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We speak to actor Orlando James as he takes on Leontes in The Winters Tale

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Cheek by Jowl are an international touring theatre company directed by Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod. They are bringing Shakespeare’s classic tragedy The Winter’s Tale to The Barbican this April.

We spoke to leading man Orlando James about taking on the role of Leontes.

Photo Credit: Phil Sharp

Since forming in 1981, Cheek by Jowl have shown large scale classical and modern works in English, French and Russian. Having worked with the company several times before, playing Malcolm in their 2011 production of Macbeth and Giovanni in their 2013 'Tis Pity She's a Whore, I was keen on finding out what makes their productions so interesting to work on.

“I think one of the main things that they concentrate on is the text being paramount. The way in which the actors are given freedom to investigate the text is a really liberating experience.” Orlando explains.

“Declan, the director, and Nick, his partner, never come into rehearsals with a preconceived idea of what the show is going to be, it’s all discovered by the company through rehearsals so when we first approach a text we rehearse for about ten weeks.”

Having such an intense initial rehearsal process allows the actors to have a really in depth understanding of the story; particularly necessary for a company who tour internationally, meaning their productions have to be understood in languages other than English.

“The play does change with each culture that you visit, we do a lot of touring in Europe and the audience are understanding it through surtitles; they’re reading it and understanding it, which does throw up some problems for us in terms of communicating the story.

"There’s always going to be a disconnect between what they’re seeing and what they’re reading and understanding. It gives us the freedom to be more expressive and bold with our choices in terms of interpretation because we want our story to be understood physically and emotionally almost before it's understood verbally.”

This necessity to communicate the story to all audiences doesn’t come from ‘dumbing down’ the production nor does it mean they over physicalise to spell-it-out to an audience. What Cheek by Jowl try to achieve is really getting to the crux of the tale.

“They’re really innovative in their approach to classical texts and especially Shakespeare. They have this unbelievable ability to cut through all of the extraneous stuff and really hit the heart of the story and sometimes that takes the form of literally cutting so cutting a lot of the subplot apart and making the main drive of the story clearer.

"I think that’s one thing that a lot of people comment on when coming to see Cheek by Jowl is how clear the story is told and in that way a lot of the time the productions that Cheek by Jowl do tend to shed new light on a play that’s over 400 years old.”

Having toured the production in Europe and America, the company found that even through the middle of the tour they were drawing new parallels and finding new relevance for the story.

“We were there just after the [presidential] election and the parallels were unbelievable. You’ve got this guy who everything he says is right, he controls the press, he’s a misogynist and the parallels were easy to draw there. Suddenly we have an even more relevant production than we did a year and a half ago.”

However, Orlando has a firm opinion that Shakespeare is always relevant and doesn’t need to be made relevant.

“Shakespeare is absolutely relevant and universal. He explores big human ideas of loss, jealously etc. You could sit there and put a concept on it, but you don’t have to you just have to present the truth of the story.

"There is always a relevance there that the audience will find because they’re viewing through their own experience. If you start putting experiences on top of that then you’re just going to muddy the water of the play and the experience of the play.”

Orlando plays Leontes, a King who wrongfully suspects his pregnant wife of being unfaithful with his friend Polixenes; ravaged with jealousy, Leontes tears his family apart.

The Winters Tale. Orlando James (Leontes) Natalie Radmall-Quirke (Hermione and Dorcas) Photo Credit: JOHAN PERSSON

“It does leave a residue with you. You have to investigate all those themes,” says Orlando.

“You have to use comparison and find empathy with your character and not judge your character. The text dictates, and most of the audience would think, he’s a terrible person who acts terribly and his actions have unbelievable repercussions, but I have to look for the logic and reason behind those actions and find them fully.

"You can’t play something like jealousy, but you can play suspicion of someone cheating on you. You can’t end game – you have to pick it apart minutely and ask why he turns that way instead of that way.

“A lot of people are scared of Shakespeare, that it’s not for them. This production in particular deals with a lot of human experiences that will excite you, challenge you, make you laugh and I think at the moment, as a society, we need some hope and lightness. This is a tragic story, but it ends with a great amount of hope and looking to the future.”

Cheek by Jowl’s production of The Winters Tale will be showing at The Barbican, London from Apr 5 2017 - 22 Apr 2017. Book tickets here.

The Winter’s Tale will be streamed live from the Barbican Centre on 19 April at 7.30pm. You can watch here.

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