“I was always into acting from the age of about ten,” Nicholas admits, recalling a school production of Doctor Faustus. He reflects that it must have been cringingly awful but it fired his soul and left a desire to play Faustus again.

Meeting Thelma Holt

His interest in acting grew at university. While reading English Literature at Balliol College, Oxford, he met theatre producer Thelma Holt, his fairy godmother as far as his acting career was concerned. Having first cast him as Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream for the Oxford University Dramatic Society, she liked what she saw and encouraged his range: he played Romeo and then Froth in Measure for Measure before she recommended him to Peter Hall, who ended up casting him as Longaville in Love’s Labour’s Lost at The Rose Theatre.

Nick left Oxford with a degree and an agent. He tells me that while studying for his degree he was made aware of the mirrors within mirrors that you experience within Shakespeare, and this has led to his belief that there is no fixed text. We think we know a play but the text can have so many different facets.

Contrasting roles

Still, coming to Twelfth Night he thought he knew the play. He had actually played Sebastian in a previous production and was delighted to be working once again with Christopher Luscombe, who had directed him as Dryden in Nell Gwyn. He would be taking the role of Orsino and was then delighted to pick up the role of Dickens in A Christmas Carol as well, after meeting director Rachel Kavanaugh. He would be able to work on two totally contrasting roles.

Charles Dickens in David Edgar’s adaptation of A Christmas Carol is a character with a strong social conscience and a memory of a scarred childhood. He is a character whose feelings are made explicit to an audience. In telling the story of Scrooge, Dickens finds himself telling the story of his own deprivations as a boy. Orsino, meanwhile, remains something of an enigma to the last, with no soliloquies in which to bare his soul.

Charles Dickens kneeling with a script in his right hand wearing brown checked trousers, a waistcoat and cravat
Nicholas as Charles Dickens in David Edgar's adaptation of A Christmas Carol
Photo by Manuel Harlan © RSC Browse and license our images

Orsino's persona

Christopher Luscombe likes to establish a historical setting for Shakespeare’s plays and his version of Twelfth Night sees Illyria become Victorian England just before the turn of the century. Orsino is given a sophisticated gentleman’s residence, which acts as a springboard for ideas about the character. Nick presents him as an aesthete, a patron of the arts, in love with the beautiful, be it music, art or a woman. It’s enough for his people to call him the good Duke, but has he invented this persona because he is unsure of himself?

Nicholas Bishop bathed in yellow light as Orsino.
Nicholas Bishop as Orsino in Twelfth Night.
Photo by Manuel Harlan © RSC Browse and license our images

I ask Nick whether Orsino fears the humiliation of rejection and is therefore prepared to carry out a proxy wooing of Olivia through messages. He thinks that Orsino has never been rejected and this is both novel and infuriating. He recalls Viola calling love a deadly flame, and Orsino is indeed like a moth with a flame: Olivia's standoffishness is a big factor in spurring him on. But yes, the threat of humiliation is very strong.

There is always a big question over his love for Olivia. Nick says he thinks he loves Olivia and learns that he loves Viola. It’s as simple as that. Or is it? In this production confusion hovers around the gender implications of how that love grows. Ultimately Nick thinks that Shakespeare is suggesting that sexuality is more fluid than being attracted to personalities necessarily codified by gender.

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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