Hannah Greenstreet interviews Michael Fentiman, a professional director with the RSC...
Michael Fentiman insists that, of the thirty-two plays on this term, the Marlowe Society's production of The Comedy of Errors at The Cambridge Arts Theatre is a must-see: "This is the only play on in Cambridge this year with one of the top young composers and sound designers in the country, Tom Mills, one of the top young designers, Signe Beckman, and one of the top young lighting designers, Richard Howell", supporting the talented student cast and technical team.
Despite his obvious enthusiasm for the production, Fentiman says he was initially wary of directing The Comedy of Errors, as "It's Shakespeare's great sitcom romp and my palette is normally quite dark". However, on rereading the play, Fentiman discovered a melancholic undercurrent beneath the surface of Shakespeare's farce, as in so many of his comedies, and began to consider, "What if it's actually about this very sad incident where there was a shipwreck and two brothers lost each other and a husband lost his wife and forever since they've been wandering the earth trying to find each other?" He argues that there is an almost existential, dreamlike quality to the play. The characters are lost, desperately seeking connections with others to make sense of themselves, in a play that is "Funny because it's so sad".
As well as existential confusion, Fentiman says his production aims to bring out the sexual confusion of the characters. He sees Antipholus of Syracuse as "a sort of libertine",, while the merchants, to whom Antipholus owes money, dispense sexual favours. All the mistaken identities make it difficult to keep track of who has slept with whom, "so that at the end of the play when you get these resolutions, the one big question is, Did you sleep with my wife because my wife thought you were me?" Despite the unresolved questions, Fentiman finds the end of The Comedy of Errors deeply moving: after all the transience of the play, "their relationships level out and find harmony. And it's beautiful."
His approach to Shakespeare has no doubt been influenced by his three-year attachment to the Royal Shakespeare Company, in which he worked as an assistant director to Michael Boyd and Rupert Goold. As well as launching his career, he says, "playing that many Shakespeare plays in rep with each other [nine over three years] and hearing how they speak to each other was really interesting." He admires Michael Boyd, who recently stepped down as artistic director of the RSC, for his skill in fostering a real sense of ensemble, giving the whole team a sense of ownership of the production and making everyone feel that their voice was important. Boyd knew everyone's name in a company of seven hundred.
Fentiman feels particularly indebted to Rupert Goold's conceptual, "almost expressionistic" approach to directing. He remembers Goold would conceive of three different productions, for example "a version of Romeo and Juliet set in a lunatic asylum, a version set in a town in Barnsley, where the children are Goths, and...[one] set in 1548 in Castile" and then try to join all three together in the final production in order to find a social, political and poetic world for the play. Fentiman is looking forward to returning to the RSC in this summer to direct Titus Andronicus, which he considers "a bit of a mash up of lots of different later Shakespearean ideas."
Fentiman has an MA in Directing and would also recommend assistant directing, in balance with directing, to give you space to find your own voice. He is extremely grateful to Michael Boyd and Rupert Goold for allowing him to "act like a director" when he was assisting them, rather than getting him to make cups of tea, as he had feared. Fentiman's last piece of advice for aspiring directors is something he learnt from Goold: "Sometimes a director can feel that his or her job is to create reason in the room...but sometimes too much logic makes things less clear. Life is messy and irrational and people do the most extraordinary things and theatre should embrace that, in balance with logic."
It seems that we can look forward to Fentiman's production of The Comedy of Errors, itself a tale of irrational and extraordinary behaviour, to bring out life in all its messiness.
The Comedy of Errors is on at The Cambridge Arts Theatre, Wednesday 6th-Saturday 9th February.