Pathways to Shakespeare

Ian McDiarmid

March 20, 2013

Ian McDiarmid as GalileoIan plays Galileo in The Swan, part of A World Elsewhere season that widens our perception of the world Shakespeare lived in.

To be taken backstage to meet an actor you've just seen in performance is a privilege, but if you are only five years old, fascinating it may be but intimidating, scary.

Ian remembers it vividly: 'The actor wore make-up, quite heavy in those days, appearing almost clown-like. I didn't know that men wore make-up.'

The ambience of the theatre, particularly the lights, attracted him and he just knew whatever theatre had, he wanted it. His father had taken him to a performance by Tommy Morgan at The Palace Theatre in Dundee where they lived and as his uncle was stage manager it was easy to arrange the treat.

In primary school the music teacher decided to present a mime while the choir sang Waltzing Matilda. Two roles were on offer- the jumbuck and the swagman. He was not an assertive child but found, almost despite himself, that he had his hand up. He was chosen as the swagman.

He went to Morgan Academy, Dundee where he encountered Shakespeare; A Midsummer Night's Dream, Julius Caesar, King Lear and Hamlet. But there was little enthusiasm shown by the teachers and it was made to seem difficult to understand. It was something you did to pass exams, he tells me.
However his aunt took him to see Olivier as Richard III and that was a revelation. Olivier made sense of that complicated language!

Outside school he had enjoyed playing in amateur dramatics but he sensed that if he had said that he wanted to be an actor it would have disappointed family expectations. Theatre was something for your spare time. He did a social sciences MA at St Andrews University but then went on to the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in Glasgow.

Shakespeare work came his way in the 70s; he was in Hamlet in 1972 at The Open Space and Macbeth in 1973 at the Belgrade, Coventry.

He came to The RSC to play Elbow in Measure for Measure in 1974 and 1975 found him in Macbeth playing the bleeding sergeant and the Scottish doctor. He auditioned for Trevor Nunn and was then involved in the iconic Judi Dench/ Ian McKellen Macbeth, playing the Porter and Ross.

This was staged at The Other Place. Rehearsals took place in scorching weather, the hottest summer on record. The weather conditions imposed a claustrophobia which they took on board.

The staging became stark. When Trevor Nunn brought on a banqueting table, an actor asked what it was for. It seemed obvious to Nunn but then it caused him to pause and consider; perhaps they didn't need a banqueting table brought on. The actors sat on orange boxes, never leaving the acting space and the audience was there with them, trapped, there was no escape, no interval. What had evolved was a totally Brechtian style which suited this production.

The acting team were beginning to feel that they had something special, confirmed when Tom Stoppard and Nigel Hawthorne came around to the dressing rooms to say how moved they had been. This production transferred to London in 1977 and was later filmed, making it available to a much wider audience.

In 1985 Ian played The Chorus in The RSC's Henry V at The Barbican.

Between 1990-2001 he was artistic director at the Almeida Theatre, London along with Jonathan Kent. In a studio theatre of 325 they welcomed international plays, making British theatre more cosmopolitan.

When Ralph Fiennes approached them, looking to do Hamlet, they discouraged him. They believed the play needed a bigger venue. Through persistence, Ralph won over Jonathan Kent to direct him and they staged this Hamlet at Hackney Empire. Such was its success that it transferred to Broadway.

Although conceding that there have been interesting Shakespearean productions in a studio space - he was in one - Ian believes that Shakespeare demands a bigger space. He talks of the power of the language and the energy needed by the actor in delivery.

He finds himself excited by the talent of young actors and feels that Shakespeare should not intimidate. There are no rules, only guidelines, he says. Treat a Shakespeare play just as you would a contemporary one and 'think on the line.' That way you will have a good production always the best introduction to a Shakespeare play.

by Viv Graver  |  No comments yet

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Teaching Shakespeare