Pathways to Shakespeare

Alex Waldmann

April 29, 2013

Alex Waldmann as OrlandoI meet Alex a couple of days after press night when he finds a slot in a busy schedule - he is playing in all three Shakespeares scheduled at the moment in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre: Hamlet, As You Like It and All's Well That Ends Well.

He is bubbling with the excitement of playing Orlando, still delighting in adding detail to his performance. Playing with Pippa Nixon as Rosalind and directed by Maria Aberg, he feels secure as an actor. He acknowledges a special chemistry between the three of them that promotes creative work. It was established in King John and pays off here in a joyous production of As You Like It.

Alex has been very successful and very lucky with Shakespeare. Just four years after leaving LAMDA in 2004 he was playing Troilus for Cheek by Jowl directed by Declan Donnellan. The production toured Europe.

In 2009 he was Sebastian in Twelfth Night, a Donmar West End production directed by Michael Grandage with Derek Jacobi as Malvolio. In the same year he played Laertes with Jude Law as Hamlet, a production that made Broadway. At the RSC in 2012 he played Catesby in Richard III with Jonjo O'Neill as Richard before going on to play the title role in King John.

And yet he in no way feels that he is an expert. He has learnt about Shakespeare 'only by being involved'. It's when he is on his feet and exploring the text as an actor that the play comes to life for him.

In some ways he is surprised to find himself a Shakespearean actor. His expectations after leaving Drama school were perhaps more modest: some television, maybe an Arthur Miller or two but Shakespeare? He feels very much indebted to the directors he has encountered who have fostered creativity in him and brought out a talent for a job he delights in.

His first memory of Shakespeare is relatively late. He did English at A Level in Cherwell School, Oxford where he remembers a good English teacher, Mr Malin ,who did Henry V with them, encouraging his students to read the roles.

A fellow student complimented him on how well he read Shakespeare - he is in fact now married to this same girl and they have a young daughter.

He read history at University College, London where he found himself playing Lysander in a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream which they took to the Edinburgh Fringe. Following his degree he went to LAMDA and subsequently was involved in a couple of Shakespeare productions: Romeo and Juliet and Macbeth before meeting Declan Donnellan.

This he considers was perhaps his most important job and he owes much to Declan's teaching: how not to take Shakespeare at face value, to look for what is at stake, to allow for irony in words, to investigate what a character is thinking and how to change that character's mind; in fact to read the subtext.

We talk of work done with Maria Aberg on this season's As You Like It, Every rehearsal started with a 30 minute dance session which engaged the actors in the joyous world of the play she envisaged for this, her first comedy as a director.

Two weeks were spent on body language and improvisation before two weeks on close study of the text, putting the language into their own words, before being up and running, engaged with Shakespeare's words.

During this creative phase it seems that there is a grafting between role and actor, where you discover what you can bring to the role through your understanding of the text.

It feels as if you are yourself, Alex tells me, and yet that self has changed. Your feelings are totally genuine in role as you believe in the moment. So when Orlando realizes that old Adam is prepared to limp after him in pure love, proffering his life savings, he is genuinely affected - he is in tears. You play the action on the line. You know what your aim is.You don't play the beauty, the poetry. I get a fascinating insight into the craft of acting from Alex here.

I can also see how work done on one play perhaps affects work on another as we talk about his role of Horatio in Hamlet. David Farr works in a different way to Maria Aberg and Declan Donnellan. He is keen on providing back stories for the characters which you develop as an actor.

Horatio was seen as an anchor in the play, an introspective, which involved Alex working against his natural energy. He explored the through line for Horatio seeing him as a watcher, an observer, a guardian of Ophelia while Hamlet is away, a task in which he miserably fails when she drowns herself and about which he feels a deep sense of guilt.

In talking of Orlando in As You Like It, and how he acts on Ganymede's advice that if he were indeed genuinely in love he would have about him 'a careless desolation' Alex is aware of the madness of the lover, a state Hamlet exploits. He stresses too the importance of Orlando's father to him, how his father's spirit moves in him, an approach which is central to Jonathan Slinger's work on the role of Hamlet.

It seems that cross-fertilization occurs as an actor moves from one play to another, work on one play informs another and it is as if Alex is exploring the wider world of Shakespeare, seeing or perhaps just feeling parallels.

It is as if I am interviewing Orlando, he is so engagingly keen to explain him to me. How Orlando is a genuinely open guy, above all a gentle man, exposed to a violent world. His own brother reluctantly speaks of his gentle quality as well as his servant, Adam. He feels the injustice of his brother's treatment of him as a worker might the harshness of a tyrannical boss and must confront him with righteous anger.

In the wrestling match his ferocity arises from his meeting with Rosalind, she powers him. He falls in love with her three times; first when he sees her at court, secondly as Ganymede whom he takes for the boy he appears and thirdly at the wedding. It is the personality, not the sex that is the attraction as she becomes the master/mistress of his passion.

Alex has discovered the textual riches of Shakespeare- the way the text invites different approaches and interpretations and the endless creativity and daily discoveries you make in playing the role.

by Viv Graver  |  No comments yet

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Teaching Shakespeare