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Jeffery Kissoon: 'My drama teacher saved my life'

As he stars in a new adaptation of Dostoevsky's Demons, the legendary actor explains the show and his path into theatre

Jeffery Kissoon in Julius Caesar in 2012
© Dan Wooller for WhatsOnStage

Jeffery Kissoon has had a remarkable career in theatre from the '70s right up to the present day. Some of the names he has worked with include Peter Brook, Peter Hall, Robert Lepage, Nicholas Hytner and many more. He's worked extensively with the Royal Shakespeare Company and has appeared at theatres including the Citizens, Liverpool Playhouse, the Barbican, Hampstead Theatre, the Young Vic and Manchester Royal Exchange. His screen work includes stints on EastEnders and Doctors as well as Radio 4 sitcom Rudy's Rare Records. In 2010 he starred opposite Kim Cattrall in Antony and Cleopatra in Liverpool. Here he talks about his most recent collaboration with SplitMoon on an adaptation of Demons.

I'm still getting my head around the plot of Demons. It's a big book by Dostoevsky and what is incredible is that Peter Sturm has managed to condense it into an event. It shows some of the details of the pre-revolution in Russia in the 1860s where ideologies were all in flux. Demons is based on a true story, where a man was murdered by a group of student nihilists. It's like a fight for the new Russian man.

We are performing in the old St Leonard's Church in Shoreditch. I'm not a churchy person, but it's a really wonderful place to put it. The size of the church and the impact of it [is impressive] and there is strong religious content in the book. It's an old actor's church and Shakespeare's actors are buried underneath some of the flagstones. The show is what in the old days you might have called a happening. It's promenade, so the audience have to follow the actors. The great thing about working with SplitMoon is that they don't give you what you would normally expect when you go to a theatre.

Jeffery Kissoon

Demons is running over Halloween, but it's not a Halloween show. We are limited in our Hollywood mentality of horror movies to a particular definition of demons. But in our play and the book, the demons are what's in all of us. We all have our demons.

Starring in Peter Brook's Mahabharata in the '80s has got to be a highlight of my career. The show was a culmination of all of Brook's work, all his research into theatres, acting and actors. We performed in canyons in Australia and standing on top of cliffs. It was 12 hours in the theatre, with intervals, and we never worried whether audiences would respond badly to the length. You could watch it in parts or all together. For an actor, it was a total experience, not just: I'm an actor learning my lines.

It was a teacher, Robert Tanitch, who saved my life and got me into theatre. It was 1964 and another teacher recommended I should be in his show No Great Shakes staged as part of a Shakespeare anniversary. Many people won't know this but I failed every O-level and when I came back to school after that all the teachers apart from Robert said I shouldn't be there. It was Robert who allowed me into his A-level class and by Christmas, I had passed all my O-levels. I could still do only Shakespeare. Once you've unlocked him he opens up a gold mine of experiences.

Demons runs at St Leonard's Church, Shoreditch from 25 October to 11 November.


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