Tama Matheson has come a long way from his humble beginnings playing the token Aussie in English soap opera 'EastEnders'.
These days the critically-acclaimed Actor/ Director/ Writer is better known for his work directing award-winning stage productions and playing traditional stage roles like Shakespeare's Romeo, Banquo and Lysander. Currently the Director of Brisbane's Classic Productions Theatre Company and the Artistic Director of the Brisbane Shakespeare Festival, Matheson is one of Brisbane's most esteemed theatre actors and directors. His 2013 production of 'Amadeus' (in which he also starred the lead role of Mozart) won the prestigious Matilda Award for Best Production and he also received a nomination for Best Actor.
His latest project 'Don Juan' is an all new adaptation of Lord Byron's literary classic. Teaming up with guitar virtuoso Karin Schaupp, Matheson explores the lives of Lord Byron and his fictional libertine in an evocative theatre presentation backed by the beautiful music of Turina, Pujol and Tarrega.
Tell us a little bit about your background... Do you come from a family of actors or musicians?
Everyone in my immediate family is in the entertainment business in some capacity or other. My mother was an opera singer, and my father a conductor; my eldest brother is also a conductor and répétiteur at Opera Australia; and my middle brother is a sound-engineer (and has done three or four shows with me, in fact, both in the theatre and on radio). My two sisters were both in the theatre also – one is an actress, and the other a stage manager and events manager (though she has given that in lately). So the arts (and in my case that meant theatre) was always the natural option for me to pursue. Keeping the family dynasty going, you know...
How and when did you get your start in British soap operas?
Hahaha, I'm afraid my start in British soap operas was also my finish – I only did two episodes of 'EastEnders' and one of 'Heartbeat'. I got into them through the usual channels: waiting, and auditioning, and waiting again – and then finally getting a part when an appropriate Australian character turned up.They were lovely to do though. A nice (and well-paid) experience!
What was it that made you move towards directing?
Actually, I began directing first of all when I left university. A dear friend and colleague, Ian Judge, had lost his assistant director for The Mikado at the D'Oyly Carte, and I volunteered. My goodness, that was a baptism by fire! But it taught me how to cope with a big company! Then I pursued the acting dream for a bit, but kept directing up as well. To my great delight, both streams of theatre have ended up running concurrently for me ever since. And in the last couple of years a third stream – writing – has entered the mix too. It's pretty exciting to do all three at once!
What inspired you to start the 'Don Juan' project?
Very simply, Karin and I were sifting through a heap of ideas, looking for something appropriate to guitar music, and yet something utterly dramatic – and something we both fancied doing. After tossing around a load of subjects, Don Juan was thrown into the mix and piqued our interest. I knew the poem would bend beautifully with Byron's life, and it worked beautifully for guitar music too, with all that Spanish influence. The idea has yielded (I hope) a terrific show.
For myself I've adored the poem since I was at school, when I got reading it. I couldn't believe how witty, irreverent, conversational, easy, and lyrical it was – and all together on one extraordinary, discursive, hilarious romp! It is a marvellously funny poem, and in it Byron takes pot-shots at all his contemporaries from Wordsworth to Coleridge – laughs at the pretensions and affectations of his time, and laughs at all of us and our foolish ways – but always with a deep underlying seriousness - he himself said, "and if I laugh at any mortal thing, 'tis that I may not weep." It is surely one of the greatest narrative poems in the language.
And it works wonderfully with Byron's life – which is not only fascinating, but, blackly funny and very moving at the same time. And as the poem of 'Don Juan' is predominantly biographical, Byron's life melded beautifully with it, to create what I hope will be a terrific, funny, touching show. I have adored writing it!
Will this be the first time you have worked alongside Karin Schaupp?
Absolutely! And I am pretty breathless with excitement! Karin is not only one of the most gifted musicians in the country, she is incredibly broad in her interests and abilities, and is absolutely terrific to work with. She is open to all the possibilities of artistic collaboration, and already this is turning out one of the most exciting things I have done. Not only is Karin a guitarist, she has had experience performing her own play (written for her by David Williamson, no less) as an actress! I can't think of a better collaborator!
How did you two meet and agree to collaborate on 'Don Juan'?
Karin came to the play about Bach, 'Johann Sebastian', which I wrote and performed with the Camerata of St. John's last year, and when we met afterwards she suggested a collaboration. The rest, as they say, is history.
Can you tell us about the 'reverse mode' which the play will be shown in?
We're seating the audience behind the concert hall, in the choir stalls, so that the audience will look down onto the stage as into a sort of theatrical pit. We though that it would be crazy to expect to fill the concert hall; but as reverse mode seats far fewer people, we thought this was far more realistic. The concert hall is lovely in reverse mode – I directed 'The Tempest' there, and we performed in reverse mode. It was wonderfully effective, and I'm looking forward to it immensely.
What's in the pipeline for the near future?
Quite a few things, I'm happy to say. I've got 'The Pillowman' later this year with Shock Therapy Productions, followed by 'The Odd Couple' at QTC, both of which promise to be really exciting. And then a premiere performance of a new play I am writing about Tchaikovsky, with the Camerata of St John's, called 'The Bright Stars Shone For Us'. I am very excited about this, it's an incredible story, merged with some of the world's greatest music. I have to say, the opportunity to work with musicians which these new theatrical collaborations is affording me is one of the greatest joys I can experience in my profession. Can't wait for 'Don Juan'!
Tama Matheson and Karin Schaupp perform 'Don Juan' at Queensland Performing Arts Centre, 17 May.