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 t h e a t r e

Antony and Cleopatra

i n t e r v i e w s

18.ii.00 Bates interview in the Evening Standard
which touches on "Antony and Cleopatra"
as well as "The Cherry Orchard."

But you're beautiful, Miss Jones

For decades Frances de la Tour has been denied
the great classical roles that she covets.
Tonight she finally gets her break.
In an exclusive interview for the Guardian,
she talks to Lyn Gardner, Tuesday January 18 2000

An Appetite for Big Things

In an exclusive interview for the Daily Telegraph,
Alan Bates tells Michael Owen about his role
in the RSC's controversial new "Antony and
Cleopatra," and how life goes on after
the deaths of his wife and son.

Love Match

by Marion McMullen

THERE will be no hissing when Alan Bates and Frances de la Tour take to the stage as passionate lovers Antony and Cleopatra because the couple have already made it clear they WON'T share the spotlight with a real snake.
Theatre snakes have stolen the headlines from the stars in the past with their dramatic backstage escapes. So this time Cleopatra's famous snake is being replaced by a plastic fake and there will be no slithering in the Royal Shakespeare Company's new Stratford production.
"If we have a real snake on stage the audience know it can't possibly be poisonous and that takes away the belief. It's much better to use the imagination," declares Frances.


At 65 and 54 respectively, Alan and Frances admit they present a rather mature Antony and Cleopatra, but they have played lovers on stage before and recently worked together on the new film version of "The Cherry Orchard."
"We feel we know each other perfectly well and that's a good way to start off playing Antony and Cleopatra," says Frances.
For Alan, the chance to play one of the world's greatest lovers is a wonderful addition to a glittering career.
The star of hit films like "Zorba the Greek," "Whistle Down the Wind" and "Far From the Madding Crowd," began talks four years ago about the possibility of playing Antony.
He nearly got his chance at the Royal National Theatre with Helen Mirren as his Cleopatra, but surgery prevented him taking the role and the part went to Alan Rickman instead.
Alan and Frances have an easy rapport, with Alan happy to take a back seat as Frances chatters on about her role and the play.


Of course, they both have a lot in common. They have both played Hamlet, both enjoyed success at the RSC and both have a list of acting credits as long as your arm. Alan actually made his professional debut in Coventry in 1955 with the Midlands Theatre Company. He went to Rada with Peter O'Toole and Albert Finney and appeared at the College Theatre in [the] new comedy "You and Your Wife" after leaving drama School. A year later he was starring at London's Royal Court in "Look Back in Anger."
The Midlander returned to Coventry in the 60s to star in Arnold Wesker's "The Four Seasons" with Diane Cilento at the Belgrade Theatre and first appeared with the Royal Shakespeare Company nearly 30 years ago when he played Petruchio in "The Taming of the Shrew" back in 1973.
"It's a bit like coming here for the first time. It doesn't feel like I'm coming back. I do love the area and I'm looking forward to working on the new stage at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. It is much more intimate and accessible. I really do feel I'm here for the first time. Everything is fresh."


As well as "Antony and Cleopatra," Derbyshire-born Alan is also starring in "Timon of Athens" and looking forward to returning to Shakespeare again. With Frances as his Cleopatra, Alan promises the production will be "a meeting of temperaments." He jokes: "It's a private play about epic people...or should that be the other way around?"
Frances herself says she is taking each day as it comes in her preparation to play Cleopatra, but she is no stranger to Stratford audiences.
She went straight from drama school to the RSC in 1965, and spent six years with the company. Her theatre credits include Peter Brook's production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and "Duet For One," written specially for her by Tom Kempinski, her former partner and father of her two children. She also spent four years in the 1970s comedy "Rising Damp," and has appeared on TV recently in "Cold Lazarus" and "Tom Jones."
"Cleopatra is an extraordinary, exciting and emotional woman," declares Frances. "She could be beautiful and ugly, thoughtful and gentle. But," she laughs, "I think she meets her match in Antony." |||

A theatre for my dead son

by Nick Curtis

THIS has been a busy week for Alan Bates. The burly, 64-year-old theatrical bulwark of the 1960s acting generation opened opposite Frances de la Tour in Steven Pimlott's Royal Shakespeare Company production of "Antony and Cleopatra" on Wednesday, then plunged straight into rehearsals for "Timon of Athens." But Bates's thoughts, or at least those he's prepared to share, are not on Stratford: they are on the Tristan Bates Theatre, the venue he founded to commemorate his son, who died aged 19 of a rare allergic reaction while on a modelling assignment in Japan with his twin brother Benedick in 1990. Last night, one day after "Antony and Cleopatra" started, the TBT reopened as a producing organisation rather than just a venue for hire, with Mark Wing-Davey's premiere of Brighde Mullins's new Irish play, "Fire Eater."
The story began when the Actors Centre moved from Chenies Street to new premises in Covent Garden's Tower Street in 1994.

Empty room

"I had been looking for a theatre to endow in Tristan's memory," says Bates, "and had some negotiations with his old school, which didn't come off. Then, when I was shown around the new premises of the Actors Centre there was this empty room. I said 'what's this space here, then...?'."
A theatre was a logical choice for a memorial, since both Tristan and Benedick had decided in 1990 to follow their father onto the stage. "That was where his life was to be, so it made sense to set up something practical and functional for people of his age."
And rather than, say, a drama school bursary, the TBT can be used by all the trainee performers at the Actors Centre. "It covers so many people: there's something going on in there at all times of the day." It's also right beside that essential resource for young thesps, the centre's exceedingly cheap bar. "Yes," says Bates wrily, "that's good too, isn't it ? " He has been impressed by the "four or five" productions he has seen there, but the TBT was always meant to be more than just a space for rent or rehearsals. " We always wanted it to be run by an artistic director," says Bates, "and I think Mark's plans for it, starting with this season of Irish plays, are excellent. It will produce work for about six months of the year, which I think makes it viable. I'm not very good with finances."


He has, however, been very good for the TBT's finances. In addition to the original £50,000 he put up to endow the theatre, Bates staged a six-day series of Philip Larkin readings last year with director Patrick Garland to raise money. There's also a fund he has set up -- "there's not much in it at the moment" -- and the possible money-spinner of a full Alan Bates production at the theatre: "I'd like to do something there myself, certainly, either acting or directing. It's an ideal venue for intimate performances." For now, he is backing a Lottery application to build a new, dedicated entrance for the theatre.
Working with and for the TBT has not, though, made the pain of Tristan's death any easier to bear, particularly since Victoria, Bates's wife of 24 years, died in Sardinia two years after her son, of a wasting disease possibly brought on by grief. "Nothing can really help you cope with events like that," says Bates. "But setting up the theatre has helped me to make sense of Tristan's ambition and his potential." Both traits are also commemorated, of course, in Benedick, now a successful actor who co-starred with Alan in "Fortune's Fool" at Chichester in 1996.
Father and son still live "within striking distance" in St John's Wood, but Bates senior is wary of dragging his surviving son into the story of the TBT. "Please don't overdo the Ben thing," he says. "I don't mind speaking up for Tristan and Victoria because they're not here to speak for themselves, but Ben deserves a life which isn't always tied to three other people." He and Benedick are, he says, "great mates", and will work together again "if it happens. You can't push things like that. "


Work has always been Alan Bates's great solace. After his early success as Cliff in the 1956 production of "Look Back in Anger," and as the stud-muffin star of Sixties movies like "Georgy Girl," "Far from the Madding Crowd" and the infamous "Women in Love," Bates has kept on working, spreading himself across different media but always returning to the stage. Now, more than 20 years after his last appearance with the RSC, he's back in Stratford and tackling two of Shakespeare's heaviest and hardest roles. "Antony and Cleopatra" continues the Bates/de la Tour double act that began "years ago" with Strindberg's "The Dance of Death" at Riverside Studios, and continued more recently in a film of Chekhov's "The Cherry Orchard," which is due out in August.
He's sorry that he was on stage when Fire Eater opened last night at the TBT: "But, to be honest, there isn't anywhere else I'd rather be." |||

"Antony and Cleopatra" is at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford, box office 01789 403403. "Fire Eater" is at the Tristan Bates Theatre until 17 July, box office 0171 240 3940.

The Evening Standard
© Associated Newspapers Ltd., 25 June 1999

Bringing magic to the RSC

Yolanda Sonnabend's new production design for the

RSC is so lush she hopes it doesn't remind people of the

Hilton, she tells Rupert Christiansen

IN a broad and tree-lined street in north London stands a sober-fronted Victorian villa which looks like any other. Once ushered behind its plain black front door, however, you are transported. Every room, kitchen and bathroom included, is a magician's lair. Walls of books and paintings, ferocious African masks, rococo head-dresses, gnarled sculptural shapes, huge vases filled with paint brushes, swathes of gorgeous fabric, all presided over by exotic guardian cats -- it is Borges's labyrinth, it is Prospero's cave and Dr Coppelius's workshop. It is also the suprisingly pleasant and, in its fashion, orderly home of Yolanda Sonnabend, who has inhabited it for many years.
Her domestic surroundings are evidence of a deep and dark visual imagination which has made her one of the most flamboyant and original stage designers of the past 40 years, as well as a distinguished artist in other genres and a much-loved friend and teacher to many. The latest project to absorb her like some medieval alchemist has been the new production of "Antony and Cleopatra," which opens tomorrow, directed for the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon by Steven Pimlott, with Alan Bates and Frances de la Tour in the title roles.

Bikers' Jackets

What makes Sonnabend's contribution particularly interesting is that RSC design has long been associated with an aesthetic of clean lines, timbered floors and white boxes. The sort of dense, rich, surrealist atmosphere in which she specialises has not recently been favoured in Stratford, and the first appearance of her designs on the main stage is significant in a season in which the RSC has been busily revivifying itself. "You never know, it may or may not work," Sonnabend says, "but it will certainly look different.
"Steven Pimlott started by asking me for something Jacobean -- he was interested in the idea of the parallel between the Romans and 17th-century Puritans. But it's evolved away from that towards something much more mixed: the Book of the Dead, the haute couture of John Galliano, leather bikers' jackets for the Romans. We want to convey the idea that in the Ancient World, Rome and Alexandria were very close yet different, in the same way that Rome and Milan are now. Alexandria was sophisticated and self-indulgent; Rome was harder, more businesslike.
"We've also tried to make it all flow seamlessly. It's a long play, with a lot of short scenes and minor characters, and you have to keep it moving fast." The use of polycarbonate mirrors will facilitate this filmic fluidity: a glimpse of a Polaroid snap of the set also shows richly painted gauzes, a truncated translucent pillar ("that's Rome"), a gilded scarab throne and a carpeted floor ("I hope it doesn't remind people of the foyer of a Hilton"). It's certainly going to look different.


But then nothing about Sonnabend has ever been conventional. As she herself admits, "I've always been an eccentric, out on a limb. I really don't mind that at all. And in a funny way, I feel they've all caught up with me now."
She was born in the former Rhodesia, and the brilliant colours and vast sky of the African landscape - the oldest on the planet, she points out - lie at the heart of her vision. She first studied painting in Geneva, and settled in London in 1954, when she had the good fortune to become a pupil at the Slade art school during one of its golden eras.
Jackson Pollock may have been the fashion at the time, but the influences on Sonnabend's style were eclectic -- among them her principal teacher Robert Medley, a survivor of the pre-war Auden-Britten-Isherwood connection, Poussin, Borromini's architecture, de Chirico, the movies, and "Peter Brook coming to the Slade to talk to us about producing Hamlet, and saying 'all you really need is a chandelier' ". The result is a very fine painter of mannerist, expressionist canvases, full of lush, disturbing and ghostly imagery, as well as an acute and sympathetic portraitist - her picture of Stephen Hawking is one of the gems of the National Portrait Gallery's modern collection.


But she is probably best known for her stage work, particularly her ballet design. For more than 20 years, she had a close professional relationship with the choreographer Kenneth MacMillan, collaborating on some of his strongest one-act works: "Danses concertantes," "Requiem," "My Brother and My Sisters" among them.
"Kenneth was a genius - I have no doubt about that," she says. "He used other designers for his epic three-act pieces: he liked me for the more abstract and the more psychological things."
In personality, he was complex and sometimes uncommunicative. "You couldn't push him too hard. He wouldn't give you a detailed brief -- his choices were all instinctive. I'd lay loads of drawings out on the floor and put the one I preferred upside down, so it would stand out and he could think that he had selected it. He never explained himself much, but I always knew when he was pleased."
MacMillan died in 1992, but their work together continues. After "Antony and Cleopatra," Sonnabend moves on to a new English National Ballet production of MacMillan's "Rite of Spring," originally designed by Sidney Nolan, and the Royal Ballet's revival of "Rituals." But her old compulsion just "to strive on and on and on" -- in true, manic stage-designer fashion -- has eased off. "Now I feel I have to stop occasionally. But once I get going I still find it utterly absorbing and exciting." |||

The Elctronic Telegraph
Tuesday, 22 June 1999