Michael Oakley’s most recent production, the Jacobean tragedy The Changeling about love and sexual obsesssion co-written by Thomas Middleton and William Rowley, has received mixed reviews. In 2008, the director previously won the prestigious JMK Award and went on to stage his ambitious version of Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II at BAC; Oakley has a passion for classics, and his productions reflect an attention to detail and, at the same time, a pragmatism that is rare in young directors.
In person, he is controlled, somewhat relaxed and carries a crafted yet sincere modesty in his manner of speech. Oakley’s every word is weighted and considerate. He is as mysterious as the characters he so cares for in his productions, revealing only an acute passion for his profession and the classics he chooses to tackle, but no more than that.
‘I think The Changeling is an absolutely brilliant play’, he tells me. ‘It is visceral, dark, exciting, and I absolutely love that’. Set in a surveillance society, Oakley’s adaption focuses on the constant voyeurism of the play but also its theatrical exploration of sexuality. ‘De Flores is the keeper of the keys; the servant. As he says, “I’ll please myself with sighting her [Beatrice-Joanna] with every opportunity.” He is a voyeur, but is not alone. Beatrice-Joanna and Alsemero are no different. It’s why I chose to contextualize this, but I didn’t want to make a big feature out of it.’ His other consideration was giving a modern context to the class divide between De Flores and Beatrice-Joanna. ‘If he is a security guard, and she a rich women, the whole play holds together.’
His other big idea was to incorporate the asides into voice-overs as part of the sound design of the play. ‘I went to Bristol Old Vic to try it out with two actors to see if this sound idea was crazy. When it works, it’s interesting that the actor can play one thing, and think another. This is a play about duplicity, about people acting one way and being another. That was the reason.’ He mentions that despite the fact that he would never dream of doing this for any other play, The Changeling enabled this with ease. ‘There is a moment in the text when De Flores has a long aside after being chased away from Beatrice-Joanna, who is still onstage. In a conventional approach, she would be frozen somewhere upstage, but I wanted him to just stand there and say nothing- he does this throughout the production, and it’s incredibly powerful.’
His starting point for the show seems to be a sheer love for classic texts; this is a play that deals openly with issues of sexuality, written at a time where such subjects were rarely explored so explicitly. ‘I have an awful lot of respect for it. And interestingly, I actually don’t think it’s completely wacky or off the wall. Gosh, I spent the first day of rehearsals talking to my cast about the development of Elizabethan domestic tragedy. I never approached this production with a big concept, far from that’.