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Stephen Fletcher on Liverpool Shakespeare Festival

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To be or not to be yourself was an easy question to answer for Stephen Fletcher when offered the role of Hamlet during this year’s Liverpool Shakespeare Festival, appearing within the salubrious surroundings of Liverpool’s St George’s Hall Concert Room.

Fletcher returns to the Liverpool Shakespeare Festival following his performance as Oberon in A Midsummer Night’s Dream at last summer’s festival held in the Anglican Cathedral’s St. James’ Gardens. Runcorn-born Fletcher also makes an appearance in a version of Tom Stoppard’s absurdist play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. Both plays appear as part of this year’s festival, which Max Rubin, a teacher at the Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts and artistic director of Lodestar Theatre Company, is directing.

Are you looking forward to performing at St George’s Hall?
It’s a beautiful building, but I was a little bit worried about appearing here because of the acoustics. After being outdoors last year and with words being carried away on the breeze, it was a pretty tough job being Oberon. I needn’t have been concerned about this though because the sound in the room is superb and if it’s good enough for both Dickens and Ken Dodd, who sold out a concert here last year, then it’s certainly good enough for me.

Did you enjoy being involved in the Liverpool Nativity in 2007, which launched Liverpool’s 2008 European Capital of Culture year?
It was a manic few months but it was great to be involved in so much of what happened in the city during 2008 and the Capital of Culture year. Now, after a short time down in London, I’m back in Liverpool and looking forward to more roles up here, starting with Hamlet.

You must be relishing playing the role of the Prince of Denmark, Hamlet?
To be honest, I’d not even read it before and had only ever seen one film version, but once you get into it it’s easy to see how and it is so highly regarded. I did have the chance to see Jude Law play Hamlet recently, but turned it down for fear of being unduly influenced.

How did you get involved in acting?
A mate of mine from school, Chris Hannon, who recently played Luigi in Coronation Street and who’s just finished a run in Billy Liar in Greenwich, went to a youth theatre school in Widnes called the Musketeer Theatre Company, run by Jen Heyes. We’d all turn up and put cabarets and little plays on, rehearsing three or four hours every Saturday. Then as we grew up and went our separate ways, with Chris heading off to Manchester to study, I heard of this new place called the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts that was being opened by Sir Paul McCartney and thought I’d apply just to give it a go. If I got in, great. If I didn’t, I’d try something else. Fortunately I did get in and graduated, but my love of acting really started in Widnes on Saturday afternoons.

Do any other family members fancy themselves as performers?
They can all play instruments and sing and family parties are like a cabaret in itself. None of them are paid stage performers as such, but my dad’s father, my granddad, who sadly I never met, used to accompany silent movies on the piano in cinemas. He also performed in quite a famous band both over here and in New York as a Jazz saxophonist and I’d have loved to have met him just to talk about how the business has changed from his time to now. That would have been really interesting.

So, having crammed in so much during the past eighteen months, what has been the highlight so far?
Probably because I was involved in it from the off, Eric’s was a fabulous experience. The script was given to me as a work in progress in 2007 and the way the whole thing developed over time was just amazing to be a part of. Of course the other shows I appeared in were all great in their own way – Oberon in Midsummer, Peter in Stags and Hens and, of course, Prince Charming in Cinderella – but they were all characters who had been played by other actors in the past. Eric’s was completely new and is something, I think, all of us who were involved in it are incredibly proud of.

What’s been the best advice ever given to you?
Be true yourself. I’ve been backwards and forwards to London recently and appeared at some great theatres. One particular time an older actor suggested I’d benefit from some kind of “role play” course so as to knock off what he saw as rough edges on my accent. I agreed to what he said, and knew where he was coming from, but I said I’d only enroll if he enrolled in basic Scouse classes, which in turn would open doors for him. He didn’t want to and neither did I. I wasn’t going to lose my identity because being true to yourself is more important than anything.

And the best advice you can give someone would be?
It would be “be patient”. I don’t think it matters where you base yourself these days because if you really want to do this as a job then Liverpool has as many opportunities as anywhere else with the likes of the Everyman, the Royal Court and the Playhouse, as well as smaller venues such as the Bluecoat, the Unity Theatre and, to a degree, St George’s Hall all putting plays on regularly.

So, do you think Liverpool has become an attraction for actors?
I believe 2008 could be something of a call to arms for the city in a way because you see people who have left Liverpool are all coming back to be a part of what’s happening. Pete Postlethwaite in King Lear last year and Jonathan Pryce in The Caretaker this year, are just two examples. If I was permanently based in London, the chances of me playing Hamlet at a place like St George’s Hall at this stage of my career are pretty remote in all honesty because getting parts anywhere is pretty tough at the moment. You look around some rooms and think, “blimey, he’s off such-and-such on TV” and know producers are unwilling to take a risk on an unknown face, but that’s where the patience comes in.

What, therefore, are the key requirements for you when accepting a role?
At the end of the day there are three things to consider when offered a role. The part itself, where the play is being performed and the money you’re offered. If you can tick two of those three boxes for every single play then take the part, because every part you play that is right for you serves to the betterment of the other two criteria. As long as you are playing good roles in good venues it doesn’t matter which part of the country you are based in at all.

What’s next for you?
I have no idea to be honest and that’s the truly terrifying part of the job that you don’t know what’s around the corner. Oddly enough, one of my neighbours where I used to live in London was head of awards at BAFTA and I got a job handing the trophies themselves on to a stagehand who would then give them to the awarding celebrity, which was all pretty surreal. I’ve always been alright, because I’ll do just about anything to get by when I’m not acting, but being trapped in an office job for years on end terrifies me. In fact I left a job in London designing DVD covers because sitting in front of a PC all day was driving me spare. Luckily, Hamlet came about, which I wasn’t going to do initially because of this job designing covers was a good, safe job. Then I thought “what am I doing?” I accepted the role and moved back to Liverpool shortly afterwards. This career’s not easy, but if you really want to do it, be true to yourself and be patient because it will happen.’

Hamlet runs at St. George’s Hall within the Small Concert Room from 11-23 August. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead runs at the Novas Contemporary Urban Centre from 1-13 September. For more information on both of these productions click here

Stephen Fletcher was speaking to Chris High.


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