David Acton plays Duncan in Macbeth and Sir Hugh Evans in The Merry Wives of Windsor.

We may think we know a Shakespeare play either as actor, audience or reader. But when we see a new performance of the play, we can only go in with an open mind. And that is the approach of the actor too.

David, who has many years’ experience of acting Shakespeare, knows that the actor creates within the director’s vision of the play, and that performance style and character interpretation will change.

He had thought of Duncan as a good king, a strong ruler, but Polly Findlay, the director of Macbeth, asked him to look for the weaknesses in the old man. And Sir Hugh Evans, the first Welsh character he has ever played, he found quite different from the comic characters he had played before, such as Quince in A Midsummer Night’s Dream or Verges in Much Ado About Nothing. In this choirmaster and teacher, he found a flamboyance and fluidity of movement more akin to the Adriana he had played in The Comedy of Errors in the then all-male company of Edward Hall.

Donna Banya in a pink dress sits next to David Acton's Duncan, who wears a blue dressing gown and gold crown
David as Duncan in Macbeth, with Donna Banya.
Photo by Richard Davenport © RSC Browse and license our images

His love of theatre goes back to his schooldays in Cheltenham where there was a school play performed every year and where he played Hamlet. He did a degree in Drama at Manchester University followed by practical training at Weber Douglas Academy. He has had a long association with the RSC and played Cornwall in 1988 when Cicely Berry directed King Lear at The Other Place, which then transferred to the Almeida in London. This was a major educational project, Cicely wanting to see if the text-related exercises she encouraged in rehearsals could be realised in performance. It was a success for her and a privilege for him.

We talk of the Duncan in Polly Findlay’s Macbeth. He has been a good king,  but is past his sell-by date both physically and to a degree mentally. He has to rely on others while still expecting deference. There are telling moments in performance, as when roused from sleep he fumbles for his crown before addressing the soldier in his presence. He moves from bed to wheelchair and stands with difficulty. Why does he choose Malcolm as his successor? He has to admit that Malcolm is young and incompetent as a soldier but he wants to pass his position to his son. He has the power to do so and still likes to control and manipulate. Why does he distrust Macbeth? David says he does not show him the deference he should. He has to wipe his hand after contact with Macbeth’s yet stands and embraces the royal Banquo. Perhaps Macbeth is too much the commoner to be considered for the crown. He does not perceive Macbeth’s sense of injustice. Rather like Lear, he fails to see how his partiality breeds resentment, while his behaviour with Lady Macbeth extends beyond gentle flirting. George Bush Senior in a wheelchair could still extend his prerogative when in the company of interns, David says. So apparently genial, Duncan is flawed.

David Acton dances as Sir Hugh Evans, wearing a black outfit with a priest's collar.
David in The Merry Wives of Windsor.
Photo by Manuel Harlan © RSC Browse and license our images

Sir Hugh in Merry Wives gives David the scope for high comedy with the wonderful cartoon presentation of the character, but is it tricky to be one of the actors opening a show? David points out that this isn't a new position for him, and that openers can take different forms: they can be of the heavy exposition type, like Egeus in The Comedy of Errors, or characters in the middle of a conversation the audience has missed, as when he played Othello's Roderigo, who comes on in mid-complaint. Similarly, Justice Shallow is incensed by Falstaff only for this to evaporate as the plot to marry Slender to Anne Page develops. As some of the topical language and jokes are lost on a modern audience, there need to be cuts. In this version, David loses the Latin scene with William Page but his Bread of Heaven is compensation.

Every character has developed an individual comic style in this production. They were helped by Toby Park, a physical comedy expert, who made them work on specific parts of the body and on timing. David says that Fiona, the director, gave him the best note he has ever had. Increasing frustration leads Sir Hugh to shake and quiver at one point. She asked, "Could you levitate? Just three or four inches? And then down?" Obviously impossible! David considered it, thought of an idea and presented it at the next rehearsal. Fiona shaped it and Toby honed the comedy, making it viable for performance.

You can't become complacent with comedy - it keeps you on your toes. A laugh on a line is not guaranteed so your comedy radar has to take in a constantly changing audience. This is a joyous performance and unlike any other Merry Wives. And this season’s Macbeth may question our assumptions about that play.

Viv Graver

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.

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