Pathways to Shakespeare

Paul Jesson

April 7, 2014

Having played Henry VIII in Gregory Doran's first Shakespeare production for the RSC, Paul is back playing Cardinal Wolsey in Mike Poulton's adaptation of Hilary Mantel's novels, Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies.

Paul Jesson in Wolf Hall

The beginnings

Paul's mother, who was an amateur actress, introduced him to Shakespeare. From an early age he was encouraged to read passages from The Tempest and Henry V. He remembers relishing the lines 'once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more' with a nine-year-old's curiosity about language.

His grammar school staged a Shakespeare play each year, and at 14 he played Portia in The Merchant of Venice. He also got to know Julius Caesar, Twelfth Night and As You Like It through acting in them, and Paul's first encounter with the RSC was as an 11-year-old, when he watched As You Like It featuring Peggy Ashcroft and Richard Johnson. Leaving the theatre he saw a young boy who had been in the production walking down Southern Lane. He remembered his face, which would re-enter his life later.

Studying acting at The Guildhall School of Music and Drama gave Paul 'a good technical grounding in both speech and movement.' After graduating, he set about finding himself work by writing letters to the repertory world. There were no casting directors and agents back then, he recalls.

Paul's first professional appearance was at Manchester Library Theatre as the Provost in Measure for Measure. The face from Southern Lane was that of CG Bond who would direct him in Richard III at The Liverpool Everyman, a newly-refurbished theatre at the time and one that had a thrust stage with the audience on three sides.

Paul was also involved in the BBC's Shakespeare season of plays during 1978-85; a TV series which became a standard teaching aid across the world. These projects give the actor the chance to be involved in performance rarities like Timon of Athens or Cymbeline.

Comparable Tudor worlds

We come to talk of his involvement in Henry VIII in 1996 when, playing Henry, he was directed by Gregory Doran. Now in Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies, he plays Cardinal Wolsey, but given that it is the same Tudor world; the costumes, the props, even the same theatre space and the characters are conceived in similar ways, how do the experiences complement each other?

Paul Jesson in Wolf Hall

'Both Shakespeare and Hilary Mantel are relatively kind to these characters; they emerge more sympathetically than they do from a historical perspective where they can be seen as monsters.' There's also 'a nice touch' with one of Nathaniel Parker's many costumes for Henry, being one worn by Paul in 1996.

Shakespeare had to watch his political steps more than Hilary Mantel; he couldn't have written his play while Queen Elizabeth I was still alive and his portrayal of Katherine of Aragon, dignified and strong, was politically motivated as King James I was hoping to negotiate a marriage for his daughter with Spanish royalty.

Ultimately, 'both are concerned with conscience, the key word in these plays. But it is the language which is really different. Hilary was anxious to avoid Tudor pastiche, wanting a contemporary language that would go straight to the ear of a modern audience.'

How tiring is it, I wonder, when they run Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies consecutively on the same day, giving them over six hours on stage? Paul says 'not tiring at all, invigorating,' as he goes off to do just that!

Images: Paul Jesson as Cardinal Wolsey in Wolf Hall

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Teaching Shakespeare