First published in the Guardian on 14 February, 2017
Rory Kinnear is walking through a Shakespeare scene. It’s The Winter’s Tale, week one of rehearsals, jeans and t-shirts all round, and Kinnear is delivering a intent stream-of-consciousness while acting out what the character Leontes might experience the moment when he realises the daughter he thought he’d killed as an infant is now standing before him as a woman. “When you’re guilty and someone is nice to you, how good does that feel,” he murmurs. “And now I’m clocking her face, her hand, and now there’s this incredibly slow sensation of, oh wow, what the fuck.”
Kinnear is a solidly respected British actor, born into a theatre family and acclaimed for intelligent portrayals of Hamlet and Iago at the National Theatre as well as his marvellously dependable and subtly wry Bill Tanner in recent Bond films. “What I admire about Kinnear is that he pays scrupulous attention to language,” wrote the Guardian’s Michael Billington in 2010 — and even in early-stage rehearsals there is plain evidence of how his ultra realistic and unhysterical articulateness can bring a room to standstill.
The difference here is that he’s directing, not acting, and that this is opera, not theatre. Kinnear makes his directorial debut at English National Opera this month with a new setting of The Winter’s Tale by composer/conductor Ryan Wigglesworth — the latest in a line of film and theatre names recruited by ENO to helm new productions. “Initially Ryan asked me to write the libretto and I said I’m totally unqualified to do that,” he tells me the morning after that rather intense rehearsal. He arrives wearing a tatty sports rucksack and a Celtic beanie (he has Scottish family) and looks pointedly un-famous. He’s self-deprecating, unguarded, funny, quick play down his successes.
“I told Ryan no, I wouldn’t write the libretto. Because A, there are people who know how to do that really well. B, there are some pretty major shadows when it comes to making Shakespeare into opera. And C, well, Ryan needed to think it through for himself. He’s incredibly bright. He knows the play inside out, and turns out he’s quite a good actor himself. He went around his house acting the scenes then responding musically.”
After a couple of years Wigglesworth did come up with his own libretto and asked Kinnear to direct it. “Again I said I wasn’t qualified! But I called up Richard Jones for advice and he told me, ‘you’ve seen plenty of directors work, it’s not rocket science.’ Eventually I agreed. If it’s a disaster, I apologise to everyone.”
What has made the process not-disastrous so far, according to Kinnear, is Wigglesworth’s score. “It is so dramatically and emotionally aware that it’s easy for me to bring it to life. I’m not having to unlock the beats within the play, I mean the moments where the temperature in a scene changes. That’s all been done for me with fine dramatic sensibility. In the end I’ve not been overawed by the task. I have been awed by the experience of it.”
Key here is that Kinnear has the musical sensibility to recognise what Wigglesworth’s music is doing. Last year he braved a singing role of his own, playing the master criminal Macheath in Brecht/Weill’s Threepenny Opera (“he turns out to have a very pleasing singing voice,” wrote The Observer’s Susannah Clapp), but music goes back further and deeper. At primary school he was allocated a trumpet — “a four year old welding a trumpet wouldn’t be everyone’s idea of good news,” he winces, “but my dad seemed to like it. I remember trying to to learn the Dambusters theme tune and him throwing open the doors and saying, let’s really piss off the neighbours.”
His father, Roy Kinnear, died when Rory was ten, thrown off a horse while filming The Return of the Musketeers. “Music suddenly became a big deal,” Kinnear says. “Suffering grief at that age, and something about classical music gets right deep and down, and I guess I fast-tracked the deep and down side of my soul through what happened.” He started playing the piano, which he calls his “grief balm”, he listened a lot. “Maybe it tells you which stage of grief I was at, but I heard the Dies Irae of Mozart’s Requiem and I thought, yup, there’s the tumult. I feel the same with drama in terms of children being able to access it. It’s not necessarily about producing actors or musicians — it just ameliorates your experience your life, particularly for those who have things to overcome.”
He sang, too, and even considered applying for an Oxbridge choral scholarship. (He has said in previous interviews that he was “put off by the people” but sheepishly revises that now: “I’m aware I’m working with singers!”). Acting won out after he played Cyrano de Bergerac aged 15 and realised he had the capacity to move people. “Obviously that wasn’t a seminal performance or anything, and acting was pretty much a question of showing off until I went to drama school, but I guess part of drama school was considering what acting actually means. The reasoning and rigour. Then you go back to instinct and imagination.”
As a director he seems to embrace all that. In rehearsal he morphs into Iain Paterson’s Leontes, Susan Bickley’s Paulina, Samantha Price’s Perdita, pacing and shaping the scene by becoming each character in turn and talking through the emotional process in close-up detail. The method surprises him, too. “God, I mean, I hope it’s alright. When we started I had no idea what would come out of me. You can’t rehearse that, what you’re going to be like as a director.” He arranged to meet the cast early on and asked them what they would like from him, which seems a remarkably vulnerable position for a director to put himself in. “Maybe, but they’ve had a lot more experience of putting on operas than I have.”
What he does accept is that he has some useful knowledge of the play. It’s one of his favourite Shakespeares — “a divided play,” he calls it, “a play of two halves with this great gulf of time and geography. It’s odd there haven’t been major operatic treatments until now because this play lends itself perfectly. How does Bohemia sound compared to Sicily? How does the interior life of Leontes sound after sixteen years of emotional calcification? The sense of magic, the sense of holding out for the transcendent… Shouldn’t all that be catnip to a composer? That sense of building towards something massive and profound?”
Absolutely, though I suspect there won’t be any blatantly ecstatic Tristan apotheosis moments in this version. Wigglesworth’s music is typically lean, exacting, supple. The few minutes I glean in rehearsal are beautifully treated, with the enormity of that reunion/realisation crux moment expressed not grandly but in simple, lonely orchestral intervals. There is a lot of space and delicacy. It sounds gently reminiscent on the mysterious opening of Ravel’s L’enfant et les sortilèges — a fuzzy memory clearing into focus. “That’s exactly what I like about Ryan’s work,” Kinnear agrees. “It withholds. It refrains. It’s not modish. That’s what I find the most affecting, when you’re able to hear through the cracks rather than feel the torrent.”
Kinnear ponders aloud what it means to be staging this particular opera for this particular company — the production is part of ENO’s significantly reduced 2016-17 season — and what the overtones might be in the context of current global politics. “It hasn’t escaped us that the piece is about regeneration,” he says. “About how we still hold onto each other despite fractures, how good things can coalesce around those fractures. And yes, we’re doing a piece about an authoritarian, borderline tyrannical leader who is appalling in his treatment of women, ignorant of nature, quick to create borders between a neighbouring country. A guy wrote the play 400 years ago and we’ve been planning our version for four years. The timing of premiering it in February 2017 is slightly discomforting. Talk about opera being relevant.”
The Winter’s Tale is at English National Opera 27 February – 14 March