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Interview: Daniel Jenkins and Daniel Francis of Singapore Repertory Theatre’s Othello

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Singapore Repertory Theatre’s upcoming Shakespeare in the Park production of Othello stars Daniel Francis and Daniel Jenkins, who answered some questions for us.

A tale of ambition, envy, treachery and eventually murder, Othello is one of Shakespeare’s finest tragedies. It tells the tale of the Moorish general Othello who makes an enemy of his ensign Iago when he promotes the younger Cassio over him. Iago vows revenge, and schemes to make Othello believe that his new bride, the fair Desdemona, has been unfaithful to him. Othello’s suspicious and distrustful nature makes him easy prey to Iago’s manipulations. His obsessive love for Desdemona soon turns into uncontrolled jealousy, with tragic consequences for all involved. 

 

DANIEL FRANCIS

Can you tell us a bit about your role as Othello?

I play a man who, at the height his most profound experience of love, is deceived by his closest friend and destroyed by his own jealousy.

What drew you to the role and/or the play?

I love Shakespeare; as an actor, working with this type of language is a treat! The opportunity to live and work in Singapore was a huge pull. It was once I spoke to the director, Bruce Guthrie, that I was really sold.

Will SRT’s Othello offer any fresh perspective or direction to the play?

Absolutely. This production is going to be epic, I can’t think of an Othello production that has been done on this scale; the set is incredible and the world we’ve created will, I think, be very captivating.

You’ve done both stage and screen work; which one appeals to you more? 

I love them both the immediacy of the stage, engaging with the audience and the rehearsal period are some of the pluses for the theatre. On screen I love how revealing the camera is and how subtle an actor can be. Ultimately although they are different media the foundation for both is truth, which I love about being an actor.

Why should theatregoers watch Othello? What are you hoping they will take from the play?

It will hopefully be an evening of high entertainment; the play is packed with such a range of emotions that it’s impossible to watch it and leave unmoved.

Is this your first time to Singapore? First time working in Singapore? How has the experience working (and living here for a while) been? Have you managed to see the country at all? Any low points being here?

Yes this is my first time in Singapore! I love it! Great food, the people are fantastic, so humble and warm, Having flown in from Los Angeles it’s drastically different. I had to go out and by a new wardrobe, thought I was going to die from the heat the first few days, now I fit right in…well not quite :)

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DANIEL JENKINS

Can you tell us a bit about your role in Othello?

I play the role of Iago who is one of Othello’s officers. Iago is such an iconic character and has often been described as the worst of Shakespeare’s villains. It is Iago who first plants the seed of Desdemona’s infidelity and it is his lies and manipulation that lead to the final tragedy.

What drew you to the role and/or the play?

Iago is such a great part and unbelievably demanding for any actor. It is the third-biggest part in Shakespeare so just on size alone it is a challenge. There is also the question of his motivation. So many books and studies have been written debating why Iago does what he does and as an actor you have to draw your own conclusions.

I did not want to play him as pure ‘evil’ as I don’t think there are really people like that, plus that would be less interesting, but rather I wanted to try to find reasons and justifications for his behaviour. He is a master of deception and the world’s best liar, and like a spider, weaves a web of deception and lies to ensnare his victims.

Any role is rewarding whether serious, funny, good or bad and as a ‘character actor’ I have been fortunate to play many extremely different roles. What makes each part interesting is discovering what makes these characters tick and motivates them. That’s what is so fascinating about Iago. He is such a complex, brilliantly clever character, manipulating everyone in the play, and is the cause of the tragedy. As he says himself ‘I am not what I am’, and it is this duality that makes him a challenge for any actor.

Will SRT’s Othello offer any fresh perspective or direction to the play?

As with all the Shakespeare in the Park productions Othello will be spectacular on a grand scale. We are using the same award-winning design team who worked on Twelfth Night and from the pictures I’ve seen of the designs, this set will be bigger, better and bolder than anything the Park has seen. We have a fantastically talented cast and under the leadership of Bruce Guthrie (Associate Director for Richard III The Bridge Project) and our director for Twelfth Night last year, this will be a production you really won’t want to miss.

You’ve done both stage and screen work; which one appeals to you more? Why?

Both are very different. I am far more comfortable in the theatre and I prefer the process of putting on a play. The rehearsals, the discussions, the finding and developing a character. TV and movies are far more instant. You turn up, shoot the scenes and you’re done. There is usually very little rehearsal or discussion and you are often left to rely on your instincts more. There is something exciting about being on a TV or movie set though and as an actor today it is important that you can do both.

What’s the difference, in your experience, between working on stage and on screen?

In TV and movies everything you do is seen in great detail, any facial expression, movement or gesture, so as an actor you have to be very conscious of every detail of your performance. It is easy to be too large and unrealistic, so the old adage ‘less is more’ is very apt. In all acting you are looking to find the truth within a character, tell the story and take the audience or viewer on the journey with you. In theatre and especially in the Park it is the challenge of keeping a scene truthful and real when performing to 2,000 people outdoors!

Why should theatregoers watch Othello? What are you hoping they will take from the play?

It is such a great story. It is so compelling and once it starts it is a roller coaster ride speeding towards the tragic conclusion. Also it will be spectacular with the biggest set the Park has seen. And if that’s not enough, what better way could there be to spend an evening that sitting under the stars with a bottle of wine, a picnic and Shakespeare! Bliss! I also think that Othello is very accessible to everyone. The story is clear and uncomplicated, and whether you are a Shakespeare scholar or a Shakespeare virgin, this production will grab you by the seat of the pants and take you on a thrilling journey. It really is not to be missed.

You’ve been living in Singapore for a while; could you tell us when you arrived here? Why did you choose to make a living here in Singapore, especially as an actor? Has it been difficult being a non-Asian actor here seeking a living?

I arrived in Singapore 15 years ago and although I was working as an actor consistently in the UK, when I was offered the chance to come to Singapore to teach drama, the lure of a two-year Asian adventure was too much to resist and I headed East! The first five years flew by and I was so busy teaching and studying (a degree in theatre, a licentiate in teaching drama, plus certificates galore, to back up my practical acting knowledge with sound theoretical qualifications), that acting really wasn’t on my radar. It was only a rare occasion of seeing a Caucasian actor in a production that I considered the possibility of working here as an actor too.

I auditioned for my first play, Lonely Planet by Steven Dietz (2002) (a play with only two characters), a terrifying experience having not acted for five years, got the role and things really took off almost instantly. The theatre company then asked me to perform in their next play, and the one after that, and very soon I found myself in demand! An unbelievably fortunate position to be in coming from the UK where for many actors just getting seen for a role was rare let alone being offered parts without even an audition! I was still working full time so any rehearsals and performances had to take place in the evenings, so I was basically doing two full time jobs. Now as a freelancer and running my own business, life is still crazily busy, but I am able to juggle my schedule a little more. It still means working most days, nights and weekends, but I now have more choice about what I do.

Things have definitely changed in the 15 years I have been here. Now there are far more opportunities for actors and directors and so many more theatre companies. The standard of work has also improved. I think having more touring companies coming to Singapore (The Bridge Project, RSC etc) has really raised the standard and audiences are now used to seeing world class productions so their expectations have also been raised and they demand quality homegrown productions.

I obviously get typecast in Singapore, but that is only to the extent of always playing a Caucasian! What is great about the acting scene here is that I have had the opportunity to play such wonderful, varied and challenging parts. In the UK actors get typecast in a particular type of role or character, but as a ‘character actor’ here, I am able to really flex my acting muscles and play such extremely diverse roles, and with theatre companies like SRT, who practise colour blind casting (casting actors who are best for the role regardless of race), I have been fortunate to play many great parts. From villains to victims, comedy or tragedy. Of course I also get cast as bosses and evil expats, but I am happy to be employed and so lucky to be doing something I love.

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About Sharmila Melissa Yogalingam

Ex-professor, Ex-phd student, current freelance critic, writer and filmmaker.