Pathways to Shakespeare

Oliver Ford Davies

July 21, 2014

Oliver Ford Davies in Henry IV, Part 2Oliver Ford Davies has a wealth of experience as a Shakespearean actor and can make us see anew what we might have taken for granted about a text. He plays Justice Shallow in Henry IV, Part II.

His first encounter with Shakespeare was when his father, an English teacher, took him to see Richard II at His Majesty's Theatre, London, aged eight. He was thrilled by the clanking of armour and the Groom, a role he would play later.

He recalls considering, aged 12, whether liking Shakespeare might be an affectation: was it to please his dad? But then he found himself reading Mark Antony's Friends, Romans and Countrymen speech (Julius Caesar) and his response was: yes, I really do like this!

His love of Shakespeare was fostered by being involved in school productions and seeing it live. He went to King's School, Canterbury where they studied a Shakespeare each year and performed the plays. He played Pistol in Henry V, Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet, and Toby Belch in Twelfth Night.

Clifford Williams, working as a local reporter observed, 'Now that boy is an actor.'

During the 1950s, when Michael Benthal put on the whole Shakespeare repertoire, he went to half of the plays, cycling 14 miles to The Old Vic from his home. For two shillings and threepence (about 12p now) you could sit at the back, and they produced cheaper programmes for the cheaper seats.

Oliver read history at Merton College where he was president of Oxford University Dramatic Society. Here he first met Peter Dews and played Falstaff. The RSC showed interest in him but he kept to his teaching path and after his doctorate became a lecturer at Edinburgh University. He had a secure job, loved his subject but what of his other life?

He had what he calls his Damascene moment when he realized that he didn't have two lives. Encouraged by his boss, who told him that if he didn't go then he certainly wouldn't later, he left Edinburgh to take up a job on a salary of £10 and 10 shillings at Birmingham Rep, 'a romantic place', Oliver says, 'following in the footsteps of Olivier and Finney.'

A rep. company was what you joined as a young actor and where you would gain experience of playing the classics. At 27 he opened in Richard II and As You Like It. Today actors leave drama school and go into more lucrative work in TV, missing out on these formative theatre years.

At Birmingham Rep with Director Peter Dews, Oliver's mentor from his Oxford years, he learnt clarity, audibility and paraphrasing those difficult bits of Shakespeare. Trevor Nunn had this facility, he says, as does Greg Doran so that you know exactly what you are saying.

Admittedly, Oliver says, production values were not as high as today. Audiences must have been kinder since young men would merely grey their hair to be accepted as old. TV audiences expect the right age for the right part.

Oliver stresses the importance of the audience to a production. Acting is about communication and it is two-way: with your fellow actors and with your audience. You can't remain enclosed in a bubble with your fellow actors, you must share it. That is your skill as an actor and you need to control the energy. He has written two books about acting Shakespeare: Performing Shakespeare and Playing Lear.

He has done 25 productions for the RSC. After an absence of some years, Oliver has returned to Stratford and become a familiar face: he was Polonius in Hamlet, York in Richard II and now Justice Shallow in Henry IV, Part II.

He says that TV is not interested in actors over 70 but Shakespeare has taken care of them by writing so many wonderful parts for old men.

by Viv Graver  |  2 comments

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Jul 22, 12:37am
Margaret Hunt

To have a great actor like Ford Davies in a supporting role adds weight to the play's texture: his brilliant York in Richard II didn't detract from Tennant's dominance as Richard but gave it a strong context.

Jul 24, 4:21pm
Gill Gordon

Wonderful actor, we saw him in Hamlet, Richard II and Henry IV II. Thought Polonius was so endearing and Shallow just cooky enough. Hopefully he will be at Stratford for some of next season too.

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