The Return of the Rover

Joseph is back at the Swan playing the main role of Willmore in The Rover. He was last here ten years ago when he was Benedick in Marianne Elliott’s Much Ado about Nothing and Faulconbridge, the bastard, in Josie Rourke’s King John; both plays were well received by theatre critics. Michael Billington found him an unusual Benedick, passionately obsessed with Beatrice in a magnificent production, and Dominic Cavendish spoke of his mesmerising anger as Faulconbridge.

So, some 50 years on from Shakespeare, how different is this play? The relationship between Helena and Willmore invites comparison with Beatrice and Benedick, or even Katherine and Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew. This world of women, with time on their hands and prices on their heads, is only too recognisable. “It’s a male-dominated society”, Joseph says, “but the women are feisty and assertive.” The play's vibrancy and heat are served well by its South American setting, adding significantly to the already wonderful dynamics of the play. “Lez Brotherston”, Joseph tells me, “effected a similar transposition to Cuba for the pre-Castro Much Ado version I was in, right here at the Swan.”

He is a great admirer of Aphra Behn. He reckons his dream dinner guests would be Noel Coward, Brian Blessed and Aphra Behn. Compared with other Restoration plays he finds The Rover more thought provoking. But that doesn’t apply to its main character - he explains: “Willmore is not a deep character." He thinks of him as a labrador, floppy-eared and eager for anything he can get - and he’s definitely not neutered! He is honest, weak, can’t resist women and usually gets his way, until he meets his match - the spirited Helena.

 

The_Rover_production_photos_2016_2016_Photo_by_Ellie_Kurttz_c_RSC_203505
Joseph Millson as Willmore in The Rover.
© RSC – Image Licensing

How a tube of Smarties changed everything

Joseph has played a number of main Shakespearean roles which have offered a great level of complexity, including Orlando, Romeo, Othello, Bolingbroke, Hamlet, Benedick , Faulconbridge and Macbeth.

But his way into Shakespeare was somewhat unorthodox. At school he was somewhat disaffected. He recalls “being made to” see an RSC performance on tour. It was Romeo and Juliet performed in a gym. He took along a tube of Smarties as ammunition and managed to hit Romeo in the face with one - he’s almost sure it was Sean Bean. Romeo strode downstage confronting him with direct eye-contact, and Shakespearian language! He was amazed. It was a telling lesson in actor/audience interaction.

Hooked by Othello

He worked in his local rep theatre from the age of 12 “for a few bob” helping to build sets and after leaving school at 15 he graduated through carpentry to a quasi-stage management role as flyman in shows there. He was encouraged to find something at his local college, and having initially perused a metalwork course, returned home to tell his parents he was doing something called “performing arts”. Cast as Othello, Joseph says, he was "totally absorbed by the character’s natural, clear language". He trained at Rose Bruford and having done Chekhov and Pinter when he was cast as Bertram in All’s Well that Ends Well it felt like home. He played Romeo in his final year and toured the south of France with the play.

Working with Peter Hall

Romeo and Orlando “have guts” he says and when he was invited to audition for Peter Hall’s As You Like It he was desperate to get the part, and spent five hours pacing Clapham Common psyching himself up to play that gutsy anger. He was hired on the spot. It was Hall who switched him on to verse speaking. He resisted. They fought.  But Joseph was eventually converted and received a gift for life as a result - “He made me feel like a musician.” He speaks highly of Peter Hall, and the other remarkable text practitioners, John Barton, Cis Berry and Kelly Hunter.

Joseph played Hamlet in 2009 at Stafford Castle, a role he loved. ”What a will to live he has,” Joseph says. “It was exhilarating.” He could have played three shows a day as Hamlet, whereas with Macbeth - at Shakespeare's Globe in 2013 - he was drained by each performance because of the characters bleak nihilism. He finds the Globe more suited to comedy than tragedy because the audience comes to respond vocally, to be involved. "You really have to earn moments of silence", he says. In Eve Best’s version the play became darkly comic at times.

His approach to character creation is centred on the words of the text. “I let it play me,”  he says and that would lead him to reject playing Macbeth ever  again but he would embrace a go at the zany Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew.

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.

You may also like