Interview: Michael Oakley

Written for Exeunt

His most recent production, The Changeling is a challenging Jacobean tragedy co-written by Thomas Middleton and William Rowley, exploring love and sexual obsession, that has caused controversy in the press. His first full length production as winner of the reputable JMK Award was an ambitious version of Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II. Michael Oakley has a passion for classics, and his productions reflect an attention to detail and, at the same time, a pragmatism that is rare in young directors.

In person, he is controlled, somewhat relaxed and carries a crafted yet sincere modesty in his manner of speech. Oakley’s every word is weighted and considerate. He is as mysterious as the characters he so cares for in his productions, revealing only an acute passion for his profession and the classics he chooses to tackle, but no more sentiment than that.

‘I think The Changeling is an absolutely brilliant play’, he tells me when asked why he chose this particular play. ‘It is visceral, dark, exciting, and I absolutely love that’. Set in a surveillance society, Oakley’s adaption focuses on the constant voyeurism of the play but also its theatrical exploration of sexuality. ‘De Flores is the keeper of the keys; the servant. As he says, “I’ll please myself with sighting her [Beatrice-Joanna] with every opportunity.” He is a voyeur, but is not alone. Beatrice-Jonna or Alsemero are no different. It’s why I chose to contextualize this, but I didn’t want to make a big feature out of it.’ His other consideration was giving a modern context to the class divide between De Flores and Beatrice-Joanna. ‘If he is a security guard, and she a rich women, the whole play holds together.’

His other big idea was to incorporate the asides into voice-overs as part of the sound design of the play. ‘I went to Bristol Old Vic to try it out with two actors to see if this sound idea was crazy. When it works, it’s interesting that the actor can play one thing, and think another. This is a play about changeling, about people acting one way and being another. That was the reason.’ He mentions that despite the fact that he would never dream of doing this for any other play, The Changeling enabled this with ease. ‘There is a moment in the text when De Flores has a long aside after being chased away from Beatrice-Joanna, who is still onstage. In a conventional approach, she would be frozen somewhere upstage, but I wanted him to just stand there and say nothing- he does this throughout the production, and it’s incredibly powerful.’

His starting point for the show seems to be a sheer love for classics, and for  this play that deals so openly with issues of sexuality, particularly at a time where this was a subject that rarely made it on stage with such explicit drama. ‘I have an awful lot of respect for it. And interestingly, I actually don’t think it’s completely wacky or off the wall. Gosh, I spent the first day of rehearsals talking to my cast about the development of Elizabethan domestic tragedy. I never approached this production with a big concept, far from that’.

He thought, given the budget and time they had, that this needs to clearly be a version of the play. ‘That’s what I have been calling it from the beginning. A version of the play. I can’t have a huge cast, so how can I approach it? All I have done is cut some elements heavily, but I haven’t re-written it.’ He states these words lightly, with an imposed confidence but a very pensive tone.

He consistently underlines how he never meant to be controversial, but the decisions at the basis of the play, such as cutting the sub-plot, was inherently determined by the financial conditions of production. ‘I cut the subplot because, to be honest, of the issue of money. We don’t have much of it. The problem is, with anyone who wants to do a classic play at my stage in directing, you can never do a whole production justice. I could have decided to do this with twelve people all in period costume, but I would be making the wrong kind of compromises. There’s a certain amount of cutting back because you are on the fringe’.

He mentions his production of Edward II, which he states was a lot more conventional than The Changeling, but much more heavily edited.  He pauses, perhaps considering his relationship to the production three years down the line. ‘The fringe is the place to experiment’, he states confidently. ‘I think it’s about honouring your version of the text with the facilities and resources that you have. But also to be ambitious- if the fringe is not the place where you can experiment and take risks, then there’s no where you can do that.’

Did he feel he had to compensate for the removal of a sub-plot that carries so much of the humour in the play, and that consistently provides a mirror to the main drama? ‘You know I’m not the first person who cut that play. In fact this seems to be a recurring strategy on similar fringe productions of the play. I didn’t feel I had to compensate for it. I knew that in our version, the subplot is gone, so let’s focus on the main plot which is hard-hitting, fast moving, a headlong decent into scenes of lust and murder.’  He agrees that a lot of comic relief is lost, but believes it makes for a tight, concentrated study of sexuality, which is what he wanted to explore in the first place.

Does he feel this is a modern play in many ways?  He reacts enthusiastically. ‘It’s so incredibly modern, yes! I think human responses to lust or sexuality don’t really change. I mean, arguably the main plot of The Changeling is more immediately relevant than the subplot. I’d love the budget and resources to do a 20-cast version of it. But this is an interesting limitation.’

After a brief pause, he shifts gear, his thoughts interrupted by the occasional ‘gosh’. Oakley references plays like Agamemnon and The Oresteia. ‘Those war plays dating from thousands of years ago were very much in the public consciousness- audiences had to watch them. There is so much to learn. So many years later, we’re still learning. Without sounding pretentious, these plays are bigger than us, and will endure because of that’.

Oakley is certainly convinced of the power of classic plays both theatrically and intellectually. It’s no surprise, considering he has assisted directors such as Trevor Nunn and Jonathan Kent. ‘After Edward II, I went for a two year job at Chichester and didn’t get it, and Jonathan Kent kept me on file, and all of a sudden Trevor Nunn needed an assistant for a show he was doing there, and there was I. I loved his work.  Trevor doesn’t need to scale back, he fully honours the plays. It’s something to aspire to.‘ How about their working relationship? ‘He’s been brilliant, and I learned so much from him, the details in his productions are amazing. He has boundless energy, and it’s so great to absorb that.’

Chichester has played a key part in his development since winning the JMK-Award, and he has not only worked with some of the UK’s most established directors, but also gained experience in running a building, programming and administration. Alongside he has been mentored by Tom Morris, ‘who actually encouraged me to get rid of the subplot in the play. He’s been so helpful and allowed me to explore my work and encouraged me to approach classics. At the end of the day it’s difficult. Trevor is excellent but he’s had 50 years experience…’

Oakley is returning to Chichester to work as an associate, and is also excited to be working on a large-scale touring production. Will he stick to classics for now? ‘Yes, absolutely! I love them and will continue to work with them.  I might avoid tragedies for a while… but seriously, there is so much to learn from them.’

As for the response to his current production, Oakley remains seemingly unscathed. He would rather his production gets talked about, and doesn’t mind the mixed response. The confidence with which he marries concept with budget is enviable, and levelled. As a young director, he is impressively fluent when talking about himself and his own work, but also tamed. Most importantly, Oakley is highly ambitious, and with his determination and energy he has already laid a strong foundation for his career.  ‘I think a director is an instigator at the end of the day. You have to go into it to challenge and educate and do all those things. The day you and audience stop learning, it will all stop; you have to keep at it.’

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