Twelve Questions with Michael Neill

Michael Neill, 70, is a Shakespearean scholar and actor, elder brother of actor Sam and sister Juliet, a puppeteer and singer. He heads Auckland University's summer Shakespeare production of King Lear, directed by New Zealand actress Lisa Harrow.

Michael Neill has never felt actor rivalry with brother Sam. Photo / Natalie Slade
Michael Neill has never felt actor rivalry with brother Sam. Photo / Natalie Slade

1. That's a great beard. Take long to grow?

I don't normally look like Shrek. I had a goatee but I stopped cutting it at the end of November. After a certain age it's hard enough to recognise your face in the mirror without having all this stuff around it.

2. You grew up in Northern Ireland because your army officer father was stationed there. Were you affected by The Troubles?

It was relatively peaceful then, but I remember a raid on my father's barracks. He was making his once-a-term trip to my boarding school down south to play a fathers' cricket match so wasn't there but the rebels dressed up as territorials, tricked the guards on the gate and raided the armoury. My parents always brought me doughnuts when they visited and I was expecting them when I woke up the next day, but of course they had gone, called back because the raid caused quite a stir. I've never forgiven the IRA for the loss of those doughnuts.

3. Seeing your parents only once a term must have been hard for an 11-year-old?

Well, my father was sent to Harrow from New Zealand at the age of 12 and he didn't see his parents for five years and the same thing happened to his father.

[Boarding school] was supposed to make a man out of you. It just gave me nightmares for the rest of my life.

4. You came back to Christ's College at the age 13 and have described the school as "vile". What was so awful about it?

At the heart of things, boys' boarding schools had the crudest form of management - an informally permitted system of bullying. It was built into the entire structure of the thing. And if you were unlucky enough to speak with a foreign accent and be identified as a Pom and be no good at rugby, you were doomed.

5. Is that why Sam changed his name from Nigel - was he bullied too?

No, he just had two friends who were also called Nigel so they all changed their names. He had a much better time at school but he was young enough when he arrived to learn how to acquire a New Zealand accent. And he was better at rugby.

6. Did your father want any of you to follow him into Wilson Neill, the family business, after he took it over when you moved back to New Zealand.

For a long time he thought his elder son would go into the army, but by the time I was at adolescence he realised this was unlikely. He was rather disconcerted when Nigel was working in the National Film Unit and acting on the side. "When's that damn boy going to get a career?" he'd say. Then came a film called Sleeping Dogs and another called My Brilliant Career and he'd say, "I can't imagine where the boy got that talent from, mind you I did play the station master in The Ghost Train at Harrow".

7. Was there any acting rivalry between you and Sam?

No, not at all. I used to act a lot when I was younger but I reached a point where there seemed something indecent about amateur dramatics. Maybe it was having a professional actor for a brother but it became an impossible vanity so I stopped.

8. Are you nervous about taking on such an enormous role now?

Of course I get nervous. After nearly 50 years of teaching I would still get nervous before every lecture. It's a performance, you see. As for Lear, it makes big demands on the memory, as I'm finding out. I wouldn't say it's the role I always wanted - it never occurred to me until I got older.

9. You finished at the University of Auckland in October. Will you miss teaching?

There are a lot of things going on at universities now which I don't like. The increasing managerialisation of universities. The tendency to regard education as a business. Regarding academic staff as hirelings. Students are paying higher fees but what's given to them is less and less. It's distressing and I wasted too much of my time in my last years fighting hopeless rearguard actions against it.

10. You've been described as an ivory tower academic - why are Kiwis still so suspicious of academia, do you think?

I think it's all that's left of the egalitarian impulse that made this country such a wonderful place in many respects ... it's a paradox how we nourish elitism in sport but not other areas. There seems to be something shameful about activities of the mind. My father shared that view in many respects. I'd be up studying and he'd shout, "For God's sake put that book down and do some real work."

11. There's a lot of talk about mortality in Lear - at 70, do you worry about your own?

Lear's about many things - dysfunctional families, patriarchal tyranny, love and the failure of love, also the disintegration of society. Lisa [Harrow] thinks of it as a metaphor for the apocalyptic collapse of society as a result of climate change. And yes, there is death. As for my own mortality, I have dismissed it as an absurd notion. I intend to live forever.

12. What do you wish more people knew about Shakespeare?

I would like people to remember he's not The Bard but a hard-working professional dramatist with an unmatched ear for dramatic verse.

• The University of Auckland Outdoor Summer Shakespeare production of King Lear, March 1-30.

- NZ Herald

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