This week Razz had the great privilege of interviewing Melissa Barrett and David Johnson, Artistic Directors of the Sun and Moon Theatre Company, Exeter Alumni, and play the lead roles of Viola and Sebastian in their latest production of Twelfth Night.
1. For people that are unfamiliar with the play, could you give a quick premise of the plotline of your production of Twelfth Night (without spoilers)?
David: It’s quite a ‘tangled web’ plot, so giving a quick synopsis is kind of a tricky thing, but luckily, we have a flyer in hand!
Melissa: So, our adaption is based on Christmas 1917, the First World War is taking place, while those back home in Illyria are trying to forget what’s going on. Something in the original text that we’ve played with is how all these characters seem to be seeking distraction, which is why we thought about the war time.
David: As a side note, you could view Illyria as Britain. Generally, when Shakespeare presents anything in a foreign country he meant it to be England, but with more decorative names to make it sound more romantic or picturesque.
Melissa: Yeah, it’s quite a British play! They’re all trying to distract themselves from what’s going on and they have different ways of doing that; some are drinking and partying, some are playing music, some people are pretending to be someone they’re not. The very thing that sets the play into motion is that twins, Viola and Sebastian, are shipwrecked and both think the other’s dead. Viola must disguise herself as a boy and finds work in the court of Orsino, Sebastian is swept ashore elsewhere by Antonio who nurses him back to health. So, when they’re shipwrecked and separated, they really shake up Illyria. You wind up with all sorts of mistaken identity, folly, love, and so much chaos.
2. How did the unique idea to set the play in World War One come about?
David: It’s something we specialise in. Whenever we approach a Shakespeare play, for us it’s about finding an era or context that we feel complements the story and characters. And as we said earlier, the characters in the existing text are all trying to distract themselves from something they have no control over, and we thought the First World War is such a huge event to want to divert your attention from.
Melissa: It’s also an era we haven’t really touched upon before, even though we do this a lot. My first production of a Shakespeare play was a Midsummer Nights Dream which I set in the 20s because it just fitted it beautifully, and there was a Much Ado set in the 40s. Together we directed The Two Gentlemen of Verona for the late 50s, so this is something we really like to explore!
David: The setting itself does really impact the characters, there’s often a sense of “what are we fighting for”. Because even though they aren’t out fighting, one of them, for instance, has fought and has returned wounded. Another character is a conscientious objector, marked out by wearing a white feather for those who refused to fight, effectively branded a coward. But because of the nature of the character, he displays it proudly as a badge. He morally objects of the hypocrisy of the First World War, he contrasts a character who is very pro war, for instance.
Melissa: When you do a period, you make it part of yourself because you have to find things that suit the period. And while it would be a lot easier to just do contemporary, it’s what feels right for what we want to say and how to express themes from the past as well as today.
3. Do you have a favourite scene in the play?
David: A favourite of mine takes place on Christmas Eve, it’s the caterwauling scene where the more comic relief characters are revelling late into the night, there’s some wonderful music and traditional Christmas carols. And there’s the song ‘Oh Mistress Mine’ from Feste, the clown character, but it’s actually a really poignant moment as he alludes to some subtle sadness in his past. There’s a moment of sadness where the upbeat and drunken characters are moved to melancholy. But then it all livens up again and everyone’s singing and dancing, it’s a really fun scene.
And that leads into the “I left no ring with her” speech which is so beautifully written, and every time I feel so lucky to have that speech, where she tries to figure out what is going on.
It’s the one time you can really have a conversation with the audience.
Melissa: I love the series of little scenes at the beginning, especially when Viola is first with Olivia – I adore that scene – because the thing with Viola is she’s playing a character, a version of her lost brother with a few extra touches. I’m an actor playing an actor, and it’s so much fun because Viola is so impertinent, even though that isn’t really who she is, but she’s enjoying it! She’s having a great time being rude to Olivia, and Olivia’s a bit rude back which creates this spark of wit between them, and suggests why Olivia starts to fancy Viola (as Cesario) because they have a spark between them, but Viola also speaks beautifully. And that leads into the “I left no ring with her” speech which is so beautifully written, and every time I feel so lucky to have that speech, where she tries to figure out what is going on. It’s the one time where you can really have a conversation with the audience, it’s just me sitting in a chair as if we’re having a chat. That’s my favourite thing in Shakespeare – because we’re not the type of company that has the fourth wall – we do love to open out to the audience.
4. What is it you particularly love about performing Shakespeare?
David: One of the things we love is there’s really no limit with the approaches you can take. We could do Twelfth Night again set in a completely different era and it immediately changes everything. There’s quite little in terms of stage directions or specific setting so you could really set it anywhere as long as you think it through.
Melissa: Sometimes you see productions and you think ‘Oh no, that doesn’t work’, but I think as long as you feel very confident in your vision and think ‘Yes I can draw out the themes in this place’ then you can go to town with it! Shakespeare’s very malleable – I mean, some plays more so than others – but the ones we’ve done so far, we love. We’re constantly talking about new things to do; I must be so annoying because sometimes I’ll just shout ‘Oh! What about this! What about this and this!’ and David says, ‘Well, let’s finish this one first’. It constantly inspires you and sparks conversation.
David: You might want to – years later, with new knowledge – go back to a character you’ve played before because you now understand them better, or you might feel you’re better suited for a completely different character. There’s really no limit to what you can do, and you can get so involved with one play but there’s always so many others – there’s some I don’t know anything about other than the name and setting…
Melissa: I’ve loved Shakespeare since I was 13 and I did my degree in English and my Masters in Staging Shakespeare – both at Exeter University – and I just love it, I love working with his writing, speaking his words, directing his words. It’s such great material to work with.
5. How do you find balancing the roles of management and acting at the same time?
David: That’s one of the trickier things, there are times I do envy people who just get to act without managing! But you do get more experienced at it over time. I’m not so keen on the actor’s life, especially in this current climate where becoming a high-level actor is quite unlikely.
Melissa: The actor’s life is so tough, and we’ve seen people we know closely struggling through it. Some people make it work and do amazingly well, but for us we thought to just make our own stuff and play characters we want to play, rather than running after people and begging for a part. We didn’t want to wait, we just wanted to do it and make it.
David: It’s nice having that autonomy, because if you’re an actor then you’re almost duty bound to accept anything, or endlessly work on projects you have no interest in, but having the autonomy to do projects that excite us is great.
Melissa: It’s great when you’re directing certain scenes and you watch your cast perform characters that really suit them and you’re performing characters you love, it’s a lovely feeling! Of course, you’ve got to manage a cast of nine including ourselves, which is tough especially when you revive shows and people have to move on and you have to recast. You have moments of stress where you’re like ‘Oh God I’m going to cry!’ but once you get back into the groove of it, it feels very rewarding.
David: We’re always growing more ambitious because over the years, as we’re learning more and more, the things you’ve never done before, become common place. Like this year, we took the production beyond Exeter – to Bristol, Stratford-upon-Avon, Bath – and we’re gradually becoming more ambitious and more confident in our performances to be able to do just that.
6. It must be so exciting to travel around and tour, not many companies get to do that!
David: Absolutely, it’s something we’ve only recently started to do. Last year we did The Two Gentlemen of Verona and we went to Barnstable, Tiverton, Stratford-Upon-Avon.
Melissa: It’s been getting bigger and bigger as we’re getting braver and more ambitious. You get so nervous when you start doing these sorts of things, but that’s the great thing about Exeter is its very nurturing to these companies who are self-made or from the university, who want to make their own work – the Drama department were great into nurturing people into believing ‘Yes, I can make my own work’.
7. How did you go about founding the Sun and Moon Theatre Company?
David: You could trace the origins back to Drama, in 2008 when we first met. A few years ago, you [Melissa] were in a touring production of Twelfth Night for your degree, and you had the idea to revive that show and take it to Stratford. About half the cast were able to do it, some couldn’t, so you had to bring new people in.
Melissa: We brought in about 4 people who were also current drama students, it was a very quick process.
David: It was a lot of fun, but it wasn’t really our show, it was someone else’s idea and someone else directed it, we just sort of revived it. But we had to come up with a name for our company and we didn’t just want to be University of Exeter Drama Company.
Melissa: We knew that we wanted it to be called Sun and Moon Theatre, but we felt worried that other people would think we were monopolising it by putting our company name on it. So, we called it Midsummer Madness Theatre because that felt more democratic!
Melissa: We tried it but eventually we just thought, ‘no, we want to be Sun and Moon Theatre’. Our first show as that company was probably Midsummer Madness in 2013, as that was my first fully directed and produced Shakespeare show. It was very much this concept I had of Puck playing the piano, which sparked the idea of the 20s, and that’s when I realised I love creating Shakespeare productions. It was a biscuit cutter of what we like to do together which is playing with a Shakespeare play, find a good setting for it and take each character and come up with their story.
David: We really wanted to bring delight and fun to Shakespeare plays, often they can be quite intimidating, but we wanted the idea that they can be so much fun as well. We’re not shying away from the tragic themes, but we want to delight our audience. So, we’ve got the live music, the bright colours, all the wonderful visual finesse and trying to balance all these elements.
Melissa: Peter Thompson in the drama department came to see that production of Midsummer Night’s Dream which felt very intimidating, but he sent me this lovely email which we’ve carried with us with every show we sort of do. He said about the value of a tea break while putting on a production. Especially at university, when actors don’t have to be there, they’re not being paid; but he described our performance as “unabashed enjoyment” because they looked so committed and thrilled to be there. You could see it was the value of the tea break where actors weren’t overworked but wanted to be there, and that was rare. I think I nearly cried when I saw that because I was so inexperienced, and as directors we know what it’s like to be just the actors. And sometimes directors can be tyrannical or poor at time management, but we try so hard to avoid that. We try and make our cast feel as happy as possible, and that if they need to ask us something at any point that’s okay, it’s important to feel like a safe environment.
8. Do you have a favourite character you’ve performed?
Melissa: Viola is a favourite role I’ve ever played, because when I got to play her in 2013 I didn’t know Twelfth Night at all, and I thought she was such a wonderful character. I remember asking this visiting practitioner who came to visit ‘what would character would really suit me?’ and I remember him saying ‘You’d be a lovely Viola’ but I never looked it up! Then when I got the role later, the part just fit me like a glove. I’d played roles that I loved but I don’t know if I’d had the one that fit me. She’s just a wonderful part and I really relate to her a lot.
David: One I really want to play is Hotspur in Henry IV Part 1, who’s counterpart to prince Hal, and the main plot is the rivalry between them until they have their confrontation at the end of the play. Despite being quite young, he leads the rebellion against the crown and he has the weight of the world on his shoulders. It’s a fantastic role I’d love to play if we ever do Henry IV Part 1. But I think a role I really loved was Edward in Henry VI. It was a fantastic role to play, he was very much a rob stark figure from Game of Thrones, and I was reading the books at the time and – as someone who’s’ father is unjustly killed, and he takes up his father’s mantle against the throne – the character has a lot of similar narrative arcs, it was great fun.
9. And finally, do you have any advice for people hoping to go into acting or stage management?
David: Seek out opportunities but try and create work for yourself, especially for acting because work isn’t going to just present itself. You must be active and vigilant in seeking it out. It’s very easy when you’re not doing anything to fall into a bit of a slump.
Melissa: Collaborate with others too, work with people you get on with and if you have an idea just go with it! It does mean a lot of emails and contacting people, and working really hard to get your foot in the door.
David: Don’t lose hope when you, almost, ‘go out into the real world’ and have to start paying for rehearsal spaces or find actors or hired venues or the technique aspects – It’s only just started to not feel intimidating now we’ve got a few years of experience!
Don’t lose hope!
Melissa: But I think what gets you through it the joy of acting, the joy of putting on performances, and if you really want to make something happen then make it happen. You’ll have to put a lot more work in than you ever thought, and you may want to tear your hair out, but the process is so rewarding. A lot of the time people don’t take risks because they think they can only do eon thing – they can only act, they can only direct. But there’s no reason why you can’t do both, don’t let anyone tell you can’t do something ‘because it’s just not done’.
David: Being an actor or director are some of the most scrutinised careers and that can be really intimidating, but don’t measure your success on whether it fits into a little box… It’s a lot of hard work and it can be daunting, but if you feel passionate enough about something you should always do it.
Melissa: Be prepared to work for a long period of time on something, but remember to take those tea breaks! Give your actors tea breaks, give yourself a tea break, and remember to take a break when you’re throwing yourself into these things. If you want to do something, make it happen, and don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Do what you love doing and be willing to work hard for it. Try things out, be creative, take your tea breaks!
– by Eleanor-Rose Gordon
Twelfth Night will be performed on Wednesday 15th and Thursday 16th November at the Cygnet theatre, tickets are still available and there will be free mulled wine! – https://cygnettheatre.co.uk/whats-on-theatre/
The Sun and Moon theatre company are founded by Exeter Alumni but open to all, specialising in Shakespeare and adaptation work. They focus on ensemble work, but also specialise in intensive solo work – https://sunandmoontheatreuk.com/
*Images courtesy of sunandmoontheatreuk.com