Eugene Gilfedder is lining up for his third Hamlet – the first was as the prince himself in Shakespeare’s version some 20 years or so ago, and this time it’s in the Australian premiere of Steven Berkoff‘s The Secret Love Life of Ophelia for Fractal Theatre, opening on Friday. Earlier this year he appeared to acclaim as the Ghost and Uncle Claudius in La Boite’s production of the play.
After a long regional, national tour last year with The Kursk, Eugene’s now really enjoying what has been a year so far back-to-back with terrific roles. As one of the most respected as well as busiest actor in town, it’s almost as though his career has had a resurgence, though, as he tells me, he has notched up over 150 productions on stage over the years. ‘It’s been extraordinary to last this long,’ he tells me, ‘and to still be performing.’ It all began as a child, when as part of a large family, he found himself organising his siblings and devising performances at home and later at school. ‘From Grade 8 on I just took charge! Acting has been my life.’
I wonder, I ask him, whether the roles get better as the actor matures. Sybil Thorndike, who played Juliet in middle age, once said that you could never be too old to play her. Perhaps it’s life experience as well as the confidence which comes from so much stage time which empower the mature actor and enrich the interpretation? ‘As far as life experience and playing Hamlet are concerned,’ he tells me, ‘it may be fashionable to imagine that railing against corruption is a young person’s fight but, like his psychological torment, it’s an eternal theme.’ He notes that Berkoff himself played Hamlet aged 50 in a production in NYC. In fact, we talk about Berkoff quite a bit. Eugene has played in several of his works: Decadence and Metamorphosis before this latest. It’s clear that he has been inspired by the British actor, writer, director and by the poetic and theatrical power of his plays. ‘I’d like to be able to write that way,’ he adds.
Whilst, as an actor, he finds Berkoff massively difficult, Eugene also finds working on his plays empowering. ‘What inspires me is that you are called on to do everything; it’s all in the hands of the actor. In The Secret Love Life of Ophelia I’ve got 20 big letters to learn, and the whole thing is in a form that reconjures Elizabethan verse, though it has a great 21st century kick to it. And then there’s the juggling act between emotion and text which, just as in Shakespeare, is always a challenge for the actor.’
We talk a bit more about the play – muscular, poetic, confronting, but that’s typical of Berkoff who has fused a strong sexuality into what is also a political piece. ‘The play ends up being about corruption, in the state and in society. In opposition is the natural desire of human life – the love between Hamlet and Ophelia. Human sexuality is seen as natural and impulsive, earthy; it’s idealised in the play which, itself, is marvellously theatrical.’
Our conversation turns towards performing, and especially to theatre performance. As Eugene goes on, it’s clear that he relishes the aliveness and the challenge of the stage. ‘Theatre should question and challenge and shake up the picture and the perspective of life,’ and he adds again, ‘I’m grateful that I’m still involved in that process. I’m excited and inspired by the power of the actor.’
I ask him what roles he’d choose for himself if he could. ‘Well, I want to write more,’ he begins, ‘but the big Shakespeares are still waiting for me – Lear, of course – though I have covered quite a lot of ground.’ Shakespeare seems to be the touchstone for a lot of actors. He goes on, ‘I remember Aubrey Mellor saying once that when you are working on a Shakespeare role, the key is not to reduce the character to you, but to come up to him. That’s the ongoing challenge.’ He’s used the ‘challenge’ word several times during our conversation, and I rather think here’s an actor who enjoys them. It’s clear he’s also a pretty tough critic of his own work. He tells me that when playing Claudius and the Ghost earlier this year for La Boite, that he used to rate himself at every performance. ‘I’d give myself points out of 10.’ It’s a set up – I have to ask him how well he’d done. ‘I think I got to 8 and a half one night.’
When you’re performing you’re on a trajectory – that’s the artistic challenge – harnessing the power of the imagination.
As we talk about the wider theatre scene in Brisbane once again I hear a working actor remark on how strong the independent sector is here. ‘I’m astonished really,’ he notes, ‘ as there are so many people pushing and achieving. !Metro Arts is fantastic, genuinely so supportive.’ He continues, ‘it seems to me that Brisbane and Melbourne are the two strongest cities in Australia for independent work.’ Inevitably though we come to the issue of spaces, or the lack of places to work and create. Eugene, like others is critical. ‘Costs are exorbitant and prohibitive. There were places some years ago like the Paint Factory, where grass roots work could happen. That’s gone now.’ More’s the pity. He goes on to mention visiting a small pub in Fitzroy last year where he saw a one-man performance of Beowulf as part of the Melbourne Fringe. ‘Imagine – a packed pub for Beowulf!’
This week Fractal Theatre returns with Berkoff’s The Secret Love Life of Ophelia at the city’s !Metro Arts studio. There are 9 performances only, so the company are hoping word of mouth will spread quickly. It’s a chance to see Berkoff + Gilfedder as well as Mary Eggleston and Imogen Gilfedder – ‘a fantastic spark,’ he tells me proudly. ‘She’s scored her accompaniment to the action from George Crumb’s 1970 work Black Angels. Immie’s solo violin, solo band really along with her effects panel and amplifier.’ The play is directed and choreographed by Brenna-Lee Cooney, Fractal’s founder and Eugene’s long-time artistic associate. ‘The play is obvious performance,’ he tells me, ‘and Freddy Komp’s abstract projections are simply beautiful.’
You can get further details and book for The Secret Love Life of Ophelia via Fractal’s Facebook page.
Eugene Gilfedder has been involved with professional theatre and music performance since 1981. In that time he has accrued more than 150 theatre productions in the role of actor, director, writer, music director, sound artist or composer. He has worked extensively with all major theatre companies in Queensland. including Queensland Theatre Company, La Boite, TN!, Grin and Tonic, Performing Arts Trust, 4MBS Classic FM, The Queensland Orchestra and many more. Interstate, he has worked with Performing Lines, Adelaide Festival, Sydney Festival, Marion Street Theatre and others.
He was co-director for Fractal Theatre from 1989-2000, who produced more than twenty radical theatre events on an independent basis. He has recently written an adaptation of The Odyssey for Zen Zen Zo and The Performing Arts Trust in 2004; also a theatre realization of Beethoven’s Letters for 4MBS classic festival.
He is five times a recipient of the Matilda Award for excellence in Queensland theatre and in 2000 gained the Melbourne Green Room Award for Best Actor for his performance in A Beautiful Life.
His original music/theatre piece, The Fiveways, gained significant funding for the 2008 Brisbane Festival and was performed to great success in August of that year.
2010 roles: Claudius and The Ghost in La Boite’s Hamlet, Estragon in Queensland Theatre Company’s Waiting for Godot, the Old Man in The Chairs for La Boite. Eugene wrote and performed in an original piece Mahler: a matter of life and death for 4MBS Classic Music Festival. He is soon to appear as Hamlet in Berkoff’s Secret Love Life of Ophelia and later in 2010, Eugene will appear as Frederick Ashton in Queensland Ballet’s Fonteyn Remembered, and in Grimms Tales for Queensland Theatre Company.
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