Julius D’Silva has a long list of theatrical credits both in the classical and musical repertoire. These include Strictly Ballroom (West Yorkshire Playhouse/Toronto), Made In Dagenham (Adelphi), Ann Boleyn (Globe and ETT), Macbeth (Globe) and Oliver! (Drury Lane).
Before this, he was part of the RSC’S History Ensemble that from 2006 to 2008 brought Shakespeare’s two tetralogies to the stage. I caught up with him one lunchtime at Bristol Old Vic on a break from rehearsal to discuss his work on The Cherry Orchard, reuniting with his History director Michael Boyd. The piece plays at Bristol Old Vic until 7 April 2018 and then transfers to Manchester Royal Exchange (19 April to 19 May 2018)
Have you ever worked in Bristol before?
No. It’s the very first time I’ve explored the city, first time I’ve ever stepped foot in this theatre. I was brought up in Cornwall but Bristol never really featured. I went to Plymouth, passed through Bristol on the way to Birmingham, but I’ve never had an opportunity to work here. It’s been on the list.
I’ve had friends and colleagues who have worked here, Isla Blair says it’s her favourite theatre in the world and has done about 12 plays here. She played Varya in The Cherry Orchard here about 40 years ago. Julian Glover, who was in Julius Caesar (in 2017) here, also has talked about the beauty. You step into the auditorium, it is so intimate with the 18th century seats still up in the gallery, and it’s great. I always seem to work in theatres that are having work done to them. Unfortunately, I never get the finished article, I’d love to come back and do some more work when it’s finished.
Have you ever played in Chekhov before?
I did Three Sisters a long long time ago but have never done any professional Chekhov. This is Michael Boyd’s first Chekhov as well so its great to explore this play together.
Why do you think The Cherry Orchard has had such longevity as a play? What puts it on the pantheon of great theatrical works?
Well….it’s full of big philosophical ideas. Very current philosophical ideas. The conflict between the individual and collective and full of big turn of the century ideas. Nietzsche and Marx were cooking up these big, world-changing philosophies which are still very relevant in our current climate.
Chekhov gives us boldly drawn characters which shine a light on the absurdity of human folly, I think the idea of memory, the past being both a prison and a refuge, do we hide in our thoughts, or do they imprison us. I think he talks about change a lot, there is this huge change that is about to happen that he doesn’t see, you can see this premonition of what is to come in Russia which obviously he did not live to see. The characters in this play are an ineptitude of humans really, all trapped to some extent to the past and some are more able to move forward than others.
As well as all this it has a great playfulness and is great fun, full of laughs, it’s classified as a comedy in four act and people don’t often think about Chekhov like that. There is this great line in Withnail and I ‘Anyway I loathe those Russian plays. Always full of women staring out of windows, whining about ducks on their way to Moscow’. And that’s not what this play is about; it is funny; slapstick funny; full of human absurdity and the comedy that comes out of that.
So it’s very rich in comedy, philosophy, political commentary, in the human study of characteristics, it’s a real rich work, so many layered and well flavoured and has been really enjoyable to discover in rehearsals.
Can you describe a little about the character you’re playing?
Boris Semyonov-Pischik is a landowner living next to the cherry orchard, and he’s riddled with debt- as most of them are- and he’s constantly trying to pay off his debts, he owes money to everyone in the town, and he says all he ever talks about and thinks about is money. He has, we think narcolepsy and suffered two strokes but he’s an optimist, he’s quite a buoyant character, looking at the glass half-full, I hope he’s quite funny and quite charming and the audience warms to him. He disappears for Act 2 but comes back and you see him colourfully in Acts 3 and 4. He has a bit of good news at the end which is good for him.
After playing in Bristol the production will move on to the Manchester Royal Exchange- a theatre in the round. Designer Tom Piper has helped transform the traditional proscenium of BOV into an in the round space (which I was lucky enough to get a look at before coming to this interview). What do you think the benefits of telling Chekhov’s play in the round are?
I think that sometimes, it sounds clichéd to say three dimensional but it’s much more intimate, we don’t often see people standing out front in a flat picture frame in everyday life, this brings its audience much more into a colloquial relationship with the characters I think. And that’s the same in translation as well, we are lucky to have a director, musical director and translator who speak Russian. In the round gives people perspectives. It allows you to see things from a characters point of view literally and helps you understand them I think. Chekhov draws them (his characters) so clearly, each one has a point of view and an agenda and staging the work in the round literally allows you to see it.
You briefly touched on Rory Mullarky translation. What do you think he brings to the work? Has he given it a contemporary twist such as Simon Stephens did with his?
I hope we’ve got both (historical and modern verbiage). Without giving too much away I think that becomes clear in the staging of it and in the design of it, that we wear both hats, both period and modern. What he has most definitely caught is the funnies, the humour of it, Chekhov described it as a comedy in four acts and he’s got that, he’s most definitely got that. He’s also not a martinet in terms of saying ‘no no no we can’t do that.’ He’s been in the rehearsal room which is great, how often do you get the writer in the room on a classic, it’s just brilliant. It’s accessible, yet of its time but the language is easily accessible to a 21stcentury audience. It deals with subjects and topics we are wrestling with and it does it in a very funny way but also people can expect some tragedy as well and some tear jerking moments. I hope they’re surprised by the comedy and they never expected Chekhov to be fun. I was of the Withnalian opinion of Chekhov, for a long while, but I’ve been proved completely wrong.
Looking at your career the classics and musical theatre have intertwined. This is very unusual still to this day.
Yes and I’ve been very fortunate in so much as I’ve been able to step between the two worlds of classical and musical theatre, I don’t think many people get the chance to do that. It’s slightly easier to move between classical to musical because of the directors now moving between the two, For example Rupert (Goold) saw me in the History Ensemble and him and Cameron invited me to play Mr Bumble in Oliver on Drury Lane, a real milestone for me. A great experience, then to go back to this kind of work. You just know that no one is messing with Michael’s process, there are no producers making suggestions in the back room and that’s very liberating as an actor. One hand washes the other, if you can do both, it’s a treat.
Let’s talk about The Histories. I saw them while I was still a student and I still think it’s the finest achievement in British theatre this century. What do you remember about the process? Any stories that particularly stand out?
It was an extraordinary experience in my life, to be part of an ensemble like that, it’s like a great football team, the more you train, the more you play together, the better you get. You start to develop these lovely symbiotic relationships with the other performers and by the time you get around to rehearsing the third play you are already starting at a much higher level because you know each other, egos disappear and trust kicks in when you realise you don’t really have to impress anyone in the room. It was Theatre as momentous as the Ring cycle, doing the whole thing over the weekend, having to learn all your parts over 7 (of 8 plays) and then Michael asking me to understudy Richard III which is 70% of that play and then asking me to understudy Falstaff, there was no RAM in my head, but he’s a difficult man to say no to. The enduring memory of that work was having to wear Bardolph’s prosthetic face with a teddy boy wig from eight in the morning to 11 at night, having the hot towel that went on after peeling off the nose was lovely. The night when the enormous explosion happened just before ‘Once More unto the Breach’ which made Prince Charles bodyguards reach for their guns was certainly memorable. And the audience who followed us from the Courtyard Theatre in Stratford to the Roundhouse in Camden and threw red and white roses at the end, a response of an audience who sat and watched 24 hours of Shakespeare over a couple of days, it was wonderful.
And of course Katy Stephens is currently in Bristol playing Lady Macbeth over the river as part of the Factory Ensemble.
Yes that’s right and hopefully our paths will cross. The friendships from that company have endured ten years on and you very quickly reconnect when you meet again. We became a very trusting group by the end, when you see them it’s like you saw them last week, I haven’t worked with Michael for close to 10 years before this, but it’s very familiar, very comfortable, very quickly we came to a place where we could trust each other and play.
What does Boyd bring to the table as a director of The Cherry Orchard?
Well, he trained in Moscow, he speaks Russian, so that’s handy, he’s got his own copy of his A Level Russian text of the Cherry Orchard next to him with his sixth form scribbling’s attached. So he can consult the original text, he allows people to play and bring their own ideas, he’s not at all proscriptive really, my way or the highway, I don’t think he’s like that. He gets a very talented (not including myself in that) group of actors in the room, he’s very good at casting and getting a group together and trusting an individual actors taste and judgement and skill. He also wears his genius very lightly and he’s got some very nice ideas which I don’t really want to give away about staging and themes that run through the piece which are imaginative and surprising and fun. He’s a good laugh, he’s got a great sense of humour. He’s just very highly skilled and very experienced. I think he likes actors as well which is great, sometimes you work with people and you’re like ‘do you even like actors, why are you doing this?’ He has a very clear overall idea about the piece but he will allow you to play within that, I’ve never heard him say no, never heard him say that’s not right, never heard that tone.
A lighter question to finish. Is there anywhere you’d like to see while in Bristol?
I’m going to be 50 on Monday so there will be karaoke somewhere Sunday night. But just….Walking through the city, it’s so beautiful with the water. I went and sat in St Stephens church on my way to rehearsal this morning and listened to someone playing Eric Satie on a grand piano so that was very cool. I want to find Alan Rickman’s seat here, as he gave me my first break, in fact he wrote to Michael Boyd on my behalf saying ‘will you see Julius’, my career was going nowhere before that so I want to find Alan’s seat. But I’m going to slowly let the city unfold as there’s lots to see, especially for someone who enjoys eating as much as I do, there’s just endless possibilities. And I’m looking forward to the famous Renato’s next door where a lot of old colleagues have their photos on the wall.