Jamie is playing Iachimo in our new production of Cymbeline. He talks about seeing the show from every angle.
What was your first experience of Shakespeare?
My brother bought me a copy of Hamlet and Macbeth when I was in primary school. I loved history, so add some ghosts and witches and I was completely hooked. I became a bit of a shameless Shakespeare nerd through secondary school and that carried on into doing English at uni.
I set up a theatre company with friends called Belt Up Theatre and we did a lot of adaptations of classics including Shakespeare.
At the Dell in the RSC gardens in Stratford we performed a site specific The Tempest and I was Prospero. I had played the role back in a school production when I was 15 doing an impression of Ian McKellen as Gandalf.
How important is audience response to you?
There’s no point doing what we do without the audience. Every one of them deserves a great show, regardless of how much they’ve paid for a ticket.
Before the first show I have a tradition of touching every seat in the auditorium. It’s a bit of a superstition but it’s my way of looking at the stage from every angle. We’ve got to bring the whole audience in from all of their unique view points. I don’t want anyone to feel like they’re getting a compromised view of the show, but their own secret view.
Part of our job is to gauge the audience and listen to where they are at. There are little moments in every show, like the first laugh, which we can use as indicators for what kind of house we’ve got. With Cymbeline there are a lot of laughs but it isn’t reliant on them. The comedy comes from the emotional truth so if it’s quieter house then that doesn’t offset us too much as there’s still a lovely story.
Shakespeare gives us such an open forum to play in with an audience. Often, modern audiences are surprised when you ask a 400-year-old question at them, they don’t want to say the wrong thing. Especially if they’re in the dark and forget you can see them. But it’s amazing when you do get a direct response.
In the chilled performance of Richard III we had the house lights up and a woman in the second row had a chat with me as Buckingham and every line of my soliloquy was a perfect response to what she said. As if Shakespeare was always thinking of it as a conversation.
What do the characters you’ve played have in common?
I’ve played a lot of troubled, fragile men; Arcite, Parolles and now Iachimo share a similar tragic flaw which is the pressures of their perception of masculinity.
Shakespeare doesn’t present us with dehumanised monsters which is why it’s important to lean into the messiness of some of these characters. Iachimo could have been a good man but he was so determined to be right. He believes the idea of honour, goodness and all that is a construct. His world view has to be right or he doesn’t know how anything works which is why he’s so desperate to prove Imogen’s honour is all fake. He’s a machiavellian zealot and he learns that he is wrong and it breaks him.
What have you learnt from this performance?
When you’re playing a part like Iachimo, especially in 2023, there’s a feeling that you need to present a whole conversation about misogyny, fragile masculinity and so on, in your performance. Which is a lot to try to squeeze in because you don’t want to accidentally say something in the part that doesn’t sit well.
But Shakespeare has done the whole exploration of those themes across the whole play. So he offsets a part like Iachimo with other characters. He gives the audience such a spread of ideas, he shows you the counter arguments, he sets you up and gives the audience a full spread.
As actors we’re not wholly responsible for our character's story, nor the themes of the play. So I realised my job was to commit to being an unapologetic awful creep and Shakespeare would very much tell the audience what to think of me across the whole play. If you trust his writing you give the audience what they need and that’s a lot of messy ideas to chat about long after the show is finished.
Are there any more troubled men you would like to play?
There’s so many in Shakespeare aren’t there? Iago absolutely. Malvolio, Falstaff.
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.