Q and A with Paul Copley

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Q and A with Paul Copley, who plays King Lear in in the RSC's Young People's Shakespeare production of King Lear.

Q: Are you making your RSC debut playing Lear in this production of King Lear?

A: Yes – apart from a reading of David Edgar's May Day for the company's 50th Birthday Celebrations in 2011.

Q: Have you worked with the director Tim Crouch before?

A: No – I was aware of his work, but it's the first time I've worked with him. I have been involved with King Lear quite a lot throughout my career though. I played the Fool to Anthony Quayle's Lear back in the day. It was a long tour of big and beautiful Matcham Theatres directed by Don Taylor for Compass Theatre, Anthony's own company.

I first met him when working on a BBC production of Don Taylor's production of Oedipus at Colonus which involved the BBC orchestra at Lime Grove playing simultaneously whilst we acted out the play at TV Centre, Wood Lane.

I also played the Fool to Corin Redgrave's Lear on BBC radio, and more recently I played Kent at Shakespeare's Globe to David Calder's Lear. So I've worked with some pretty fine Lears.

Q: What's it like to take on the role yourself?

A: In a way, at my age, it feels like a natural progression - but what a stroke of luck to be given this particular chance to play Lear.

Q: How are you finding the edit, as the play has been cut down to 75 minutes?

A: It strangely all seems to be there. There are the odd halves of speeches that you miss and some have been put back during rehearsals. Cuts are made in most productions, and no-one really appears to miss them. The story is all there and it's very clear which is a brilliant outcome of the editing.

Q: Have you played to families and children before?

A: I actually started out my acting career in Theatre in Education.

I left school early, got a clutch of O Levels, and then did a variety of jobs for eight years to fund my passion for motorbikes. After that I went to college to study English and Drama.

For a short while I taught English and Drama in Walthamstow, until one of my college tutors wrote to me with the news of a new TIE company being set up at what was then Leeds Playhouse. I went after the actor/teacher vacancy with great tenacity. There was a lot of competition – but I so wanted it.

It was a wonderful experience. We worked in many inner city schools in and around Leeds. We devised and presented education programmes with elements of shows within them for infants, juniors and for secondary schools.

It was a successful company with experienced and clever practitioners and I learned a great deal from them. I also learned that your performance must be really truthful. If children don't believe you they'll just turn off and not listen.

Q: So you are not daunted by the potential audience?

A: It's a while since I've been in a classroom or worked for children but I know what's possible – so hopefully we will be able to deliver.

Q: How are you finding working on the Education Workshops?

A: It's early days. We've had some discussions with Jamie Luck, the Education Practitioner about what elements of the workshop we should try to achieve. He's focussed and sure. Although something might be great fun, it needs to have a tangible and positive end result.

Q: Do you think that King Lear is a good choice of play for young people?

A: I don't think it's an easy play. People have complicated lives. If drama does anything, it holds a mirror up to us. If we make the story and characters clear enough – there will be aspects of relationships and problems that children will identify with.

If that leads to discussion that brings clarity or a glimmer of understanding to them that's fine and if they are just entertained by it, that's fine as well. There are some tough situations in the play but I don't think we should shrink from them.

Q: What about the setting Tim has envisaged for the play – setting it around Christmas time?

A: It lends itself to giving presents and general jollity and mayhem. Lear has this idea that retirement is all about playing golf and having a damn good time whilst keeping his authority. But he's given that away.

What we are still discovering is whether he gave everything away because he was generally going potty or in giving it away – did the results of that drive him potty?

Q: What are you veering towards at this point in rehearsals?

A: I think he's got an inkling that in old age he's losing his marbles a bit so it's a good idea to have a good time and let other people attend to business. But of course that way further madness lies!

Q: Can you tell us something about your recent career.

A: The biggest play I was involved with last year was a Bruntwood prizewinning play called Winterlong by Andrew Sheridan for the Royal Exchange in Manchester. We successfully brought it to the Soho Theatre about eighteen months ago.

Since then I've been involved in series 2 and 3 of Downton Abbey – my first director on the show had coincidentally seen Winterlong.

I play tenant farmer, Mr Mason. He's the father of William who saved the heir to Downton on the battlefield but was unfortunately fatally injured. Mr Mason helped persuade Daisy the kitchen maid to marry William on his deathbed. Since William's death he's still trying to repay Daisy for her care and her trouble.

Q: Did you enjoy working on Downton Abbey?

A: Yes – you are working with people who are at the top of their game, from the directors and actors to the drivers and runners. It's a class act. Series 3 is yet to be screened.

Q: Do you have any connections with any of the tour venues?

A: I've worked at the Nuffield Theatre Southampton and I was at teacher training college in Newcastle for three years. It was then called Northern Counties College of Education, now it's part of Northumbria University.

The nearest to Stratford I've worked is Birmingham – two plays at Birmingham Rep but also at BBC Pebble Mill working on a number of TV plays there.

Q: What current work do you have coming out on TV and radio this year?

A: This year, as well as Downton Abbey, I've been working on a romantic drama series called Last Tango in Halifax by Sally Wainwright for BBC TV with Derek Jacobi and Anne Reid who play the heads of two families. Their daughters are played by Sarah Lancashire and Nicola Walker. Roy Barraclough and I play Jacobi's old schoolfriends.

Q: How are you finding the King Lear company?

A: It's a very supportive and friendly company – bright, clever, talented people – great to be involved with.

More information about Paul Copley on: www.paulcopley.com

This interview was conducted in the second week of rehearsals in Clapham, August 2012.

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