Interview: Ellis Kerkhoven, ‘It feels wonderful to be in such magical settings’

by Jim Keaveney

Shakespeare in the Squares’ fifth anniversary production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest sees Sioned Jones direct Mark Carlisle, Laura Gomez Gracia, Indigo Griffiths, Phyllis Ho, Ellis Kerkhoven, William Shackleton, Wilf Walsworth and Sasha Wilson.

Shakespeare in the Squares is now a central fixture in the calendar of Summer outdoor theatre, with each production tailored to the individual garden squares. The company works with the garden committees and other local organisations to create a unique community celebration around the play.

The ambitious production is touring 18 squares across London in the most ambitious season to date, having opened on 21 June at Arundel and Ladbroke Gardens, with previews from 15 June, and completing its run on 8 July at Cleveland Square.

We spoke with Kerkhoven, who plays Prospero to talk about the production and touring these magical settings.

The Understudy Q&A with Ellis Kerkhoven

Hi Ellis, thanks for taking the time to talk with us about your upcoming performance in Shakespeare in the Squares production of The Tempest – what can you tell us about the production? 

This production of the Tempest playfully flips the focus from being about revenge to being about forgiveness. We’ve all seen quite enough darkness recently, and as this is one of Shakespeare’s comedies we’ve leant into the lightness and fun within the script.

How were rehearsals and bringing the production to life with director Sioned Jones?

Rehearsals were great fun, playing with physical elements (like boat-making and storm creation!), 50’s inspired Bossa-nova music, dance and …eating lots of chocolate?! Sioned works with real passion, lightness and love, her beautiful vision for the show has enabled us to approach it with a sense of play and joy.

How does it feel, not only to be taking part, not only Shakespeare in the Squares in the fifth anniversary production, but also to be taking the lead role? 

It’s wonderful working for Shakespeare In The Squares – the company has real heart at the centre of everything it does. It feels wonderful to be in such magical settings, performing some of Shakespeare’s most famous monologues and going on Prospero’s tempestuous inner and outer journey. A real honour.

Ellis Kerkhoven in The Tempest. Photo: James Millar

Is there a challenge to taking a role as famous as Prospero and putting your own mark on the character? 

Being Prospero certainly has brought the obvious challenge of learning a LOT of lines! But it’s a wonderful experience. As the show has been angled towards forgiveness, there is a lot more ‘light’ in the playing of Prospero in this production. He’s a doting, protective father, with a touch more insight than normal as to how his own behaviour has landed them in this situation. He’s a complex character, certainly imperfect – and at times difficult to like – but is always trying his best to create a positive resolution, rather than act purely on revenge. The idea was always to make him more personable and human, rather than lean into the brooding, vengeful darkness it’s sometimes played with. It’s usually played by older actors than me – but technically if you analyse the script he’s supposed to be 45!

You’ve played in open-air performances before, but also in traditional theatre spaces – how do the two compare? 

It’s very different. Louder, bigger, more in need of direct audience connection – and totally at the mercy of the elements and the numerous distractions around you! But glorious to be outside – the show is so connected to the elements, and you cant get more connected than actually being in amongst it all. Finally, how would you describe The Tempest to someone considering coming to see the show? A tropical tonic to bring some much-needed lightness and humanity into your day!

The remaining dates for The Tempest are:

  • Formosa Garden W9: Friday 1 July 7pm
  • St Peter’s Square W4: Saturday 2 July 7pm
  • Wandsworth St Anne’s Church SW18: Monday 4 July – Tuesday 5 July 7pm
  • St James’s Square SW1: Wednesday 6 July 7pm
  • Cleveland Square W2:  Thursday 7 July – Friday 8 July 7pm

Jim Keaveney is the lead critic at The Understudy. He tweets occasionally from @understudyjim