St. Johns second year Max Gill is very excited about the Thelma Holt Tour this summer. Despite the retention of a cool demeanor throughout our interview, his enthusiasm and anticipation are as arresting as his phenomenal cheekbones (see image) and he is keen to establish that his adaption of Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing” has the potential to make this year’s tour “the best it’s ever been”. I ask him to elaborate on what exactly the Thelma Holt Tour is, for OxStu readers not tuned into all things thesp. Thelma Holt, he tells me, A Real Actress, a contemporary of Vanessa Redgrave, Judi Dench and assorted national treasures, mentors an Oxford student production which has performed in venues across the world. This year, Max is directing the tour, which will visit London, Guildford and Tokyo. OUDS first visited Japan in 1998, thanks to Thelma’s international reputation. The Tony award winning actress and producer bestows her knowledge, nous and little black book upon an Oxford student production annually, and this year, she’s chosen Max’s gangster adaptation of “Much Ado About Nothing”.
“Gangsters eh?” I begin. “Like Baz Luhrmann? Romeo + Juliet? Leo Di Caprio dressed as a knight and lots of gun crime and explosions?” Max blinks. “I suppose there are comparable elements”, is his measured response. “But I’m setting this production in 1950s Sicily. Think retro glamour. Think Fellini films. Mafia. Blood ties. The insurmountable nature of the façade of style and image one has to break through in order to unearth the verisimilitude that lies within.” I nod wisely, understanding little of the latter half of this extraordinary statement, but conceding that it does indeed sound impressive. And sexy. Much sexier than Leo in that silly Hawaiian shirt, especially now that he’s looking ever more amphibious by the day. We discuss gratuitous resetting of Shakespeare plays, and I explain that I’m not keen on gratuitous resetting of Shakespeare plays. Growing up in Edinburgh, one soon tires of silly productions of Othello the Musical in Space. Max explains that he has a similar disdain for adaptations of the bard’s work that exploit it to say “something meaningful about Communist Russia. Or whatever. I chose this time period as I believe it only serves to intensify the themes of the text.”
“Let’s get personal Max”, I tell him, now that we’re on first name terms. “Obviously this is a very hotly contested position. What experience do you have that could possibly warrant the time and efforts of one Thelma Holt, ‘Distinguished Friend of Oxford University’ since 2006?” He explains he has been in “lots and lots” of plays at Oxford, as well as having some professional experience. He’s also dabbled in writing and directing through his involvement with “Notes From Underground” which showed in London earlier this year. An impressive C.V. How on earth does he fit in academic work? “Thankfully, I perform best under pressure. Specifically, ridiculous time constraints”. Thank heavens for that. “Yes”, he muses. “Spending time with Thelma is wonderful, she’s fantastic fun. We once met in a restaurant at 12:30, and I unwisely told the waiter, I’ll drink what she’s drinking. I ended up sipping a warm glass of straight vodka. Its little things like that which all too often leads to an essay crisis. But her advice, her humor, and her fascinating stories – it’s worth it. I can’t express enough how grateful we all are to her for, well, for assuring us we’re doing something right I suppose. It really is a fantastic legacy she’s creating”.
We move on to discuss drama in Oxford. I ask him if the cliquey claustrophobia of the thesp world led to any difficulties regarding casting. “Nepotism is a contentious issue – and obviously I strive to avoid it. But at the same time, it would be a strange world if solid friendships and a good working past were discounted completely in favor of a random punt on a stranger. My current cast, well – I’ve worked with some of them before. But there’s enough new blood to stop it getting stagnant. Or indeed, incestuous.” I ask him what the best play he’s seen in Oxford was, and a half minute of silence ensues. Just as things are beginning to get uncomfortable, he diplomatically replies “I wouldn’t like to single one out. But I think people unfortunately don’t take enough risks here. That’s what impresses me most. This is the only chance you’ll get to throw twelve thousand pounds at something without it really mattering. So do something brave, go against the grain.” That, he tells me, is what Rupert Gould, one of his favorite professional theatre directors, does, bringing Pirandello and Shakespeare back to life, creating dynamic adaptations of texts that all too easily fall into the realms of the staid. He also makes best use of the resources available, something Max is keen to emulate. “We’re students. Everyone is 21. Let’s exploit that. Let’s exploit youth and beauty, not shy away from it.”
As the interview draws to a close, I ask him the inane staple “any advice for budding fresher thesps?” He considers for a moment. “This is a world where you can’t be too keen. So go for it, throw yourself in head first. Get involved; things will come out of it, whether or not it’s the direction you thought you might go in. Remember that ambition tempered by humility is always impressive. And for god’s sake, don’t make any plans”. It occurs to me that Max has professed to being in “lots and lots” of plays. I wonder aloud, whether he’ll miss treading the boards, or begrudge his stars the limelight. He laughs. “You know, I might, if I wasn’t certain that everyone I’d cast will do an infinitely better job than I would”. Ambition tempered by humility – Max Gill, ladies and gentlemen.