I used to hate Shakespeare

Whisper #2

I used to hate Shakespeare. My English teacher back in South Africa made sure of that. But we studied him none the less. And all I remember from English class is my teacher’s voice droning on dispassionately and me escaping in the doodle I was drawing with my 2B pencil. When it came to exams and I had to finally deal with the text, I often wanted to throw the script across the room in sheer frustration. Why the hell were we learning this? I loved the theatre but the Shakespeare I was learning about had nothing to do with me or the world I lived in. And then there was all those words…

I will never forget my father’s face when I said that I wanted to become an actor. There was a mild incomprehension etched on his face as if I had told him my left foot had just sprouted a beanstalk. Then there was the shake of the head and the sage advice that I should become a plumber. To be an actor or not to be an actor was the question that my father and I grappled with for years. I wanted to be an actor; he did not want me to be an actor. I realise now that that that he was scared that my dreams would never come true, I would not be able to make a living and would have a difficult life.

Well, he was right. As an actor you go through so much without any guarantees. What you move towards always seems so frustratingly far away. Including rent. Unreachable. Your dreams are infantile fancies that you some days feel protective and proud of and other days you NEED to sweep under the carpet.

But then I was right too. Acting was the only thing I felt I wanted to do. It always felt like my personal religion, a way of dealing with a scary, messed up world. No matter how many books are written on acting there is an intangible quality to the work we do, its undefinable. And I needed that mystery and fed off it and so along the way it has taught me so much about myself, and the world. It’s an exciting ride. If you like that kind of sickening uncertainty. You learn to like it or you get off at the gate.

The cover of the rehearsal script for Hamlet, in a white ringbinder
Photo by Byron Mondahl © RSC Browse and license our images

I met Greg Doran and Anthony Sher in South Africa when they were doing Titus Andronicus at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg, working with South African actors. What I remember most of all is feeling that the RSC was a world class place to work.

I still hated Shakespeare. Until a woman called Bonnie Hurren-Meech, head of the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School’s Overseas Course gave me a place on the course. And for a year I was suddenly immersed in Shakespeare. Shakespeare was everywhere and slowly the school and passionate teachers like Bonnie, David Collins (who did A Midsummer Night's Dream with my class) and my voice teacher, Kate Firth began percolating a change in me.

Then I saw Titus Andronicus again, directed by Andrew Hilton, at Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory in Bristol and suddenly my life and understanding changed. I will never forget watching that absurd and bloody play with its brutal extremes and learning about my life now, feeling like it was speaking to me but not only that, that I was speaking back...in iambic pentameter. I suddenly understood every word and by the end, finally got why so many people around me passionately embraced a dead playwright. So I started dreaming a new dream.

Then I couldn’t get enough of the dead guy and I have been able to fulfil that dream, yes there is that word again, of engaging with him almost once a year for the last nine years. And in that time I have come to respect his breadth of understanding of human life. I have come to play with and love all those words. That surprised me most of all.

And suddenly I found myself a classical actor in England, with a modest, slightly illogical dream: to work for the RSC. And then through a friend writing a letter to Greg Doran I suddenly get the call that he would like to see me. Can I prepare something and show him? And there I am off to London and I am going to the offices of the RSC and I am staring at the bust of Shakespeare in the reception area and I am wondering if I dare allow myself to dream that maybe just maybe…no stop it. Absurd.

Six months pass and I am glad that I didn’t allow myself to think about it too much. But then I am sitting down to lunch on my first day of panto rehearsals in Tunbridge Wells and I receive an email saying that I am being offered Hamlet……Really?...and Cymbeline…Noooooo….and King LearWHAT???? Would you like a year’s work? (Something that has never happened before in my entire career). Would you like to engage with the living-dead playwright you have come to love and admire? Would you like to perform in Stratford-upon-Avon? Would you? Yes?

This, after 20 years of dreaming. After 20 years of never quite wanting to believe but somehow working towards this moment. After 20 years of financial insecurity and wondering if my father was right and reading manuals on the first steps to becoming a plumber. After 20 years of flying in the face of logic and grappling with despair and reaping the few wonderful rewards, when they did come. Suddenly that email is in front of your eyes and you read it over and over again. Just to be sure. And all that email seems to say is: You are now at the RSC, see, dreams do come true.

Wide shot of the empty rehearsal room for Hamlet - a big empty room with a few pieces of furniture around the outside
The rehearsal room for Hamlet.
Photo by Byron Mondahl © RSC Browse and license our images
Byron Mondahl

Byron Mondahl

Byron Mondahl is an actor who enjoys thinking about and writing about the elusive art of acting. He is from South Africa where he first began acting but has lived in the UK since 2005 when he studied at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. He has taught English in Taiwan, and also lost six stone and transformed his life for the better. Follow him on Twitter @ByronMondahl

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