Photo The Turning Point – Shakespeare King Richard S
It’s Britain’s finest actors vs Shakespeare in the 2012 Cultural Olympiad
By SIMON LEWIS
PUBLISHED (Daily Mail) on 2 June 2012 |
With London 2012 just around the corner, the BBC is celebrating the Cultural Olympiad with an epic production of Shakespeare’s history plays. Simon Lewis meets the men at the heart of the action
Photo: Torch Lighting in Greece
From June 30, BBC2 will broadcast in sequence Shakespeare’s Richard II, Henry IV Parts 1 and 2 and Henry V.
This epic ‘Henriad’, telling of England’s bloody rebellions and wars around the turn of the 15th century, was overseen by James Bond director Sam Mendes, part-funded by American networks and filmed on a huge scale. It’s the most ambitious Shakespeare project on television since the BBC’s complete works in 1978-85.
We gathered the lead actors in the new productions – David Suchet, Tom Hiddleston, Rory Kinnear and Ben Whishaw – at a London studio to discuss what Suchet calls the ‘Henry-fest’.
First of all, what do you know about the Cultural Olympiad, of which this is a part?
Rory Kinnear It’s trying to bring the focus of the Olympics on to these other things we’re good at. I’m so excited that they’re coming to London. Having only got two tickets to the boxing, I won’t be seeing much of the sporting action. So I’m glad to be involved in the Cultural Olympiad.
What’s most important, drama or athletics?
David Suchet For me? Drama, all my life – and I was quite a successful sportsman at school. But take drama away, and we’re sitting on a two-legged stool.
Tom Hiddleston Winston Churchill said, ‘If we cut funding to the arts, then what are we fighting for?’ We have an incredibly rich arts culture here: British actors and films are winning Oscars, Adele won all those Grammys. British theatre is the best in the world. We should be very, very proud. But I love sport too.
RK The thing about sport is that it’s got untold drama in it. It’s why Shakespeare wrote about kings: where the stakes are highest, people live in heightened states.
Photo: ‘He’s considered not only by us but globally to be the premium writer,’ said David Suchet of William Shakespeare (Pictured left-to-right: Ben Whishaw, Suchet, Rory Kinnear and Tom Hiddleston)
Does playing kings make you more of a monarchist?
TH It gives you huge respect for the Royal Family and what they endure. Imagine the freedoms they don’t have. As Henry V says, ‘What infinite heart’s ease must kings neglect that private men enjoy?’ They seem to me to be decent people who do decent things and acknowledge their power and try to use it well. They do a lot more than most of us.
DS Without our royal heritage our tourist industry would be virtually non-existent. When the monarchy goes abroad it’s so welcomed and so applauded that it’s pretty foolish not to be a monarchist. You’re shooting yourself in the foot.
RK Along with Shakespeare and Princess Diana, the Queen’s image is what people think of when they think of Great Britain. You understand what it does for our international status, and you have to respect that.
Do the plays make you more patriotic?
DS Certainly. I’m three-quarters Russian, so I’ve always felt an outsider. But I don’t think you can be in a play with John Of Gaunt’s ‘This sceptred isle’ speech and not feel proud to be British.
Ben Whishaw I’m a bit nervous of the word patriotic, but I have a speech as Richard, which we filmed in St David’s Cathedral in Wales. Being there, talking about the divine right of kings, added something very powerful. It was all there. I didn’t have to act anything.
RK Richard II is one of Shakespeare’s most factually accurate plays. He didn’t have to elaborate on history.
BW Television is now done on a cinematic scale, which is the great thing about the plays we’re doing. You see the clothes and locations where it all really happened.
TH The biggest thrill was to recreate the battles. If I played Henry V on stage, there’s no way I could be on a horse, riding through 50 extras at a gallop, blood everywhere. I was in chainmail on a horse with a St George’s cross on my shield, holding the standard. And I get to say the lines, ‘I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips, straining upon the start. The game’s afoot: follow your spirit and upon this charge, cry God for Harry, England and St George!’ It just does something to your gut. The words are 410 years old, the battle was 200 years before that, and we’re that same culture.
‘Whenever I play a Shakespearean role I can’t help but think of how many hundreds have played it before me,’ said Rory Kinnear
What would this country be without Shakespeare?
BW I can’t imagine; he defined the mythology of Britain.
DS He’s considered not only by us but globally to be the premium writer. Without that, we wouldn’t have had the reputation since the 16th century of being the theatrical centre of the world, so we’d be much poorer.
RK I guess we’d have had another totemic figure of that era, whether it was Marlowe or Johnson. But no one else had the three big things of his compassion, his poetry and his imagination.
TH He was so forgiving of human nature. As a result I think we have a very sophisticated cultural identity. Shakespeare is in our language. If you’ve ever been more sinned against than sinning, you’re quoting Shakespeare. If you think it’s high time, you’re quoting Shakespeare. People aren’t aware of the breadth of his influence.
What was the golden age of Shakespearean acting?
DS When I tell people I was at the RSC from 1973 to 1986, they say, ‘Oh, the golden age.’ Certainly we had some great verse speakers: Ben Kingsley, Patrick Stewart, Ian Richardson. If I had to pick an era, I’d say then.
BW People usually say Gielgud, Guinness, Schofield and Olivier were the golden age…
TH Well, they were as big as Brad Pitt and George Clooney are today. Theatre stars were so much bigger than they are now.
BW But we’ve got Rory here, and Mark Rylance… these great new interpreters of Shakespeare.
RK Whenever I play a Shakespearean role I can’t help but think of how many hundreds have played it before me. Whereas, if it was the 1590s and you were in the first cast of a new play by Shakespeare – the first actor to play Hamlet or King Lear – knowing the play would sink or swim on the strength of your performance? Wow. Imagine that. That must have been the golden age.
When was the first time you performed Shakespeare?
RK I played Pandarus in Troilus And Cressida at school. Not an easy play for 15 year-olds. My godfather came to see it. After three and a half hours, he said that was the last play of mine he was going to see.
BW I played Hamlet in youth theatre aged about 15. I don’t know what I would have done without it as a teenager. I was not and am not interested in sport, so theatre was an opportunity to be with people I felt understood by.
DS When I was 16, I played Macbeth at school and my English teacher said, ‘I think you may have acting talent. Try to get into the National Youth Theatre of Great Britain and see where you get.’ I wouldn’t have thought of that at all. I wanted to be a surgeon, but I wasn’t a clever man. Being good in Shakespeare immediately made me acceptable, no longer a dunce.
TH I played Flavius, the old, faithful servant of Timon of Athens. A bit obscure, but we didn’t do much Shakespeare at school. At Cambridge I played Romeo, and not very well. It’s really hard. He’s a bit of a wet fish, delicate and feminine.
Do you know any Shakespeare speeches off by heart?
TH In Othello, Iago dupes Michael Cassio into getting drunk. He starts a fight and loses everything he’s worked for. ‘Reputation, reputation, reputation,’ he says. ‘I have lost my reputation. I have lost the immortal part of myself and what remains is bestial. My reputation, Iago. My reputation.’ I love that because it feels so contemporary.
DS I don’t know why, but the speech from Macbeth – ‘Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow creeps in this petty pace from day to day, to the last syllable of recorded time’ – has stayed with me since I was 16. I’ve never done it professionally. I think I’m too old now.
What does it give you, to know Shakespeare off by heart?
DS I think getting those words into you, without knowing, it changes your own language. The language enters you like an aspirin which dissolves and later takes effect.
TH Learning the lines, you have eureka moments when you go, ‘Yes, that’s what it’s like to feel that emotion’ – pride, jealousy, courage, love… I’d say he’s the most articulate, compassionate humanist who’s ever lived.
Photo: ‘He was so forgiving of human nature. As a result I think we have a very sophisticated cultural identity. Shakespeare is in our language,’ said Tom Hiddleston
It’s Britain’s finest actors vs Shakespeare in the 2012 Cultural Olympiad