Q&A with Director Michael Fentiman

Michael Fentiman

Your most recent work for the RSC is a full length production of Titus Andronicus, and now you're directing a 75 minute production of The Taming of the Shrew primarily aimed at school children.  What are the challenges in directing a play aimed at younger audiences?
I try my hardest not to make a distinction actually. We have to be very clear, but that's just as true when directing Titus Andronicus.  But, again, just as when working on something like Titus, the main thundering mantra I have is not to patronise.  My job is to tell the story clearly and truthfully, and trust that young brains are hungry for language. 

In this production all the male roles will be played by women, and all the female roles by men.  Why have you made that decision?
I have found that, sometimes, if you put a man in a dress but ask him to carry on acting like a man you find something quite magical happens. His natural balance of masculine and feminine is allowed to come through, and you are no longer concerned with ideas and preconceptions that surround his gender. You focus more closely on the human being, not the gender role that is associated with that person's sex. Like with a pantomime dame. 

I think the same can be true of a woman.  Replace a dress with a suit, to create a masculine image, but without diminishing her femininity, and something translucent and magical is allowed to happen. Again, like a lead boy in panto. 

Cross dressing is a huge part of our story-telling history, and I was keen to embrace it here in a playful way, especially with a play where so much emphasis is placed on gender.  I hope this will help the production bring the emotional journey of the characters to the forefront, and allow a timeless story to emerge; a story about troubled, melancholic but ultimately joyful love, rather than the tale of abuse and misogyny that has made the play infamous.

Are you setting the production in a particular period?
I am using two periods, although setting it in no period fully. The women (played by men) will occupy an Elizabethan world, and the men (played by woman) a modern one. It's Moderbeathan.

This production is playing in both theatres and schools – what kind of challenge does that present to you as a director?
It's a huge challenge as all the schools and theatres vary hugely. No one theatre is the same and no one school. We need to create a show that is flexible enough to adapt to new spaces, but is also strong and robust so it can take whatever is thrown at it.

How did you get into theatre?  Has your background affected the kind of director you are?
My mother is a sales manager for an electronics company and my father a builder. It wasn't the kind of family that would have pushed me towards any kind of career, let alone one in the arts. I just picked up a strange curiosity for writing and performing little sketches when I was about ten. I don't think for a moment anyone thought I might do it for a career.   Theatre was for posh people. 

My father was someone who wouldn't have wandered into a theatre if it wasn't for his support of me.  He's not academic and theatre-going was never a prominent part of the world he grew up in. He now comes a lot. This started with convincing him to come and see a pantomime, then a musical, then a comedy, and now he has been to Stratford to see Shakespeare. It's my greatest achievement.

So First Encounter is something I am hugely passionate about. We will dive into schools, into halls, into theatres, playing to people from all sorts of backgrounds.  We no longer live in a world where a working repertory theatre is a bus ride away for everybody. There wasn't one for me as a boy. So this project holds deep importance for me as it places Shakespeare and live theatre at the heart of British cultural life.


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