Following last year’s sell out production of The Tragedy of Mariam, Lazarus Theatre Company returns to the Tristan Bates Theatre and to the Camden Fringe for the fifth time. Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, and Coriolanus, come together for Our World at War.
Earlier this week, CJ de Mooi, who is playing the roles of Menenius in Coriolanus, and Thersites in Troilus and Cressida, answered a few questions about the productions and Lazarus Theatre Company.
You are in the cast of the Rep Productions of Troilus and Cressida, and Coriolanus by Lazarus Theatre Company in their “Our World at War Season” at the Tristan Bates Theatre. Firstly, can you tell us about the Lazarus Theatre Company?
It’s a company with Artistic Director Ricky Dukes. They tend to specialise in Shakespeare, and plays from the Elizabethan and Restoration eras. It is very clear to me how passionate and knowledgeable they are. For me it is a wonderful refreshing experience, coming to a company where the people running it are experts on the whole genre they are working within. Having looked through their previous work, they have had excellent reviews.
I gather you are not a great fan of Shakespeare. So what attracted you to be a part of this production and why now in your career?
I may sound like a complete philistine, but I really don’t like Shakespeare. I can understand it, but it just doesn’t do anything for me. I went to see Ralph Fiennes in The Tempest at the Haymarket, and that is three and three-quarter hours of my life I am never getting back. But, I aspire to be a respected serious dramatic actor, and the convention is that I need Shakespeare on my CV.
What I didn’t want to do was audition for one of the well-known or very popular heavy plays. If an audition were to come up for say Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar or King Lear, I wouldn’t have gone anywhere near it.
I saw that Lazarus were doing Coriolanus, and Troilus and Cressida. Troilus and Cressida especially is not a very well known play, and Coriolanus revolves around the one central figure. They are essentially tragedies. I thought okay, let’s give it a try and went along to the audition, and it was the first audition I had ever done where it was an open workshop. You do your piece in front of everyone else who is there, and there were about thirty people in the room together. You do your little speech, and the director asked us to do a few things.
In the first workshop I had to act as a five year-old boy who was playing with toy soldiers, setting a scene in the prologue from Troilus and Cressida. Then there was a second workshop, where we had some homework to do. Fortunately and bizarrely, a couple of days later they got in touch and told me that I had been successful, and offered me the roles of Menenius in Coriolanus, and Thersites in Troilus and Cressida. I was in equal measure, very happy, very grateful and absolutely petrified to be offered them.
Why Troilus and Cressida, and Coriolanus in Rep, and not two other plays by Shakespeare? How do these two fit into the “Our World at War Season”?
Out of all Shakespeare’s plays, these are possibly the two that are most based in war. Troilus and Cressida is actually the story of Troilus and Cressida, which as such is quite short. Having seen on DVD the BBC adaptation from the 80s, this is 3 ¼ hours long, with the story of Troilus and Cressida probably only taking about half an hour. The rest is all about the Trojan War. Historically, The Trojan War took place, and the city of Troy is in Turkey. So Troilus and Cressida is factually based, on what is a long drawn out siege battle. The whole of Troilus and Cressida, even though most of play is within a lull in hostilities, is while they are at war.
Coriolanus starts off with a huge battle and finishes off with the potential of another huge battle with Rome going to be destroyed. In Coriolanus you have this great war-hero. They try to make him consul, but that doesn’t work and he turns on them and threatens to destroy the whole of civilisation. In terms of what they represent and what they are showing, these are possibly the two most war-like plays that Shakespeare wrote. They actually sit very well together.
Coriolanus, within two or three lines is Shakespeare’s third longest play. To perform both of these together in one evening, they have to be cut down to about one hour five minutes each, which is a great challenge.
You are currently in rehearsals with Opening Night on 21st August. What can you share with us about rehearsals?
I have never done any rehearsals like this before. Some days we have spent the first three or four hours not looking at the text, walking around the room for say 45 minutes. But then you start to realise the way the director Ricky is guiding you. What you are doing is learning how to fill the space, how to keep the energy levels up, learning how to look and make contact with others, without verbal communication. It is all relevant to the text. We are playing at the Tristan Bates Theatre, which is a small space, and there are sixteen of us, which is a large cast. So you need to be aware of where each other is, and be able to work within an area instantly, without thinking. The vocal exercises we are doing are all related to the text. We are two and half weeks into rehearsals and it was only yesterday that I felt that I actually clicked with how I wanted to play my character Menenius in Coriolanus.
Another thing they do in Lazarus is that if it doesn’t come out of the text, and is not specifically said then you cannot presume it. Even if it is obviously implied, if no one actually says it, then you cannot have it as a backstory. With some of the characters in this, such as Coriolanus himself, or Volumnia his mother, or my character Thersites in Troilus and Cressida, people have preconceptions about who these characters are, what they do and what they are like. Volumnia is a thoroughly malicious and manipulative piece of work, and no doubt she is, but you have got to take it from what she actually says. Ricky doesn’t want people coming in with preconceptions. You come in and learn your lines, and that is your basis. If it doesn’t come out of your mouth you are not having it.
How important is fitness to you as an actor?
If you are going to do two Shakespeare pieces like this, you cannot come to it without the energy. We do a brief warm-up each day for about 15 minutes, but for me I do 3 hours before I come in, with a 5 mile run and an hour and a half in the gym, with the same again every evening. If you want to do something it isn’t just about the physical fitness but also about the brain. You are on stage non-stop for over an hour for each of these plays. You cannot go off stage and have a rest. You have to have your concentration there the whole time. Healthy body and healthy mind is a phrase that springs to mind. This is a physical medium. We are not doing voice-overs or on the radio, we are on stage.
I read from your fellow cast member Stephen Horncastle, that “The biggest break through I had was realising that all of Shakespeare’s characters are human not just words on a page!” What has been the process to humanise the characters?
For me, in Coriolanus my character Menenius is portrayed as a patrician and aristocrat of Rome, and is generally on Coriolanus’ side, but that doesn’t give him anything. He has a few speeches, bits of dialogue, but there’s not much there. So what I have tried to do for him is to bring him a bit more up to date. We are not saying specifically when this is set, so it could be in any time, we have people using technology, others taking out their iPhones. What I have tried to do with him is to find out how I would relate to him, if I was in the situation of watching him. I am trying to portray him as a game show host. That is how I see him. He is always playing to the camera with a cheesy smile on his face, and always dismissive of other people. As Coriolanus’ career starts to go downhill, Menenius sees his career going the same way, making my character take some sort of journey.
In the 1981 BBC adaptation of Troilus and Cressida, my character Thersites was played in a camp, sleazy way, which is not the way I want Thersities to go at all. In all of the play, Thersities has one line where he speaks to the cast and the rest of it is straight to the audience, and he is the only one that does this: “I am your eyes and ears”. So I looked at him and thought who would do this? And it just clicked that he was a no-nonsense war reporter. In one part of the play he is sitting there for about ten minutes, and in that time he has one short line, and the rest of the time he is just sitting there. So, for me he is sitting there watching and taking notes, to tell the audience about later, which is exactly what he does do. He is the link from the audience into the action, with no interest in the war whatsoever. He is just there to report the facts.
Artistic Director Ricky Dukes. What are his strengths and what are you enjoying most working with him?
When I first started I found Ricky very intimidating, for two reasons. The first being that he is clearly very knowledgeable about all of Shakespeare’s plays, having performed and directed a lot of them. He is also very knowledgeable about other things from the same era. He will often come up with quotes from one of the other plays. I know about a lot of the classics, but have always avoided this time period. The fact that he has so much experience and so much passion for these pieces, I didn’t know if I could match it.
I am not going to say that I am ever going to be a fan of Shakespeare, but most people will know that I am very passionate about acting and want to put across a good performance, so I will be passionate about whatever I am doing.
When you are doing Shakespeare, obviously people will view it in different ways. Shakespeare wrote his plays without any punctuation, and this was put in later by academics. Ricky is an absolute stickler for punctuation, with a comma a beat of one, and a full-stop a beat of two – and you must do it!
It took me absolutely ages to learn the lines, not being familiar with the dialogue or the language. When I did On Tidy Endings in April, with the two plays of 1 hour 40 minutes, I learnt my lines in 2 weeks. With these two, it took me 3 weeks to learn each one of my speeches in them. It took me nearly 2 months to learn the whole thing. I just could not get to grips with the grammar used within the language, and Ricky quite rightly expects it to be absolutely correct. There can be no paraphrasing, and where the punctuation is, that is exactly how he wants it done. For me, this has been a challenge. One, because I am so unfamiliar with the work and the language, and two, I have never worked in an environment that has been that strictly structured. When working through the text we will read out the punctuation, such as comma… full-stop etc, just to make sure we are all fully familiar with the beat. This then gets more difficult when you go through the same text but faster.
At the time of this interview you are into your third week of rehearsals… what are your thoughts on performing Shakespeare now? (rehearsal photographs)
I have a new appreciation for how clever he is with his use of language. He doesn’t use words just for the sake of them. The more you delve into it and work on it, the more you find many different levels, together with double entendres. However, I am still not a fan.
There is so much to see in the West End, and also Off West End. What is the number one reason why everyone should get along to see these two plays?
These are lesser known plays by Shakespeare, so most people may not know them, especially Troilus and Cressida. However, the one thing that consistently makes Lazarus stand out is that you will not have seen any Shakespeare play like this before. We have got absolutely bonkers ideas in these, but unlike so many other productions that put in weird stuff just for the sake of headlines, everything that is in here is justified and does make sense. As long as it is in the text and it is justified then it can be included. Shakespeare in his time was not an elitist author. He was there for the masses. It is only in the subsequent centuries that his work has become the ownership of the academic elite. Shakespeare isn’t like that, it is for the masses and that is how we are performing it.
Follow CJ de Mooi on Twitter @cjdemooi
Interview by Neil Cheesman
CORIOLANUS, TROILUS AND CRESSIDA
Coriolanus – Our World At War (Start time 9.00pm)
Rome’s prodigal son must lead a war against a villainous enemy. When Coriolanus returns a triumphant hero, he is thrust into a media frenzy. His disgust for the political elite and his distrust of the people leads to his dismissal, dishonour and exile. His revenge shall be the end for all. An ensemble cast uses text, movement and music in a visceral and violent production of Shakespeare gripping exploration of power and conflict.
Troilus and Cressida – Our World At War (Start time 7.30pm)
Two young lovers are tested, punished and ultimately torn apart. When war and lechery confound all, what chance is there for love? Shakespeare’s striking and immediate examination of conflict and its effect on those in the eye of the storm comes to the stage in this fresh and bold new adaptation to create a Troy for today.
CORIOLANUS, TROILUS AND CRESSIDA
Monday 18th August – Sat 6th September, 9pm. (Previews 18th to 20th August)
Showing as part of Lazarus Theatre’s Our World At War season
Book for both shows in one night for £20 (telephone only).
Thursday 14th August 2014