I met up with Beruce to talk about his approach to playing Feste in Twelfth Night and John Forster in A Christmas Carol.
Roles to savour
In A Christmas Carol, John Forster, Dickens' close friend and literary advisor, is a role for Beruce to savour. Forster was the son of a Newcastle butcher so it gives him the chance to use his north-east accent.
As for Twelfth Night, Beruce likes the Victorian framework with Feste becoming Olivia’s munshi. It takes Feste away from his traditional role as Elizabethan Fool, putting him outside the usual social order. He is gifted and talented, so it rankles him to still have to give ground to those of perceived higher status. He sees and resents rivals and is capable of both anger and revenge.
Getting into Shakespeare
As a young boy enthralled by films, Beruce’s ambition was to jump on a magic carpet and see the world. His mother responded by encouraging him to join a local theatrical group for weekly classes. After experiencing Fame, Chicago and Grease, he found himself in musical versions of Romeo and Juliet and Macbeth. He says that it was a fun way of getting into Shakespeare outside the classroom. He even ended up acting with his English teacher in local amateur dramatics after reading The Merchant of Venice with her in lessons.
Beruce did a foundation course at East 15 Theatre School and chose a speech from King John to audition for RADA. He used his own Mackem (Sunderland) accent to present it because, as he says, it is his identity. He wanted to be accepted for what he is: a guy with an English mother and a Pakistani father who grew up in the north east of England. He relished the muscularity of the language and realised that he was most attracted to political Shakespeare. At RADA, with opportunities to experience Othello, Troilus and Cressida and Julius Caesar, it was the latter that fired his spirit.
A story known by many
After RADA, Beruce played in Henry V twice then moved onto Romeo and Juliet. But it was Dominic Dromgoole’s world tour of Hamlet that opened his eyes to the standing of Shakespeare around the world. Over two years, there were 297 performances in 197 countries with a company of 12 actors, eight of whom would perform at any one time. Beruce had three “tracks”, as they were called, so in any given performance he could be playing one of three completely different sets of characters. Plus, the actors were also the instrumentalists!
So how does Shakespeare go down with foreign audiences for whom English is a second language or perhaps even unknown? Luckily, it is reckoned that 70% of acting communicates physically and Hamlet is a well-known story. How it was received depended on the political climate or culture of that particular country. In Africa it was seen as a play dealing with political corruption while Kiev thought it was about regime change. Caribbean audiences seized on its family aspect and the audience uninhibitedly questioned Hamlet in the closet scene, calling out: 'how can you speak to your mother like that?'
Beruce says taking Shakespeare to new audiences is such a rewarding experience and it has shown him the writer's still-vital place in global culture.
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.