Viv Graver talks to the Boy in the Dress actor about coming to Shakespeare later in life and his experiences with the RSC.

Forbes admits to finding Shakespeare late in his career; in fact he was in his forties before he discovered the amazing range of parts on offer and felt such regret that he had missed out. He little imagined the long association with the RSC that lay ahead.

He had known Michael Boyd from university days, when the director encouraged his comedy work with Alan Cumming at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow. Michael directed him in plays there, as well as in the pantomimes Forbes wrote. When Michael became Artistic Director of the RSC in 2003 he spoke to Forbes about his idea of creating an ensemble of actors prepared to work together for a number of years. Forbes had seen Michael’s work at the RSC but never imagined himself working there. Yes, he had done Hamlet at drama school and played Benedick in Much Ado about Nothing at the Royal Lyceum in Edinburgh, but that was the extent of his Shakespeare experience.

Friar Laurence consoles Romeo.
Forbes as Friar Laurence in Romeo and Juliet (2010).
Photo by Ellie Kurttz © RSC Browse and license our images

Coming to the RSC, the amazing Cis Berry and John Barton had a formative influence on his Shakespeare work, and the work ethic of Michael Boyd put him in good stead for the energy level required now for The Boy in the Dress. He had to sustain his energy over a four-day run of the History Cycle, presenting eight plays, one after the other, a dramatic marathon staged by 34 actors taking 264 roles. It has been called one of the great events of modern theatre and is certainly one of Forbes’ most glorious dramatic moments.

Forbes has since played a huge range of Shakespearean roles, including Horatio, Feste, and the Friar in Romeo and Juliet. He admits that this latter role affected him badly. He was asked to play him as a broken man in the final scene and having to perform that regret every night took some time to recover from.

A school headmaster in full robe clutches a cricket ball
Forbes as Mr Hawtrey in The Boy in the Dress.
Photo by Manuel Harlan © RSC Browse and license our images

Forbes is now back at the RSC playing Mr Hawtrey in a musical on the stage where he has performed so many Shakespearean roles. Hawtrey is a harsh, military, brutalised man who hates his life, Forbes says, but in the play he undergoes a complete transformation, escaping the straitjacket of his role as headmaster through wearing a dress. Forbes says it is not a drag act - there is no make-up or high heels - and we talk about how dressing up is a natural instinct starting from childhood. He tells me how his character's final costume developed from seeing a young boy at the first performance wearing a dress and headband. The design was pushed to the extravagant extreme for what he calls his 'Cinderella moment'.

In the early stages of planning, Forbes tells me, director Gregory Doran envisaged As You Like It playing alongside The Boy in the Dress to acknowledge that cross-dressing has long been a feature of acting. When Rosalind dons male attire it is liberating and fun but it does have complications, just as Dennis finds when he takes on the role of Denise. Forbes says that he marvels at how many different worlds can be created on the one stage, and this show is certainly one that asks what we can gain from looking at life from a different perspective.

You can see Forbes in The Boy in the Dress in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre until 8 March.

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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