Drama

Five Questions for F. Murray Abraham

By Arthur Smith   |   Monday, July 25, 2011
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Abraham comes to Boston as Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, opening Tuesday, March 29 at Arts Emerson’s Cutler Majestic Theatre as part of ArtsEmerson’s season.The Oscar-winner talks with WGBH ArtSceNE curator Kara Millerabout staying in shape, listening to Stravinsky, and eating lobster in Boston.
Q:This is an interesting time to be in a play about making loans and charging interest. Do you see The Merchant of Venicehaving particular resonance now?
A: Yes, I really do–on a couple of levels. I think that it examines the idea of justice, and it particularly speaks to our time, as there doesn't appear to be any regard for the other–which doesn't ever seem to change.
I feel very strongly about what has been happening–and helpless too. The political system feels geared towards the wealthy. In the play, Shylock represents something bigger than Jews in the world. He represents anyone who has been oppressed: blacks, Irish, Chinese, Palestinians, many groups.
Q: What is the challenge in engaging with art that is more than 400 years old?
A: That's what makes our production [from New York’s Theatre for a New Audience] so exciting. It's perfectly clear. I'm hoping people will drop down and see it because I think they'll be blown away. It was a big success in New York City and [England’s] Stratford-upon-Avon. Sold out in both venues. I can't wait to get to rehearsal– we're really rediscovering the piece.
When people see the show, I would like them to drop us a note or a line. The play might be life-changing. I really mean it.
Q: Do directors approach Shakespeare differently than they did when you first started acting?
A: I think so. The conceptual director has become very prominent. In some ways, that's unfortunate. They have sacrificed communication through the actor for a concept. Our director [Darko Tresnjak] is different. But I do think that some directors now think of actors as something to be moved around–I don't work with them again.
Q: When you're not acting, what kind of art do you indulge in? And what do you look forward to doing in Boston?
A: I really love art. My closest friend is a painter, and we visit museums at least once a week. Stravinsky is my favorite composer–I can't imagine a world without music. I'm also very defensive about Salieri and his music, and Mozart, who I listen to a lot, is a constant surprise. [Abraham won the Best Actor Oscar for portraying Salieri in the 1984 movie Amadeus.]
In Boston, I intend to take a look at some of the best places to get lobster. Also, I have friends in Cambridge. I did King Lear there one time, and it was the first place I encountered three 24-hour bookstores. I was really impressed. I will probably also teach a master class or two.
Q: How tough is it to do eight performances a week in a theatre production?
A: It's what I've been doing all my life. My work is to stay in shape–I am my instrument. I'm 71, and I don't think I've been in better shape. I thought I'd be dead at 60. I once did a show where I performed 16 times a week, but I don't think anyone in history has ever loved acting as much as I do. Maybe as much, but not more.

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About the Author
Arthur Smith Arthur Smith
Arthur Smith is the former editor of WGBHArts. Executive producer for digital education at WGBH, Arthur, an amateur pianist and singer, was previously a freelance classical music reviewer for the Washington Post for 9 years. He has also worked at an opera company, and ran the information service and publications programs for OPERA America, the national service organization for the art form.  Since 1991, he has been the program annotator for Vocal Arts DC, a classical song recital series based at Washington's Kennedy Center. 

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