One of the privileges of working as a journalist is being able to talk to people whose reputations go before them. Here we remember conversations with Rupert Everett, David Suchet, Michael Pennington and Lia Williams when they were rehearsing for performances at Theatre Royal Bath
Oscar Wilde described theatre as “the most immediate way in which a human being can share with another the sense of what it is to be a human being.” Rupert Everett played out this conviction in style when he played Wilde himself in The Judas Kiss, which came to Theatre Royal Bath in 2012.
The production focused on the Oscar Wilde scandal and his disgrace at the hands of his young lover Bosie (Lord Alfred Douglas), played by Freddie Fox. Everett delighted in this role as he had long since harboured a fascination with the flamboyant, writer’s life. His interest led to the film The Happy Prince, released in 2018, which Everett wrote, directed and starred in, chronicling Wilde’s last dramatic days.
The Judas Kiss was written by David Hare, and he was also responsible for the adaptation of Chekov’s Uncle Vanya at Theatre Royal Bath that Everett was preparing for when we spoke to him in July 2019. When audiences first saw Uncle Vanya (1898), they are likely to have known people trapped in the vast expanse of 19th century Russia, with the nearest train track 50 miles away, in a world where there was no sound, no television, no radio, and hardly any electricity. The setting feels strangely appropriate to life in the middle of a pandemic. Everett explains, “Uncle Vanya is all about how people feel when they’re stuck; it’s full of an amazing range of human emotion, making it incredibly joyful one minute and incredibly mournful the next, with a lot of comedy in there too. It’s most certainly not any kind of rarified play – a classic, yes, but accessible to everybody.”
In what Everett describes as one of the twists of his career, he spent almost two years in a little town just south of Veronezh, just before the Steppe. He was working on a TV series with the Soviet director Sergei Fedorovich Bondarchuk. “It was a life-changing time for me,” says Everett, “and it really started me thinking a lot more about Chekhov. He was writing in the last 20 years before revolution completely wiped the world that he describes so well off the face of the earth forever – and that, for me, makes his work very moving as well.”
The issue of having a strong connection with a playwright is a common theme in our interviews with actors. David Suchet, who appeared in Arthur Miller’s The Price at Theatre Royal Bath in August 2018 on its 50th anniversary, has a strong affinity with Miller. He has played a number of roles in his plays, including the same character of Solomon in 1971 when he was just 25, and more recently in 2010 Joe in Miller’s All My Sons. “Arthur Miller is my favourite playwright of the 20th century,” said Suchet. Every character that I’ve played of his, I feel I understand where Miller is coming from with the character and I hope I’m able to embrace that fully. His plays speak to me. Playing Joe in All My Sons was one of the most extraordinary moments in a career for an actor.”
The Price sees two estranged brothers return to their family home after the death of their father, to dispose of the furniture in his apartment. David Suchet’s character, Gregory Solomon, a silver-tongued used furniture dealer, arrives to close a furniture sale, but encounters much more, and is forced to confront aspects of his own life. “What comes out is that the family, the history of the family, and their view of money and possessions are things that separate rather than heal,” explains Suchet. “The drama is one of relationships and very harsh words.”
Suchet maintains that The Price still has resonance today: “The beautiful thing about this play, in the greatest sense of the word, is that it is timeless. The fact it was written in 1968 doesn’t stop it being as modern now as it was then.”
Shakespeare’s The Tempest has an even longer performance history. We spoke just a few weeks ago to acclaimed Shakespearean actor Michael Pennington before he was due to appear as Prospero at Theatre Royal Bath in April. Pennington first took on the role of Prospero at the age of 15 in Marlborough College’s school production – and with hired costumes from the RSC, Pennington discovered that he was to wear the magic cloak that John Gielgud once wore.
“I hero-worshipped Gielgud in those days – he was extraordinary!” says Pennington. “So you can imagine how I felt about wearing his cloak. But when it arrived, it had clearly been hired out quite a bit since Gielgud threw it off; it was built around a corset-like construction with wires, and netting, and all the paint had peeled off. And it was way too long for me, so as I walked across the stage I ended up picking up any old screws, nails, fag ends – whatever might be on the floor – and gathering it in my hem; I was a sort of one-man refuse collector! But I didn’t half make a go of it; I had to! The mantle of Gielgud had fallen on my shoulders!”
Pennington mused about his interpretation of Prospero: “I’ve seen many people play him, as indeed Gielgud did, as a sort of senior figure,” says Michael. “But to me, he’s… well not a psychopath, exactly, but definitely not fully in charge of himself. He’s a complex mixture of tyrant and unexpectedly gentle man, insecure on occasions but with a kindness about him too. He’s furious because he’s been thrown out of his own kingdom and ousted from his job by his own brother, of all people; usurped and put out to sea with his daughter, ending up on a bleak, barren, strange desert island. After 10 years of exile, he still wants revenge. And of course, he’s a survivor.”
“I want my Prospero to be a character you would like to talk more to should you have the opportunity. We could call him a magician, or a conjurer, or perhaps even a medium; he’s clearly influenced by the occult, and necromancy – and he has the supernatural ability to cause a storm, for goodness sake!”
A different kind of stage magic took place with Lia Williams’ and Juliet Stevenson’s performance of Mary Stuart at Theatre Royal Bath in April 2018. At the start of every performance, a coin was tossed and the cast and the audience watched in anticipation to learn whether Williams or Stevenson would play either the ill-fated Mary, Queen of Scots, or her politically astute cousin Queen Elizabeth I.
“It is genuinely frightening,” says Lia Williams. “The play is based on the last few days of Mary’s life, so there is a state of anxiety in the air, and the coin toss adds to that. It’s great because the audience feels the same adrenaline to what we’re all feeling on stage.”
Based on Friedrich Schiller’s play, first performed in 1800, Mary Stuart focuses on an imaginary meeting between the two queens after Mary is imprisoned by Elizabeth after she attempts to flee Scotland following an uprising against her in 1568. Suspicious of what Mary might do next, and aware of the numerous plots to put Catholic Mary on the throne of England and overthrow the Protestant queen, Elizabeth kept Mary as prisoner for almost two decades. Following evidence that Mary was implicated in a plot against the English queen’s life, Elizabeth eventually signs her cousin’s death warrant and she is executed in 1587.
“The director [Robert Icke] has made what could be a dusty history play into one about women in power,” says Williams. “It’s a really exciting thriller. This has been a sheer acting challenge playing these two roles,” says Williams, whose acting breakthrough came when she starred in Alan Ayckbourn’s The Revengers’ Comedies in 1991.
“What draws the two queens together is that they’re both women in positions of power. But what is interesting is that their experiences could have happened the other way around. Mary could have been queen, if a Catholic rebellion was successful,” says Williams.
Gender, power, politics and love – these are all topics central to the play that, despite being written at the turn of the 19th century, explores elements that are profoundly relevant to modern day audiences. “The themes in the play affect people emotionally. And I think this is down to the brilliance of the director’s writing. You’re not watching a history play about two women in frocks – you’re seeing anguish, and what they have to emotionally battle through. And that really hits the audience.”
“There is something about the live experience on stage,” says Lia Williams. “The not really knowing what is going to happen is exciting. And there’s something magical about a play happening on one night, on one stage, in front of one group of people.”
Rupert Everett, David Suchet and Michael Pennington would certainly agree.
This piece was adapted from text by Melissa Blease, Emma Clegg and Jessica Hope.