RSC regular Tom McCall talks to Viv Graver about 'falling into Shakespeare' and his role as Hubert in King John.
Since leaving LAMDA drama school, Tom has done nine productions at the RSC, seven in the Swan and two in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. Yet on leaving drama school he would never have claimed that his number one ambition was to work here. He says that he “fell into it” and has learnt to love Shakespeare by doing it and seeing it done.
Now he has covered a wide range of Elizabethan and Jacobean plays, working alongside and learning from experienced actors. Still, his first RSC role in Thomas Dekker’s The Shoemaker’s Holiday was something of a baptism of fire. He had to step into his understudy role of Hodge on Press Night when Michael Hodgson fell ill and ended up carrying the part for the rest of the season.
Tom notes that Shakespeare’s language is not the hardest he’s dealt with; Ben Johnson’s dense text was much trickier to carry when he performed in The Alchemist in 2016. Luckily, the RSC rehearsal period of six weeks is a generous amount of time to explore a play and to experiment with how the production will be presented clearly to an audience.
In the case of King John, this was especially important. Director Eleanor Rhode was aware that audiences were less likely to be familiar with this story than with other Shakespeare plays. They might expect a history play, whereas she sees it as a family destroying itself through inner factions, with the tragic figures of Constance, Arthur and Tom’s character, Hubert, at its emotional core.
A father figure
Tom sees Hubert as a man who has to step into the father figure role when the mother is lost. In developing the character in rehearsal, he felt it was important that Hubert was seen as part of the family, someone known by John all his life. Tom took inspiration from the character of lawyer Tom Hagen in The Godfather, played by Robert Duvall in the Coppola film, turning Hubert into an informally adopted member of the family. He is the mild-mannered voice of reason and tries to be a peace broker, suggesting Blanche marry the Dauphin, although his plan fails. In a room full of posturing figures, he is the one most like us in the audience, the observer of chaos.
Taking centre stage
Hubert is thrust into the centre of the action when John tells him to kill the young prince, Arthur. Hubert plans a gentle death but the horrific details of the warrant throw him into crisis. When we first see him after the play's interval, Hubert is racked by his own conscience and by the emotional appeal of Arthur himself.
This role is the biggest child actor part in Shakespeare, and Arthur has much to say. Eleanor made it clear that she wanted to see a prince, not a child, and this scene places him high above Hubert in terms of status. And while the changes to the play's ending may surprise some familiar audience members, the way the futile infighting destroys the family relationships successfully conveys the director's vision of this little-known play.
King John plays in the Swan Theatre until 21 March 2020.
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.