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South African stage and screen actor Conrad Kemp, currently making his Broadway debut as Benvolio in Romeo and Juliet (also starring in the film already screened in Cannes and Toronto, Zulu, which still needs a release date locally) responds to Diane de Beer’s e-mail questions about the opening and the run of the Shakespeare project
We have, as you say, opened, writes Kemp.
It was a very successful opening night, full of energy and nerves, but mostly contained and focused. We got a very warm response from the audience, which one would expect, given that opening night is all invited guests, friends, family, agents, producers and investors.
Of course, this includes such luminaries as Sir Ian McKellan and Liev Schreiber and Harvey Feinstein. Press are not allowed! They all come during the final week of previews, and then release their opinions to the world the day after opening.
I tried hard not to read the reviews. Good or bad or mixed, they can really derail a performance. You start pushing at the complimented aspects and start doubting where the reviews are less favourable. However, I had 15-odd South Africans in New York who did read reviews and then mercilessly showed them to me. So, I read the New York Times review, which is the most important one (apparently). It was good, I thought, and quite balanced, and mentioned me among two other actors as particularly worthwhile! So it was a happy read, although unsettling nonetheless.
I think Shakespeare is tough to produce. The preconceptions and expectations of the public and the theatre community and academic community are powerful and very varied. However, our biggest success, I believe, is in creating a show people are thoroughly enjoying and accessing.
As regards Broadway, it is a strange beast, a difficult combination of commercial pressure and critical desire, trying to find the magical intersection. Some shows achieve this, others are commercially very successful yet critically panned, others loved by the opinion-makers, but not able to get bums on seats.
I do not know where we fall, and I don’t think I should be concerned about it. Right now, my priority must be to tell a story, to trust the work we have done and honour that and the other actors on stage.
The production has been incredibly rewarding. It has been fun and energising, and I believe I have proved to myself that I am capable of being a better actor, and a more powerful actor, than I thought I was. The Americans have been hugely supportive of justifiable risk, and very complimentary. They even assumed I was some big-shot back home, with Shakespearean pedigree oozing from every pore!
What drew me to the project? Simply the opportunity. It would’ve taken steel to keep me away.
And the biggest challenge was convincing myself that it’s really happening. I also think it’s quite a challenge to avoid the distraction of the commercial aspects of Broadway. A challenge I have enjoyed, however, has been portraying Benvolio as a more burdened and experienced character than the simpering stereotype for which he is often mistaken (in my opinion).
I must admit to being really impressed by the level of support (all manner of) and encouragement I have received here, almost across the board.