whatsonstage.com Outing to the second production in the Donmar West End season, Twelfth Night, at Wyndham’s Theatre on the evening of Twelfth Night itself (6 January 2009) were treated to an exclusive post-show discussion with cast members Derek Jacobi, Victoria Hamilton, Samantha Spiro, Ron Cook, Indira Varma, Zubin Varla, Guy Henry and Alex Waldmann as well as a last-minute surprise guest, Donmar artistic director Michael Grandage, who helmed the production.

Shakespeare\'s comedy of mistaken identity and cross-dressing, tells of Viola, who, shipwrecked and fearing her twin brother dead, is swept onto the shores of Illyria. Disguising herself as a boy, she takes a post in the Duke\'s court and, on his behalf, attempts to woo his loved one, the Lady Olivia.

Derek Jacobi - who has previously worked been directed by Grandage in The Tempest and Don Carlos, which both transferred from Sheffield Crucible to the West End, and appeared two years ago in the Donmar revival of John Mortimer’s A Voyage Round My Father, which transferred to Wyndham’s – plays Olivia’s disgruntled servant Malvolio.

The Donmar’s year-long residency at the West End’s 750-seat Wyndham’s Theatre, running concurrently with ongoing regular programming at its 250-seat Covent Garden home base, comprises four high-profile productions. The season began with Kenneth Branagh taking the title role and receiving huge critical acclaim in Ivanov, and will continue after Twelfth Night, with the UK premiere of Madame de Sade starring Judi Dench from 18 March (previews from 13 March) to 23 May 2009; and finally Hamlet, with Jude Law in the title role, from 3 June (previews from 29 May) to 22 August 2009. All four are directed by Michael Grandage.

Also appearing in the Twelfth Night cast are Mark Bonnar, Norman Bowman, James Howard, Ian Drysdale, Lloyd Hutchinson and Ian Drysdale. The production is designed by Christopher Oram, with lighting by Neil Austin and music by Julian Philips.

Last night’s discussion took place in the theatre immediately after the performance and was chaired by Whatsonstage.com editorial director Terri Paddock. For more photos and feedback, visit our Outings Blog and for details of upcoming events, click here. Edited highlights from the Q&A follow …


On the Grandage & Jacobi reunion

Michael Grandage: Derek had never played Malvolio before this. I think it’s a great part in the canon so I wanted to persuade him that it was something he should do. I have never directed the same play twice before. This is my first second outing with a play because very early on in my career, I think it was about the third play I had ever directed, I did a production of Twelfth Night. It was my first ever Shakespeare play and it was an extraordinary experience. Because I was a new director, I felt it was something one could come back to and investigate further in some quite substantial ways. In doing so, I wanted to get the most extraordinary company around me that I could, and I think we have achieved that and part of that bit was persuading Derek to do Malvolio. You did need some persuading.

Derek Jacobi: Yes, I did. It wasn’t a part that had crossed my radar at all. In the Seventies I played Andrew Aguecheeck with the Prospect Theatre company, but I had never revisited the play since then. When Michael said he wanted me to do Malvolio, I have to confess that my first thought was Donald Sinden. He sat like an elemental on my shoulder throughout rehearsals because for me, he was the famous Malvolio, so you can imagine how I felt when we did the first preview for the very first time on this stage with all our sins on our heads, not knowing if we were going to be funny or what was going to happen, and there was a knock on my dressing room door after the show and Donald Sinden was standing there. Had I known he was going to be there, I would never have gone on. It was terrifying enough as it was…

Thank goodness for me, Sinden said the right things when he knocked on my door. As Malvolio, he very famously did a very funny little bit of business, which we can’t do because it requires a piece of set that we don’t have. On his set he had a sundial and it came to the moment when he is musing about Sir Toby and he says “and per chance wind up my watch”, and he took out his watch and he wound it up, and then he looked at it, and he looked at the sundial, and he changed the sundial. It became very famous...

I did resist taking the role a bit because I have never thought of myself as Malvolio, and it is one of those things that has been done so many times, which is always a hurdle that you have to get over. But it gave me the opportunity to work with the best, greatest director that we have in this country. It is my third time working with him. It was first time, second time and third time lucky so I revere this man and that is why I took the role.

On working with Michael Grandage

Samantha Spiro: With Michael, you are in completely safe hands from day one. I don’t think you are ever in such safe hands as you are with Michael as your director.

Indira Varma: This is the third time I have worked with Michael and all three of those companies he has put together have kept in touch. I think that is extraordinary. You can do plays and think, “oh god, there is always a bad apple”, but every single company has always been brilliant and really supportive, no matter what size part you have got, or how many lines you have got. Everyone feels the need to tell the story as honestly as possible and I think that is a real gift.

Grandage: I tell you something, the most important thing when you cast a play is to get talent. Talent is the most important thing so you should never compromise on that. You should go for the most talented person, the person who is going to do best in the role in your opinion. But the second most important thing for me is a less-known factor, which is that I quite like to have a company I would be happy to have dinner with. There is no point in coming to rehearsals every day if you think someone is phenomenally talented but actually you don’t want to spend any more time in their company other than the rehearsal. Perhaps that is why the companies sort of take on a life of their own when the director goes, because somewhere in there, there is a bond of some kind.

Varma: But not at the expense of the work. We don’t sit around howling with laughter all the time. Well, we corpse a little here or there, but overall everyone wants to work, I think that is very important too.

Spiro: Michael came back to give notes today actually, and we were saying that a company is never as happy for a director to come back as they are with Michael. He is loved.

Grandage: One of the joys of directing is that you start to build wonderful relationships with actors. I have to say that it is always important that you work with new actors for the first time and I have not worked with Guy before, or Alex or Zubin. You have to challenge yourself all the time by working with new and exciting actors, but I have worked with Sam, Victoria, Derek and Indira more than once before. It is one of the joys in life. You can go on journeys together. We are all getting old together, although they don’t look it. It is quite nice maturing with people. It is part of the journey of relations between actors and directors. I think all directors form bonds through the years as they go on. Victoria and I are going to do King Lear actually! That is a joke by the way, just so you all know, just in case it gets reported tomorrow or something.

Hamilton: Also, one of the reasons everyone likes working with Michael is that you have no idea how many directors there are out there who begin a rehearsal process by going “right, here is my vision for this play”, almost as though they feel that the onus is on them as the director to have this vision. What Michael actually does is the complete reverse of that, or so it feels as an actor. He actually starts with the play. He serves the playwright. If he has picked a play to do, he believes that that play is brilliantly written enough and that his job is to find the truth in that text and bring that text alive. It is meant to be a voyage of discovery. I have certainly worked with directors where their vision has certainly gotten in the way of finding the truth of that play. How can you possibly say “I have got a vision for Shakespeare”? Shakespeare is the vision.

Ron Cook: I think, Michael is very actor-friendly as well. It might come from the fact that he did start out as an actor. He demands a lot from you though. We were up on our feet and did the whole play in the first week. He demands and you respond, but I think he knows how to do it because he has done some acting. There are anxieties that we all have at certain points, but I think that Michael manages to lessen those by how he approaches it. We had our costumes and our props by the last week of rehearsals. Usually when you come to do a technical rehearsal, you get on the stage and it is all new to you and you are suddenly faced with different costumes and different props and that makes you anxious, so all the way along, throughout the rehearsal period, Michael is taking away anxieties from us and making it smoother.

Zubin Varla: There is an example, which just highlights what everyone has been saying really. About three of four weeks into rehearsals you go through the process of picking apart your own characters and developing them and working on them, but Michael sat with the whole company and said “alright, we have done all of that stuff with your own characters and now you also need to take on the entire play and serve that”. It is that same thing about being an ensemble rather than individuals so you can take on the play as a whole.

On Grandage’s acting career

Grandage: I worked with Guy Henry quite a while ago in my first job as an actor.

Guy Henry: He was very good. He was playing a Nazi. He was fantastic. He was like The Sound of Music. He was a Nazi and I was Franz the butler. We helped to close the Connaught Theatre, Worthing.

Jacobi: The first time I met Michael was as an actor. He was in the very first series of a programme I did called Cadfael and he played King Stephen in the very first episode which was called “One Corpse Too Many” and we used to call it “One Plot Too Many”. I think after that he gave up acting. It must have been something I said.

Grandage: I gave up acting because I had one of those life moments where you just get to a certain age and a certain time of life and it just isn’t right. I enjoyed acting, but when I look at the actors that I work with now, I know something was wrong. I am in awe of the craft of acting now, and when I work with these types of people, I genuinely don’t think that I have the gift that I see around me. I knew myself well enough to know that I was frustrated and that I ought to do something else.

On the set design

Grandage: The minimalist thing is a key to how I like my sets to look usually, with a couple of exceptions. Christopher Oram, the designer, and I usually start with the idea that we don’t really want anything to get between the actor and the audience, so going back to the Elizabethan principle, all that we know is that most of the time there was an empty stage with some minimal structure at the back. That always seems to be as good a starting point as any, just trying to do a version of that. In other words a version of letting the actor lead rather than having an all-dancing and all-singing set that comes in and does its business. The vision always starts with as minimal an approach as possible to try to create a world. Actually, I have to be careful what I say because most of these actors don’t read reviews, but amongst all those lovely reviews we received, people identified the period of this play as 1920s, 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s ...

Henry: Edwardian ...

Grandage: It is absolutely fascinating the amount of different periods, and in a way we have taken that as a compliment. We set out to present a sort of period, something timeless, something set in time, something with a flavour of the Mediterranean, something of a flavour of another world which isn’t this world. All of those things were part of it, but in the end those things were created by the characters in it rather than the set or the costumes.

On clowning around

Henry: On the first preview of this, the assistant director was sitting in front of two 15-year-olds who said “the blonde one, he is on stilts you know”. So I thought “well that is okay, they are only 15, they don’t know any better”, and then suddenly people at press night said that I was on stilts. I just have very long legs.

Cook: Sir Toby and Sir Andrew are famously funny characters, so it can be worrying to wonder whether you are going to be funny or not, but Michael put paid to any gags we brought in. They were trampled down.

Grandage: Not all of them.

Cook: No, not all of them. Most of them. There is always a pressure when you are playing famous parts that several other people have played. You wonder if you are going to be as funny. When Michael phoned me and asked if I would play Toby Belch, I said “but he’s a big fat man in tweeds, isn’t he?” Michael just said, “where does it say that?” Like Derek was saying about Malvolio, Toby Belch has never been on my radar, so I had a look at it. You have to forget what everyone else has done with the part really. I don’t believe there is any such thing as a definitive performance. There are brilliant performances that people do at various stages, but every generation needs the plays to be done again. Shakespeare is so brilliant that it always clicks with whatever the zeitgeist is at the time, and the plays are always different every time they are produced so you have to approach it as a new play and see what happens.

Jacobi: With a comedy, you really depend on an audiences’ reaction. When you rehearse it, you’re in a sort of concealed room, and then a time comes when you have to present it to an audience. You have worked on particular areas, you have worked on an interpretation of the text, and also added physical jokes which may or may not work, and so those early performances are terrifying because with a comedy you need the audience to be vocal. With a drama, you can kid yourself that they’re with you because they’re quiet even though they could be asleep or meditating. With a comedy, you need to know that what you’re doing is tickling their fancy. Tonight was our 32nd performance. I count. I always feel that I’m reaching a safe plateau after about 40 performances, when mind and brain and mouth are so used to doing it that I am confident that I won’t make mistakes. I am nearing the 40 performances, but each performance is a learning curve…

Each performance is different in the sense that the audience reacts differently. Sometimes you cannot depend on a laugh coming at that moment that you have worked long and hard to achieve because curiously audiences behave as one animal, you will come out one night and the audience will find everything funny, they seem to be having a wonderful time, and then another time you come out and the entire audience is sluggish, they are not responding to you. You have to think about them as one whole body, one whole persona, and it can be very throwing, when you come out and you expect something and it is not there. It’s very easy to go backstage and say “oh, they’re all cardboard cut-outs tonight”. It’s not the audiences fault if that happens, it’s our fault and we must remind ourselves that it’s what we are doing that is having this effect, be it a wonderful responsive effect or a non-responsive effect.

On playing twins

Alex Waldmann: I think part of the reason I was lucky enough to get the job was that maybe Michael saw, not so much a similar look but maybe a similar energy between Victoria and me. We talked a lot about the back story that the twins have, and about this father, Sebastian, there is also brief mention of a mother, so we talked about that and also where they had come from and that they were in this shipwreck in a storm. We tried to set that up and I tried to watch what Victoria was doing, but we never found any specific mannerisms to copy or anything like that.

Hamilton: You hit this strange phase in rehearsals where you kind of try and do more than you need to do. I think it comes from a place of reverence that makes you feel like you should be trying to do more. We had a couple of conversations about whether we should be watching each other and trying to add some very subtle mannerisms that we did the same so the audience would go “oh look, a subtle mannerism”, but then you think, well, really, it’s Shakespeare, you don’t need to do anything other than say the line. Tell the truth with the line, and people will believe it. So it was a kind of rather tense and dark phase that I think we needed to go through. I think we were right not to do that because you won’t get a text better than this, you just won’t.

On music in the play

Varla: I did play the guitar and drums before this, I played a lot of instruments in fact. I would have loved to bring some other instruments in, I would loved to have had a grand piano come on at the end, but Michael thought that might become a bit too cabaret for some reason.

Hamilton: One of the key things about Michael, I am sure everyone in this company would agree with this on some level, is that as an actor you reach a certain stage in your career where you have an idea about what it is that you do well. When you work with Michael, he says “you know that thing you do well, can you stop doing it and find something else to do?” It’s terrifying and it makes you very angry, but it always makes for a better performance. I think all of us would probably agree that it’s one of the things that happens when you work with Micheal that makes you end up a better actor when you finish the job than you were when you started, although it is a very frightening thing. Zubin is a very good example of that. Zubin could have played the saxophone lying on his back on the grand piano while playing the drums at the same time, but Michael didn’t let him do it, he pushed him in a different direction.

On being the right age to play King Lear

Jacobi: I think it is very unfair to mention my age - 70 is the new 60! If you have any aspirations to be a classical actor, then as a young actor you go through the Hamlet hoop to try to be accepted into the club and then as an older actor you go through the Lear hoop. I sound as if I don’t want to take on the role. I do want to do it, but I just want to do it at the right time. Of course I want to do it with Michael as well. But Ian McKellen has just done it. That makes it unplayable for the next two years at least.

- by Kate Jackson