Pathways to Shakespeare

Susan Engel

October 24, 2013

Susan Engel has had a long and varied classical acting career in theatre. She worked with Peter Hall and Peter Brook in the RSC's formative years. In the summer 2013 season she played Cunegonde in the final moments of Candide, bringing the play to its climax.

So how did Susan first come to Shakespeare? She says that she had a 'magic person' as an English teacher who inspired in her a love of poetry as the spoken word.

And she also reckons she saw the Laurence Olivier film of Hamlet fifty times. She would take herself to The Odeon cinema in Bournemouth for the matinee and stay until the end of the evening. She recalls old 78 records of the film sound track played on a gramophone wound by hand.

England or France?
Susan was born in Vienna in 1935. Her immediate family came to England as refugees so she grew up learning more than one language.

She had German and English and French which she went to polish by staying with an uncle in Paris during a year out after school. There she embraced French culture.

When she returned to England for an interview at Cambridge she felt very French. She had nothing in common with the ladies of Girton College in shirts and ties. England in the 50s seemed staid and grey.

But in 1953 Bristol University opened a drama department so she left her Sobranies in Paris and returned to do French drama there.

Pinter or Shakespeare?
She did a lot of performance work and while there was introduced quite casually to the work of a young playwright whose script the drama students loved so much they decided to stage their own production. It was Harold Pinter's The Room and Susan played the old woman. As she does in Candide at the moment, she observes.

In the 50s there was no inspiration for Shakespeare in England, she says. She moved in a different dramatic climate.

She was lucky to be selected as a student walk-on at Bristol Old Vic Theatre in the panto season. Peter O'Toole was playing The Dame and she got the role of his sister when the actress fell ill.

By 1960 she was working with Bill Gaskill at The Royal Court where she took over from Simone Signoret as Lady Macbeth. (Simone was thought to be impossibly Gallic.) She regards Bill Gaskill as a guru: a man well before his time understood Shakespeare's poetry.

She was working with him on Brecht's The Caucasian Chalk Circle when she met Peter Hall who had founded the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1960. Some time after this he offered her the role of Juno in The Tempest.

Peter O'Toole or Peter Hall?
Susan had a new play lined up with Peter O'Toole in London and didn't think the role significant enough to forego acting with him. Then he offered her The Courtesan in Comedy of Errors. Getting better but she still opted for Peter O'Toole. Then a third time he offered her Calpurnia in Julius Caesar. But still she put it by!

'So,' said Peter Hall, 'you will turn down three years' work at the RSC to do a play which might not last beyond three weeks?' She had to reconsider and her acceptance led to five years' work with the RSC between 1963 and 1967.

She returned in the 80s to do King John with Deborah Warner directing and in the 90s played Goneril with Brian Cox as Lear.

This production was perhaps 'over innovative', she observes. It went down better in Hamburg than here. German audiences know their Shakespeare and compare productions, she tells me.

She is adamant about the way forward for children with Shakespeare. Let a child do it, see it, but don't sit them in a classroom to study it academically she says.

Image: Susan Engel as Cunegonde in the climatic scene of Candide. Photograph by Manuel Harlan.

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Teaching Shakespeare