Much loved comedy actor, Tony Gardner (Fresh Meat, Last Tango in Halifax), makes his RSC debut as Holofernes in Love's Labour's Lost. Viv talks to him about his stage career, history with Peter Hall and experiences with Shakespeare.

An actor in a roman robe gestures to another who is wearing a outfit made of pool floaties.
Tony Gardner as Holofernes and Iskander Eaton as Moth in Love's Labour's Lost
Johan Persson © The artist Browse and license our images

You're an experienced comedy actor, but is this your first Shakespearean role and your RSC debut?

Yes, and out of a company of 19, that's true for 17 of us.

What was your experience of Shakespeare at school?

When I was about 14, my English teacher invited me to go on a school trip with her exam class to see Macbeth at The National Theatre. To be honest I was totally lost and confused. It all went above my head. I came to the RSC to see Julius Caesar two years later when it was my own exam text, which I can remember, but my ambition was very much set on medicine and I subsequently qualified as a doctor and became a GP. When I decided to move into acting it wasn't into theatre, but writing and TV.

But didn't you work with Peter Hall (founder of the RSC)?

Yes, I was in my forties by then and Peter asked me to audition for a Feydeau farce he was directing and I subsequently did three plays with him.

How did your audition for the part of Holofernes in Love's Labour's Lost come about? 

You can never be entirely sure why you are asked to audition. I think Emily Burns, our Director, and Charlotte Sutton, our Casting Director, had seen me in Accidental Death of An Anarchist (Theatre Royal Haymarket, London, 2023). I auditioned and was told I had the part pretty quickly.

How did the Director Emily Burns approach this lesser-known play?

We spent a few days going through each line of the play and discussing its meaning so that we all understood it. Then we were up and rehearsing the scenes. We were also introduced to Emily’s concept for the play – to set it on a tech billionaire’s island resort.

Basically, we decided I would play Holofernes as a pedantic golf professional, which would be a first, so that was very exciting. He’s quite an old-fashioned sort of person so I immediately grew an old-fashioned beard!

Tony Gardner in rehearsals for Love's Labour's Lost, playing Holofernes as a 'pedantic golf professional'

How did you prepare for the role?

Having been directed by Peter Hall, I had read all his books, and I read Playing Shakespeare by John Barton. I also read a few books on the play itself and learned about previous productions, watching several of them.

As a company, what did you learn from the previews?

It’s always great to start putting the play in front of an audience. We made cuts and refined it as is usual during previews. And we continued to work individually with Jeannette Nelson, our Voice Coach; the RST is a big space and needs a bit of technique if you are going to be heard.

What has been the highlight of the production for you?

My wife and daughter seeing the production on press night. I have been a comedy actor for much of my working life but to be able to say that I am an RSC actor means so much to me.

Finally, what are your hopes for the future?

To carry on being busy on screen and on stage! I adore being on stage and I sincerely hope to be playing Shakespeare again very soon.

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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