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Batten down the hatches! The Brits have invaded the Brooklyn Academy of Music and everyone’s going to want a ticket to the first two productions of BAM’s spring season.

British actress Emily Watson will make her American stage debut at BAM on Jan. 10 with the opening of Donmar Warehouse’s production of "Twelfth Night." BAM is presenting both the Shakespeare comedy and Chekhov’s "Uncle Vanya" in repertory.

While Watson is confident in the material - she starred in both plays in London this fall - she is taken aback by the 874-seat Harvey Theater, which is triple the size of the Donmar theater.

"What makes me nervous is the auditorium is a lot bigger," Watson, on a brief break from rehearsal this week, told GO Brooklyn in an exclusive interview. "It was not at all what I was led to believe. And that changes the nature of the production. I thought it was just a bit bigger, so we were shell-shocked when we walked in yesterday. But it’s beautiful. The needs of the space are different, but I’m sure we’ll work that out in the next few days."

Although the commitment to these two plays is much more time consuming than an actor’s commitment to a film, the actress said she was happy to return to these two roles after the company’s December break.

"It’s really nice, actually, to be back in the rehearsal room," said Watson. "[Director Sam Mendes] is really doing some very nice touches and tweaking here and there. It’s good fun."

Because advance ticket sales have been so strong (these two Donmar Warehouse productions played to critical and popular acclaim in London in the fall), BAM has extended the run of "Twelfth Night" and Brian Friel’s new version of "Uncle Vanya." Both shows are now slated to be performed in repertory at BAM for eight weeks through March 9.

In addition to performing the role of cross-dressing Viola in "Twelfth Night" opposite Mark Strong’s Count Orsino, Watson will perform the role of Sonya in "Uncle Vanya" opposite Strong’s Dr. Astrov.

"Come and see both plays," said Watson, "because they are very specifically chosen to reflect each other. Both plays are about love triangles and obsession of love, and unrequited love, and one is funny and happy and the other is pretty sad - right into the cracks of human misery. And the cross casting reflects that as well ... They’re good to see as a pair."

Watson said she was attracted to this repertory run because she likes a challenge - although this one was more than she bargained for.

"I don’t think I really realized what I was taking on," she said. "Actually living with it for so long, it is quite - particularly the Chekhov and dysfunctional families - is quite draining and painful stuff. But ’Twelfth Night’ is a good antidote to that. It’s very uplifting and fun to do."

Some British critics wrote that they found the Donmar production of "Twelfth Night" toned down compared to other, riotously funny productions.

"It’s more like a chamber piece, not a big pantomime version," said Watson. "I find the other guys [in the cast] funny. We’ll see."

The Donmar production of Chekhov’s "Uncle Vanya" also offers audiences the opportunity to rediscover an old classic.

"I love it," said Watson. "I think it’s very freeing - you probably don’t have the same problem in America - because most English translations of Chekhov feel very English-English. They feel like slightly stiff, upper middle class English people talking and drinking tea when in fact they are quite passionate Russian people drinking tea. [By Friel] putting it in an Irish idiom - although not an Irish accent - the language is freer and more emotional somehow. It’s not hidebound by the same class thing you get in an English production."

On eight Saturdays it will be possible to see both "Twelfth Night" and "Uncle Vanya," with a matinee and evening performance, a real juggling act for even the most seasoned actors.

"I just have to be in the moment, particularly in ’Twelfth Night.’ You just have to step on stage, and jump and go for it," said Watson. "As soon as I start thinking about it too much, I get my knickers in a twist."

Sam Mendes, director of the Oscar-winning film "American Beauty" and the Tony Award-winning production of "Cabaret," returned to BAM to direct these two productions.

"[Mendes] is very emotionally intelligent working on these plays," said Watson. "He didn’t come in with a big concept or big idea. He really let the actors respond to the material and he sort of guided us through it. But it was very much using people’s own initiative. We all felt very much like equal partners. In that sense he’s got very good taste."

This double bill, which Mendes had the cast rehearse for 12 weeks, is the director’s grand finale after a 10-year run as artistic director of the Donmar Warehouse.

"There was a real sense to this that [this project] is very precious to him," observed Watson, "but in a way of not having anything to prove, that sense of being relaxed and letting the actors discover things rather than pushing things." Mendes will direct the Broadway revival of "Gypsy," starring Bernadette Peters, this spring.

Watson, 35, has flabbergasted audiences with her riveting, heartbreaking portrayals of women, especially in her first film role - for which she was Oscar nominated - as Bess McNeill in Lars Von Trier’s "Breaking the Waves" in 1996.

"[’Breaking the Waves’] changed my life ­ in two ways," said Watson. "One was that I got work from it, but it really pushed me as an actor in a way I didn’t know was possible. It changed the way I act, the way I worked. I realized there was a lot further to go, committing to something emotionally."

Watson received another Oscar nomination for "Hilary and Jackie," and kudos for her roles in "The Cradle Will Rock," "Angela’s Ashes," "The Luzhin Defense," "Gosford Park" and "Punch-Drunk Love."

The British actress’ other recent films - opposite Ralph Fiennes in "Red Dragon," the "Silence of the Lambs" prequel, and "Equilibrium," a sci-fi thriller from Dimension Films - are surprising departures from her high-art forays thus far in cinema - another sign that this actress is still looking for new challenges.

For the next two months, those challenges will be bringing Shakespeare and Chekhov to life - sometimes twice a day. Watson couldn’t be happier with the location.

"BAM is a most amazing institution," said Watson. "There’s nothing like it in London. It’s a really alive place."

William Shakespeare’s "Twelfth Night" and Anton Chekhov’s "Uncle Vanya," adapted by Brian Friel, will be presented by the Donmar Warehouse at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Harvey Theater, 651 Fulton St. from Jan. 10 ­ March 9. Tickets are $30, $55 and $75. For show dates and times and tickets call (718) 636-4100 or visit www.bam.org.

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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