Michael Oakley gets to work on a dream production as he returns to the New Wolsey Theatre

Michael Oakley in rehearsal

Michael Oakley in rehearsal - Credit: Archant

Sir Trevor Nunn is not the only Ipswich-born theatre director who returned home this summer. Assistant director Michael Oakley is also an Ipswich native and a former member of the Wolsey’s Young Company. Arts editor Andrew Clarke spoke to him about being theatre’s new rising star

Michael Oakley in rehearsal for The Invisible

Michael Oakley in rehearsal for The Invisible - Credit: Archant

For upcoming theatre director Michael Oakley a return to the New Wolsey Theatre to assist Sir Trevor Nunn in the staging of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is something of a homecoming.

This will be not only his first professional engagement in his home town but it will also be the first time he has set foot on the New Wolsey stage since 2002 when he was a member of the theatre’s Young Company and performed in The Jungle Book.

It proved to be a valuable experience and confirmed to him that his future lay in the theatre. Equally importantly it showed in no uncertain terms that his talent lay on the other side of the footlights.

“I was shockingly bad,” he laughs. “I can remember it still. But, I knew that I loved the theatre and the experience of staging a show.”

The cast of 'Playhouse Creatures' Chichester Festival Theatre 2012.

The cast of 'Playhouse Creatures' Chichester Festival Theatre 2012. - Credit: Archant

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This latest collaboration with Sir Trevor, his eighth, will be his last. His star is rising and he is now striking out on his own, directing high-profile shows in his own name. Earlier this year he directed The Invisible by Rebecca Lenkiewicz at The Bush Theatre before gaining five star reviews for working with Caroline Quentin in The Life and Times of Fanny Hill, penned by his friend and equally ‘hot’ author April de Angelis.

With several projects in development, including a new play with de Angelis, he wasn’t sure that another job with Sir Trevor was a terribly good idea but the opportunity to work in his home town, to work at the New Wolsey for the first time, and to be part of Trevor’s romantic closing of his Shakespeare circle proved too much to resist.

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To the surprise of many, including Trevor himself, the former artistic director of the RSC and the National Theatre has never directed Shakespeare’s most popular comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Add to this the fact, that the play was the first Shakespeare he saw – at the old Arts Theatre in Tower Street – then a return to Ipswich to complete his personal Shakespearean cycle seemed a perfect way to end a professional journey.

Michael said: “It was pure coincidence that I started working with Trevor. I was interviewed for a job as trainee director at Chichester. I didn’t get it but they put me forward as assistant director on a production of Cyrano de Bergerac that Trevor was staging there and the rest is history.”

Caroline Quentin in 'The Life and Times of Fanny Hill' Bristol old Vic 2915.

Caroline Quentin in 'The Life and Times of Fanny Hill' Bristol old Vic 2915. - Credit: Archant

His love of the theatre started at Copleston High School in Ipswich where his theatrical ambitions were further inspired by trips to Stratford-Upon-Avon where he saw David Troughton in Richard III and he then became something of a personal hero.

“This production completely opened up a whole new world for me and co-incidentally my second production with Trevor was Inherit The Wind at The Old Vic with Kevin Spacey and David Troughton. Everyone was terribly excited to be working with Kevin Spacey, I was more excited by finally getting to meet David Troughton.”

He said that he always found directing very frustrating. “You always knew that I was acting. It never felt real and it wasn’t until I tried directing at university (York) that suddenly I knew what I wanted to do in the theatre. Suddenly it all made sense.”

Michael said that he always comes to a play with the view that you have got to have a story to tell. You have to entertain your audience. “The audience is the most important part of theatre and you have to speak to them and engage with them. If the play doesn’t have anything to say to them in 2016 then why are you doing it?”

The Mechanicals in rehearsals for A Midsummer Night's Dream at the New Wolsey Theatre

The Mechanicals in rehearsals for A Midsummer Night's Dream at the New Wolsey Theatre - Credit: Archant

Although Michael works a lot with new writers like April de Angelis he is also a huge fan of classic works and wrote an essay for a theatre website encouraging young directors not to be afraid of working with classic plays.

“It’s our job to highlight to audiences what’s relevant to us today. Things can change as rehearsals develop because you are going on this journey with the actors. You get to know the characters and you can see the themes emerge.

“The best plays are about

human nature and that doesn’t change. I think that it’s just brilliant that although the basics stay the same the message changes over

time as society moves and adapts and plays get re-invented.

“I love the fact that you can sit in the theatre, next to someone you don’t know, and you can connect with a piece of work that can be hundreds of years old and yet it still has something to say about us living in the 21st Century.”

So what attracts him to a play? Directing a play takes an enormous amount of time and effort and so if you are devoting that much energy to a project then you have to really love what you do.

Michael doesn’t hesitate in replying: “I love epic theatre. I love plays with a nice juicy story to tell. For me it’s all about stories with great characters. It doesn’t matter if the play is new or old, if it has a great story at the heart of it.”

Shakespeare is one of his favourite writers because of the rich layers in his work. He is well placed to make comparisons because he has also directed works by Shakespeare’s contemporaries Christopher Marlowe and Ben Johnson.

“Shakespeare’s great gift was that he was able to play with the idea of what it is to be human. I directed two plays by Marlowe and they were very different to works by Shakespeare. They were written by a very different person for those wondering if Marlowe was also Shakespeare.

“Marlowe is asking you to look at human behaviour because his characters come on stage and say: ‘Look at me I’m crying. I am upset. See my tears.’ They also explain how they feel. Shakespeare, on the other hand, involves the audience. You live through the experience with the character on stage. That is why, I think, Shakespeare has survived. The audience’s connection to the action on stage is much more direct. It is much stronger.

“Shakespeare is more searching than Marlowe. Marlowe tells you what he wants you to think, Shakespeare enjoys playing with ambiguity. He recognises that ambiguity is part of life, is part of human nature.”

He said that A Midsummer Night’s Dream marks the end of his apprenticeship. “I think of it as an apprenticeship, where you learn the skills you need to do your job and there comes a time when you have to strike out on your own. It’s a bit scary but it’s also exciting.

“If you want to do the big old plays that I want to do and you want to work in the West End, you have to know your stuff and you have to learn how to do them. I was happy with the way The Invisible and Fanny Hill went, so I think it’s time that I flew the nest and started to make my way in the world.”

Michael Oakley: Looking to the Future

For Michael directing is all about communication. It’s about speaking to actors in a language they can understand to allow them to develop a dialogue with the audience. “The starting point is realising that you have a story to tell – or if it is a play that has been done lots of times, finding an angle. The audience is the most important part of the equation.

“The play has got to speak to them. If it doesn’t then why are you doing it? It’s your job to highlight what the play has to say to an audience, to tell the story in a way that’s relevant to us today.”

Having worked a lot alongside Sir Trevor and having dipped his toe in the water of commercial theatre the time has come to strike out on his own. “There comes a time when you have to say that I have learned enough tools from other people now I have to develop myself.

“It’s a scary decision to make but then again you have to be slightly mad to even want to work in theatre.

The life of a freelancer is very feast and famine. For me the next stage has to be to say: ‘No more associate work, I am going it alone.

“I have been very lucky that my own work has been well received. I was very lucky to work at the Bristol Old Vic with Caroline Quentin in Fanny Hill. It’s a very important play and has a lot to say to people in 2016. It’s very bawdy and Louise, our heroine, derives a false sense of security as she entertains the audience and it’s rather naughty and a lot of fun but then there’s a twist.

“I love that about plays. You can seduce an audience with the comedy and then introduce some tragedy and it really packs a punch. I love the fact that audiences respond to that.

“I would to do more of this sort of work. You have to remember that you are there to entertain the audience. I would hate to discover that someone sat through one of the plays I had directed and were bored.

“When I am reading a play I am looking at the language, looking for distinct character voices. If it has good characters then it will attract good actors to do it. I like human stories and I love to be in a theatre and then be taken to another place that seems to be separate from our everyday world and yet it is happening in front of your eyes.”

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