James Clyde believes in the power of drama in live performance; theatre will always be the best place for plays. It is the immediacy of the room, he says, with no interface between you and it.

He has come a long way from the teenager who, despite having two actor parents, dismissed theatre as “froth.” His mother introduced him to Shakespeare when he was about eight, and by 11 he had seen his first Romeo and Juliet with Paula Wilcox as Juliet, a great favourite of his. But it was the experience of seeing more modern plays in London that made him realise that theatre was the path for him to follow: The Family Reunion, Comedians and Laughter! testified to the power of theatre to present the dark side of human existence, which he had found up until then in rock music and novels.

As a theatre actor with experience of Shakespeare both at the RSC and elsewhere – he recently played the dark role of Cornwall in King Lear and the wicked stepfather in Cymbeline – I wanted to ask him about this season featuring Marlowe and Molière alongside Shakespeare. It is a season which looks at male tyranny imposing itself on family, nation and, in the case of Tamburlaine, the universe. They are a set of upstart tyrants, men of small beginnings who have climbed and continue to do so despite the consequences to others.

James Clyde sits on the floor in a rehearsal for Tamburlaine.
James in rehearsal for Tamburlaine.
Photo by Ellie Kurttz © RSC Browse and license our images

James read Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus at A-Level but didn't see it. It was only after seeing Maria Aberg’s RSC production that he appreciated Marlowe’s muscular drive, believing that, even more than Shakespeare, Marlowe needs to be experienced in performance.

Tamburlaine is a difficult play to direct but one that Michael Boyd has embraced. Terry Hands’ idea in 1992 was to put as much action on the stage as possible in this wordy play, bringing the offstage battles onstage. Boyd’s Tamburlaine is grey, metallic, grim. James says the director told them that by press night “this play will be flying like a big scary bat.”In rehearsal there was something Buddhist-like in his approach to characterisation, so when you died you became the living dead walking off stage to become another character for the cycle of violence to be repeated.

James plays three of Tamburlaine’s victims – Meander, King of Morocco and King of Jerusalem – a path of humiliating defeat. He finds the image of the psychopathic Tamburlaine in a victory chariot pulled by his harnessed human victims theatrically hard-hitting, saying that image transcends the small theatre.

James Clyde in a grey cardigan and kufi cap.
James as Khalil in Tartuffe.
Photo by Topher McGrillis © RSC Browse and license our images

In contrast, Tartuffe seems like a light-hearted comedy, yet has moments of darkness which bring it close to tragedy. James plays Khalil, a close friend of the Pervaiz family who tries to warn Imran of the predatory Tartuffe. Imran he sees as an ebullient man-child, generous, a good-natured materialist. But in his obsession with Tartuffe, Imran turns into a domestic tyrant in relation to both his daughter and son. His decision to give his daughter Mariam to Tartuffe and his total break with his son have the audience despairing of his sanity. While Imran is blinded by his belief in Tartuffe, Khalil, as James presents him, embodies the compassion and intelligence inherent in classical Islam.

So, what is it like moving between two such different plays? James relishes the difference, happiest when he has a matinee of one and an evening performance of the other. He likes playing the muscularity of Marlowe against the nimbleness of Molière, and both combine the disparate elements of tragedy and comedy.

James returns to Shakespeare in the role of Sempronius in Timon of Athens, the rarely-performed play running in the Swan from 7 December.

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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