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INTERVIEW WITH MICHAEL RICHARD (article first published : 2006-02-2)

While Michael Richard admits that theatre everywhere in the world, and particularly in South Africa, has gone through "quite a dip", he has never for a single moment wanted to be anything other than an actor.

Talking the morning after the first performance of Full Circle at the Hilton College Theatre this week, Richard says he had no idea of what to do when he left school at Plumtree in Zimbabwe. His strengths had been sport, acting and his rock band, but his parents, like parents the world over, wanted him to do something safe. However, one year of a teaching degree at UCT (Cape Town University) persuaded him that all he wanted to do was drama, and he made the switch. "I've been doing it for 30 years and it has been kind to me. I've never regretted it," he says.

In Full Circle, Richard plays Oom. He is about as unappealing a character as any actor could be asked to portray - crude, violent and prejudiced. But there is a streak of the buffoon in him which Richard plays up, making him a compelling figure to watch. "He's an awful person," agrees Richard. "A role like that is not something you leap into. You slowly creep into the character - it's hard to rehearse, doing it over and over. But you've got to do it, and you've got to believe in it."

"I don't know if people are born evil, or become evil through circumstances, but as an actor you know that the human animal has many aspects, and you find the character out of yourself."

On opening night, with a number of schoolchildren in the audience, Richard and the rest of the cast were faced with moments of disconcerting laughter. One was when Richard came onstage in his underwear. "I think the evil of the character goes beyond them - they just see things at face value. It may be 'serious drama', but they don't see that. They're not reverent, and the laughter does add something. And it was okay, they quietened down in the second act." The director, Charmaine Weir-Smith, said to Richard afterwards that the reason the school part of the audience laughed was because they haven't lived yet. "It's a valid point," he says.

Between the four performances of Full Circle at Grahamstown seven months ago and the current run, Richard has been playing Harry Secombe in the Alan Swerdlow directed Ying Tong: A Walk with the Goons which has run in Cape Town and Johannesburg. Two more different characters would be hard to imagine - the lovable, genial Secombe and the sinister, vicious Oom.

"The Goons' play was wonderful, with the audience enjoying themselves every night. This is a totally different challenge - you can't use the word 'enjoy' about the role; the enjoyment comes in realising the character. And, of course, once on the stage, you inhabit it. But afterwards, when it's finished, we're all gutted. It's tough to do."

But it is still what Richard loves best - performing in front of a live audience. He has, of course, worked in films and television as well, most recently in Richard E Grant's directing debut, Wah Wah. While Richard says he battles with the very different techniques of film work, this one, being directed by a friend with whom he has acted in the past, was an enjoyable experience.

Durban actress Caroline Smart who also appears in the film, and has seen it in Swaziland although it has not yet been released in South Africa, has described Richard's performance as "brilliant". When I tell Richard this, he laughs. "He cast us specifically for what he wanted, and let us do our thing," he says. But he insists that acting on film is still something of a puzzle for him. The live stage is what he loves.

Reverting to the state of theatre, Richard admits that the audience for serious drama like Full Circle has shrunk. And, with no theatre companies to work for, it is harder for young actors to get the kind of training that will prepare them for this kind of work. The MTV generation, raised on music videos and instant technology are looking for something else, says Richard. "They have lost the enjoyment of language. I don't want to sound old and grumpy, but it's all sound bites now. You just have to hope there are still a handful of people who enjoy serious theatre."

And then he cheers up. "But back in the 60s, there was a line in a Simon and Garfunkel song where they asked - 'Is the theatre really dead?'. That was in 1963, and we're still asking the same question, 40 years later. That's quite reassuring." And it is performers of Richard's calibre who are ensuring that reports of the death of the theatre are still, happily, exaggerated. Margaret von Klemperer




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