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Past/Present/Future for…Michael Feast

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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 venue.

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 Jongh’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 Stewart 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


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