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Stephen Dillane, Shakespearean Actor, Not So Sure About the ‘Validity’ of Staging Shakespeare

Stephen Dillane, a staple of arty European cinema in the Jeremy Irons mold, has high standards. He starred in Michael Winterbottom’s Welcome to Sarajevo, played Thomas Jefferson in John Adams, and won a Tony as the playwright at the heart of Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing. Now he’s decided to slum it — or so he tells it — by deigning to play two Shakespeare roles in repertory for BAM’s Bridge Project: melancholy Jacques in the already running As You Like It and, starting February 14, Prospero in The Tempest.

You've done an award-winning Hamlet and a one-man version of Macbeth. Is The Tempest a challenge?
I don't think I've ever seen a production of it that's been particularly satisfactory to my way of thinking. So I've had a curiosity about it. I don't know if it's even playable, but it certainly contains some kind of mystery that I find compelling.

Wait a minute — this play been done for 400 years. You're not saying that it can't be produced?
I withhold judgment. But I think a difficulty with trying to communicate both visually and aurally at the same time is quite common in Shakespeare. But we want to make a living, so one is always compromised. You can continue to operate in a certain area while still questioning the validity of it, and indeed I think the conversation exists within the rehearsal room.

Really? Does Sam Mendes want to talk about how it's impossible to stage The Tempest?
I think he has a certain curiosity about it. You'd have to ask him.

How about As You Like It? That's more of a crowd-pleaser.
I'm increasingly impressed with it, but it's a very difficult play to make sing. It doesn't contain the sort of metaphysical mystery of The Tempest, that's for certain. But there are other attractions.

That's a pretty gloomy outlook — maybe appropriately so, because the characters in As You Like It are always talking about how melancholy Jacques is. Do you identify with him?
Am I melancholy? I certainly have moments. I like to think there's a capacity for joy as well. Sometimes you see people who appear in their everyday life to be very cheerful who are able to play melancholia very well.

You've been compared to brooding actors like Jeremy Irons and Daniel Day-Lewis, yet you've repeatedly spoken out against overacting.
I have to phrase this perfectly: I'm just not convinced that the attention we give to creating what we think of as a character isn't actually quite often the means by which an actor overcomes his own terror of standing there onstage and creating a mask to hide behind.

Okay, but charismatic acting wins awards and gets people noticed. Do you think an understated approach has hurt your career?
I haven't been put in a position where I've had to take on a hugely charismatic role which might have made me famous. Whether that means my career has suffered or not, I'm not sure. I don't think I lack an ego, that's for sure, and I don't think anybody who knows me would be sure that I did, either.

Photo: Getty Images