Star-crossed and remixed | Luke Farrugia

Ahead of taking the helm of MADC’s annual summer appointment with Shakespeare at San Anton Gardens, UK-trained actor Luke Farrugia speaks to us about taking on the challenge of an iconic play like Romeo and Juliet as his second directorial project

teodor_reljic
Teodor Reljic
13 July 2015, 8:30am
Philip Leone-Ganado as Romeo and Erica Muscat as Juliet in MADC’s upcoming production of Romeo and Juliet
Philip Leone-Ganado as Romeo and Erica Muscat as Juliet in MADC’s upcoming production of Romeo and Juliet
As with practically all of William Shakespeare’s work, Romeo and Juliet comes loaded with pre-conceptions and cultural baggage: everyone has an impression about it – if not a fully-formed opinion – and a mental image of what the play is about. How do you hope to add your own shade and nuance to the iconic play?

A play like this is a double-edged sword – it’s extremely famous and will definitely draw the crowds in – but once it does are they going to see the exact same thing they have always seen? Do you pander to the audience’s wants or do you go in a completely different direction? Smarter people than I would probably answer – strike a balance, but that’s much easier said than done.

Of course, you are limited by the text and the plot – but I very much believe in taking risks. Any artist worth his mettle would tell you the same. And I believe we have taken quite a few risks here. I won’t spoil anything, but there will be a few surprises.

At its core, it will always be Romeo and Juliet. If it weren’t, I wouldn’t be doing my job right. But the choices I can make with how it is presented and delivered to the audience is what makes it different. This piece is darker and I hope – much more relevant to us nowadays. My approach has always been to try and uncover the truth as I can see it.

I trained as an actor at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama and what was great about that course was that I was always encouraged to push boundaries and explore how far I could go with my craft.

I find the same thing applies as a director. My work incorporates not only the textual elements of the play but I am a great admirer of aesthetics and from what has been covered so far of the show – the visuals are already looking stunning. The style of the piece is very cinematic in this way. And costume and set designer Isabel Warrington has been essential in making that happen.

Did you see the opportunity to direct this play for MADC as daunting, or more of an exciting opportunity? Why?

Definitely a bit of both. I’m one of the youngest directors to ever direct the MADC Shakespeare – which has seen veterans like Chris Gatt and Polly March (both mentors of mine in some way or another). It’s a highlight in the MADC calendar and I’m still very honoured to having been given the responsibility with only one other credit to my name as a director.

Thankfully my training and my work seem to speak for themselves. Everyone is excited and very keen to work with me particularly because of my background of study abroad as well as trusting the MADC name.

And that’s indeed what makes it exciting – the MADC have given me free reign (within reason and budget) to go and pour my heart and soul out into this piece with very few limitations. That amount of trust is very rare to find nowadays – what with seats and sales being much more intrinsic in the minds of the UK industry – and that is enough to excite any artist still discovering the potential of his or her craft.

Was it a challenge to assemble the “just right” cast, particularly the leads? What are the qualities that Philip Leone-Ganado and Erica Muscat lend to the star-crossed couple, and how did their respective takes on the character correspond with your vision?

Casting on this show was a nightmare! Most Shakespeares are quite male-heavy and thus finding enough males willing to take part in something which is considered so daunting as Shakespearean text was actually a lot tougher than I’d have hoped.

The casting process actually began around a year ago – in summer of 2014 – since I had to work on the pre-production stages around the final year of my course abroad. It’s been an extremely delicate process – and of course we have had to deal with a lot of other stuff coming up for actors and thus some recasts – but we consolidated the cast list earlier this year.

We found our Juliet early – with Erica Muscat bringing a great maturity and depth to the role – although casting her may have been a bit controversial since she’s older than most would expect and her look isn’t what would be considered the typical Juliet’s.

Once we had her – matching a Romeo to her Juliet proved to be one of the hardest things every. After a long journey, riddled with obstacles, we finally settled on Philip Leone-Ganado who matches up to Erica in every way (an extremely daunting task!) bringing an intellectual understanding of the text (Phil is actually a Shakespeare veteran having done quite a few MADC Shakespeare productions in his career).

The marketing associated with this production emphasizes that it will be part and parcel of the ‘remix culture’ of Shakespeare adaptations. Could you tell us more about what that means, and how it applies to this production in particular? 

In particular – this refers to a current wave of West End productions which try to re-appropriate Shakespeare plays and retell the story in a different way – while still retaining all the original text.

It’s been a culture that’s been going on for ages – including Baz Luhrmann’s epic film adaptation of this very play – but recently found great success and profile by companies such as the National Theatre and even the RSC. I believe one of the best examples I’ve seen would be a Bollywood version of Much Ado About Nothing, done by the RSC which ran in a West End theatre.

This applies to my previous statement – our production of Romeo and Juliet will not be the typical thing you’d expect to see. In the same way as people generally wouldn’t expect big Bollywood production numbers in a Shakespearean play like Much Ado About Nothing.

But then again, why not? As I said before, the text – if you are sensitive to its needs – can handle it. As long as what you do still honours the text and remains relevant to the text and the characters created – the culture nowadays says you can do what you want. 

There has recently been a criticism of ‘biscuit box’ Shakespeare production – the drive to stage the plays as safe high-brow entertainment. Will you aim to lend a discomfiting edge to your Romeo & Juliet? 

Personally, I don’t really believe in doing a show if there isn’t something in it that doesn’t inspire you to challenge society and to reveal some truths. And truths can be hard to hear sometimes. But you can’t impose anything that isn’t already there in the text. If the production ends up challenging some norms and ideals it’s only because it was already there in the first place. All I’m doing is highlighting aspects that I feel need to be stated louder than the rest.  

How would you describe the local theatrical scene? What would you change about it?

The local theatre scene is perhaps one of the most eclectic I’ve ever seen. There are various sects and people tend to stick to one or another but in general I believe we are gifted with a kind of artistic liberty here that you don’t find much within the confines of an industry as big as the UK’s.

If I could change things – what I wouldn’t do!

Firstly, promote the need to for people to train abroad. It’s turned me upside down as an actor and as an artist and just broadened my perspectives while allowing me to work on nothing but my craft 24/7 and seven days a week. It’s extremely tough but you become a completely new person with a skillset that allows you to survive in a cut-throat industry as well as how to stand by your own craft and come into your own as an artist.

Secondly, promote the need for new writing. It’s always quite sad to see that there are always the same couple of names who seem to be writing. Albeit their work being great and always appreciated, more young people need to start finding their voice too in order to give us something more varied to work on. 

Finally – wake up our youth. Don’t settle for mediocrity. If you think you can do it – try it! Find your own voice – whatever artform it may be residing in – and remain active. There are thousands of opportunities that go by every day – and if you really want something you can do it. All you have to do is risk it for a biscuit and dive in! Everyone is always looking for the next generation of talent – and the older generation is always willing to pass on their knowledge. All you have to do is take advantage of it.

What’s next for you?

Who knows? I’m currently in talks to direct a few other things around here – but as soon as Romeo and Juliet is over I’ll be going back to the UK to continue my work as an actor as well – I’m signed with an agent and he’s itching to get me out there and auditioning. I’ve only just graduated so the world is full of possibility!

MADC’s Romeo and Juliet will be performed at San Anton Gardens, Balzan from July 23 to 31. Doors open at 19:30. For more information and bookings, log on to http://www.madc.com.mt/

teodor_reljic
Teodor Reljic is MaltaToday's culture editor and film critic. He joined t...