Someone with a politics degree from Nottingham University might seem more suited to work in the civil service than play lead roles in Shakespeare, but The Taming of the Shrew actor Joe Arkley sees politics and theatre as complementary, with power at the heart of so many plays.

Joe first started thinking seriously about acting at university. He was trying to finish an essay for an impending deadline when some friends dropped in to encourage him to join them at an audition. He said he couldn’t really spare the time but changed his mind just ten minutes later, catching up with them and consequently being cast as Salieri in Amadeus. Where he had previously just acted for enjoyment — he had chosen Drama at both GCSE and A level — it now became vital to him.

Having completed his Politics degree, he went on to do a further BA in Drama at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. By age 25, he was on the stage at the RSC and had three foundation years in which he worked with a range of directors including Gregory Doran, Rupert Goold and Michael Boyd.

Joseph as Tybalt in Romeo and Juliet (2010), with Jonjo O'Neill as Mercutio.

He worked on Romeo and Juliet with Rupert Goold, playing Tybalt. Joe calls him an actors’ director. He felt that Rupert pushed him to generate more ideas, constantly asking him: what else? He knew when to ask for things to be enlarged and when to rein in the exuberance of an actor.

In this same production he worked with vocal coach Cis Berry. She taught him a lot and is the foundation of all the work he does as an RSC education associate providing pathways to Shakespeare for young people both here in the UK and abroad in China. When he was playing Tybalt, he had one-to-one sessions with Cis in which she urged him not to just say the lines but to make choices. She forced him to confront his approach to the verse and kept a careful eye on him. He knew he had come through after playing Mercutio, the role he understudied and had to perform on some occasions for Jonjo O’Neill. She gave him a bear hug and said: "That role you made your own!"

A man in white make up and a black and white fitted jacket with a ruff holds a bouquet of wild flowers.
Joe Arkley as Katherine in The Taming of the Shrew.
Photo by Ikin Yum © RSC Browse and license our images

Joe says that playing Katherine in our current production of The Taming of the Shrew is his most significant role since playing Richard III at Perth Theatre last year. Naturally shy, Joe likes to take on a character and appreciates the safety of a fourth wall, but with Richard he had to develop a feel for the audience as so much is confided to them.

This has come in useful for our gender-swapped production, as he is very much aware of the audience and their expectations: many come with reference points and preconceptions of roles and he can feel their reactions as they are confronted with ideas of masculinity. Personally he says that having played a number of violent, aggressive roles he finds it liberating to play another kind of man. He and Petruchia are broken souls, he says, and he recognises her behaviour as his own. A marriage forced upon him, Katherine comes to find Petruchia more interesting than kicking against the domestic restrictions placed on him at home. He learns what the game is and how to play it and although we do not witness their private truce, they are certainly as one after they arrive back in Padua. And that difficult final speech? Intriguing.

Joe is currently in The Taming of the Shrew and will soon appear as Lucio in Gregory Doran's Measure for Measure.

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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