Antony Byrne has played an amazing range of Shakespearean roles. We have seen a lot of him in recent years in Stratford: playing Mowbray in Richard II in 2013, Worcester and Pistol in Henry IV in 2014/2015, Kent in King Lear in 2016 and now Antony. He has played the nasty roles of Sebastian, Worcester, Murderer and Witch, the good Macduff and Kent, a King Henry VIII - and the comic roles of Malvolio and Pistol. He has revisited plays, having done four Macbeths and he has been in the Roman plays before when he played Cinna, the conspirator, in Julius Caesar and Agrippa in Antony and Cleopatra.
To be part of an RSC company is to have a share in its history, Tony feels. He recalls a first reading of Richard II with director Greg Doran to find Michael Pennington sitting next to him. There is an education in watching, in listening to such actors and practitioners who are passionate about making sense of the text, he tells me.
His Shakespeare began on a hill outside his middle school in the north east of England where, taking the roles of Mercutio and Tybalt, the class fought for possession of the hill. There was no worry about words, he says. He had access to Shakespeare in performance when the RSC brought Much Ado About Nothing on tour where he saw Nigel Terry, Fiona Shaw and Paul Rhys. Nearby was Newcastle Theatre Royal where he saw an amazing Romeo and Juliet directed by Michael Bogdanov which featured a swimming pool and red Ferrari on stage. He joined a local Youth Drama Group and went on to Central School of Speech and Drama, for which he was lucky to receive funding.
When he left Central he still didn't have an agent but landed the role of Orlando in As You Like It at Sheffield Crucible.
In his Shakespeare work he has come under the influence of many directors and practitioners. When he worked with Sir Peter Hall on Julius Caesar in the mid 1990s he underwent Hall’s rigorous observance of the verse; to treat it like a scaffold. At the time he was somewhat resistant but having worked with both Cis Berry and John Barton he is very much aware of language and verse structure. He learnt from them to take responsibility, to mine the language until it is yours so that you can defend the choices you are making.
He loves rehearsal - it’s a playground where you can chuck the paintbox around, constantly challenging each other by surprise and that has to be kept in performance if the play is to be alive and truthful. So it's a joy working with this company in a play that has infinite variety at its heart.
Tony says the role of Antony involves commitment to his failings. For him this is an attraction. If Mark Antony is the coming man in Julius Caesar he is presented as the falling man in Antony and Cleopatra. We follow the arc of his collapse as he tries to hide what inwardly he knows, that the greatest soldier is dissolving. The play asks what it means to be in love with such a man. Antony and Cleopatra have created their own mythology which they carry to the death but essentially this is a story about two human beings who despite their quarrels leave us in no doubt at the end of their love for each other as man and woman.
Viv Graver is a retired teacher, who taught Shakespeare for more than 30 years in the north of England. Her present interest is introducing Shakespeare into primary schools. Viv's blog is a series of interviews with RSC cast and creatives about their path to Shakespeare and how they first came to it, at school and elsewhere.