Past/Present/Future for…Michael Feast

Opening on 15 September at Theatre503 is The Ones
That Flutter
, an award-winning new play by American dramatist Sylvia
Reed. Distinguished British stage, television and film actor Michael Feast
will be leading the cast of five in his first ever appearance at the Battersea

Trained at the Central School of Speech and Drama, Feast has
played alongside most of British theatre’s major names including John Gielgud,
Ralph Richardson and more recently Patrick Stewart and Celia Imrie. As well
as dozens of roles at the National Theatre, RSC and in the West End, Feast has
appeared in television dramas including Silent Witness,
State of Play and in films including Tim Burton’s
Sleepy Hollow.

His most recent stage role was playing Gielgud in Nick de
’s much praised Plague Over England, which
transferred to the West End following a run at the Finborough.

PAST: When I first started acting in the
late ‘60s when I left drama school it was quite a heyday of the fringe. Most of
my early work was done on the fringe so although I’ve done of a lot of quite
profile work I don’t feel like it’s a big shift to do something there. I feel
that my theatrical roots were in the fringe as it was then. It’s a different
thing now, I think it’s much more high profile in itself.

I worked with Gielgud three times, all in the ‘70s. I did
Ariel in The Tempest in Peter Hall’s first National Theatre
production at the Old Vic. And I did No Man’s Land, again at
the National. I also did a telly with him at that time which was for the Open
University. It was a piece from the Brothers Karamazov. It was called
The Grand Inquisitor and the piece, which was the Grand Inquisitor
talking to a mute Christ-like figure, was just lifted straight out of it. It
was when we were doing No Man’s Land and Gielgud asked for
me to do it because he’d ‘rather not say all these words to a stranger’.

It felt like a nice thing to play him in Plague
Over England
. My memory of him is of a very gentlemanly, helpful and
nice man. He gave me a lot of help with the verse when we were doing
The Tempest. It felt like I could draw on a lot of memories of
how he was, how he sounded and how he looked, although I did do quite a lot of
research for the role, listening to him speaking and watching him in films. It
also felt like the subject matter was quite sympathetic to his dilemma at the
time – he was arrested in a public lavatory for soliciting sex and it was
obviously a terrible time in his life.

When I worked with him in the ‘70s as a young actor I knew
about the arrest in the ‘50s but didn’t really know that much about it. Without
sounding too fanciful, playing him in Plague Over England
felt like a nice way of remembering him and redressing the balance.

PRESENT: The character I play in The
Ones That Flutter
is a retired warden of a prison, a real prison in
Texas called Huntsville. He’s a retired warden from the death row part of the
prison, so his job was overseeing the final day of the condemned prisoner.
That’s my character but I take great pains to say it’s not a play about death
row. The play isn’t about the death penalty, the rights and wrongs of it, it’s
about a lot more than that. It’s quite a complicated family story.

One of the things that Abbey Wright, the director, said
when I first met her was that she thought it wasn’t an issue play, it wasn’t
about ‘we don’t believe in the death penalty’, it wasn’t about family angst. On
the other hand it’s about all of that.

I’m not trying to sell it but I think it’s one of the best
new plays I’ve read for ages. I think it’s a wonderful play: very delicate and
also quite funny in many ways.

The character I’m playing has reached a point in his life
where a number of things have come together to cause him to reach a point of
emotional disturbance where he’s become completely isolated. It’s the story of
his attempts or other people’s attempts to get him out of that and for him to
come to terms with what he’s done most of his working life.

It also has quite an emotional thriller element, in that
there are things that we learn later on in the play that explain things that we
didn’t know about. I won’t give it away.

I wanted to do The Ones That Flutter
because when I read it I just thought, ‘this is a really good play’. The more I
read the more I could see what a good part it was. It’s a good part in that it
enables me as an actor to explore a lot of different emotions.

There’s also the fact that I’m a child of the ‘50s and ‘60s,
so grew up with rock ‘n’ roll and cowboy films and all that and so American
culture has always meant quite a lot to me. I’ve done quite a lot of American
things over the years so if ever a play turns up that I get offered to do and
it’s American there’s always a special little kind of interest.

I’m an actor that does a bit of everything: bit of theatre,
bit of film, bit of telly. But I like to stay in touch with theatre. There was
a time when I turned down theatre a lot but nevertheless I’ve always known that
there was an importance to me as an actor in theatre.

Apart from certain exceptions there’s such a lot of rubbishy
stuff being offered to actors in telly. I speak for myself but I do know
friends who have the same thing. I’ve turned down quite a few telly things in
the last few years and I’m an actor who likes to work, I don’t turn things down
lightly. I think that there’s more quality work being done in theatre in terms
of writing, directing, all of that, than there is on British television. So I
think that actors are embracing theatre because it’s a chance to do something
that’s good quality.

In terms of preparing for a role, increasingly over the
years I’ve tried to learn bits of it before we start. Not so that’s it completely learnt – it can’t be really
until you start –but I do like to come a bit prepared.

Like any sort of practice or craft there are pretty much
guidelines about how to go about things. So everyone in rehearsal knows that in
the first week that people are finding their place and trying to work out
initial thoughts about their character. Everyone has a give and take feel and
gets given their space, as it were, to talk about what they need to do with the
role. So far with The Ones That Flutter we’ve had a good
start and it’s a great cast.

FUTURE: I heard when we were still doing Plague Over England that Bill Kenwright had commissioned
Nick de Jongh to write the screenplay. I’ve heard Rupert Everett’s name
mentioned and I’ve heard Charlie Dance’s name mentioned for the Gielgud part
but I make no assumptions. I play Gielgud in the way that I play Gielgud and if
they asked me to do it I’d consider it and probably do it.

I’ve got something to do in November, which is a film of the Macbeth that I did with Rupert Goold and Patrick
about a year and a half ago at Chichester, then the West End, then on
Broadway. As far as I know it is going to be entirely the same cast and we’re
going to film it, as far as I understand, at locations in and around London. So
it won’t be a film of the stage version, it will be a film, which is nice. I’m
looking forward to that because it was a good, happy production and successful
and it’ll hopefully round off the year nicely.

Michael Feast was talking to Jo Caird