Heroism, love, pathos: James, who plays Palamon, loves The Two Noble Kinsmen.
The play satirises so many conventions that Shakespeare has used in his earlier plays so that once you have its flavour you are on your guard, whether it be grovelling women before an anti-heroic king more interested in his friend than his new wife; two best friends, warriors, who squabble like six-year-olds and having taken a stance refuse to back down even to the death; or the accelerated decline into madness of the jailer’s daughter. Heroism, love, pathos are re-examined objectively. Yet the funniest line in the play, James says,” I saw her first” is echoed by Theseus at the end who acknowledges “You saw her first” as it reaches its tragic climax.
James is happy in subverting our expectations as he did in his presentation of Lorenzo in The Merchant of Venice and Lodovico in Othello.
Change in direction
James's conversion to acting came relatively late. At school he was academic and Shakespeare was another exam subject. When he was 19, studying Politics, Philosophy and Economics at Oxford, he discovered Shakespeare could be fun. Alex Hassell’s The Factory Company showed him how enjoyable Shakespeare was when acted out. It has resulted in an annual festival in Powys at The Willow Globe where he and a company of friends camp with a Shakespeare play for five days to get “match fit” for a Saturday performance. It has brought fun Shakespeare to a local community and led them to come and see James in plays at the RSC. He reckons he has now read all Shakespeare’s plays, but it has to be aloud - silent reading doesn't have the same appeal.
Characters with obessions
When he auditioned for Lorenzo in Polly Findlay’s production of The Merchant of Venice he didn't find the character romantic. So he explored the darkness in his character. Lorenzo is obsessed by money which clearly shows when he falls upon the bag thrown by Jessica, largely ignoring her. James likens it to winning the lottery and then having your life ruined. As he points out he has to suffer the humiliation from the boys’ club who observe sneeringly: “Here’s Lorenzo with his Jew” and he is embittered, as is Jessica.
He played Lodovico in Othello in the same season, another character with an obsession that destroys him. James talks about the contrast in the audience’s reception of these two characters: with Lorenzo he felt the hiss of animosity whereas when Roderigo appeared there was an embracing warmth from the audience as they relaxed in the comic relief he provided. But when he turned nasty and dangerous he could subvert those expectations.
James loves the chances you get at the RSC to explore new work and he is keen to start rehearsal for The Seven Acts of Mercy, when he understudies Caravaggio. It will be interesting to see how he responds to the challenge of what he sees as a totally different character from the ones he has played so far.
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.