It probably won’t come as a surprise to any regular reader that I always get excited about the new Royal Shakespeare Company season and I’ve been particularly looking forward to them attacking Shakespeare’s Roman plays. Despite the season not starting until March, I’ve been hungry for information on what to expect. Thankfully, Alex Waldmann was kind enough to give me – and you – an idea of what to expect! Alex is a veteran of the RSC and of Shakespeare productions in general so it was fascinating to get his insight. (By the way, he’s also the founder of theatre company SEARED, whose premiere of Michael McLean’s Years of Sunlight opens this week at London’s Theatre503)…
You’ve worked with the RSC before, how does it feel to be back with them and heading back to Stratford?
I’m sure a lot of actors who’ve been to the RSC before would say this, so it probably sounds clichéd, but it really feels like going home every time you head up there. I got to be part of the Shakespeare Live event last April with much more esteemed actors than myself and everyone there just loves it! One of my favourite things that’s happened in my career – everyone in the company that night came out to do a warm up onstage together so Judi Dench was there, David Suchet, Helen Mirren… everyone was onstage doing the warm up and you got to talk to people. Everyone feels the same thing. It’s very special once you’ve worked there and I would have loved to have gone back sooner.
I had two really great years there but trying to juggle it with having two young children is tricky. It was finding the right time and the right thing to make it work, my eldest daughter is at school and I wouldn’t want to move her, my youngest is now two and a half and it’s meant that the last two or three years I’ve tried not to be away from home as much. This year as I’m only in the one play I think I’ll be able to spread my time better and get home a bit so it won’t feel as much of an upheaval on us all. But yes, it’s so nice to be back. Two of my favourite years in my career were there and I’m very proud of the shows we did. King John and As You Like It were two of my favourite things I’ve ever done so it’s great to be back!
So how are rehearsals going for Julius Caesar?
Well that was part of the interesting thing… As I said I wanted to go back when the time was right and when the opportunity to play Brutus came up, for so many reasons it felt like the right thing to do. I’ve known Angus Jackson for a few years, I’ve met him for a couple of things that he managed to not cast me in a long time ago and when we started to talk about this I remember my agent saying there isn’t a better time to be doing Julius Caesar than with what’s going on in the world.
Even if Trump wasn’t being inaugurated, I still would have been very interested but there’s something about this play at this time that feels particularly important and it’s interesting that other theatres have programmed it as well. When they thought of doing a Rome season I’m not sure they thought the world would be quite as it is but it’s really interesting that there’s a play that absolutely gets to the heart of so many things that people are thinking about and dealing with at the moment as someone who is potentially very dangerous is about to rule the free world. So that mad it particularly appealing! You’re always struggling as an actor – you want to be able to change the world but you can’t. Maybe the closest you can get is to put on a show that at least deals with important things. The frustration you have is that sometimes in the theatre you feel like you’re in an echo chamber. Similarly politically minded people come and watch the play and find it thought provoking but what does that actually do? Can we actually make a difference? Maybe we can’t… but I remember it was literally the day that Trump won the vote that Angus texted me saying there’s no better time to be doing Julius Caesar and my agent said as well that the play couldn’t be more relevant.
Not only are you dealing with what you do if there is a tyrant with all that power, obviously with Putin and Trump that’s relevant, but you’ve also got the notion that’s dominated our thoughts for years about whether a preemptive strike is justified. Brutus talks about Caesar maybe not being that dangerous yet, but make him a king and he’ll have unlimited power to do what he wants. So he says that to stop that happening we have to act now before he becomes king – which has so many parallels with Blair and Iraq. Then you’ve got the other thing I think the play deals with brilliantly, you go and do this almighty act without any plan of what you do afterward – and again the notions of what has gone on in the Middle East are unavoidable – the moment they kill him none of them know what they’re going to do next and an almighty vacuum opens up and Rome becomes worse than it was under a tyrant, at least it was secure. Liberals, the equivalent of the free press, anyone who opposed Caesar, everyone is then killed and an almighty civil war starts.
Greg Doran always talks about Shakespeare being like a magnet, whatever period you put it on people will find similarities but I think particularly at the moment with the Rome season about power, democracy liberty and freedom – all the things that Shakespeare deals with in these plays have never felt more relevant.
The character I’m playing Brutus and his wife Portia, with their relationship you can’t help seeing parallels with Barack Obama and Michelle – it’s a very equal relationship. There’s a great scene the night before Caesar is to be made king and the conspirators decide he has to die. His wife comes and asks what’s wrong, why are you so preoccupied and you think this must be what it’s like behind closed doors when people have to make these huge decisions knowing that inaction is potentially as dangerous as doing something and it’s an almighty decision Brutus has to make. He knows the conspiracy can’t happen without him and he is the face of it. That got me to thinking about David Cameron making himself the face of the Conservative party – the next day when Brutus talks to the crowd he says “I did it”, he doesn’t say ‘we’, he makes himself the face of the conspiracy because he’s the one who is trusted. It’s extraordinary really!
Like with any Shakespeare play I had no idea just how good and how interesting it was or quite how relevant until we started rehearsing it working through it and thinking wow, this is what this guy has written!
Alex as Horatio in the RSC’s ‘Hamlet’
So… rehearsals are going fine. You’re very fortunate with the RSC you get 12 weeks in which they work two shows in parallel. We’re doing Julius Caesar and upstairs many of the same cast are doing Antony and Cleopatra so essentially it works out you have six weeks per play but having that spread over the twelve weeks you get a lot of thinking time so you don’t have to set stuff straight away, you get a lot of time to think about it and try different versions. With each week as you go back to a scene you discover new stuff you’ve been thinking about and try things. So we’re just working our way through and keep on discovering more each time we come back to it. We’re going to be doing this play for the next year so hopefully we’ll continue as I’ve always found with Shakespeare, to learn much more about it. You get it to a certain place and then the audience will tell you so much about it as well.
You realise Shakespeare has not written something to be… it’s my big bugbear that Shakespeare has been hijacked by academics, when you put it in front of an audience you find these plays aren’t just meant to be studied they’re meant to be performed and spoken aloud in front of an audience, the way the audience responds to it and how they get involved in that story, that’s when you realise what Shakespeare has written and it’s extraordinary!
I still think it’s early days and suddenly we’ll get to February and think “okay, we’ve got to get on with it” but it’s going very well. As always this is a really committed company that throws themselves into it. I’m very fortunate that I only have to concentrate on Brutus but a lot of these other actors are in two plays at the moment and they’re now having to think about what parts they’re understudying. They work you hard at the RSC but it beats real work and it beats being out of work too!
You’ve got a strong association not just with the RSC but with Shakespeare in general. You’ve even managed to do King John twice, how was that?
I know! There’s not many of us that have done that. I think myself and, interestingly, Jo Stone-Fewings. He played The Bastard at the RSC and ended up playing the king in the production we did together at The Globe, I played King John in 2012 and then the bastard. For one of Shakespeare’s lesser known plays there can’t be many of us that have had the chance to do both those parts.
Again, I love that play from doing it but if I had just read it by myself I wouldn’t have made head nor tail of it. The production we did at Stratford in 2012 was really special, kind of crazy and ‘out there’ – we changed the sex of one of the characters and fused it with another character, there was lots of pop music – we really played around with the play to get to the spirit of what Shakespeare was writing. Then to do the Bastard at the Globe was amazing – that’s the environment that part was written for. This guy who comes out of the action and speaks directly to the audience and says that guy’s a bit of an idiot, aren’t all these people idiots… let’s have lots of fun together while these people make fools of themselves! Then over the course of the play he gets submerged into the action and speaks less and less to the audience as power draws him in. He gets closer to the seat of power and loses that innocence, that relation to the audience. It’s literally written as him playing off the pit, the people standing… the cheap seats against the people in the more expensive seats. He’s playing off rich and poor. That would never have made sense reading it but you get to perform it and you think “this is where that part was written for”.
It wasn’t my plan when I left drama school. I didn’t think I’d end up following this quite old fashioned, classical acting career. It just so happens that’s the way my career pans out. The industry sort of tells you what they think you’re good at, what they want you for. I’ve been very fortunate that these opportunities to play these fantastic roles with great directors present themselves. It really wasn’t what I planned.
The turning point was working with Declan Donnellan and Cheek By Jowl in 2008, playing Troilus and it was a real life changing experience for me. Not only the chance to play a lead role in The Barbican and around Europe but just him as a director – it was like having a life coach! He got me to think about Shakespeare and theatre, human beings and human emotion in a completely different way and that’s informed all the work I’ve done since. I’ve been converted to Shakespeare, I’m not a fan… part of me would rather see an average Arthur Miller play compared to an average Shakespeare because at least I’ll understand what people are saying. A lot of the Shakespeare you might see in this country… it’s hard to recognise the people on stage as human beings. Since working with Declan that’s always been the thing I’m interested in. Making these words become a real person’s thoughts and the words they happen to say rather than … there’s an inevitability to certain Shakespeare productions where I find people stop acting like human beings. I also think there’s something very interesting in the idea that certain times you see Shakespeare and get the notion that because it was “pre-Freud” people couldn’t label or understand their emotions – they blamed them on humours in the air – but it didn’t mean they felt stuff any differently. I always found it hard to get involved as an audience member, why should I care about these people speaking in a funny voice, speaking a foreign language. I don’t recognise any of it. A lot of the Shakespeare I’ve been fortunate enough to do and what I’m interested in always is trying to think who is the person behind this and what are they going through? A lot of the box sets we watch on TV; Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, The Wire… every moment is life and death and we get fascinated when we get involved in Walter White or Tony Soprano’s head. One minute he’s lovely and then he’s horrible… you don’t have to like them you’re just intrigued and interested to see what they do next. In Shakespeare’s writing every moment what’s at stake for those people is always so high and just as exciting as any of those telly shows we’ve become addicted to but it’s finding the way to tell those stories and make them as exciting as being actually there – we’re constantly looking in Julius Casear that at any point this thing could go wrong, someone could tell Caesar these guys are plotting to kill him. Part of it should feel like a thriller, like an episode of 24. We’ve got a race to kill him before he gets a crown on his head.
It’s thinking about what’s really happening, what are they up against, how could it go another way… and so I got converted by doing all this Shakespeare in front of an audience and now I love it but I didn’t before. It’s only by being fortunate enough to play these great roles that I’ve been able to understand how brilliant these plays are and what great characters he wrote!
So are there any particular characters or plays, not just from Shakespeare but by any playwright, that you’ve not yet done but would love to have a crack at?
I don’t know really… I never used to think I wanted to play Hamlet because I thought “what do I have to add?” and part of me still, if I’m honest, would rather watch Andrew Scott do it than myself – because he’s brilliant! It’s a bit of a cliché but… I used to want to play Romeo for years because I felt like no one was getting it right except for Leo on the film but I’m getting a bit old for that now so I think those days are behind me. As I’m approaching my late thirties I have to rethink what kind of roles I want to play. I don’t think I’ll find a role as complex and demanding as being a dad and that’s the most important thing in my life right now! You’re amazed at the level of creativity and patience that’s required to fulfil that role!
I suppose that if you’re getting your teeth into a part right now that becomes your world…
Exactly! If I’m in rehearsals or onstage I’m so fortunate to make a living doing this and I’m so grateful for that. I always give everything I have to any project I’m involved with. It’s interesting with Brutus, a lot of the parts I’d normally play are maybe more front footed or more emotionally volatile but I think in our production – it’s very interesting, you can do versions of this play where everyone is obviously self-seeking and doing it for their own personal reasons – Brutus feels like he’s doing this for the good of Rome and for the right reasons. He’s convinced himself this is right but his awareness of ambition and the dangers of that, it’s a kind of monster that lurks in everyone, when he’s put in a position of power how does that effect Brutus. How does he change when he becomes the main man even though he’s never looked for it?
You think about another parallel with Brexit and Michael Gove saying he would never want to run for leadership and then suddenly he changes his mind and throws his hat in. As an idealist he would have found a way to justify that. I don’t think Brutus is aware sometimes of his own hypocrisy – I always hear Tony Blair saying “I did that because it’s the right thing to do” – the right thing to do can change. One minute Brutus is talking against suicide and at the end of the play he finds a way to justify running onto his own sword because it’s the right thing to do. It’s a real challenge to me and with Angus Jackson, who like I say I’ve wanted to work with for a long time, who I’m really enjoying working with. He’s had enormous success at the RSC recently with Don Quixote and Oppenheimer. We’ve got an ongoing discussion each day, I’m very interested in how people have played roles before, often because then I think that’s different to how I read it – it reaffirms the decisions we’ve made and my instinctive feeling. I was saying to Angus the other day that I don’t think I can play someone that’s stoic, but I can play someone that’s really trying to be stoic because that’s what other people need of him. I’m really interested in the cost of having to be all things to all people all the time and then, when he’s behind closed doors alone with the audience, what does that really cost him? When you’re bottling up all your emotions for so long and you can’t show it because you have to be the one people are looking to be a steady hand that must really cost because, as I’ve said to Angus, you still have to be a human being that feels all those things but is maybe better at controlling it than some of the other people on stage.
So yeah, it’s a real challenge and like I say I’m only doing this play for the next year so we’ll get to do it the best part of 150 times and you know how much it will grow and change once we’re up in performance. I want to give everything to make sure it’s a great production that will continue to live and breathe and grow and that I know I’ll enjoy doing for the next year. I’m so pleased to be able to do the one play because it means I’ll get to spend more time with my family but then there’s the other part of you that’s creative and really loves the opportunity the RSC gives you to play in rep and get to do three different roles. In 2013 when I was playing Horatio one night, then Bertram the next and then Orlando. There is nowhere else in the country that you get the chance to do that so I want to make sure it’s a really great production that I’ll love doing and continue to be learning until this time next year!
Alex in the title role for the RSC production of ‘King John’
You mentioned Angus Jackson there as someone you’ve really looked forward to working with. You’ve worked with a lot of great directors, and great actors too – Jude Law, Derek Jacobi and others. Now Angus has been ‘ticked off the list’ is there anyone particular you’d love to work with at some point?
I’ve been so fortunate… Declan, Michael Grandage, Roger Michell, Maria Alberg, Nancy Meckler, Trevor Nunn… I’ve been very fortunate to work with them all.
There’s some brilliant directors out there doing really interesting things. I’d love to work with Robert Icke at the Almeida, I think his revivals of classics are breathing new life into them. Lyndsey Turner I’m a huge fan of. Dominic Cooke is someone I’ve always wanted to work with. You always want to have different experiences and you always learn something new with every director.
I’m yet to work on a show with Gregory Doran which I’d love to do one day. Marianne Elliott, Jeremy Herrin, Ivo Van Hove, Ian Rickson, Rufus Norris, Sam Mendes, Rupert Goold, Matthew Warchus, Josie Rourke, Joe Hill-Gibbins, Jonathan Munby, Nicholas Hytner, Richard Eyre, Stephen Daldry, John Tiffany.
Every director will challenge you in a different way because they know what your “thing” is and they’ll challenge you – they’ll maybe take it away from you and push you to try something else and slowly they give you a little bit of it back.
You have a production company, Seared, and you’re producing Years of Sunlight at Theatre 503 that I believe your wife is directing?
That’s right. We set it up in 2010, myself and my other half Amelia Sears, she’s a director. We’d both got to a stage in our careers where we were doing okay and we had some good contacts… this was before we had kids so I had the actors dilemma that even if you’re in a show at night, in the day time what did you do to find a way to use your creative energy? Instead of waiting for the phone to ring, making work happen that you want to make. In an industry where you’re at the mercy of other people’s decisions, trying to take a little bit of control over making your own decisions.
I think if we’d had our children already the feeling of not knowing what to do with our days may have been replaced by that and we might not have set it up at all.
In 2012-13, when I was at the RSC we put on two revivals and we haven’t done anything the last few years because of the kids, but this play we’d had for a while and the writer Michael McLean, I’d produced another play of his in Edinburgh in 2011. He’s a lovely guy and we’d had it for a while so we though “we can do this”. We knew Lisa Spurling, a brilliant director who has just taken over as Artistic Director at Theatre 503 and there was a space that came up at the start of the year so we thought “go for it”.
As much as I’ve done lots of classical theatre in my acting career I’ve also done bits of new writing and I’d love to do more. I think there has to be a place for both as they both speak to us about the world we’re in in different ways.
It’s very interesting at the moment to be opening a very famous Shakespeare play and premiering a brand new, completely unknown play at a small space in London. But again, you’ll always find relevance in any play. We’ve described this as a cry for people who feel shipwrecked from their old communities and abandoned by the post-industrial political system. That’s quite a broad way of saying it’s just about four people, their lives and relationships. It’s very hard to remove any political context when this has been shaped over around 30 years in a kind of reverse chronology. They become mates in around 1980 and the story finishes in 2010. You get six year intervals, little snapshots of their lives and how that informs the people they’ve become. By not trying to address any of the things – Thatcherism, Blairism – it doesn’t do any of that directly but the context in which those people were living will always have an influence. It’s a very beautifully written, quite understated story about four people’s lives set in Lancashire in a kind of overspill estate called Skelmersdale which is quite a unique place that has got a lot of attention recently.
Juggling new writing and reviving classics both in my acting career and my theatre company is really important and a lot of people are doing very similar things.
At the RSC Erica Whyman, who is just the most brilliant woman, has a huge part to play in terms of Shakespeare but also put on Seven Acts of Mercy recently which is not dissimilar. It is set in a similar part of the world… ours is mostly about two scouse boys that end up growing up in this estate. I think she’s say something very similar about the importance of both. Revising classics and also promoting new writing to respond to the world – she’s brilliant at that and the work she’s doing at The Other Place in supporting writers, having that going on alongside the main space, these things will inform each other.
If the work is good and it’s done well it’s all about humans, their experiences and how they’re affected by the political situations. How they shape politics and how it has an influence over their lives. It’s always the human element for all of us that we find the most interesting.
So it’s a bit of a juggle at the moment as both Amelia and I are working so the kids are being left with people after school but it’s always better to be busy and have things going on. Years of Sunlight opens next Wednesday and I haven’t seen any of it yet as I’ve been stuck in rehearsals so I’m very much looking forward to seeing it!
Find out more about the RSC’s Julis Caesar at: https://www.rsc.org.uk/julius-caesar/
Find out more about Years of Sunlight at: https://theatre503.com/whats-on/years-of-sunlight/