This Life actor stars in role made famous by Yul Brynner, says Colette Sheridan
RODGERS and Hammerstein’s musical, The King and I, runs at Dublin’s Bord Gais Energy Theatre from May 22-26, and stars Ramon Tikaram as the King of Siam. Tikaram, whose career has included playing Qadim Shah in the TV soap opera, EastEnders, says the touring production is lavish “but not over-laden. It’s cleverly and economically done but with great style. There are massive gold Buddhas on stage and the costumes are gorgeous.”
The heart-warming story of the British governess brought to the court of Siam to teach the king’s children is told through drama, and melodies such as Shall We Dance, I Whistle a Happy Tune and Getting to Know You. It’s based on the 1944 novel, Anna and the King of Siam, by Margaret Landon. The source of the story is the memoir of Anna Leonowens, governess to the children of King Mongkut of Siam in the early 1860s.
The British school teacher is hired as part of the king’s plans to modernise his country. The relationship between the king and Anna (Josefina Gabrielle) is marked by conflict and by a love that neither is able to express.
For older generations, the 1956 film of The King and I is synonymous with Yul Brynner, who won an Academy Award for the role of the king. In the early 1980s, Brynner starred in a UK tour of the musical, culminating in a 1985 Broadway run, shortly before his death.
Tikaram doesn’t feel in the shadow of Brynner. “For me, there’s no expectation of living up to Brynner. For a start, he didn’t have hair. I have a lot of it. As an actor, you just get on with what’s delivered to you and perform it as best you can. It’s a great story. What you think is going to happen doesn’t happen. You really can’t anticipate the show. It starts off in this court, where the king is a complete dictator. By the end of it, he has learned a lot. Anna has been forced into some self-realisation as well,” he says.
While there is an anti-slavery message in the show, it’s primarily about a country that hasn’t changed in hundreds of years. “The rest of the world is going through industrialisation. Distances between the great nations are becoming shorter. Unless the king becomes part of that world, his country will be left behind. The story is about the journey he has to make,” he says.
Tikaram has also had quite a journey, in terms of his career. The older brother of the singer, Tanita Tikaram, he wanted to be an actor from the age of five. After attending six primary schools in the UK and Germany, Tikaram was sent to the Duke of York’s Royal Military School in Dover, Kent, in 1978.
“Because my father was in the British army, we moved around a lot. He thought it was having a detrimental effect on my behaviour and education. So I was sent to military school. It was hell. I didn’t like the idea of guns or marching around. But I loved learning and playing rugby. I was also very much interested in theatre throughout that time. When you want to be an actor at the age of five, you tend to grow out of it. But it was something I could never ignore, no matter how stupid financially it can be, especially now with three kids,” he says.
After attending the National Youth Theatre in 1982, followed by a role in a Tom Stoppard play at the Edinburgh Fringe in 1984, Tikaram studied economics and politics at the University of London. However, he switched to English at the University of Kent and gained a first-class honours degree. He moved to Dublin, ostensibly to follow in the footsteps of his heroes, James Joyce and WB Yeats, but ended up “living from hand to mouth. I got myself a guitar and sang in all the pubs around Dublin. It was exciting, but also scary, because you really didn’t know where you were going to get your next gig,” he says.
Having released an album, Tikaram returned to acting. His profile grew because of performances in the film Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love and the BBC television drama This Life, in which he played Ferdy.
Tikaram’s theatrical career has included his portrayal of Judas Iscariot in the 1997 West End production of Jesus Christ Superstar.
“The highlight of my career was acting in a cycle of 12 plays about Afghanistan at the Tricycle Theatre in Kilburn in 2009. It was interesting to work with different writers from concept to final staging,” he says.
Military school is now a distant memory. But Tikaram says that it instilled discipline in him. “I run every day when I’m not doing two shows. I eat my five fruit and vegetables religiously and I don’t drink anymore. I suppose there’s a military fervour about all that.”
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