Interview: 'She's Not a Superhero, But She's Pretty Powerful': Actor Charlie Russell on Classical Music, Family and Fame in FANNY at The Watermill Theatre

'I think that a lot of people might come to the play and leave with a brand-new appreciation for classical music.'

By: May. 28, 2024
Interview: 'She's Not a Superhero, But She's Pretty Powerful': Actor Charlie Russell on Classical Music, Family and Fame in FANNY at The Watermill Theatre
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FANNY, written by Calum Finlay and directed by Katie-Ann McDonough, is about to open at the Watermill Theatre in West Berkshire. The show tells the story of Fanny Mendelssohn, the real-life older sister of Felix Mendelssohn, and places her in a “what if” situation involving an intercepted letter and Queen Victoria. 

Recently, we had the chance to chat with Charlie Russell, who is taking on the titular role of Fanny Mendelssohn. We discussed what made her want to be involved in the production, what it has been like preparing for the role and some of her favourite facts about the Mendelssohns!


Can you tell us what FANNY is about?

For me, FANNY is about Fanny Mendelssohn, the composer, pianist, conductor. She was a prolific composer in her time, but the older sister of Felix Mendelssohn, who was much more of a star. By virtue of her being a woman, and also her status and class, she wasn't allowed for a long time to publish work, or even perform in the way that other people had done like Clara Schumann. But she had been instrumental, ironically, with helping Felix and with his work. In fact, some of the work that was originally published under his name was hers.

So this play, it's not a documentary. It explores the life of Fanny and explores the question, what if Fanny had chosen to take a different path, to try and take her destiny into her own hands in a different way than she did? What might or might not have happened? So it is not an accurate retelling of history. But it is an accurate representation of Fanny’s spirit. And you meet all these incredible people who were part of her life at some point or another.

In real life, Felix Mendelssohn played for Queen Victoria - he was much adored by Queen Victoria. In fact, he saw a book of his own meter on her piano and said, “Oh, which is your favourite? I'll play it for you.” And she chose “Italien” and he had to admit that it was actually Fanny’s! And so this play imagines, what if Fanny intercepted an invitation to play for Queen Victoria, to play her own orchestral piece of music, and she tried her best to take that place?

What made you want to be a part of this production?

I have wanted to be a part of the production from the beginning, since back in 2018! Calum Finlay sent me a first draft of half a play and I thought, “This is amazing. This is such an interesting idea. Such great characters!” I'm totally drawn to Calum's writing - it's both silly and funny and also beautiful. There are really beautiful, moving moments during the play, as well as really silly jokes, which I just love.

So I've wanted to be a part of the project in some way since the very beginning. As we developed the project, and as Katie-Ann McDonough [Director] developed it with him with Rebecca Gwyther [Producer], it became apparent that one of the best ways I could contribute was to be playing Fanny. And I've been desperate to do it because the character is so complex, and she goes on a real journey. She's not a superhero, but she's pretty powerful, and I can really relate to her in a strange way, certainly the Fanny that Calum has written.

Interview: 'She's Not a Superhero, But She's Pretty Powerful': Actor Charlie Russell on Classical Music, Family and Fame in FANNY at The Watermill Theatre
Photo Credit: Pamela Raith

Had you been a fan of classical music before joining FANNY?

I would say that I was a novice fan! So I knew the classics, the hits. [Laughs] My dad introduced me to classical music at a young age and my mum would play Mozart on the piano. Well, she’d play all sorts on the piano, but when I was very small they would say, “Charlie, what do you want Mum to play?” And I'd shout, “Mozart, Mozart!” I don't know if I knew what I was asking for, but they were pretty happy about it. And so I've always had it around me, but I wouldn't say I was knowledgeable on the subject of classical music. And so doing this project has been incredible for introducing me to even more!

Have you done much research on the Mendelssohns while preparing?

Yes! We've all done loads of research. My problem is that often pertinent dates don't stick in my brain. But everyone in the cast and crew and creatives have done lots of research. There's actually a wonderful documentary called The Other Mendelssohn, created by Fanny Mendelssohn's great-great-great-granddaughter, and it's telling the story of Fanny and then the modern story of trying to discover her now. There's lots of research to be done. Not that the play is going to be factually perfect. We've used the research to support the story, and the story to support the research.

Do you have any favourite facts you've learned about the Mendelssohns or classical music in general? 

One of my favourite facts about the Mendelssohns is that they prided themselves on being really funny! The siblings were known for teasing each other - there was a lot of what we would probably call banter, which I think is really cool.

Felix promised to write Fanny's Wedding March music for her, but because he'd been in an accident, he never did it. So the night before her wedding, Fanny wrote her own music that would take her down the aisle. And when Fanny died, Felix died within around six months. So they were so deeply connected.

And I think it's important to say, when we view their relationship and what they went through through the lens of now, it can be easy to paint Felix as a baddie. But whilst we may not agree with a lot of his choices, he was a human being, but also a product of his time. And actually, their relationship was pretty special when you consider it for the time - even for now!

Interview: 'She's Not a Superhero, But She's Pretty Powerful': Actor Charlie Russell on Classical Music, Family and Fame in FANNY at The Watermill Theatre
Photo Credit: Pamela Raith

How has the rehearsal process been going?

It's very full on but it's really wonderful! Katie-Ann creates a great room for actors and creatives and stage management, in my opinion, and the cast are scarily talented! When I'm up staging a scene with any of them, I feel myself being improved. Their talent, their commitment, their creativity inspires me to do better, and I feel like that's a real gift for an actor. The entire team involved in this production are incredible - all the creatives, the stage management, the production, the cast, and then the Watermill. It's just a really wonderful group of people. If anyone's reading this, look at the people involved and hire them for your next job!

And what has it been like working with the Watermill Theatre?

I'm very excited to be working with the Watermill Theatre because, back in 2013, I did one of my first professional jobs at the Watermill! The first one was, of course, The Play That Goes Wrong at the Old Red Lion in 2012. But after that, the next job I had was at the Watermill in The Miser. I had such a wonderful time on that show - it was a really special time for me, and the Watermill is part of that. It's an incredible building and creative hub and all of the artistic directors have been loyal to that and help add to it. So working with them now is a joy. They're kind, warm, enthusiastic, and you can just tell by the work they've been putting on in the last few years that they're leading in regional creative work. They are making really exciting work!

Interview: 'She's Not a Superhero, But She's Pretty Powerful': Actor Charlie Russell on Classical Music, Family and Fame in FANNY at The Watermill Theatre
Photo Credit: Pamela Raith

What do you hope audiences take away from FANNY?

We've been talking about that a lot in rehearsals, actually, and I think there are lots of different things you might take away from it! I think that a lot of people might come to the play and leave with a brand-new appreciation for classical music. It might be the gateway drug for some people into discovering more classical music that appeals to them, and how it influences the music we listen to now.

Alternatively, you might be an expert in classical music, but hopefully, leave with an appreciation of good comedy and a fun time. But also, it's quite a feminist play. It has a strong backbone in terms of its story, and I think people will leave having had a really good time, and, hopefully, a little enlightened as well.

And finally, how would you describe the show in one word?

Magical, strangely! I don't know why, but magical. It feels like that encompasses the music, the love, the relationships, the journey they go on. 

FANNY runs until 15 June at the Watermill Theatre.




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