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The man behind the mask

As Andrew Lloyd Webber’s classic, The Phantom of the Opera, makes its Dubai debut this month, award-winning actor Jonathan Roxmouth shares an exclusive behind-the-scenes glimpse before donning the mask of the phantom

The lights dim, the curtains are drawn and silence takes over. With eyes fixed on the stage, every member of the audience feels a sense of anticipation, eagerly awaiting the series of events about to unfold. But to the man behind the curtain, it’s a completely different story. He leaves himself behind to step into the shoes of a whole new character and transforms, ready to mesmerise every spectator with a gripping tale.

For South African actor Jonathan Roxmouth, there are some very big shoes to fill. As the lead in The Phantom of the Opera, the tenor believes portraying the titular character in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s classic is his career’s biggest highlight. No ordinary production, The Phantom of the Opera is regarded as one of the greatest musicals of all time. With over 30 years of stage success, it is a sensation around the world. And when this iconic production comes to Dubai this month, on October 16, audiences will be able to see why. “I’ve done quite a few shows now, but I’ve yet to see a musical that does what this one does to an audience,” says Roxmouth.

The Phantom of the Opera runs at Dubai Opera from October 16 to November 9. Tickets start from AED250.  

Adapted from the 1910 novel by French author Gaston Leroux, The Phantom of the Opera tells the tale of a Parisian opera house believed to be haunted by an entity known as the Phantom, a disfigured musical prodigy who lives inside the theatre. First staged at Her Majesty’s Theatre in London on October 9, 1986, starring Michael Crawford and Sarah Brightman, the show went on to win a string of top awards. In January 1988, the actors took the show to Broadway and repeated its success. Year on year, the musical adaptation continues to win hearts across the world, but what makes it so enduring? The two-and-a-half-hour performance sticks devotedly to the original composition. Its booming drums, progressive rock and dramatic organ recitals are all seamlessly woven around balletic choreography and elaborate gothic-inspired costumes. “The timelessness of the music and story has stood the test of time,” says Roxmouth.

“Aside from updating the technology we use, the show has remained unchanged. The audiences, too, have evolved around it by passing the story down through generations as something to see together. My grandfather passed the Phantom down to me and I will do the same with my future generations.”Since the age of 16, Roxmouth has harboured the dream to play the Phantom. And with this touring show, he realises it for the second time. With his inaugural portrayal of the Phantom, Roxmouth became the youngest English language lead to take on the role. Now, eight years on, he brings life experience to the part and more confidence in carrying the boldness of the Phantom on stage. “Some things are now second nature to me whereas there are other aspects to the role that I find new, thrilling and also heartbreaking. It’s like therapy every night,” says the actor whose physical stature embodies the immense character of the Phantom, complemented by his haunting tenor tones.

“Something very interesting happens when you put the mask on. You’re hidden and, therefore, normal rules and consequences don’t apply anymore. You behave differently. The change is instant because there’s a safety in the anonymity of it. It’s almost like a superhero putting on his mask and assuming a secret identity. I am bolder when I put it on. I feel more in control.” But he also admits that two and a half hours in this intense, dark character is heavy. “I’m instantly out of character once the curtains close. I cannot hold on for any longer than that. It is an extremely personal role and the performance is emotionally draining. Of course, it’s rewarding but I do feel like a bare wire sometimes, extremely vulnerable and open when the mask comes off. It’s a mind game, which I find utterly fascinating. This is the essence of theatre, after all.”

Roxmouth also adds that transforming into the Phantom has led to deep self-reflection. “He has been dealt a very difficult hand. He makes it work in his solitude but he is human and therefore lonely. This role has opened my eyes to the fact that it isn’t natural for us to be alone. We need people.”

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