Shakespeare really understood women. The emotions, twists and turns that Cleopatra goes through are phenomenal.
I remember the first time I saw Shakespeare as if it were the week before last. I was seven and I was taken to see Macbeth at my brother’s school; he played Duncan. He said: “What bloody man is that?” I thought it was a very, very racy line because he said “bloody”.
I missed my graduation ceremony so I could go and see Sir Laurence in Titus Andronicus three days running.
I made my professional debut as Ophelia in 1957. I didn’t know enough to be daunted by it at the time. I learnt an incredible amount from it. My notices were certainly daunting. You learn from them – you learn very soon. You just have to grit your teeth and get on and learn to do it better.
The happiest times I’ve ever had were at the Old Vic and the RSC doing three or four plays, all in repertoire. I never went to my dressing room – I just used to stand on the side of the stage and watch. I don’t remember lines from any other play I’ve done, but I know reams and reams of Shakespeare.
Audiences respond differently, but the plays appeal to the emotions in the same way. I’ve played Viola in Twelfth Night in West Africa and the audience stopped the play when Sebastian and I met. They cheered and threw their programmes. In Japan they were silent all the way through and then erupted at the end.
Shakespeare is wonderful for children. It fires their imagination – they recognise people being superstitious, greedy, envious and falling in and out of love.
I didn’t get the chance to play Macbeth but I don’t half envy his lines.
If you look at the punctuation of Shakespeare and obey it then you’ll never run out of breath. He writes where the pause should be. If you understand that, you unlock the play.
For an actor, Shakespeare is a bottomless well. We did 100 performances of Antony and Cleopatra, and I always knew one of my lines was meant to be a joke. On the 100th performance I got the laugh. I suddenly found out how it should be done.
I don’t like The Merchant of Venice. I think they all behave in an appalling way.
Ken Branagh – Sir Ken, now – was very naughty when I directed him in Much Ado. I went to give him notes on his performance and he left the theatre, still wearing his costume, to avoid it.
I’m besotted by Shakespeare. That’s what I’d like to be doing now. Two or three plays in repertoire. I’d be happy as a sandboy.
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