Tag Archives: william shakespeare

I’m Gonna Sit Right Down And Write Myself A Letter…

macbeth

The theatre year is slowly grinding into gear, and the hot tickets are starting to warm up. Will you be able to snaffle one for McKellen’s Lear in the West End, or Alan Bennett’s new show ‘Allelujah!’ at the Bridge? Maybe you already have a treasured Upper Circle vertigo seat for ‘Hamilton’ burning a hole in your safety deposit box.

Personally, the show I’m most excited about this year is the Royal Shakespeare Company’s forthcoming production of ‘Macbeth’, with the wonderful Christopher Eccleston in the title role and Niamh Cusack as Lady M. To coin a phrase, it’s going to be fantastic (one for the Whovians amongst you there). But, if Mr Eccleston himself is to be believed, it nearly didn’t happen at all. In a recent interview with BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme, he claimed that he has always felt snubbed by the Shakespearean theatrical establishment because of his Lancashire accent, and is only playing the Scottish King because he wrote to the artistic director of the RSC, Gregory Doran:

“I wrote an old-fashioned letter to him and I said, ‘Since I was 17 I’ve always wanted to play Macbeth at the Royal Shakespeare Company, so can I do it?’… I’m never offered Shakespeare…”

Good for you Mr Eccleston, I say. There are many lovely things about this – it’s great that he isn’t above asking for work, great too that he has finally achieved a childhood ambition, but I think what delights me most is that he actually got out the Basildon Bond and his trusty Rollerball and put pen to paper. He didn’t WhatsApp Gregory Doran, he didn’t PM him, he didn’t even send him a text, he wrote an actual letter, put a stamp on it and walked to the post box.

It would be nice to believe there was something to be learnt from Christopher. How lovely it would be if we could suddenly hurl our clogs into the machines and go all analogue again; perhaps this news will revive the fortunes of the fountain pen industry and the Post Office in one fell swoop, as scores of millennials put aside their ‘devices’, take up their quills and start firing off inky missives to the great and the good of the theatre world. After all, it’s a lot easier to find out where to post a letter to Gregory Doran and his ilk than it might be to find their personal email addresses, so it certainly feels like you’re breaking through the defences.

brick

The truth, of course, is that Christopher Eccleston could probably have scratched his request on a brick and lobbed it through the window of the RSC canteen and it would have had the same effect. Basically, with that one letter he was offering the RSC the centrepiece of its 2018 season, all wrapped up with a ribbon. But if you’re not of the same calibre as Christopher, I wonder if even the most beautifully handwritten note would have had quite the same degree of success. I have my doubts, even if you’re not aiming for the title role.

postcards

For years I would spend ages in the art galleries of the provinces, selecting the most appropriate postcards to send off to casting directors, inviting them to first nights and trying my best to seem eminently employable. So hard to choose – would Kay Magson prefer a nice Degas or a bit of Klimt? A Hockney or a Pollock for John Hubbard? So much effort, so much hope – until one day I heard a casting director at a seminar being asked what irritated her most from actors, and her reply was, ‘Getting all those bloody postcards!’ So that put an end to that.

And did any of those letters and postcards ever actually work anyway? Can a message from one humble, non-famous, non-former-Doctor-Who-type actor amongst tens of thousands of others really make a difference? Does any email actually penetrate the filters, any one tweet really ping out above the tidal wave of others?

There’s just so much communication these days, I don’t know how anyone gets noticed without having to resort to the outrageous or illegal. There’s always the Terry Gilliam approach, of course – famously, when Universal Pictures tried to sit on his masterpiece, ‘Brazil’ in the U.S., Gilliam took out a whole page of the trade newspaper Variety to write a letter to the studio head, Sid Sheinberg:

terry gilliam sheinberg

I have often fantasised about talking out my own full-page ad in The Stage, although I’m not quite sure what I’d say. Something assertive and confident would be good, perhaps:

the stage hamlet

But that sounds vaguely threatening… I wouldn’t want to upset anyone…. Maybe this would be safer:

the stage to whom

But really, letter-writing is just a waste of ink, isn’t it? We actors all know that it makes no difference, nobody really reads them, they just go straight in the recycling. The problem is, however, we also tell ourselves that ‘you never know, my letter might just land on their desk on the right day’ – and there it is again, a shot of that most addictive of all drugs – hope. Well, it worked for Christopher Eccleston, didn’t it?

Dear Michelle Terry…

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Poetry readings – # 5: William Shakespeare – Sonnet 14

Time to start the year with another Shakespeare sonnet – this time, number 14:

Not from the stars do I my judgment pluck;
And yet methinks I have astronomy;
But not to tell of good or evil luck,
Of plagues, of dearths, or seasons’ quality;
Nor can I fortune to brief minutes tell,
Pointing to each his thunder, rain and wind,
Or say with princes if it shall go well,
By oft predict that I in heaven find;
But from thine eyes my knowledge I derive,
And, constant stars, in them I read such art
As truth and beauty shall together thrive,
If from thy self to store thou wouldst convert.
Or else of thee this I prognosticate:
Thy end is truth’s and beauty’s doom and date. 

Interview with the Casting Director – Hannah Miller – part one

Hannah Miller

Visiting the Royal Shakespeare Company’s London offices involves a climb up many flights of stairs, and I think serves as an effective pre-audition test – if you can survive the climb, then you clearly have the stamina for a year at the RSC. Hannah Miller has been the RSC Head of Casting since 2008, and an audition with her is one of the most desirable appointments in the acting profession.

Chris Naylor You have a very privileged position at the RSC – it’s a place where most actors really would love to work.

Hannah Miller
I hope so!

CN I wonder how you view that position, in terms of the feelings of people who want to work with you?

HM It is a responsibility, and whilst it’s a responsibility to the acting profession, it’s also a responsibility to directors, to the audiences, to our writers – Shakespeare included but not exclusively. Those three letters – RSC – do carry a great deal of connotation, both positive and negative. They can feel like a barrier to some people, they can cause our work to be misunderstood sometimes, they are a mark of excellence, we hope. Obviously we take very seriously the need to maintain that. And then there’s the fact that it’s a subsidised company as well, so you’ve got a responsibility to the sector, you’ve got a responsibility to be cultural leaders, to be always working in a way that is best practice, and we do take that really seriously.

CN The whole public company thing – everything you do has to be very accountable, doesn’t it? Does that place responsibility on you, to be very open about how you cast, or even to try and be more inclusive in who you meet?

HM Yes, and you know, hopefully I would want to work in that way wherever I was. The other thing, as the casting department for this organisation, is the work we do that maybe isn’t visible –the fact that we go out and see as much theatre as we do. We worked out, in four weeks between us, we paid 75 visits to the theatre. And not all of those visits would even be in a way that anybody was aware of – you know, we just took ourselves off.

CN Probably better for the actors as well – like when critics don’t come on the first night, they might see a more relaxed show.

HM Exactly – as a guest with an agent it’s lovely, but sometimes we just want to go to the theatre. I explain to students that it’s our job to get to know as many actors as possible; that is our core, basic job, and that isn’t always visible. We can apply that knowledge to the visible bit, which is who we’re bringing in to meet. But the knowledge is the important thing. So it’s not all about the here and now – I might know somebody for 10, 15 years, before I have the right job for them.

CN Are there actors that you have stored, thinking, ‘I’ll just wait three more years and she’ll be right?’

HM It’s not necessarily that strategic – and it’s not that someone is or isn’t right now – but at the end of the day there are only so many people that I can bring in for a part. And even if it’s ten, and we’ve got a company of 22, that’s still 220 people. 10 people for one part doesn’t sound a lot, but auditioning 220 people for a company takes a lot of time, because we do 20-minute meetings minimum. The hard bit of the job is that you could bring in 50 people, but you’ve only got time to bring in 10.

CN That’s tough, isn’t it?

HM And it’s instinct, it’s about bringing in a diverse group of people who your instinct tells you will make lots of different offers of how they might interpret that part, and what they bring in terms of their skills and experience, and their way of thinking as an actor, that I think might be a fit with that director and that project, and with anyone else we’ve already cast.

Gregory Doran Linda Nylind - GuardianErica Whyman

CN So when a season is decided on and the plays are set out, how does it work? Are you brought in or do you start earlier than that?

HM I’m part of the group of Heads of Department who are on the artistic planning team. We get together with Greg [Doran, Artistic Director] and Erica [Whyman, Deputy Artistic Director] and the producers to discuss the artistic planning of the RSC. So we’ll be aware of projects that might be upcoming, and suggesting whether we want to cast people before we confirm projects, sometimes. So early on I’ll be aware of the sorts of things that we might be doing, and be ready to get going as soon as we have projects, dates and directors confirmed. And sometimes we might want to look at casting people in leading roles before we can confirm a date, so we can work around people‘s availability, for example, but generally speaking we want to have those three things in place. Then I’ll start talking to the directors about their individual ideas, and their initial instincts about the story they want to tell with the production, and sometimes getting into quite a lot of detail on people that they’ve admired, people they’d like to work with, people they have worked with, or just reference points for characters, those kind of conversations.

CN So at that point presumably you’ll start going, ‘That makes me think of this actor…’

HM Yes, but obviously here most of the time we’re casting one company to work on two, three, maybe even four productions, so I’ll be having those conversations as early as possible, talking about any really strong choices that they want to make – for example, about the gender of characters – and if I have those conversations with all three directors then I can start to see how those productions might influence each other, and start to propose ideas of how different parts might work together. I always do that just to prove we can, it’s not fixed in stone in any way, because then real people walk through the door.

We meet actors that directors want to work with, and lots of actors that are all right for the same part in one play, but everybody would love them to be in the company, so we start to shift how those parts join up, and make lines of parts and opportunities for as many of the actors as possible.

CN So you’ll try and balance the size of parts?

HM Yeah, exactly. We don’t want to be saying, ‘You can’t work with that actor because…’, we want to say, ‘Can we think laterally about how this company can be formed, so that everybody has a fulfilling and interesting line of parts?’

Lizzie Hopley

CN [Actress and writer] Lizzie Hopley was talking recently about ‘Girl Fights’, the play she developed while she was working at Stratford, and saying what a supportive atmosphere the RSC is. What she described was almost like a theatrical village, where there’s a great community that will support and help any project. In a way you’re populating this village, aren’t you? You’re trying to create a little community that will work together.

HM Absolutely, that’s a very interesting way of putting it; I like that, populating a village.

CN I’ve been reading Antony Sher’s book ‘Year Of The Fat Knight’, and Stratford does have such a strong identity, it’s almost like a character in the diaries.

Sher Fat Knight

HM The environment for working is pretty special, I think; it’s not going to be for everyone, but I think the vast majority of people that work there have got a lot out of that. It is a bit of a bubble, but consequently it’s an incredibly supportive environment and well-populated in every department – there are people around to support you in every aspect of your work. Plus, as Lizzie brilliantly made the most of, for those people who have other interests, you’re there with lots of other actors who are also away from home and have a little bit of extra time to create projects and try things out, compared to being in London where everyone just goes home at the end of the night. There is an environment of creativity – people work very hard, and we know that. We put a lot of demands on our actors in Stratford, and there’s a lot that we’d like them to get involved with, as well as the shows. And I’m conscious of that being right for people at different moments of their time and career.

I was with drama students yesterday and they were talking about, you know, ‘How often is it somebody’s first job?’ It varies from year to year, of course, depending on the plays we’re doing, but quite often there’s at least between one and five people who are in their first year after graduating. But I know a lot of people who get more out of it five or ten years into their career, or even beyond, because it’s about a return to a sense of being able to learn and stretch and work really hard.

CN That absorption in the craft.

HM Exactly.

CN When you’re auditioning, can you get the sense that this person won’t like that total immersion, and being away for a long time?

HM I think most people, when they come in to audition, know what it’s like, and people are honest about whether they are ready for that, or if it was only one or two plays out of a season, but not three or four.

CN Do you have that flexibility?

HM Sometimes we’re at a point where we can be flexible about the way the company forms, and sometimes we can’t, but it’s often a question.

Royal Shakespeare Theatre

CN Being quite a way from London, being separate from all the rush and the career pressure and – for actors, anyway, that ‘missing out’ thing – it’s an interesting mixture isn’t it? It’s such a prestigious place to work, and yet you’re away for quite a while.

HM I think it’s a societal thing generally in 2015 – everyone always thinks they have to move on. I’ve got friends in completely different industries who are like, ‘Well, I shouldn’t be in this job for longer than, you know 3 or 4 years’. It’s certainly incredibly prevalent in our industry, which I find hilarious, because none of us is going to have a pension and we’re all going to be working into our eighties, so I don’t know what the rush is. I am not sure that I buy any of that, personally.

Maybe I’m a bit old-fashioned; I think there is room for focusing on the fact that this is a company that you want to be part of; that you want to go back to some basics of technique and craft that you once learnt or haven’t had the chance to develop. It is about fulfilment and satisfaction and creativity, and working with amazing people; working for a company that can support you and is prestigious, rather than, ‘But what is this credit going to be and who’s going to see me do it and –’

CN ‘What’s next?’

HM I’m sure for some people it takes a while to get used to a freelance life, and so to interrupt that isn’t always going to be easy. Of course there are some people who love that – it doesn’t suit them to do the same thing for 9 months or a year, and they like to go from one thing to another. I don’t want us to pretend that our work isn’t what it is, and yes, normally the contracts are 6 months minimum, often over a year. They have a different flow, a different workload, and if that isn’t right for somebody, I don’t want anyone to pretend that it is.

shakespeare's globe

CN It seems from observing the shows over the years that – much like the Globe, for example – there are actors who love it, and feel at home and want to return. That’s a rather wonderful thing isn’t it? It’s not something that we are often able to do in this country.

HM Absolutely, it’s that sense of getting to know a group of people. I’m talking to a lot of drama students at this time of year – having worked with the same people for three years, what they’re very excited about is, ‘We’ll be working with complete strangers, won’t that be so weird?’

CN ‘Of the right age!’

HM Yes, exactly! And working with people from different backgrounds, with different experiences, and of course often with people who have been with the RSC before. On the other hand, this spring we looked at everybody who was on the payroll, and 66% of the company were on their first ever contract with us, out of nearly 200 people. And I think that’s another thing that surprises people – sometimes you can look at it and say, ‘They only ever have new people and they’ve never asked me back’, or, ‘They only ever work with the same people’ –

CN Depending on your attitude?

HM Yeah, it depends what people want to see. But actually the truth of it is that it’s very even. But also that the people returning range from having been here in the season immediately before, to not having returned for 15, 20 years.

CN That must keep it fresh – give it a sense of continuity and freshness at the same time.

HM And that combination is really important, I think. Because younger actors working here for the first time do appreciate having people around who can say, ‘Oh well, it never used to be like this’, or, ‘That’s always what you get’ or whatever.

CN And also for the older actors, seeing it through fresh eyes.

HM Exactly, it works both ways.

In Part Two, Hannah talks beginnings, how to approach a casting director and ‘Twin Peaks’…

Interview With The Director… Joe Harmston – part 3

lark%20rise%204

Chris Naylor: Can you remember particular performances that inspired you?

Joe Harmston: Lots of things. I went to the National just endlessly, and the RSC in the Eighties, so for about ten years I saw everything that was on. I remember seeing a lot of things at the Cottesloe – things like ‘Lark Rise To Candleford’, ‘The Mysteries’, and actors who had a wild but also playful energy, people like Jack Shepherd, and Brian Glover –

brianJack%20Shepherd

CN: Real people.

JH: Real people, and very, very exciting. No tricks, no fuss, no pretence about what they were doing; it was really simple. And then I remember seeing Ian McKellen’s show for London Lighthouse, ‘Acting Shakespeare’.

mckellen

CN: I didn’t know about that.

JH: Yeah, it must have been ‘87, ‘88 something like that, at the Playhouse – he had this show raising money for AIDS research, and it was just him.

CN: Was it like Gielgud’s ‘Ages of Man’?

JH: Yes, but it was a bit more anarchic than that. At the beginning of the second act, I remember the house lights were on, and we were all chatting away, and a lot of people didn’t notice, but he just walked on and stood in the middle of the stage and he just gazed at his hand, and very, very slowly just raised it, and suddenly he literally had the audience in the palm of his hand. And it was just a wonderful moment.

I remember directing and producing a gala for John Gielgud’s centenary at the Gielgud theatre, and my cast was Paul Scofield – bizarrely, I was the last person to direct him – and Judi Dench and Ian McKellen, and Ian Richardson – I mean, it was just everybody who had ever worked with Gielgud. And Scofield was on doing ‘I’ll burn my books’, Prospero’s last speech, it was just unbelievable. And he came off and said, ‘Any notes?’

gielgud gala

But while he was doing his bit, I remember Judi was crouching there, Ian Richardson peering over her, and Ian McKellen down the side and everybody was just watching him. Then somebody did a bit of chat in between, and Judi and Ian and Ian were all sort of pissing about and giggling and gossiping about people, and then Judi heard her cue, kicked her shoes off and just turned round, stepped on stage and was Titania. I think all the actors that I really love, they could be, you know, swigging on a bottle of beer, or having a gossip about somebody, and turn 180 degrees and step on stage and be Macbeth or Titania –

CN: – and their concentration would 100 per cent.

JH: And it would be utterly real. I’m always dubious about actors who turn up two hours before the performance and start warming up and say, ‘you can’t talk to me until I‘ve done this’, because acting is about real people.

simon

This is a terrible confession, because you know, he’s so popular – but I can’t bear Simon Russell Beale. I never believe anything he does. I can never believe that this man has ever got on a bus, wiped his arse, had a cold, f***ed anybody, gone to Tesco’s to buy some milk, and therefore I don’t care. Technically wonderful actor but I just don’t connect with him. I love actors to be messy, to be human, to be real, to be vulnerable, and dangerous and frightening and fearful and I think sadly now our fixation is with actors who are sort of superhuman in some way, I mean Benedict Cumberbatch is a kind of uber-human –

benedict

CN: – and Tom Hiddleston.

JH: Something very interesting has happened in the period that I’ve been going to and working in the theatre. I‘m an old-fashioned, unreconstructed lefty with working class parents, who fell in love with the theatre because it was about people, and seemed to be dealing with issues. It was messy and exciting and human, and it was about communication. And the people who were part of the word I fell in love with were all kind of ‘working class heroes’. I mean, it was Jack Shepard and it was Tom Courtenay and Albert Finney. Actually it went too far – you know, you had to have a father who was coal miner in order to play a part on stage, whether in fact it was Caesar or a coalminer. Now we’re going through this much more patrician thing, where the only people who can play any part, whether it’s Caesar or a coalminer, have been to Eton. And casting directors I know stop going to drama schools, they go to Eton or Lancing.

CN: How do you think that affects casting? I can remember being very inspired when I was at school, by going up to Stratford – we saw loads of shows, and the one that really struck me was Gerard Murphy playing Doctor Faustus. It was incredible, a really visceral performance, but nobody knows who he is – nobody had heard of him; at the time he was an RSC actor, I guess.

dr_faustus gerard murphy

JH: I remember seeing Gerard in Henry IV parts 1&2 at the Barbican – they were the shows that opened the Barbican – and I thought he was just stunning. And interestingly, he was playing Hal, and his Henry IV, his father was Patrick Stewart, and then Patrick Stewart was the solid dependable actor to play those slightly dull parts. And very good. But you looked then and thought that Gerard was the person who was going to be… I mean he was, God, electric.

CN: I remember him crawling up, trying to get away, and being pulled down this wrought iron ladder back to Hell; it was extraordinary. But now, would you cast somebody from the ranks, an RSC regular, or would you cast Jude Law?

JH: Or Daniel Radcliffe. Simon Russell Beale, if you were at the National.

CN: But do you feel – as a director – that you have pressure on you from producers?

JH: Oh, endless, endless. I mean the first question that anybody ever asks is, ‘Who’s in it?’ and that means which of the 12 acceptable people are in it, and that‘s it.

CN: Are you aware of projects being constructed around somebody?

JH: Oh yeah. I mean look at the Mamet play with Lindsay Lohan.

CN: I wonder if audiences feel the same. Maybe I’m being completely naïve but I would have thought that audiences go to the theatre because they want to see the story that the play is about. Do you think that’s true?

JH: Well, I think some of the audience do. I think these days, particularly in the West End we’re in a period of sort of cultural materialism in a sense, that people have this idea that the next big show is a thing to acquire. Which I suppose is not a new thing, you know, ‘Have you seen O’Toole’s Hamlet?’ – I mean that’s always been there, but it’s back with a vengeance now.

CN: Thank you Joe.