The Tempest comes to Stafford Shakespeare Festival this year, Thursday 22nd June – Saturday 8th July 2017. Actor James Lawrence performed in last year’s festival production of Othello and Break A Leg chatted to him about his experience. This year he will play Sebastian in The Tempest and returned to us to talk about his next visit to Stafford Castle.
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Thanks for returning to Break A Leg for an interview, James, glad to have you back again. Tell me about your role in The Tempest…
I play Sebastian, one of the shipwrecked Italians on the island. He’s not exactly a pleasant man when you first meet him and it isn’t long before he begins to take advantage of the situation in order to advance his own interests. He’s younger brother to the also-marooned King Alonso of Naples and Sebastian sees their predicament on the island as an opportunity to brutally seize power for himself. It’s an enormously enjoyable role and I get to play opposite some truly fantastic performers in those scenes, so I’ve absolutely loved my time as Sebastian so far. Eagle-eyed audience members may well spot me in a very different guise as the play progresses as well; all I’ll say is that it’s well worth paying a bit of extra attention when the goddesses are onstage…
What’s it like to be able to return to Stafford Castle in another Shakespeare play?
It’s an absolute privilege, I was here last year for Othello and it was one of the best jobs I’ve ever done as an actor. The setting of Stafford Castle is absolutely phenomenal and I cannot wait to get back up there. Not only that, but the whole Gatehouse team have been amazing during rehearsals as well; it feels as though I never left. Ultimately, it’s just great to be back and to be a part of this wonderful theatrical tradition. I can’t wait for our audiences to see what we’ve been up to. It’s great to be reunited with our creative team as well; our director Clare Prenton is among the best I’ve ever worked with and our musical director Craig Adams has excelled himself again this year with the music in the show, so it’s wonderful to be back on board with them.
Aside from it being a different play, how will this production differ from last year’s?
It’s more than my life is worth to give away some of what our design team has planned, but we’re really going for some spectacular stuff. The character of Prospero has acquired a certain level of magical expertise, so our brilliant Illusion Consultants Morgan & West have been working on some very cool magic for the show. As well as that, our wonderful designer Frankie Collier has come up with one of the most incredible sets I’ve ever seen. Last year was a visually stunning production, but she’s really outdone herself this year. Music still plays a key role in this year’s production, but it has a slightly different flavour this time around. In this production, the action largely takes place on an island just off the coast of Somalia and the music in the show definitely reflects that. However, it’s set in the 1930s so audiences can definitely expect to hear a few familiar tunes from that era as well! The whole production really is a feast for the eyes and ears.
What was your knowledge of the text before you got the part?
I’d read it plenty of times, but I’d never actually been lucky enough to work on it before. So I knew the text itself fairly well, but that doesn’t really mean anything until you get to working on it in the rehearsal room. When you do, you realise just how much there is to play with. So from an actor’s point of view, it’s been enormously enjoyable to excavate the text and explore it every day. That’s one of the things that makes working on Shakespeare so wonderful, he leaves so much up to the actor’s discretion but the clues are all there for you as well and there are always new discoveries to be made.
Why do you think that Shakespeare’s plays remain so relevant today?
I mean, where do you start? The motivations and drive behind so many great Shakespeare’s characters are hugely prevalent in today’s society. There was something spectacularly Shakespearean about Theresa May stepping over the corpses of Boris Johnson and Michael Gove after the EU referendum last year and we now see her decline almost mirroring that of Macbeth. But for me, it’s the odd line that resonates and stays with you on a personal level and The Tempest is full of those. I think that’s what great writing does. It provides us with an escape while still holding a mirror up to our lives. These words that were written more than 400 years ago still have the power to move, inspire and thrill us; it’s hard to overstate quite how remarkable an achievement that is.
What do you hope the audience will take away from the piece?
The Tempest is an incredibly fun play with a host of wonderfully entertaining characters. But this production also has some more serious points to raise which will hopefully provide some food for thought for our audiences. While none of the characters are British, there are some very interesting parallels in the play which ought to encourage us to take a look at our colonial past and also how we perceive our relationship with some of those countries in modern times. For instance, I think the treatment of Caliban in this production could make for uncomfortable viewing for contemporary audiences, but it’s always worth reminding ourselves of some of the more unpalatable parts of our history and how they inform the kind of society we are today.
Finally, what would you say to encourage people to come?
The Tempest is widely believed to be Shakespeare’s final play and it very much reads like ‘Shakespeare’s Greatest Hits’. There’s romance, murder plots and some of the best comedy he ever wrote. So even if you haven’t gone near Shakespeare since school, I promise there’s something in this production for you to enjoy. There are some passages which do seem to be something of a farewell from him and he died only five years after writing it, so it’s also quite poignant for those who are already fans of The Bard. With that said, while I’m a huge lover of Shakespeare’s work, the real star here is the beautiful setting of Stafford Castle. The setting, light and yes, the weather are characters in their own right and I speak from experience when I say that it’s one of the very best ways to spend a summer’s evening. I jumped at the chance to work with our incredible creative team again and they’ve also managed to assemble one of the best casts I’ve ever been fortunate enough to work with. So come along; we’d be absolutely delighted to see you there.
Thanks James, so wonderful to chat to you again and can’t wait to see The Tempest!