Trevor Nunn discovered Michael Xavier’s knack for performing Shakespeare through musical theatre. It happened when the director was working with Xavier on the workshop for a new Stephen Schwartz musical in Vienna this year, and – although Xavier didn’t know it at the time – it ended up being an informal audition for Nunn’s latest production, The Wars of the Roses.
This is because part of the new Schwartz show, Emanuel and Eleonore, about the librettist Emanuel Schikaneder, included extracts of Shakespeare. And when Xavier was performing them as part of the musical’s workshop, Nunn realised there was something there that had not yet been tapped.
“During the workshops Trevor Nunn came up to me and said, ‘Have you never done Shakespeare before?’,” Xavier recalls. “I told him I had done Marlowe at college but never Shakespeare. And he told me I was built for it. He told me I was a Shakespearean actor – I had an understanding of the rhythm and expression.”
He adds: “Two months later I got an email saying he would like to offer me a role in The Wars of the Roses.”
When the email came through, Xavier was recovering from tonsillitis.
The message gave Xavier the sort of pick-me-up only a job offer from a director such as Nunn can. “I could not sing and go out and do concerts,” he recalls. “I was at a low point in my career and thinking I might not get to work until the end of the year and then this came in and it changed everything. It was amazing.”
When we meet on a wet Wednesday afternoon in a south London youth club-turned-rehearsal space, Xavier has been working for eight hours solid. He and the cast are seven weeks into a nine-week rehearsal period – three weeks for each play in The Wars of the Roses trilogy.
He’s clearly tired, but he’s also enthusiastic and embracing his new role in Nunn’s production, which is only the actor’s second straight professional piece of theatre since graduating from an acting course at Manchester Metropolitan University in 1999.
Since then Xavier has become best known for his leading roles in West End musicals such as The Phantom of the Opera, The Pajama Game and Love Story.
But the world of straight theatre is one he’s been keen to get to know better.
And he’s learning from all the cast members in the production, which also features Joely Richardson, Robert Sheehan and Kare Conradi.
“When I first started out I just wanted to work with people of this calibre,” he says. “And the company I am working with now are all at the top of their game. They are incredible and I am learning so much. I always learn from people I am cast alongside. But this is a huge eye-opener for me. I’ve not done Shakespeare before so I am soaking it all up.”
Despite his lack of straight acting credits, the process of rehearsing The Wars of the Roses has not been too far removed from what he’s come to know through musicals. “It’s not hugely different,” Xavier admits. “The main thing is, because we have such a short amount of time, we’ve started by going through the scenes, blocking them in a very basic way. If you do a brand new production you can get five weeks of rehearsal and that means you can explore it more in terms of what you feel the blocking should be naturally – you stand in the space and do what you feel is right. But The Wars of the Roses has been more strictly blocked to start with, as we have such little time.”
Xavier plays three parts across the production, including George of Clarence in Edward IV and Suffolk in Henry VI, described by the actor as a “conniving little rat”. When the production comes to the stage, there will be days in the run when all three plays are performed back to back. Xavier admits that starting a three-play day at 11am will be “insane”.
“There is no phoning it in, not that I would ever do that,” he laughs. “But when we do all three plays it will be a good 12-hour day. So on Sundays, when there is no show, I will just die.”
For audiences, however, he thinks seeing all three in one day will be an “event”. “You do wonder who will sit in a theatre all day long, but people want to,” he says. “How often can you sit in a theatre all day, and see three plays that are interconnected and make complete sense?”
Critics will be among those watching one of the first days to feature all three plays. Xavier is prepared for the opening night (or day) nerves he’s bound to get, but admits that he takes issue with the notion of press nights on the whole.
“The problem with press nights generally is that friends and family are invited, so there is a tendency for the audience to be split with people being overly enthusiastic, and the critics. I find that does not work too well with the press, and often, the more enthusiastic the audience is, the more resistance there is from a reviewer to partake in that. Sometimes if there is overenthusiasm there is a tendency for critics to go the other way and say, ‘It’s not that good’.”
He adds: “Press nights are never a good reflection anyway. The cast are over-energised and overly front-footed and you never get a sense of the proper show.” He also admits that he would rather not know which particular critics are in watching and reviewing.
“If you know [a critic’s in], or worse, catch the eye of someone you know, it’s the worst thing. If you are conscious at any point in those two hours that someone is watching your every move, then you are not concentrating on what you’re doing and you’re not in it,” he says. Xavier has experienced many press nights since leaving Manchester 16 years ago.
Upon graduating he opted not to be part of a graduate showcase and headed to London to find work. “I thought I knew better,” he says, somewhat embarrassed. “I was so arrogant. I thought, ‘I am going to move to London and seek my fortune’.”
He adds: “It worked, remarkably. But I don’t suggest anyone does that.” After a brief stint singing in hotels, Xavier landed a role in a fringe production of the Bill Russell musical Pageant, which later transferred to the West End.
He had hoped to secure himself an agent on the back of the show, but as he played a woman in it, he found none of them were keen to sign him up.
“They told me I was convincing as a woman, but that they didn’t know what else I could do,” he recalls. “So I went to some open auditions.”
He attended an open call for Miss Saigon, and got a part. Other musicals followed, with Xavier going on to appear in shows such as My Fair Lady, also directed by Nunn, and Mamma Mia!. He never set out to be in musical theatre, he says, and he describes his singing as natural – he has never had lessons.
He has always sung, however, including with a youth theatre group, Scamps, in Alderley Edge, near his family home in Cheshire. He moved to the county aged 12, having been born and bred in Liverpool. It was a defining time for him.
“I joined Knutsford High School at the age of 12 and it was so nurturing of talent and did so much extra-curricular stuff. The school I was at in Liverpool was more academic, but Knutsford was more creative. I swear, if I’d not moved to Knutsford I would not be here now.”
As well as being grateful to the school he went to, Xavier is equally thankful that Nunn saw him as more than just a musical theatre performer. “Trevor understands both genres – plays and musicals. A lot of directors have not directed a musical before, so they don’t understand how difficult it is. I always say that musicals are the hardest to do,” he says.
Xavier adds that there remains a “stigma” around musical theatre, claiming that it may stem from people seeing musicals where the lead who has been cast may have been a “fantastic singer but not necessarily the strongest actor”.
“It used to be hard to find great singers who were also great actors, but not now. Now we have people who can do it all,” he says.
As well as praising Nunn for taking a chance on him, Xavier also defends the director from criticism of his decision to hire an all-white cast for The Wars of the Roses. “In one sense you could say that colour-blind casting is what we’re all used to now,” Xavier says. “But you could swing it the other way and say, because this production is very much a period production, it’s not modern clothing, that it lent itself to being all white, because of the nature of the families that are integrated throughout the three stories.”
He adds: “I feel a bit sorry for Trevor. In the 1960s, at the Royal Shakespeare Company, he was introducing actors of different ethnic minorities for the first time. No other director was doing it.”
Controversy aside, Xavier is preparing for a run taking him through to the end of October. Shortly afterwards he begins rehearsals for Show Boat in Sheffield.
It will bring him back to musicals, but he’s keen to continue working in plays, and hopes his stint in The Wars of the Roses will lead to a wider variety of projects.
“I don’t want to turn my back on musicals, but I’m an actor and I want to do everything,” he says. “I want to flex my acting muscles in every direction.”
The Wars of the Roses is at the Rose Theatre, Kingston , until October 31