icethesite talks CHESS with Daniel Koek
The UK tour of CHESS directed by Craig Revel Horwood kicks off in Newcastle tomorrow, Friday 27 August and runs through until April 2011. Daniel Koek is playing Anatoly (The Russian) and in a break from final rehearsals yesterday spoke with icethesite.
Tell us about your background?
My background is in classical music/opera really. I trained in Australia to start with, which is where I’m from originally. I did a music degree in which I majored in opera in classical voice.
And then I spent a year with the state opera of South Australia taking part in their young artist programme, understudying and playing a few minor roles.
After that I took a year, maybe 18 months out and travelled around the world. My Dad is Dutch and I have a Dutch family heritage and so after I travelled all around the USA I ended up in Europe, specifically Holland to chase up that family connection.
And it so happened that my great Aunt who was living in Holland was Head of Costume for the National Touring Opera Company of the Netherlands. She got me an audition and I ended up singing a season with them.
Then I moved back to Australia for a while and while I was there, a friend of mine had auditioned for a post-graduate course in musical theatre at the Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts in London.
So I auditioned by videotape and I also got a position on that course and ended up graduating from there in 2005 with a masters in performance and musical theatre. Next I got an agent and I’ve been here ever since.
Last year I played the role of Tony in West Side Story and toured the UK as part of the Ambassador Theatre Group’s 50th Anniversary production of the show.
So, that’s my background – in a nutshell.
You’ve been involved in other productions of CHESS – what were they?
One of my first jobs out of college from London was a production of CHESS. It was with a touring company that was meant to travel all through Scandinavia but the second part of the tour got cancelled. So, we did play six weeks I think at Oslo’s Spektrum Arena back in 2006, if I’m not mistaken. We did a very different version, I must say, to the one I’m currently part of. A lot of music and scenes were cut. I was an ensemble player in that and understudied The American.
Most recently I was in CHESS in Concert at the Royal Albert Hall, back in 2008. I was rehearsing West Side Story at the time and so I was really busy plotting my time between that and CHESS but I did take part in the West End Choir of 100 Voices.
So, presumably you’re a fan of CHESS?
Yes, absolutely – I mean the music is epic, absolutely fantastic. The biggest problem today is different people’s interpretation of the story. The book isn’t – and I’d tell this to Tim Rice – the strongest book in musical theatre history and there are some quite heavy scenes.
If you don’t know your Cold War history then there is a chance that you won’t relate or really understand the plot enough to get immersed.
But I think that this production that we’re working on now is going to make it abundantly clear what is going on. I think that is the main difference to the productions that I’ve been in before.
The venues that we’re bringing this tour to lend themselves much more to an acting piece as well as relaying the amazing music, which I think is very important when you’re scaling it back to be something a little more intimate.
One of the newspaper reports about the tour suggested that Freddie and Florence were married in this production. Is that true?
I’m pretty sure it isn’t! If it is, it’s not mentioned in the entire piece as far as I know. I’m married though, to Svetlana of course.
What is the best thing about playing Anatoly?
There are so many things! The songs, of course and for me, it’s trying to encompass everything Russian about him. I think this is the first production I’ve been involved in and indeed the first one I’ve seen where it’s been decided that the Russian can actually be, er, Russian!! I suggested that it would be a good idea and Craig wholeheartedly agreed.
In productions I’ve seen before, Svetlana and Molokov turn on the whole Russian thing, accents and way of being and as Anatoly is also Russian, I’ve decided that his Russian-ness should come through as well.
I’ve always found it weird in productions I’ve seen before that no-one I’ve seen plays The Russian as Russian! So, I’m definitely enjoying encompassing that fact.
We’ve had dialogue coaches in, who have also been able to tell us about the events at the time and the general way the world was back then as well as what Russian people were like, their characters and way of being. Especially as seen through Westerners’ eyes.
At the beginning of the show, during Where I Want To Be, which is a pretty dark, baritone-y type of song, playing it strictly Russian makes that song and the character even more dark, withdrawn and kind of mysterious in a way.
This is an actor/musician production of course, which will probably be the biggest difference for me from productions I have seen before, so what instruments are we going to see the cast playing?
We’ve got strings of course, four violins, two cellos, plus brass…trumpet, French horn, trombone, a lot of rhythm section players, guitars, basses, drums and so on. It’s really a great ensemble of musicians and Sarah Travis has really done a great job of piecing it all together.
In the rehearsal rooms we originally played it through as a complete score and then Craig comes in, turns it on its head with movement direction and then suddenly it’s no longer possible to have everyone playing everything as originally planned.
Sarah has done a great job of taking, say a flute line out and changing it for something else without detracting from the feel of the songs. In some respects, of course, it has been a bit of a nightmare at times but we’ve reached a happy balance now.
Has there been any talk of a move into the West End once the tour is over?
There’s been much talk…there always is! But there’s nothing planned. I think it’s like anything new and just starting out…it really depends on how it’s received. If people love it and it goes down well and creates its own kind of momentum then I’m sure London would be an option and I’m sure everyone is hoping for that to be the case.
But at the moment, we’re not contracted past the end of the tour in April next year. Hopefully it will happen, but who knows?
So, how has working with Craig Revel Horwood been? Has he impressed you with his understanding of both the piece and the process?
Absolutely. It’s phenomenal the way he works. He’s meticulous in telling the story and that’s incredibly important in any piece of musical theatre. You’re always up against it with the critics that come in to see a show and say that musical theatre artists can’t act and that’s really not always the case. It’s often a case of working with what they’re given in terms of direction. Craig, however, is all about telling the story and us being believable as actors.
At the beginning, we didn’t sing at all when Craig came to rehearsals, we talked through the lyrics to every piece and acted our way through the text as if we were having a conversation. I think that when you can pull things back to that bare-bones level of words and people, actions and reactions that you stand a much better chance of connecting with an audience.
Craig will then heighten certain parts and give the actors a chance to contribute their take on the emotions on display. I mean, he is very free, very organic in the way he works. If it feels good for the actors then it’s normally right, he says.
That’s not to say he doesn’t tweak things here and there. And through it all he remains the consummate professional.
He’s a lovely guy and we have the whole Australia thing going on of course, because he was born out there. And as far as I am concerned he has done the piece enormous justice.
Can you sum up how you hope people will feel when they come and see CHESS on this national tour?
It’s going to be a spectacular sound and visual-wise – I can’t say too much more about that…and hopefully, people are going to be quite moved as well.
Aside from appearing in CHESS, what else is going on in the world of Daniel Koek…
I’ve been into the studio and recorded Anthem from CHESS to coincide with the tour. It’ll be available exclusively as a download from my website, which is being revamped as we speak. I also recorded an album called Self-titled Tenor just before I toured with West Side Story which will be available to buy at the venues CHESS goes to.
There are some other things in the pipeline more along the lines of getting a recording contract – I’ve got meetings hooked up to discuss that and some people have been in to rehearsals of CHESS to hear me. So there are a few things bubbling away regarding a recording career, which is exciting.
Dan, thanks for taking the time to speak to icethesite. I have just one question remaining and it is…what is your favourite ABBA song?
(Laughs!) Oooh, difficult… Money, Money, Money!