July 22, 2013
We begin by talking about Titus Andronicus, a stylish production arousing a lot of interest in Stratford at the moment and one Stephen, playing Titus, has found particularly stimulating.
'With Shakespeare's characters you don't really know who they are. You go with what they do and ask yourself why. You are involved with paradoxical characters who embody both the aspirations and the flaws of humanity,' he tells me.
He goes on to speak of Aaron in this play who confounds our prejudices: the character who appears to have the most evil soul loves his son dearly. The play Stephen describes as an exposition of grief upon grief.
Because Shakespeare's characters are so paradoxical the actor is able to explore them, making choices, highlighting this or that facet so that every time we see a role played it is interestingly different from the last.
So how did this versatile actor begin his journey on the pathway to Shakespeare? Stephen tells me that all his family - there were four children – have worked in the theatre in one way or another but they were not what is thought of as a theatrical family.
His mother and father were from council estates in London but were keen to move up in the world, part of the post-war amelioration of that generation. His father was self-taught and read Dickens and the classics and his mother took elocution lessons so that she could secure a job as a switchboard operator.
It was his mum who gave him his first taste of Shakespeare taking him to Olivier's Richard III. He still has a strong visual memory of Hastings' head falling off!
As a youngster Stephen had the gift of a beautiful voice and between the ages of 10-14 he attended choir school in Oxford, his first role being at 13 in Benjamin Britten's Turn of the Screw.
He encountered Shakespeare at O Level in Richard III. He recalls that he could speak it and understand it and that his housemaster at boarding school took pleasure in recording the boys reading Romeo and Juliet. As he had 'a lovely speaking voice' he was asked to read Juliet.
At 16 he joined the National Youth Theatre and was in the first production of Peter Terson's Zigger Zagger. Ralph Richardson congratulated him on his performance and he says he 'glowed'!
His family encouraged his theatrical interest and were happy to see him train at Rose Bruford College. It was, he says, rather old-fashioned, a bit like a finishing school. He picked up the vocabulary of movement and some vocal exercises and there were some bits of Shakespeare in the course.
After drama school he did some theatre in education work, touring schools with thematically-devised pieces before getting a job at the Duke's Playhouse in Lancaster working in rep. Peter Oysten there was inspirational.
Amidst the heavy commitment of rep he recalls doing Macbeth with live sheep, goats and a cockerel! Of course one man in rep plays many parts so he would be Young Siward, the Doctor etc.
Gradually he found himself being regarded less as a musician who could do a bit of acting and more as an actor in his own right. He felt that he needed to distinguish the two, establish separate portfolios as it were. He met David Pownall at Lancaster, acted with him and wrote the music for his plays. Together they were founder members of Paines Plough Theatre Company.
It was their Richard III that transferred to the Cottesloe in 1977, part of a programme to bring in regional work that gave him greater exposure as an actor. He subsequently worked in Sheffield, in Liverpool and in Edinburgh where he met Michael Boyd at the Traverse.
In the 1980s he worked with John Dexter. Stephen says that he had the reputation of being a tyrant as a director but that personally he enjoyed his method of working. He would instruct his actors to do their homework and bring it in to be seen: do it, demonstrate it, don't just talk about it!
This was his message and when he liked what he saw he included it which gave the actors a sense of ownership, His control came only in his visual stagecraft where he was masterly in blocking a scene. Stephen toured India with Julius Caesar, playing Cassius and the production took India by storm.
Directors take different approaches with their actors when producing Shakespeare and sometimes the actor may wonder where he is going! Stephen worked with Declan Donnellan on Measure for Measure in his Cheek by Jowl Company. He was playing the Duke.
'I don't know what we are going to do with this play,' he announced at the start of rehearsals. Really? Stephen says that throughout the rehearsal period Declan wouldn't make decisions, he played with uncertainties, continued to reinvent so that on the opening night Stephen was forced to confess that he had never felt more unprepared for a role in his life!
Declan was sympathetic, even apologetic but as they toured Brazil, Western Australia, Spain and Russia (Moscow and St Petersburg) they implemented what he had taught them; nothing is fixed, re-invent.
He would return to Measure for Measure with Michael Boyd in 1998, this time playing Angelo. It is important that a set for a play in a theatre like The Royal Shakespeare Theatre is designed in plenty of time. Declan's fluidity was helped by a role of carpet and four chairs no doubt.
In early conversations with Michael, Stephen had hinted that Isabella should find something interesting about Angelo, something that in a way attracted her about the man. Stephen suggested that he might be intellectual or maybe musical?
Michael being accommodating said that yes….possibly Angelo could be playing a piece by the Austrian composer, Arnold Schoenberg when Isabella comes to see him. Stephen was more than a little taken aback by this choice but the RSC's Head of Music John Woolfe coached him, then Stephen discovered that the stage set was also the shape of a grand piano!
After three previews the verdict- the iambic pentameters were being upstaged by the music and would have to go! Stephen admits to going ballistic but had to accept the decision.
With Michael Bogdanov as director of The Tempest he had been encouraged to write his own music for Come Unto These Yellow Sands when playing the part of Ariel, with a happier result.
Adrian Noble was again a different director. He used strong primary colours in his set for Twelfth Night . 'Like a kids' bedroom,' Stephen says. It was a production that went down very well with young people who were heard to come out saying it was brilliant. Stephen himself enjoyed it playing a memorably sad Feste.
This man has played so many Shakespearean roles: Demetrius in A Midsummer Night's Dream, Ariel in The Tempest, Horatio in Hamlet, Richard III, Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew but he regards himself as not yet having reached the age for Lear or Prospero. There is still time for Iago, he says and as he goes off to prepare for his evening performance as Titus Andronicus he says, 'Shakespeare is a sumptuous meal, a banquet for the soul. It feeds me.'
by Viv Graver
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